PARIS — When the new Michelin Guide demoted the venerable Parisian restaurant Taillevent from three stars to two, the news made international headlines. After 34 years with three stars, Taillevent had become a hallowed spot that represents a certain French sensibility in dining.
Owner Jean-Claude Vrinat, who joined the restaurant in 1962, was disappointed by the news, which was announced last month, but his attitude was sanguine when asked about it recently. "When you get a kick, you react. You work harder," he said.
If Mr. Vrinat is taking a long view of the situation, that seems part of the tone he sets at this Gallic treasure. During a recent three-hour lunch there, the staff was warm, chatty, and always one step ahead of requests. It was a pleasure to speak with the owner after the meal, because it explained quite a lot: Mr. Vrinat's convivial, yet dignified personality is the source of the convivial, yet dignified mood that defines a meal here.
What's more, Mr. Vrinat is unafraid of sharing his admiration of America. "We have a lot of American friends. The stars that matter to me are the stars which are on the flag flown over the U.S. Capitol for our 50th anniversary," he said. "A U.S. congressmen did that and sent it to me."
Okay, maybe he said it for the benefit of good press, but it would take a damn fine actor to play the role of French restaurateur who beams freely when he talks about America.
Taillevent is near the Arc de Triomphe, on a quiet side street in the eighth arrondissement. A doorman welcomes you into the townhouse, but unlike at many lesser restaurants with greater pretensions in New York, there is no podium you must approach humbly. Instead, a human being comes to you with a thin leather book and simply says, "Bonjour, Madame."
My guest, Marylou Luther — a seasoned fashion journalist who maintains the International Fashion Syndicate and was the fashion editor of the Los Angeles Times between 1969 and 1986 — arrived before me and waited in the lobby. She told me later that every time one of the employees walked by, they greeted her the same "Bonjour, madame."
We were seated at a table that gave us a view of the dining room, its guests, and the artwork on the walls. Soft, oven-warm gougère arrived immediately. I started to ask our captain, Jean-Marie, about the art on the walls, and before I could finish the sentence, he produced catalogues of the work of the painter, Patrick Naggar, and the sculptor known as Machat.
When the menus arrived, there were four options: a lunch prix fixe menu at 70 euros, a larger prix fixe at 140 euros, a "luxury" prix fixe at 190 euros, and a la carte selections. We chose the first option, which included three courses. For starters, we chose a truffled risotto topped by long shavings of asparagus and a bowl of salmon mousse dumplings with salmon roe in a thin broth. Our main courses were seared scallops and a pot au feu, or poached beef with vegetables. By dessert, we had had such a good time with Jean-Marie, that he sent out the full menu for each of us: chocolate mousse between thin slices of chocolate, pear salad with crème anglaise, mango sorbet, and petite fours — all of which were sumptuous without ostentation.
The kitchen of chef Alain Solivèrés showed its strongest hand on the first courses. The risotto had a thick depth of flavor; it was made with brownish rice that looked neither like the traditional Arborio nor Carnaroli rice. The plump salmon dumplings in their rich, salty broth were probably the best dish of the day. As for the main courses, my scallops were seared nicely and presented with flair. But Ms. Luther, a Manhattanite who hails originally from Nebraska, found the beef lacking in flavor.
In a good-natured, exploratory way, she mentioned this to Jean-Marie. He pointed out that the beef was poached, a process that allows the meat to stand on its own without much seasoning. A proud daughter of the American midwest, she wasn't buying it.
No meal is just the food, and Jean-Marie was a large part of our delight. He asked a lot about New York, and he was eager to say that when he had visited in the fall, he saw "Tosca" at the Met and, oh, ran the marathon.
These experiences gave him many pro-American observations. For instance, in New York, the whole city turns out to cheer for the marathon runners, he said, and after the race, strangers congratulate you or ask you how you did. In Paris, people blame you for stopping traffic.
The highlight of our lunch occurred one table over. A young man — who showed up without a jacket or tie — allowed his cell phone to ring not once but twice. Jean-Marie frowned severely and brought over an oversize wooden mallet, on which past offenders had penned their names. "To smash the cell phone," he said, to laughter.
Ms. Luther asked why the tieless young man, who had been given a house jacket, was allowed in. Jean-Marie's answer was delivered as news, with sincere consternation and disapproval: Men are starting not to wear ties. He was frustrated because, as he explained, a tie is how men express their sartorial individuality. If you're not dressed properly, how can a woman know who you are? This he said especially in Marylou's direction, flirting as if it were an Olympic event.
Does Taillevent deserve three stars, or only two? Impossible to say. Lunch is always a looser affair than dinner. The only visible mistake was that at the beginning a waiter brought me wine and Ms. Luther a Campari instead of the other way around. Were we charmed into submission? Probably. But coming from an American point of departure, three stars for such a splendid affair seems so few.