review of French restaurant Kei in Paris by Andy Hayler in September 2021 (2023)

Kei Kobayashi, born from Nagano into a family of cooks, opened his Paris restaurant in 2011. He had been working in a string of top-class French restaurants since he moved to France in 1998 at the age of 21, including with chef Gilles Goujon at three star Auberge de Vieux Puits, as well as with Serge Chenet at one star Prieure in Avignon and Michel Husser at two star Le Serf. In 2003 he joined the Plaza Athenee team under the direction of Jean Francois Piege and later Christophe Moret. He worked there as sous chef before striking out on his own. His eponymous restaurant Kei earned a second Michelin star in 2017 and the ultimate third Michelin star in 2020.

The chef’s cooking style is based on his classical French training, but with Japanese influences. A signature dish is his artistic “garden of vegetables” salad, with beautifully presented vegetables, each prepared differently, plated with leaves and flower petals in the manner of a flower arrangement. The dining room, previously a restaurant run by Gerard Besson, is decorated in grey and silver, with Louis XV style armchairs. A dozen chefs work in the kitchen, serving a maximum of thirty-one diners, including a small private dining room to the side of the main room. The menu format is tasting menu only, with a few variations based on length of meal. At lunch the shortest menu comes in at €78, with the main menus at €150, €240 and €320. At dinner the menus are €165, €240 and €320, the latter being seven courses and featuring the most luxurious ingredients.

The wine list is not available on line and they will not share it electronically, so I cannot go through my usual analysis. I saw one bottle at €59 but it mostly stays in grander territory. Example labels were Chateau Paloumey Ailes de Paloumey 2012 at €74 for a bottle that you can find for €29 in a shop, Weinbach Riesling Cuvee Theo 2018 at €94 for a bottle that retails at €29, and Chateau Brane-Cantenac Baron de Brane 2011 at €150 for a bottle whose current market value is €34. There were plenty of posher offerings, such as Domaine Arlaud Clos de la Roche 2011 at €550 compared to its retail price of €130, and Domaine du Clos de Tart “La Forge de Tart” 2008 at €560 for a bottle that will set you back €141 in a shop. As can be seen, the markups are not kind.

Canapés comprised red shiso granita, Comte cheese and ichimi chilli gougeres topped with a Parmesan crisp, and a smoked yoghurt tart with confit Spanish sardine, cucumber, miso and red onion. The gougeres were superb, with lovely choux pastry, deep cheese flavour and a delicate crisp. The sardine with yoghurt was intriguing, a lovely and original flavour combination with the yoghurt balancing the sardine very well (19/20).

This was followed by a pretty dish of lightly barbecued Palamos shrimp along with schrenkii caviar, a type of sturgeon whose roe is prized for its nutty and buttery qualities. This dish also featured cucumber, miso and both green Granny Smith apple and red shiso sorbet. The delicate sweet shrimp flavour was balanced by the acidity of the apple, the briny caviar (from supplier Kaviari in Paris) adding a luxurious extra flavour dimension. The precision of balance of this dish was remarkable (20/20).

Next was Scottish blue lobster claw in kadaif noodles with gribiche, a classic sauce of emulsified egg yolks with mustard, along with more caviar. The lobster was exceptionally tender, the gentle bite of the mustard in the gribiche a fine foil for the shellfish, the caviar bringing its nutty, briny richness to the dish. This was a deceptively simple yet superbly executed dish (19/20).

Next was the signature dish of the chef, which has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. “Garden Salad” does not do justice to this, and the dish itself has evolved significantly since the early days of the restaurant. At the base is Scottish smoked salmon with an array of lightly cooked vegetables that will vary by season but may include courgette, radish, carrots and beetroot. These are covered with a mash of rocket and basil leaves, garlic and olive oil that are whipped and sieved. These are combined with a foam of cream and yoghurt, olives and capers, mashed and sieved anchovies with olive and mustard mayonnaise. This is topped with fresh leaves and a garnish of black olive and almond crumble. As you dig your fork into the dish you encounter more and more layers of flavour and texture, the mixture having superb balance and depth of flavour. Perhaps the most famous “salad” restaurant dish is the Michel Bras gargouillou, but for me this may have the edge. This is a remarkable creation (20/20).

Next was fillet of Atlantic sea bass with crisp skin and a Mediterranean style tomato and olive accompaniment, a sauce vierge. This wasa simple dish but having very precise fish cookery resulting in glorious texture, the sauce accompaniment pairing beautifully with the terrific fish (19/20).Blue lobster from Scotland was lightly cooked and came with deep fried quinoa and a generous ring of caviar, as well as a Bloody Mary cocktail sauce. The shellfish was superbly tender, the quinoa adding a textural contrast and the lovely caviar adding a luxurious air to the dish. Each element was superbly executed but the combination was divine (20/20).

The final savoury course featured A4 grade Kagoshima beef with watercress sauce, a little grilled piece of beef fat, mustard and horseradish condiment and deep-fried gnocchi, with a separate dish of beef tartare. I prefer A4 grade beef to A5 as it is rich but not too buttery, and still very much tastes of beef, with Kagoshima producing some of the better wagyu. The watercress sauce was a fine contrast that provided balance to the richness, with the tiny sliver of grilled beef fat a little grenade of concentrated flavour. The gnocchi provided a welcome balance to the richness, while the horseradish and mustard condiment added further balance. I think that the beef tartare with tomato emulsion and caviar was almost more impressive than the cooked meat, the beef having dazzling flavour and with fabulously precise seasoning. It is hard to think how a beef dish could be much better than this (20/20).

After that rich main course it was good to have a refreshing disk of sudachi sorbet, a sour Japanese lime that provided just the right level of sharpness to cut through the rich aftertaste of the beef. This was swiftly followed by a cheese course of goat cheese foam with Sicilian olive oil and Vietnamese black pepper, the foam covering a core of blueberry sorbet. The acidity of the fruit cut through the cheese but what lifted the dish to a higher level was the judicious use of the superbly aromatic pepper (19/20).

The main dessert was a sphere of chestnut ice cream with yuzu pearls and chestnut cream, all encased in a crisp meringue coating. This was reminiscent of a classic Mont Blanc dessert. This was a terrific dish, the sharpness of the citrus combining superbly with the chestnut, the combination of crisp outside and soft centre an effective contrast, the chestnut flavour deep, the texture of the filling silky (20/20).

After these culinary highlights it was a pity to end with ordinary Guatemalan coffee from Nespresso. The coffee could definitely be improved upon, though it was decent enough. Alongside the coffee were petit fours of pina colada marshmallow and caramel tartelette. The service all evening was charming, with friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating staff. I was being taken here by a client so did not see the bill, but if you had the shorter menu and shared a simple bottle of wine then a typical cost per person might come to around €230 (£199). Although this is hardly a cheap outing, by Paris three-star standards it is not expensive, and the quality of the whole experience is impeccable. This not only thoroughly deserves its third star, but it is one of the very best new three stars of recent years anywhere in the world. It is a tour de force of modern cookery.

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