12/24/2012 07:24 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2013

Paris Dining: Imaginative Luxury At L'Abeille In The Shangri-La Hotel

The launch of a grand hotel in a great city is always something of an event, at least for some people: This autumn my wife and I arrived in Japan a day or two after the Tokyo Station Hotel opened its doors and were amazed at the hordes of gawkers crowding the entranceway and streaming through the public areas staring at the paying customers. (We, of course, were among the rubberneckers, but at least we'd asked the man at the front desk whether it was okay to take a look around.)

Happily for hotel guests, the late-2010 opening of the far more luxurious Shangri-La Paris -- in the former mansion of a great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, no less -- was lower in key, though it was the object of considerable interest, including among food lovers: The restaurant plans sounded promising and interesting. For one thing, there was to be a high-class Cantonese restaurant of the kind found in Hong Kong (home base of the hotel group); for another, the overall executive chef was to be the respected Philippe Labbé, who had earned two Michelin stars in the South of France and who would have his own intimate restaurant in the hotel.

In early December, we had dinner at that restaurant, called l'Abeille in a reference to the bees (abeilles) that were a Napoleonic emblem and that figure in the decoration of the building. In most of its public areas, the décor of the hotel achieves grand style, helped by the richness of the original building. The lounges and bar are marked by a lavish coziness, and everywhere there are high ceilings. Everywhere, that is, but the restaurant, which is lower-ceilinged and neutral-colored, with a big, oddly incongruous chandelier in the middle of the room. I look forward to the completion of the garden which the dining room will face: It should open the space and make it more graceful.

The restaurant is nonetheless comfortable, with chairs that you can sit in for hours and just that hum of conversation that you want when dining out. And conversation is promoted by the well-considered size of the two-person tables; in so many other fancy restaurants you're seated miles away from your companion and have to raise your voice (or send a text) to make yourself understood. The service is unfailingly professional, discreet and knowledgeable and always enthusiastic, hospitable and warm. Ask about an unfamiliar ingredient (a limequat in my case), and they'll bring one for you to examine -- and to taste. The sommelier was able to tease a lovely and, in the context, modestly priced bottle of Burgundy, a white Auxey-Duresses at €55, about $70, out of the tangle of mostly French and mostly far costlier wines.

At our dinner, the cooking was impeccable and the dishes imaginative, balanced, flavorful and, for the most part, light. A few are served in two stages, such as a lobster whose claws are prepared in citrus dashi and served with cockles, and whose tail is then beautified with a lemongrass-yuzu sabayon and served with celery root and stalk. But with some of those two-course sequences, you can select just one of the preparations, a flexible touch that I don't recall seeing elsewhere.

A nice opening to our meal was one of the several amuse-bouche: a potato cream with tiny clams and a dice of sweet-pickled onions that gave an entirely unexpected lift to the little dish. Asian ingredients -- notably citruses and other pointed flavors -- are well integrated. Western cooks sometimes miscalculate when using "alien" ingredients, but Mr. Labbé seems to have internalized them and doesn't treat them as exotic: It would be a stretch to characterize the cooking at l'Abeille as redolent of Asia; it simply draws on a broad range of flavors.

The menu changes very often along with the produce of the moment: I loved that one of our first courses was a chestnut dish. And it cleverly and completely avoided the denseness of most chestnut cooking by including thin-sliced raw chestnuts and a foamed chestnut broth to complement little pasta nuggets (cappelletti) filled with fontina cheese. The dish was finished with a few shavings of white truffle. Three-part harmony: fontina, chestnuts, truffles. In our other starter, langoustine tails were barely cooked with yuzu zest and accompanied by a sweet-acidic reduction of the fortified wine Banyuls and a hazelnut and hazelnut-oil mayonnaise slightly brightened with yuzu; the dish was given a ginger-based spray at the last minute, more for its aroma than for its flavor. The several different levels of sweetness and tartness made this a lot of fun to eat.

In too many restaurants, including those glittering with Michelin stars (l'Abeille gained two right out of the gate), main dishes can be a weak link between imaginative first courses and delicious desserts. Here, ours were both imaginative and delicious: One was pan-gilded turbot with tiny octopuses and even tinier (fingernail-sized) squid, plated thread-thin tentacles upward. They were cute; no other word will do. The sea-urchin enriched potatoes and the juices subtly scented with kaffir lime leaves were interesting in themselves, but still part of a congruent ensemble. The main ingredient, the turbot, was never drowned out.

Our other main course was spice-crusted Bresse pigeon (squab) with a ginger-scented puree made with the pigeon's blood -- a lightened variation on the traditional blood cake, or "sanguette" -- and a whole seed-catalogue's worth of turnip varieties glazed with caramelized onions. These, in fact, had drawn us to the dish: turnips and red-fleshed birds are a favorite pairing, and these were sweet, juicy and slightly funky, as turnips ought to be. The sanguette could have made this a weighty dish, but here it was further proof of Mr. Labbé's deftness and sense of balance.

A nut-stuffed pear dessert was a little too substantial, though a nice enough adaptation of a traditional way of dealing with pears and apples. But our other dessert -- strips of puff pastry surrounding clementine cream and sorbet, clementine segments and kumquats -- was vivid and satisfying. This was not a very acidic variety of clementine, so there was a softness to the dessert that I found appealing. Post-dessert petits fours and chocolates were uniformly irresistible.

For a non-Parisian readership, it is impossible not to take note of the restaurant's prices: you can buy dinner at New York's Jean-Georges for about the €95 cost of that excellent langoustine appetizer. But for Paris dining of this precision and high caliber, l'Abeille's prices are more or less on target.

Setting that matter apart -- as you must once you've decided to eat in a restaurant of this kind -- Mr. Labbé is a chef who doesn't seem to be trying to make an intellectual point: there's plenty of thinking here, but it takes place off-stage and yields cooking with immediate appeal. You can ponder it if you like -- and most of what we ate would repay the effort -- but you can also just dig in and enjoy yourself.


L'Abeille. Shangri-La hotel, 10 Avenue d'Iéna, Paris 75116; +33 (0) 1 53 67 19 90; reservations can be made online; dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday. The price of our dinner for two was €490 ($650), including a modestly priced bottle of wine.

Paris Dining: Imaginative Luxury At l'Abeille In The Shangri-La Hotel