“I have a weakness for old ladies,” says chef Yannick Alléno, explaining why he agreed to create the new menu for Prunier, the Parisian caviar-and-seafood house that opened in 1924. Located a few steps away from the Arc de Triomphe, its Art Deco façade remains a neighborhood landmark nearly 100 years later.
Previously owned by the late Pierre Bergé, founder of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house (alongside its namesake designer), Prunier enjoyed a long run as one of the most glamorous restaurants in the world. In October, it reopened under new owners, the French investment group Olma Luxury Holdings.
The project represents an expansion of Bergé’s original ambition. After buying the restaurant, in 2000, Bergé acquired a sturgeon farm in southwestern France so Prunier could produce its own high-quality caviar. (Due to dwindling supply in the Black Sea, almost all caviar is farmed today.) Now Olma Luxury Holdings wants to expand the brand internationally, with the restaurant on Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris ultimately serving as the mother ship.
Working with design firms Studios Gohard and L’Atelier du Mur, interior architect Alexandra Saguet oversaw the restaurant’s smartly refreshed décor, which includes a makeover of the private dining rooms upstairs designed for Bergé by his friend Jacques Grange. In the main dining room, sleek wooden armchairs with nubby oyster-gray cotton seats and backs are interspersed with Pierre Frey fabrics and Art Deco–inspired wall panels.
Prunier is more of a cougar than a kitten. Its new soundtrack, which manages to be both lively in spirit and muted in volume, includes musicians from Barry White to Luther Vandross and Donna Summer—it’s a musical wink to the bacchanalias that Bergé and Saint Laurent once hosted here after runway shows.
Still, Prunier instinctively abides by that most essential of Parisian social codes: Romance is born of restrained elegance.
“Giving a new life to a grande dame of a restaurant is a challenge I love, because these living monuments are what make Paris Paris,” says Alléno. “These re-inventions are complicated, though, since they must be done with restraint and delicacy. I’ve aspired to re-invigorate their identities by sublimating them and flattering them, not changing them.”
Prunier is more of a cougar than a kitten.
He might have added “humility,” since it’s always been at the core of his cooking. Alléno is fixated on expressing the very essence of a product, and it has served him well throughout his career. From 2003 through 2012, he was the head chef at Le Meurice, where he earned three Michelin stars. Then, in 2014, he took over Pavillon Ledoyen, in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, and relaunched it as Alléno Paris. Voilà—another three stars.
“At Prunier, I want the caviar to taste more like caviar than ever before,” he says, explaining the genesis of L’Oeuf Christian Dior, one of Prunier’s new signature dishes. The egg comes to the table as the shy but starring product in an edible cameo of apparent chastity—the coddled orb is dressed in a mantle of caviar-speckled ivory crème fraîche topped with a spoonful of glossy black caviar and a green whisker of chive.
Then everything changes in an instant when it is pierced with a spoon to reveal its sly sensuality. The fecund emollience of the runny yolk and nubile texture of the egg white are flattered by rich cream and the meatiness of the hidden bed of jambon blanc–seasoned gelée upon which the egg rests. The wick that lights up this elegant composition is the caviar.
The rest of the menu is at the summit of contemporary French culinary excellence. Standouts among more newfangled compositions include an intriguing starter of celery jelly with tomato water and caviar and linguine served with lobster Bolognese. The comfort-food classics, such as breaded fried whiting with tuna tartare and caviar, and sole meunière, are equally accomplished.
So far, the culinary establishment is charmed. “If there is a more beautiful restaurant than the vintage Prunier, I haven’t found it. And the food!… A complete thrill,” says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet. Emmanuel Rubin, writing in Le Figaro, purred: “Alfred Prunier dreamed of inventing the sea in the city, of inviting the ocean to a table in the 16th arrondissement. A century later, Alléno prolongs his dream. Call that elegance.”
Once again, Prunier is the best place to both wear and eat black pearls in Paris. Let’s hope that despite its lofty ambition for global expansion it stays that way.
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now