You’re in France and you want to try ‘real’ French cuisine, but the price of a meal thanks to the weak dollar is astronomical. And then, what if you don’t like the escargots or the mushroom mousse or Belgian endive salad once you have ordered them? You want to try things but don’t want to be held in contempt for your taste, or lack thereof. How can you get initiated to the art of “la bouche,” that combination of textures and flavor prized by gourmets? The answer is easy: Justine, a restaurant with a marvelous buffet frequented by locals for the quality of its ingredients, the finesse of its preparation and the surprise of its ever-changing dishes.
Justine is one of two restaurants in the Le Meridien Montparnasse hotel on the Left Bank of Paris ( the other being the more elegant Montparnasse ‘25, a refined and intimate restaurant that boasts a Michelin star for its chef Christian Moine). There is an elevator curbside that will deliver you directly to the restaurant level of the hotel. Arriving for lunch, Justine’s white wicker furniture under long atrium glass windows and ceilings suggests a summer garden party even in winter.
The interior walls of the restaurant are livened with cherry red panels that provide the backdrop to exhibitions of contemporary art. The hotel management selects the artwork not only as decoration for the space, but as part of an artistic dialogue with the kitchen. The executive chef, Jean-Luc Reymond, and his talented team draw inspiration from the paintings to add a visual element to their dishes, an artistic response to the colors and lines suggested by the paintings, capturing the palette for the palate. The resulting buffet becomes each day an art installation in itself, a kind of performance art that invites diners to be a part of the artistry as they eat.
Buffets are a favorite of Americans who enjoy the possibility of seeing food and trying a little bit of everything without risk But Justine’s buffet is not like so many others that compromise quality for American tourists who love unlimited choice and quantity. Justine’s offers the very best in French taste and refinement. Ironically, many Le Meridien Montparnasse hotel residents overlook this buffet as “hotel food” and go out in search of the place where “real French people” eat, when in fact the clientele at Justine is predominantly French. The quality of the ingredients, the charm of the presentation, and the informed expertise of the service make Justine a magnet for locals.
From the moment you walk through the doors and see the “cold” buffet table decorated (for that is really the only word) with delicious appetizers and salads, you know you are no longer in Kansas.
Here you can have a taste of escargot, crayfish, or raw oysters. There is foie gras. There are pates en croute. Small glasses with a puree of yams topped with a beet sauce, orange and red under a paper-thin translucent rice wafer. There are fresh plates of sushi. Fusion cuisine here means a world’s variety of staples all prepared with that French je ne sais quoi that is at once surprising and refined.
A mushroom mousse sits in a tiny glass topped by a pinwheel pastry that is almost comic in its visual proportions and sublime in its flavors.
The spirit of inventive, creative play on display is a delight. The small glasses and dishes of individual servings are arranged for you to gather up onto your plate and create your own bit of artistry before sitting down to give your mouth it’s turn.
After the appetizers, you present yourself to the “hot” buffet for your main course and side dishes. The choices are simple and beautifully done. The large cooking dishes are brought out and if you choose the roast, it is carved for you at the buffet. The fish is fresh and cooked to a perfect flaky tenderness. I had veal and lamb, and to assuage my carnivore’s guilt, some of the vegetarian curry stew. With potatoes and broccoli on the side.
Warning: If you are someone who just has to eat a bit of everything, this lunch buffet will put you into a food coma before you get to the desserts. And you must leave room for dessert.
The desserts are wonderful. I had two. And then bits of others. The big surprise is how light they are. The creams and the cakes are flavorful, with exquisite textures, and yet they are not heavy. My favorite was the ginger tarte, a real surprise choice for a chocolate lover like myself. The cake was moist and the cream as light as air. I could have eaten the whole thing, after which I would have happily expired.
19 rue du Commandant Mouchotte
( If you call from the US, add the country code for France (33) and omit the first '0' )
Hours - Daily 7-10 AM; 7-10:30 PM
Monday-Saturday 12-2:30 PM