When I first read about Lazare, a new breakfast-to-supper brasserie-restaurant in the (mostly) renovated Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, I imagined a vast space seating hundreds of diners. I was wrong. Yes, it is bustling and buzzy, but with 110 covers -- including at a communal table and at the bar -- it is not huge, which was a pleasant surprise. Not a surprise -- but none the less pleasant -- was the fact that the executive chef is Eric Frechon, whose three-Michelin-star restaurant Epicure in the great hotel Le Bristol has generated more than its share of happy memories for Jackie and me (including of Mr. Frechon's almost beyond perfect rendition of poulet en vessie -- Bresse chicken steamed/poached in a pig's bladder and served in two courses -- which we've eaten at least twice).
In late March we had dinner at Lazare with friends who had had the prescience to reserve a table a couple of weeks in advance -- this is a very popular restaurant. Although quite new (it opened in autumn 2013) and fresh-looking, it feels well established and lived-in. In some part, this is an effect of the décor, which blends modern domestic touches (banquettes of fabric, not leather) and brasserie gestures (blackboard; tiled floor) and which looks to have had a light patina of familiarity right out of the gate.
The menu (which for some reason is designed to evoke a newspaper, with Mr. Frechon listed as Executive Editor and with chef de cuisine Thierry Colas listed as editor of the cooking page) is full of tempting choices: lots of cold or salad-y first courses with enough warm dishes to please; a dozen or so main courses (of which exactly none would be suitable for a vegetarian); and alluring desserts plus a few cheeses. On paper, little ground is being broken here: just about everything will sound familiar to an experienced diner. But there are twists in lots of dishes -- many of them delightful.
For instance, Lazare's version of taramasalata incorporated sea urchin, which added a subtle briny flavor and a notably creamy consistency; serving it with blini made it seem even more special. Stuffed eggs with crab meat were gentle and true to their ingredients -- I could have eaten a dinner's worth of them if I'd had a side order of toast. And the charcuterie platter included thin-sliced mortadella made with black truffles; this was no mere frivolity -- the perfume was pervasive and was a real enhancement to what is, after all, a kind of bologna. On the other hand, the truffles in an off-menu croque monsieur didn't deliver in the same way -- lots of potential there, but it wasn't quite met.
That was true too of the turnip "choucroute" that was the reason I ordered grilled pork belly: the thinly sliced roots were almost mushy in texture and had not a hint of sauerkraut fermentation in their understated flavor. Some sharpness was needed to balance the unctuous meat, which itself was excellent. (In general, I'd have liked a bit more acidity -- let's say sparkle - in my meal, though that is clearly not Mr. Frechon's or Mr. Colas's well considered preference, or that of their clients.)
Nicely cooked scallops were served with orzo pasta (emulating risotto) coated in a bright green sauce based on arugula puree: a clever and completely successful variant on pesto that I may try at home this summer, if summer ever comes to New York. One of the taller members of our party had a steak à cheval -- chopped beef with an egg on top -- and it came to the table perfectly seared and crusty on the outside and evenly, beautifully red (but not raw and flaccid) inside: this was typical of the cooking, which was accurate and careful.
Either Jackie or I will always order île flottante -- a meringue island in a sea of custard sauce -- if it is on the menu. It was, and one of us did: It was the impeccable classic we wanted, with the added perfume and crunch of candied violets. Lovely. The restaurant's signature dessert is the Paris-Deauville (the Gare St-Lazare is where you'd catch a train for that windswept Norman town). It is not a riff on Paris-Brest, as I thought it might be; it is a syrup-soaked cake with a consistency recalling that of bread pudding. A trifle pasty, but delicious, with the welcome sharpness of caramel.
The wine list is short, but interesting and good. It was fun to drink a red and a white Saint-Joseph from the same Rhône valley producer -- not something you get to do every day.
Lazare is open straight through from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, as a railway station restaurant should be, and there are nice seats at the bar for those with no reservations. We had a very good time there.
Lazare. Gare Saint-Lazare (entry from the forecourt or from the ground-floor shopping mall) 75008 Paris; +33 1 44 90 80 80; http://lazare-paris.fr/ (on-line reservations available). Open every day 7:30 a.m. to midnight. Dinner for two, including wine and service, about €130 ($180).