8 Rue des Grands Augustins,
Phone: +33 1 43 26 75 96
The thing about dining in Paris nowadays is that there are so many modern French restaurants that it’s hard to find a traditional, fine French one. You know, the kind that features Quenelles, Frog Legs Provencale, Sole Meuniere, and a proper Grand Marnier Souffle (I don’t know about you, but I’m salivating already!). Classics are what French food is about really. After eating my way through Paris for six weeks, I’d yet to even spy Quenelles — light-as-air fish dumplings — on a menu. In fact, I was worried this menu warhorse was in danger of extinction.
It was actually a local, a born and bred Parisian driver named Thomas, who tipped me off to Le Relais Louis XIII. Now, I’d done plenty of due diligence on where to eat and Louis XIII was not on anybody’s must-try list. The only thing it had going for it was two Michelin stars, which made me wonder then why more people weren’t talking about it? Truthfully, I saved it for the very last night, because I had so many new and relevant restaurants to cross off my list. It was a bittersweet farewell meal, and a perfectly cozy spot for a rainy night, furbished with stained glass windows, wood beam on the ceilings, stones, and white tablecloths. There are portraits of Louis XIII and Marie De Medicis on the walls because this is the very building that he was crowned king of France.
But it’s the chef, not the history, that is the bigger draw here. Manuel Martinez first made a name for himself at La Tour de L’Argent, where he earned three Michelin stars and single handedly turned La Tour into an institution. He even earned the title Meilleur Ouvrier, which is a serious kitchen craftsman awarded to but a few chefs in France. Le Relais Louis XIII, located in Paris’ chic St-Germain-Des-Pres section, is Martinez’ solo debut, a classic haute French restaurant, which first opened in 1996. Look around the old world dining room and what you’ll notice is how many locals speaking French there are in the room. (Head to relevant newcomers, like Spring, Yamtcha, or David Toutain and you’ll hear a lot of English, Chinese or Russian.) This is a real deal French joint with real deal French food. You’re gifted with warm, oozing Gougeres before the menu even hits the table, terrific bread and butter, and plenty of classics to choose from. The wine list, interestingly helmed by a Japanese sommelier (the only un-French thing about Louis XIII), is extensive with plenty of great, old French wines to savor while you sup.
I, of course, ordered the Quenelles De Brochet, decadent, rich sea bass dumplings, bonded by flour, eggs and butter, lavished in a champagne sauce and mushroom mousseline that I would’ve bathe in if given the chance. But I didn’t see the Ravioli de Homard Breton coming. What an ingenious dish that young chefs might want to take a cue from. It’s a doozy, a deliriously rich spinach ravioli tucked with Lobster and Foie Gras, basking in a Porcini Mushroom foam with a foil of aged balsamic to balance the richness.
Grand Marnier Souffle
These aren’t the lightest dishes, but classic French rarely is. Though there is a lively Lobster Fricassee tangy with tomatoes and tarragon, White Asparagus in a Truffle Vinaigrette, and a phenomenal, chilled Green Onion Soup, capped off with radishes and Burrata foam. For mains, we sampled the Milk-Fed Veal with artichokes (excellent), the Saint Pierre fish with olives and a citron confit (nothing to write home about), and best of all, the Canard Au Sang, another signature of the house; sweet, tender Duck anointed with a Madeira and Cognac sauce. As I sat there reveling in the sauces and the decadent flavors, I couldn’t help but think that this is why the world fell in love with French cooking first place.
And what’s a classic French meal without a souffle or crepes? Quelle sacrilege! Louis XIII peddles in both, though I much preferred their Grand Marnier Souffle. Is Le Relais Louis XIII worth a night in Paris? Definitely.