The more intimate one becomes with Paris, the more it becomes apparent that there are two cities of light: one that is known well by its Anglophone lovers and the other that is savored by the French.
Laurent, the Michelin-starred restaurant, falls into the latter category. It's a restaurant rich in history and cultural lore – every French person knows its name, even if he or she has yet to have the privilege of dining there. Yet this restaurant is often overlooked in Anglo guidebooks.
Laurent Restaurant Paris, upstairs private dining room with seating for 30 — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner
“Not since your American presidents Nixon and Reagan dined here have we had such regular a clientèle of our American friends,” commented the restaurant's Managing Director, Philippe Bourgignon, during a recent interview.
He added that while serving his term as French president, Sarkozy's favorite spot in the restaurant was to sit outside on the restaurant's legendary terrace, under the 100-year-old chestnut trees.
Philippe Bourguignon, Managing Director of Laurent Restaurant in Paris since 1977 — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner
Indeed, the restaurant's outside ground floor terrace, beside the Jardin des Ambassadeurs, is one of the most coveted summertime dining spots in the city. Its tranquil peace and quiet is even more remarkable given that it's perched just 200 yards off the bustling Champs-Elysées. Located in the heart of the city, guests can easily imagine they're dining in the pastoral countryside.
The historical building, leased from the city of Paris, was built in 1842. It was designed by architect and urban designer Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, who was also commissioned by King Louis Philippe to plan the Champs-Elysées.
Floor to ceiling painting of Angelina at the turn of the century which graces the upstairs foyer leading into the second floor private dining rooms — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner
Mr. Philippe Bourgignon has been with the restaurant since 1977, the year before he was named the best young sommelier in France. He worked his way up to Head Sommelier and then to Managing Director of the restaurant. Asked if he recalls which wine he recommended to accompany President Reagan's lunch choice of the restaurant's signature classics, he quickly responded, “Yes, it was a Chablis.”
Apparently the President was pleased with the selection. On the following day, the American ambassador called Laurent on behalf of the president, inquiring after the name of the domaine in Chablis, and ordered several cases to be shipped back to the White House.
Nowadays, Chef Alain Pégouret creates seasonal menus each year but also keeps the restaurant's classic signature dishes on the menu. One of these signature dishes is the Crispy Scampi (Langoustine Croustillant), also the Pommes Soufflé which are crispy-fried, puffed up paper-thin slices of potatoes. It's an item on the menu you must order when at Laurent.
Other traditional touches include serving a small plate of toasted, country-style brown bread to the table just before the meal begins. This cultural touch is a gesture that is meant as a welcoming one, signifying that you may be dining in one of the world's best restaurants but you are still welcome as would be a guest at someone's home. Another classic item on the menu beloved by regulars is the Pied do Porc, or pig's foot.
While weekday lunchers are predominantly male and French, evening brings a larger slice of cosmopolitan guests to the restaurant. As one of the most romantic dining rooms in the city, it's a favorite of couples enjoying a weekend of shopping and museum-going in the capital.
On any given weekend, Laurent sees many visitors from Russia, Japan, China, Brazil and continental Europe. These guests come in search of fine French food and an exhaustive wine cellar, boasting over 30,000 bottles.
“And, of course,” said Mr. Bourguignon, “our American and Canadian friends still and always are welcome here, too.”