On a recent Indian-summer evening at Versailles, Alain Ducasse was holding court over a small group of Gallic gastronomic writers at a private dinner in a sumptuous salon.
The occasion was to sample the menu Ducasse had created for Le Festin Royal des Cent Marches, his new restaurant at the magnificent 14-room Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle hotel. It occupies a 17th-century brick-and-stone building built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, King Louis XIV’s favorite architect, as well as offices for his court’s finance ministers at Versailles. Following a painstaking renovation, it reopened as a hotel in June and has since become one of the most exclusive and sought-after hotel destinations in France.
The views from the dining room overlooked potted citrus trees from the château’s Orangerie, arranged outdoors in a seasonal garden. Ivory-colored tapers cast a soft light on the careful compositions of dahlias, roses, cosmos, wheat, and crab apples that artfully straddled two seasons. Meanwhile, waiters in silk-brocade waistcoats filled Baccarat flutes with chilled champagne.
When Ducasse, with his wavy white mane and horn-rimmed glasses, lifted his flute to propose a toast, the mirth in the elegant private dining room immediately became muffled.
“It’s with pride and pleasure that I welcome you to a restaurant I created as the ultimate expression of l’art de vivre à la française,” said Ducasse, 65, with a slightly mischievous but visibly satisfied expression on his face.
Even though he no longer runs the Jules Verne restaurant within the Eiffel Tower and has lost his eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant, at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, he’s stealthily become the culinary king of Versailles ever since Ore, his first restaurant at the château, opened here in 2016.
After the applause had faded, the chef sat down and detailed his vision to the guests at his table. “Beauty and quality are the remedies for an age of ugliness, so I wanted this restaurant to be a showcase of French excellence and refinement in every detail,” he said, referencing the Puiforcat flatware, Baccarat and Saint-Louis glasses, and Bernardaud porcelain dishes.
The objective of a meal at Le Festin Royal des Cent Marches? “To offer an intimate approximation of dining at the court of King Louis XIV,” Ducasse explained grandly, adding that he and his team had deeply researched the dishes served to the king as the basis for the new restaurant’s menu.
Louis XIV was an avid gourmand, which is why the king arranged for the kitchens of Versailles to receive the finest produce from every corner of France all year long. He was particularly enamored with the idea of each course being composed of a few small plates.
Then a footman stomped his staff on the parquet floor to announce the three hors d’oeuvres that had just been served—a coddled-egg parfait with caviar, lobster aspic, and a salad of tiny haricots vert, almonds, and girolles, a sumptuous gastronomic pinwheel of different tastes and textures.
A succession of succulent and very delicate dishes followed, including turbot with Swiss chard and seaweed, chicken with crayfish, and a dessert of honey from Marie-Antoinette’s garden. A carbonized lemon filled with lemon sorbet and a chocolate-ganache-and-praline daisy powdered with cocoa concluded this regal feast, a meal that was as shrewdly conceived as it was delicious.
Revolutionary? Well, no, but revolutions have never gone down well at Versailles. Instead, Ducasse has chosen to embrace and hone the same benchmarks that made French cuisine the Western world’s benchmark for gastronomic pleasure and refinement.
These include celebrating France’s sublime seasonal produce, a rigorous culinary technique that privileges simplicity and natural flavors in the kitchen, elegant presentation, and suave service. This is both astute and munificent, because one thing the château-building King Louis XIV and whisk-wielding Alain Ducasse have in common is the knowledge that nothing is more legacy-building than a grand-slam show of eternal Gallic good taste.
Rooms at Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle are available from $2,000 per night; prix-fixe dinner menu, $325; prix-fixe lunch menu, $105.
Alexander Lobrano is a Paris-based writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, is out now