Two hip new restaurants opened in Paris on April 5 with the inauguration of La Canopée, a diaphonous roof covering the Forum des Halles. It is the principle design feature in the city's second attempt in 40 years to make-over the 25 acres vacated when its fabled food market moved to Rungis in 1969. Much is at stake in this renovation effort that has cost one billion euros and counting. At question is whether Paris can give this space from which French cuisine drew its inspiration for more than 800 years a heart transplant.
Celebrated entrepreneurs, Alain Ducasse and Philippe Stark, were chosen to bring their vision of dining in the 21st century to Les Halles. Set behind curved glass walls, they face the yet-to-be-completed 10 acre garden that ends to the west with the domed 18th century Bourse de Commerce and to the north by the Gothic church of St. Eustache. Both restaurants offer moderately priced meals of 20 € for an entree and beverage. (Several fast food chains on lower levels of the 170 store underground mall will service the remaining 150,000 daily visitors to Les Halles.)
Alain Ducasse chose to define his restaurant, Champeaux, in terms of the past. Its name which means "little fields" was given to the original open air market in 1137 by Louis VI. The name was adopted in the 19th century by a restaurant located in the Place de la Bourse. Diners can't escape this latter reference when they look up and see menu items posted with their prices on a large board on the back wall as if they were commodities on the exchange. They are reminded again and again when the board items flip over with a distracting clatter and reappear......unchanged.
Champeaux has a modern brasserie's inviting look with sleek black leather banquettess and slate grey tables along the west wall and east facing onto the concourse. Free-standing tables for four fill the center space separated by translucent privacy panels. Those coming in for a drink can sit at the handsome bar in the back or in comfortable arm chairs set against the windows facing west.
The menu holds no surprises. Ducasse has chosen items that its predecessor served 200 years ago: oysters, foie gras, tartare, souffles. The dishes I ordered were well executed, the quality of the ingredients was first rate, the young wait staff on both occasions were eager to please. Champeaux will always be a attractive place for Parisiens who crave light as will its terrace with seating for 80 when it appears in warmer weather.
On the other side of the concourse, Philippe Starck has created a restaurant that is as innovative as Champeaux is conservative. From the outside, ZA doesn't even look like a restaurant. Visitors are greeted by a long institutional-looking stainless steel steam table as they approch the entrance from the east. Free-standing bookcases block the public's view from the garden side. I walked past the door more than once without recognizing it as a place to eat.
Long refectory tables fill the interior, projecting like fingers from a long serving bar set at ninety degrees in the back of the room. Each table has an illuminated yellow strip down the middle. Were it not for the large row of screens above the bar announcing its menu items, ZA could be mistaken for a space-age library reading room.
No written menu is necessary for ZA's intended audience of technically sophisticated young people. Diners are expected to place their (French) smart phones on a designated spot on the table, download the ZA app and order electronically. Soon ones order slides down the yellow strip from the bar and stops right in front of the diner. Waiters roam the room to service the many customers who can't download the app and to collect payment.
The cuisine at ZA has been best described as gourmet fast food. Diners choose from soups, salads, open face sandwiches and omelets. Dessert offerings include a rose-flavored panna cotta and frozen yogurt with strawberry puree. The compote de pommes is a small dish of flavorless applesauce with a sprinkle of granola (6€). Are we still in Paris?
As an additional perk for a geek clientele, Starck offers a limited selection of books (of his choosing) that can be printed on site in a minute, faster than the time it takes for your food to arrive. A high-speed printer the size of a rowboat sits cordoned off at the side of the room.
Against all odds, I found ZA the most engaging of the two new restaurants under La Canopée. On both my visits I got into long intense conversations with fellow diners. I also spoke with a couple sitting next to me on a banquette at Champeaux. Come to think of it, I often get into conversations in Paris restaurants where seating is closer than in the States. The new Les Halles is not designed to conjure up the "the belly of Paris" that Emile Zola described in the 19th century, but dining there still inspires social interaction that satisfies the spirit.