It’s 8.30am and we’re on our way to Paris for lunch. You know, just your average 900km cross-continent round-trip in pursuit of a spot of sea bass, maybe a pastry or two.
In some ways this is obviously a profligate, Last Days of Versailles thing to do. On the other hand I’ve known sober, grown adults in London – me, I’m one of them – get talked into queuing two hours for a plate of fancy scrambled eggs.
In light of the lengths some people go to for a London egg or a limited-edition burger, a 2 hour 15 minute journey to reach actual French food in actual France starts to seem pretty sensible. Efficient. Almost restrained, really.
Especially with how easy Eurostar makes it to forget you’re travelling at all. The Saturday morning train’s carrying us there at Business Premier velocity. For the non-physicists, that’s a conspiracy of forces specific to their premium service – one where time inside the carriage slows to a serene drift, while the world outside skims across 450km like lightning. I eat the Raymond Blanc-designed breakfast at equally high speed, prepping for a day of intensive, whirlwind decadence with high-end carb-loading.
Slice southwards through Paris from Gare du Nord and you come to the Rive Gauche, on the southern edge of the Seine. Also known, says Michel Besmond, manager at Alcazar, as ‘the Zone of One Hundred Galleries’. Capital letters his, by virtue of the French accent making everything sound Very Significant.
Alcazar surely brings the total up to 101. Iconic black-and-white photographs – stars of the Nouvelle Vague; British rock icons – are scattered around the two-tier building. The restaurant on the ground floor’s overlooked by a bar circling the mezzanine level, in a structure that still echoes the shape of its 17th century roots as a real tennis (jeu à dedans) court.
This visit’s to celebrate Alcazar’s recent relaunch – a sweeping three-month redesign by architect Laura Gonzalez providing a good, solid excuse for the 8.30am start and the 450km pelt over land and under sea.
Other excuses that also would’ve worked on me include, but aren’t limited to: there will be champagne from curved, Belle Epoque glasses in the Le Balcon upstairs bar; there will be greenery hanging over everything, a jungle of big-fronded trees running along the edge of the mezzanine. There will be millefeuille; and crucially, there will be French waiters saying ‘millefeuille’.
Head Chef Guillaume Lutard’s menu doesn’t claim any obvious theme – like the redesign overall, it’s fresh rather than pointedly modern, foregoing the traditional roux-and-jus in favour of brighter flavours and Asian accents. The ceviche starter comes in a grapefruit marinade and piled with shavings of Granny Smith apple, the whole thing balancing between crisp and sharp; a sign that I’ve won at ordering, though I’ll admit a tiny frisson of competition from the scallop starter across the table from me. My main course comes with some tradition in the form of Challans duck and grilled chicory, and an unexpected note of heat from the ginger and honey sauce, cutting through the richness.
And finally comes that millefeuille, dark berry and cream between each layer of crunch, after which we leave and wander the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés ahead of our train back to London. We barely put a dent in the warren of art galleries surrounding rue Mazarine, but it’s impressive that any wandering gets done at all: Alcazar’s made it hard to want to leave their jungle sanctuary, and also hard to physically leave – brightness of flavours and lightness of touch aside, this is still a very French, very three-course lunch. Roasted meat, crusty bread and whipped cream have turned us docile – making it ideal, really, that there’s a two hour journey and a chance to sleep it off ahead. You’d pity the Parisian punters having lunch there, expected to be functioning humans for the rest of the afternoon, except that it’s hard to feel that sorry for anybody who has all of Alcazar’s champagne and greenery right there on their doorsteps.
Eurostar operates up to 21 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare Du Nord with one-way fares starting from £29 (based on a return journey). Fastest London-Paris journey time is 2hr 15 minutes. Business Premier fares start from £245 one-way based on a return journey. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.