Ducasse aims for sky with new Eiffel Tower restaurant

PARIS - Alain Ducasse has already taken haute cuisine to great heights in menus for the Concorde jet and for astronauts. But opening a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower comes with its own challenges.

Though only 410 feet up, there's no gas cooking because of safety concerns. All the decor had to be light so as not to weigh on the 118-year-old iron structure. And because space is tight, food is washed and prepared in an underground kitchen.

The celebrity chef's new endeavor - called the Jules Verne, like the restaurant it replaced - opened for its first dinner Saturday. As staff frantically unwrapped cartons the day before, spilling bubble wrap and shards of cardboard onto the new carpeting, Ducasse took time out for an espresso and a chat about his vision.

'I think our only alternative in this monument is to be 100 percent French,' he told The Associated Press.

So what exactly is his vision of modern French cuisine?

'Beautiful products, perfect technique, perfect harmony, a few precise, reduced sauces, (everything) in harmony with French wines,' he said. Despite the buzz around the restaurant, critics have not yet sampled its cuisine.

Ducasse, who has 16 Michelin stars and more than 20 restaurants around the world, says the menu price is 'accessible to everyone:" about $108 for lunch and $216 for dinner, without wine. He shrugged off a question about whether setting up in France's most famous landmark - with more than 6.7 million visitors last year - might be too touristy for his elite brand.

'For us, the Eiffel Tower is a restaurant more than a place to visit,' the 51-year-old chef said, adding that he hopes to cultivate the right mix of tourists and Parisians. The restaurant seats up to 120 and takes reservations. As of Friday, there were still tables available for the first few days of business.

To get to the restaurant, diners take a private elevator - ascending to one set of tunes and descending to another. The mix includes Edith Piaf as well as modern French artists.

The decor is minimalist, with unusual retro-style tan leather chairs, light-colored tablecloths and clean white plates. The setting's main attraction is the panoramic view of Paris.

The ceiling lighting is by designer Herve Descottes, who lit up the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and it's crisscrossed by glowing lines that mimic the traffic patterns of Paris. The lighting is gentle, so the view isn't obscured at night.

As for the cuisine, the dinner menu includes roasted imperial langoustine with sauteed green vegetables and black truffles, pan-seared beef tournedos and fresh duck foie gras with souffled potatoes and Perigueux sauce, as well as lime souffle, wild strawberry in warm juice and tangy sorbet.

Ducasse no longer toils behind the stoves, but jets between his award-winning restaurants in places from Tokyo to Las Vegas. Or, as he puts it: 'I don't work, I dream ... I illustrate my dreams.'