Table Hopping | Ralph’s in Paris
FOOD, TRAVEL, WOMEN'S FASHION By ALEXANDER LOBRANO in http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.comMay 11 2010
Let’s just say I saw it coming. When the waitress at the furiously fashionable Ralph’s, the restaurant at the new Ralph Lauren boutique in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, threaded her way through the tight maze of brown leather armchairs in the snug, beamed dining room — complete with hunt-themed oil paintings and a gas fire — and placed a small bowl of deep-fried olives on the table, my friend Marie-Odile, a châtelaine in town for the day from Bordeaux, rolled her eyes. “Deep-fried olives!” she said. “Only you Americans would think of doing such a thing. You deep-fry everything, don’t you?”
Er, well, not really, since the inspiration for these olives, which were actually rather tasty, doubtless came from Puglia. One way or another, it was too much to expect that the French would interpret them as a sign of the cosmopolitan diversity of the contemporary American kitchen.
In fact, when it comes to American food in Paris, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When I moved here in 1986, I was amused but mainly repelled by its “American” restaurants, all of which were noisy places for serious drinkers to eat mediocre burgers, seriously bad Tex-Mex and sickly-sweet barbecued ribs in hokey environments — college pennants, big chromed jukeboxes, plaster cactuses, etc., meant to evoke totemic destinations like New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The fact that the astonishing evolution of American food, which has completely changed how and what Americans eat, was already well under way even then was obstinately ignored by Parisians, many of whom still had the bizarre foods eaten by “Les G.I.s” as their primary American alimentary reference. Vive les canned hot dogs!
So rather shrewdly, the menu at Ralph’s offers the French the American food they think they know, or a pretty straightforward roster of well-prepared Fanny Farmer-style American comfort foods, with a few knowing nods at the ladies who lunch in the form of, say, grilled salmon on a bed of seasonal vegetables or “Santa Barbara” salad with goat cheese, greens and seasonal vegetables.
The pleasant surprise is that most of this edible Americana is pretty good (perhaps because Danny Meyer‘s Union Square Hospitality Group consulted on the menu and worked with the chefs). The pasture-grazed, hormone-free Angus beef comes from Lauren’s ranch in Colorado and is delicious. So are such über James Beard starters as Maryland-style lump crabcake, expertly fried and accompanied by a sweet-and-sour yellow pepper sauce, and chilled sweet pea soup with crème fraîche. Ralph’s club sandwich can swing in the ring with any local contender, and the headliner burger with onions, pickles, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, cheddar and bacon instantly challenges the one served at Scoop (154 Rue Saint-Honoré, 1st Arrondissement; +33 1 42 60 31 84) as the best in town — and so it should for a thumping 27 euros. The menu’s crucial burger corral also offers turkey, tuna and veggie versions, and the Southern-fried chicken is crispy, juicy and full of flavor (long live French fowl!). Ralph’s should and could do better frites, however, and service needs fine-tuning, but all’s forgiven and forgotten when the cheesecake and carrot cake arrive.
The purpose of in-store dining is, of course, to reinforce the emotional content of a brand by marinating your customer in your art de vivre, and in these terms, Ralph’s is an extremely clever place, since its look so attractively reprises the decorative codes of the world’s most recent great powers — England and the United States — and packages them for the delectation of the French bourgeoisie, who are rather surprisingly susceptible to this product in spite of themselves.
Marie-Odile’s verdict? “C’était bon, cher mais bon, très fun et très Nouvelle Angleterre.” (Translation: It was good, expensive but good, lots of fun and very New England.) My prediction? With a very pretty open-air courtyard garden for al fresco dining, this place, open seven days a week and right in the heart of Saint-Germain, is going to be taken by storm this summer.