I have had the good fortune of working in Paris as a correspondent for the Financial Times for 17 years – six of these in the 1980s and the rest since the beginning of the new millennium. And in all this time I have been going on and off for dinner, lunch or breakfast at Fouquet’s, the chicest and oldest brasserie on the Champs Élysées, at the corner of the Avenue George V.
I must admit that I used to patronise this classic Parisian establishment quite regularly in the 1980s, when FT expense accounts were far more generous and the restaurant had not yet been completely invaded by the hordes of new rich tourists popping in for a bite after shopping at the huge Louis Vuitton flagship store – they pretentiously call it a “maison” – across the road.
Another thing putting me off going to this classic watering hole in recent years was Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to celebrate his presidential election victory there in 2007. The “tout Paris” showed up for the party Mr Sarkozy has since lived to regret. It was the Fouquet’s bash followed by his short holiday on the yacht of billionaire businessman friend Vincent Bolloré in the southern Mediterranean seas that set the “bling-bling” tone of his controversial presidency from the outset.
Mr Sarkozy is preaching austerity these days, but that does not seem to be undermining business at Fouquet’s. A few months ago, I invited a count of the Holy Roman Empire and one of Thailand’s most distinguished architects and member of the Thai royal family – Cambridge-educated Sumet Jumsai – to lunch at Fouquet’s. The count was tickled pink to be given a menu in Russian by the maitre d’. “They think I’m a Russian oligarch,” he kept repeating and chuckling throughout lunch. (He was wearing his old school tie and a regimental blazer over a pair of well worn fawn corduroy trousers – a most unlikely Russian oligarch.)
But the food was not bad – indeed not bad at all. We ended up having a jolly good lunch. So when my youngest son announced the other day he was coming to Paris for his birthday, I decided Fouquet’s would be as good a place as any to indulge in a little Parisian cliché for someone who lives in London, and keeps claiming you eat better there and for less these days, even at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, than you do in Paris.
It turned out to be a very good evening because everybody in the restaurant was so cheerful. We were given a table in a corner and my son discovered he was sitting where Tino Rossi used to sit. He did not have a clue who Tino Rossi was. (He is a French or rather Corsican icon, now long dead but fondly remembered for his nightingale voice.)
I was sitting in Jean Gabin’s seat, a legend of the French cinema. Fouquet’s, by the way, considers itself a bit like the Cannes film festival but the whole year round. The restaurant has always been a favourite pub for French filmmakers and stars. Since the beginning it has also hosted the winners of the French equivalent of the Oscars: the Césars for film actors and the Molières for theatrical ones.
Some dishes used to be named after famous patrons, such as Charles Aznavour. But there were no celebrities the night we went, either on the menu itself or in the plush red dining room. The smoked salmon entrée, which two of us ordered, was excellent and finely presented with blinis, jacket potato, sour cream and half a lemon wrapped in gauze as it should be, but rarely is, in French restaurants.
The beef fillet was respectable but the fried potatoes were just right – as good as those at Maxim in its heyday – as long as you ate them still hot. My wife was impressed because the brown toast for her foie gras was also served piping hot, as if just out of the toaster like at home.
Fouquet’s does not pretend to be a Michelin-starred restaurant nor, one suspects, does it want to be. Instead, it clearly does want to remain a classic Parisian brasserie with its gay and nostalgic atmosphere and where you could imagine Tino Rossi singing his great hit “Tchi Tchi”.
It is expensive but it is fun for all its cocktail of colourfully louche tourists and Parisian poseurs. If President Sarkozy is not re-elected this spring, I think I may be going there more often.
Fouquet’s, 99 avenue des Champs-Elysées, +33(0)140 69 60 50