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culinary whim

Power lunching in Paris


Wimbledon may have its strawberries and cream. But for 15 days every spring, the Roland Garros complex on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne becomes the place to power lunch in Paris.

These days, in this economy, fewer French business executives dare to be caught on television sitting in a box seat and watching tennis balls fly over a net at 4 in the afternoon. But lunch is different. "I have to go to Roland Garros for lunch" signals serious networking and hard work � la fran�aise.

"I'm not proud to admit that some guys come here only to eat, " said Gilbert Ysern, chief executive of the French Tennis Federation. "But our signature is that we can offer you a meal as great as any great restaurant in Paris. You know you'll see and be seen. You'll shake interesting hands and have interesting encounters.

"And the ambience! It's the ambience of spring, of seeing pretty women dressed with flair. "

It's no accident that Roland Garros is the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments to be played on clay courts, which traditionally have created a higher bounce and a slower game than matches played on hard courts or grass. It is more important here to keep the rallies going with style and panache than to go straight for the kill. Pleasure comes with prolonging, not concluding.

As for the real Roland Garros, he was a record-breaking aviator and inventor who knew how to enjoy himself. On the ground between missions during World War I, he would sip champagne as he played the piano to drown out the sound of bombing raids.

Although never much of a tennis player, he was such a popular hero that France named its international tennis tournament and stadium after him.

And lunch at Roland Garros? Like the royal French courts, there is a hierarchy of who eats where and what. At the very bottom there is American-style fast food for the grand public - the general public. In the middle there are respectable venues like a self-service sit-down restaurant.

But at the top, the very top, there are coveted dining experiences reserved for the chosen few. The Grand Chelem - the Grand Slam - is a group of intimate, temporary tented dining rooms on the fringe of the stadium run by the caterer Len�tre. The rooms spill out onto a deck with a bar, chaise longues and orchids and palm trees.

Here, corporations and private individuals rent rooms or tables for their clients. "All year I'm in nothing but business, and here's my one chance to mix it with pleasure, " said Valêry Safarian, head of the Belgian-Armenian Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, who was hosting 10 guests for lunch and tennis-watching at 700 euros a head or Rs 48, 000 per head.

The fare is rich - a bit too rich for an 85-degree Fahrenheit day in an un-air-conditioned outdoor space: duck layered with foie gras and decorated with asparagus and pickled peach slices;beef fillet with stuffed baby vegetables and an assortment of cheeses.

The prettiest creation was the dessert: a martini-shaped glass with crunchy chocolate "diamonds" on the bottom and layers of dark chocolate, milk chocolate and raspberry mousse that seemed suspended in air. Guy Krenzer, the chef, showed me his trick: he cut a circle of dark chocolate to fit midway down the glass and layered the three mousses on top, finishing them off with a raspberry and a piece of gold leaf.

Dishes are prepared at Len�tre's off-site locations and only finished or heated here.

That robs Len�tre of the cachet of Potel et Chabot, its Roland Garros rival. Potel has been in business for more than 190 years. In 1900, it served 25, 000 meals at a banquet in the Tuileries Garden in honor of the mayors of France. After that, no mission was impossible.

Every season, on the site of a parking lot, Potel builds an ephemeral restaurant complex with a staircase, an elevator and 18 industrial white cube-rooms that stack up to three stories high. Potel boasts a staff of 800, including 250 chefs, who work in six on-site kitchens. Every day, it prepares and serves from 4, 500 to 5, 000 meals at various sites, compared with about 600 for Len�tre.

On the second level of the Village de Roland Garros is where Potel accommodates 19 c orporations, among them Perrier, Peugeot, I. B. M. , Longines and Lacoste, which rent and decorate reception rooms for their best clients. The rooms open out onto a central avenue lined with white petunias and gold and orange marigolds, where clients mingle and sip cocktails.

One level above is an invitation-only restaurant called Club Potel et Chabot. There I was greeted with a flute of pink Champagne and an amuse-bouche of foie gras on long, paper-thin leaf-shaped toast.

Lunch started with ceviche of dorade in an iced sorrel base with tiny bits of crisp green zucchini. Then came Bresse chicken, the king of fowl, in a sauce of pungent vin jaune from the Jura, accompanied by thin layers of potato on one side and a savory cake of finely diced morel mushrooms and chicken on the other. The morels had been reconstituted from dried, because fresh ones, alas, were out of season. A 2010 Laporte Le Grand Rochoy Sancerre (white) and a 2011 David Reynaud Crozes-Hermitage (red) were served.

Every culinary whim was taken as a command. When one guest at my table casually noted that vin jaune has a strange taste on its own but is perfect when married with Comtê cheese, a 2005 Arbois Vin Jaune Stêphane Tissot and thick slices of fruity 18-month-old Comtê suddenly appeared.

Diners can't buy just lunch. The French federation sells a one-day package with a ticket to the open, a Potel lunch and a souvenir gift for 480 to 3, 000 euros, depending on the category of ticket and the day of play.

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