THE GRAND HOTEL RESTAURANT
As many Parisians will tell you, there are some nights when only dinner in a grand hotel will do. Ladies get to wear their JAR parures. The people-watching is amusing. Damask for days. And how about all that crystal and silver?The grand Paris hotel restaurant of the moment is Le Bristol—dig those waiters in tails—where Eric Frechon began as an assistant in 1980 at age 17, and where he triumphantly returned last year as chef. Frechon worked at the Crillon under Christian Constant, the man who powered the great nineties bistro revival, and I'm not sure I didn't prefer Frechon's more peasanty style of cooking when he was on his own at La Verrerie in Paris. But running the kitchen in a fancy hotel has its exigencies, especially when the brief is to climb the Michelin ladder as quickly as possible. Which is how you wind up with gold-plated dishes like sea bass with caviar. Fortunately, there are also more plebeian delights, like hazelnut-crusted sole and Frechon's trademark oxtail-and-marrow lasagna. Insiders think dessert man Gilles Marchal is the reason Michelin bumped up the restaurant to two stars this year. His extended riff on the mandarin (sorbet, madeleine, gratin, gelée) is sweet music.
RESTAURANT LE BRISTOL, 112 Rue du Faubourg-St.-Honoré, Paris; restaurant 33-1/53-43-43-40, hotel 33-1/53-43-43-00; dinner for two $98, doubles $560.
THE TEA SALON
France's tea salons perform a humanitarian service just by calming the country's sweet tooth. The more intemperate the climate, the higher the concentration of these pure-pleasure-giving establishments, and Alsace has perhaps the highest of all. Urban is on the lovely main square in Obernai, a scrupulously restored Alsatian village and the most visited place in the region after Strasbourg. The salon's renown rests on its palette of 42 teas, honey-rich spice cake, and Kugelhopf: here, the Alsatian breakfast-table fixture is baked in handed-down terra-cotta molds and exhales a scrumptious yeasty perfume. Even on Easter Sunday, a day when you would have thought the locals could stay home and give it a rest, they throng Urban, exercising their pastry-a-day birthright.
URBAN, 82 Rue Général-Gouraud, Obernai; 33-3/88-95-58-90; tea and pastry for two $8.
Without bistros, the social fabric of life in France would unravel. If cafés supply the woof, bistros like Bordeaux's La Tupina supply the warp. The restaurant has a fresh-scrubbed farmhouse feel and a stone hearth on which many of its quintessentially southwest dishes are cooked. Nothing prepares you for the mountain-man portions or hyper-robust nature of these dishes, composed with pedigreed ingredients from small suppliers. Grilled duck breast is as thick as a telephone book. Hand-cut frites are fried in duck fat in the fireplace. With the kind of firm flesh unknown in even the best American free-range poultry, spit-roasted chicken is served beside a giant crouton in a flood of fatty drippings. When I ordered the tube pasta in a bubbling sauce of foie gras, cèpes, pork belly, cream, and butter, the woman from New Jersey at the next table looked as though she were about to have a heart attack for me. As her only course she had asked the waiter for "three of your mildest cheeses." She should have stayed home.
LA TUPINA, 6 Rue de la Porte-de-la-Monnaie, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-91-56-37; dinner for two $65.
THE FUTURIST THREE-STAR
As the fin de siècle approached, French chefs felt challenged to reinvent the three-star experience. None took a bigger gamble than Michel Bras, who erected a lean-and-mean hotel-restaurant complex in granite, slate, and glass in a rural back of beyond between Toulouse and Lyons. Here Bras takes to the woods in search of the culinary plants—gentian, meadowsweet, and elderflower—that delineate his cuisine. Aligot, potatoes whipped into two-foot-long ribbons with Tome cheese, is a valentine to the local cooking. Chocolate cake with a molten center reminds you why it became the copycat dessert of the nineties. And oh, the breakfast. Breads and pastries are kept warm on a heated stone inset in an ebony platter.
MICHEL BRAS, Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole; 33-5/65-51-18-20; dinner for two $136, doubles $126.