Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen, headed up by Three Michelin Star Chef Yannick Alléno is located in Paris’s 8th Arrondissement, also known as the Golden Triangle (or Triangle D’or), a traditionally upper-crust neighborhood. Studded with high-end boutiques, fashion houses, and some of the cities most iconic sites, it attracts those wanting to be glamorous.
Chef Yannick Alléno has a reputation as one of the best Chef’s in the world, known for a focus on extractions, pulling the essence out of an ingredient, sets the excitement level very high. It doesn’t take long however, for our excitement to fade as we realise that what might have once been a beautiful delicate bloom, has been left untended. All our senses are alerting us that we just might be here on the day Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen wilts.
Established as a restaurant in 1791 by Pierre-Michel Ledoyen in a small inn on what was at the time the outskirts of Paris, Pavillion Ledoyen was relocated to its current location in 1842 by Architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff who was re-developing the gardens of the Champs Élysées. Apparently Napoleon and Josephine met there and it was also a favourite of artists and writers such as Danton, Degas and Monet. Is there any wonder we were drawn to it?
Scandinavian Artists’ Lunch at Cafe Ledoyen, by Hugo Birger, 1886
The excitement of experiencing Chef Yannick Alléno’s cuisine as well as the romance of the historical setting, sadly fades very quickly. I am a very positive person and my natural tendency to see the very best in people and things is challenged today. Luckily we have the opportunity to meet Sarah our waitress and Jean Baptise our sommelier who absolutely make our day.
One of the things I love about Paris is it’s rich history and architectural grandeur. The Pavillon Ledoyen is a two story garden house, designed as a summer garden cafe. Small by comparison to the other buildings in the gardens, the Grand Palais and Petit Palais but no less exciting for me. We pause outside for a moment to take in the majesty of this elegant summer house, surrounded by leafy gardens. I am transported, filled with a sense of yesteryear and the promise of a sophisticated and luxurious garden party. It is quietly still and serene, amplifying the fluttering butterflies of anticipation for our lunch at Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen.
We were met at the door by a cheery chap with a nice welcome but the moment we stepped across the threshold everything suddenly changed. Surprised to find that inside it felt strangely desolate, we sensed our excited energy draining away.
The receptionist seemingly put out that we were a little early, pretending to smile through clenched teeth, showed us to a bar to wait, the bar was unstaffed, cold and empty. It smelled like a bad wedding venue, musty, like champagne had been spilled on the carpet three days before and been left to go crusty. Not even a glass of water, let alone an aperitif was offered. It felt tired, dull without any sign of life, like no one had been there for years. We awkwardly waited until finally someone came to fetch us and lead us upstairs to the restaurant. Well ok that was odd, let’s reset and start again and focus on our lunch.
The restaurant itself felt pretty, like a closed in verandah with every elegant laid table overlooking the lovely autumn gardens. Mentally I have hit the reset button and I am excited to be wowed by Chef Yannick Alleno’s cooking.
The lunch menu is a choice of two entree, two main and two desserts, with little in between bites along the way. Sarah our waitress is lovely and helps us to make tricky decisions. We both wanted the foie gras and the scallops so she made that possible by offering half portions.
While Sarah was lovely, the guy that seemed to be running the floor was a cranky bugger. His terse energy was palpable every time he stalked past and we soon found ourselves in trouble. A plate with cool looking spiky ball things was placed on the table, we assumed as decoration as nothing was said when they were put down.
They were fun looking things so in the absence of food to eat or anything to drink to keep us occupied we fiddled a bit with them, taking some pictures and opening them to see what was inside. Young cranky pants pounced on us, swiftly reprimanding us, literally snatching the the spiky thing from my hand and snapping “that’s for later”.
Well that’s another first, I don’t think I have been reprimanded by a waiter before.
The sour puss seems to have forgotten he is in the ‘hospitality” industry! Trying to keep a straight face and holding back the laughter inside, we communicated the ridiculousness of it with a twinkle of our eyes.
Mr cranky pants huffed off and was thankfully replaced by our lovely Sarah who brought some amuse bouches. I don’t think she realised that she had headed off an international incident. If I hadn’t been distracted with some food I’m not sure I could have resisted the wicked urge to keep playing with the spiky balls while cranky pants wasn’t watching.
Then a sushi quenelle, a silver spoonful of rice topped with a sliver of smoked eel cured in tomato. The plating is less than what we would have expected for a three michelin star restaurant. One spoon has far more rice than the other and they are not neat or straight on the rectangle plate they are served on. Texturally interesting but rather sweet, it is a strange bite. It has made me think, it occurs to me that one of the things that elevates a restaurant to Michelin Star territory is the attention to detail and the key to being very very good is that the perfection is so clever that it isn’t noticed. I am concerned that this amuse bouche has brought a lack of detail and care into focus.
While we waited for the main elements of our meal, my love chatted with Jean Baptiste our fabulous and friendly sommelier, asking him to tell us about the wines that he liked. He was particularly excited about the opportunity to introduce us to some wine that he was very passionate about. He started us off with a gorgeous Riesling, a grand cru Schlossberg Albert Mann 2015. A biodynamic wine from the first Alsace vineyard to be declared a Grand Cru. Excitingly refreshing, with melon and citrus complexity and zippy minerality, it is my happiest moment today so far! With a knowing nod and a smile he promises us a cracker red later on.
Our half portion of foie gras arrives, velvet smooth, complimented by kombis seaweed and smoked eel.
Weirdly though a great fanfare is made of a lump of spaghetti squash that is served with the foie gras. Largely tasteless, watery, stringy squash is pitched to us as some sort of miracle. Yes the texture of this squash is a bit of fun but dear lord it needs flavour! A pasta alternative for the gluten free dieters does not mean you serve it with no flavour.
Next our half portion each of scallops. This is an odd plate. Spinach with a smoked scamorza cheese highlighted with sprinkles of nutmeg could have been good if only it was warmer. The scallops were nicely cooked but again served almost cold. The missing element I think was heat, as it was it felt like two dishes confusingly on one plate. There was certainly nothing creative about the plating.
Jean Baptise arrives to save the day, ready to introduce us to a fabulous little red wine. This is one that Jean Baptiste is very excited to share with us. Yves Gangloff, St Joseph Rouge 2014. Before even tasting the wine, I am drawn to the label, a curvaceous sensual nude, painted with a blend of classic renaissance and frivolous modernity, such fun! I discover later that the painter is the winemakers brother! The wine itself was delicious, a wonderful red for me. A gorgeous purple colour, fruity but not in a jammy way, rather a savoury wine balanced with a fragrant floral nose and finishing with the perfect acidity for my palate.
For our main course we have opted to choose a different dish each then share it. We ordered wagyu beef ‘stroganoff style’ and grouse of Scotland. I was so very excited for the wagyu beef having had such sensational beef cooked by chef Ryushi Teshima at Pages earlier in our trip. Now we were about to experience wagyu cooked by a chef with the reputation of one of the best in the world.
I could not have been more disappointed. Three slices of near cold beef served on a bed of uninteresting rice. I’m not getting the wagyu wow factor and I’m not getting the stroganoff connection. I can’t figure out how such a luxurious ingredient could have been so poorly treated. It just goes to show that super quality produce is not the be all and end all. A passionate chef can make the most ordinary ingredient extraordinary. Here somehow we have an extraordinary ingredient made very ordinary.
Our second dish, grouse from Scotland turned out to be the better dish but still sadly nothing to rave about. I have a feeling that the fact it was not hot when it was served, probably affected the flavours. A tiny portion of Grouse and served with an unappealing, again not hot, barley soup.
The dessert courses are thankfully meant to be served cold and the selection of little plates that are offered are good, perhaps the highlight of the menu. The big news being we are finally allowed to touch the hairy spiky balls! They are chestnut seed pods and are opened up and filled with flambeed chestnut and whisky cream. Quite yummy but clearly no fun as we had already spoiled the ‘surprise’. Several other little plates are delivered.
Cumquat sorbet that is eye-wateringly astringent.
Caramel in crunchy chocolate, Norwegian Charlotte with pineapple and Tasmanian pepper, the fiery spiciness in stark contrast to a too sweet cream and sponge.
Cream and chickpea meringue, pear in a sugar crust and chocolate caviar.
I’m not sure that I have ever hoped for a lunch to be over before? Gratefully we wrap up, settle the bill and take our leave. On reflection it has been a fabulous opportunity to hone my thoughts on what I love about dining out. I know without a doubt that love is the key ingredient I am looking for. Real passion and love is the stuff that makes my world go round and Alleno feels like the love has been lost. Like a relationship that is going through the motions but where the fire of feelings has long since petered out.
I’m quite certain that Yannick Alleno was not here today and that while those playing the part in his script may have done their best, it is clear that we have had the understudy and not the headline act. The plating was clumsy, certainly not an expression of love and most plates were cold and tired by the time they arrived, like they had been sitting on the pass for some time before being brought to the table. Which was particularly odd given the restaurant was quiet.
The quietness saved it and two individuals, Sarah and Jean Baptiste and the opportunity to have spent the afternoon with them, is the most wonderful thing of the day. Had it been busy, with the service crew under the pump, it may well have been walk out territory.
This has been a difficult story to write. Good experiences, the ones where all your senses are lit up, easily write themselves. But experiences less than that are a lot harder, it’s just not me to talk about what’s not good. Today has been very hard to find the good in the not so good. I do know though, that being true to me, means simply being honest.
I had come here expecting a gourmet 3 Michelin star experience with one of the best chefs in the world. For us the experience was far from that, all very stilted and wilted.
I am grateful for having this opportunity to remind me that it’s not the stars that matter, it’s the love, passion, and enthusiasm, you can always taste it. I leave here today having gained clarity about what I want in a dining experience and deepened appreciation for the chefs we have really enjoyed, who are still humble, passionate and deeply connected to what they do.