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Bon Appétit, Monsieur Poirot

James Hull - June 2014

Paris—Few things could evoke the grandeur of a bygone era more than the Orient Express. The mythical train service has operated in various incarnations since 1883, and is most famous for carrying a fictional passenger: Hercule Poirot, the sharp-eyed dandified sleuth of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express. The novel, and the train that inspired it, capture the enchanting moment of luxury travel after the advent of modern transportation that preceded the hectic and impersonal known today. In its heyday, the well-heeled could ride from Paris to Istanbul in about 80 hours, where many connected to destinations further east, such as Beirut, Baghdad, or Cairo. It was a “see and be seen” journey for an eccentric cast of characters that author E.H. Cookridge described as including kings, tycoons, prima donnas, and spies.

Now Yannick Alléno has picked up where Poirot left off, and created the Restaurant Éphémère Orient Express in conjunction with French luxury caterer Potel et Chabot. This “ephemeral restaurant” operates until the end of August and is part of a centerpiece exhibit dedicated to the history of the Orient Express at Paris’ Arab World Institute. Alléno says he “didn’t hesitate for a second” when asked to cook onboard a car from the legendary train. “It was really an unexpected project,” he reflects, “and I’m very proud to be able to offer a gastronomic experience in this incredibly historic rail carriage.” Somehow it seems to fit the élan of a chef who manages to be both loftily prestigious and amusingly irreverent. Alléno earned three Michelin stars at Le Meurice, the iconic hotel near the Tuileries Garden, and has released his own “bible of contemporary French gastronomy,” weighing 38 pounds. Nevertheless, he features a take-out kit of charcuterie munchies called the “sac apéro” at his bistro, Terroir Parisien. Another everyday dish, the “veau chaud,” reimagines the classic French tête de veau in a sausage-on-crusty-bread format, whose rather American inspiration—sacré bleu—was apparent when he described it on Facebook as “le Hot Dog parisien.

This latest dining experience features antique Orient Express rail cars that have been lavishly refurbished and put on display outside the museum. Alléno’s restaurant operates in the Anatolie dining car, built as a fitting setting for an elegant dinner service and sumptuously appointed in the dark woods, fine leather, and thick drapery that were once synonymous with luxury. A step away is the equally posh Train Bleu bar car.

Alléno delivers classic haute cuisine reminiscent of the meals enjoyed on the original train, explaining that “the biggest challenge was to reproduce the experience that they had at the time.” He knew that soufflés were served by the train’s original chefs, and so sought to replicate them for his guests. It wasn’t easy in the confines of the dining car, whose 65 square-foot galley was once fired with wood coal.

The periodically changing menu also features such French favorites as lobster consommé, squab, fricassée of Bresse chicken, and zucchini flowers with chanterelle mushrooms. In a nod to the Near East, dessert includes ice cream made with Turkish Delight and rose water. Patrons can choose prix-fixe menus with or without beverages. There’s also an elegant à la carte selection of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhône Valley wines, including four of the chef’s own bottles, which were produced in collaboration with noted French vintner Michel Chapoutier.

Diners will also want to explore the museum, where the Orient Express exhibit is spread out over two levels and includes a host of documents, art, and antiques from the train’s storied history.