Akrame has been one of the hottest Paris addresses since it opened its doors in early 2011, and talented young chef Akrame Benallal confirmed his potential when the Michelin Guide took the unusual step of awarding the restaurant a star in its first year. So expectations are high. Benallal worked with both Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, and the buzz only increases when you discover how difficult it is to get a reservation, followed by a reminder call from the maitre d’ on your mobile at 9.30 the morning of the booking to reconfirm. Just a couple of minutes from the Arc de Triomphe, Akrame certainly looks the part, a small but stylish dining room seating around 20 people, with modern designer furniture and muted black décor that contrasts with a striking series of large colour photographs of tattooed women. But Akrame is full of surprises, far from the typical Parisian Michelin-starred dining experience of stuffy waiters and diners talking in hushed voices. At one end is an open kitchen where the chef works away animatedly with several assistants, while the friendly young staff immediately put diners at ease, and remain attentive rather than intrusive throughout the meal.
Don’t come expecting a typical menu with dozens of different dishes, as Benallal has opted for the flavour-of-the-day concept of no-choice tasting menus – though the waiter checks first if you have allergies or dislikes, and the chef can then prepare alternatives. There is an excellent value €35 three course menu at lunch, which changes every day, but to really appreciate Benallal's dazzling, inventive cuisine it is worth opting for the €60 four course menu or €90 for six courses. The four-course menu knocked us out: it kicked off with three delicious amuse bouche, including a smoky sliver of eel on a crispy squid ink wafer. Then a strange but very tasty mix of a milk jelly with smoked potato was followed by a brilliant interpretation of the humble lieu jaune fish, pollock, which was marinated in carrot juice then cooked to perfection at a low temperature with vinegary carrot spaghetti and polenta gnocchi. In the same spirit, simple champignons de Paris were served with an egg yolk and transformed into a Japanese-style soup as the waiter poured over a steaming mushroom bouillon. After a refreshing thyme sorbet with lime jelly, a juicy veal medallion was accompanied by crunchy root vegetables smothered with grated liquorice root, and somehow we still had room for the three small desserts, home baked madeleines, and a slab of chocolate to take home.
Akrame has an excellent wine list, but the sommelier was not at all enthusiastic when asked about by the glass, preferring to try to persuade us to take the wine-pairing option – tempting, but it adds another €40 per person to the bill.