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Paris: Take a Blue Train to Sumptuous Dining

Murals adorn the ceiling of Le Train Bleu in Paris' Gare de Lyon. i

Murals adorn the walls and ceiling of Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train), a luxurious restaurant in Paris' Gare de Lyon station. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Murals adorn the ceiling of Le Train Bleu in Paris' Gare de Lyon.

Murals adorn the walls and ceiling of Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train), a luxurious restaurant in Paris' Gare de Lyon station.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Dining room of Le Train Bleu i

Le Train Bleu's elegant dining room, which dates back to 1901, also features leather-upholstered banquettes, a parquet floor, brass fixtures and crystal chandeliers. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Dining room of Le Train Bleu

Le Train Bleu's elegant dining room, which dates back to 1901, also features leather-upholstered banquettes, a parquet floor, brass fixtures and crystal chandeliers.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
The view from the less-expensive, train-motif cafe attached to the formal dining room is no less spe i

The view from the less-expensive cafe attached to the formal dining room is no less spectacular. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
The view from the less-expensive, train-motif cafe attached to the formal dining room is no less spe

The view from the less-expensive cafe attached to the formal dining room is no less spectacular.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Pan-fried shrimps with red onions and fresh coriander, and pumpkin soup with spices and mushrooms i

A recent special of the day: pan-fried shrimps with red onions and fresh coriander (shown here with pumpkin soup with spices and mushrooms). hide caption

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Pan-fried shrimps with red onions and fresh coriander, and pumpkin soup with spices and mushrooms

A recent special of the day: pan-fried shrimps with red onions and fresh coriander (shown here with pumpkin soup with spices and mushrooms).

Sole meuniere is one of Le Train Bleu's fish specialties. i

Sole Meuniere is one of Le Train Bleu's fish specialties. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Sole meuniere is one of Le Train Bleu's fish specialties.

Sole Meuniere is one of Le Train Bleu's fish specialties.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Le Train Bleu is not the place to grab a quick bite to eat before boarding a train.

Le Train Bleu is not the place to watch the scene or be seen.

Le Train Bleu is something of a Proustian recherche du temps perdu — or remembrance of things past — the past being the Belle Epoque. In fact, the restaurant is considered one of Paris' best preserved examples of that lavish fin de siecle architectural design.

The restaurant is inside the Gare de Lyon train station. From the concourse, a wide, curving staircase leads to the second floor. The dining room's large, arched windows look onto the big, bustling platforms below.

The decor is grandiose: Sculptures and murals cover walls and ceilings; long, leather-upholstered banquettes on a waxed parquet floor absorb the outside noise; and the light of crystal chandeliers reflects off shiny, brass fittings. The mood is elegant and tranquil.

The Gare de Lyon was built as part of the building program for the Paris exhibition of 1900, along with the glass-domed Grand Palais and Petit Palais off the Champs Elysees. The restaurant, known as the Buffet, was inaugurated in 1901 and later took its current name from the luxury train that transported wealthy Parisians to the French Riviera. The paintings that adorn the walls — sailboats and languid, well-dressed ladies lounging under flowering arbors — depict the passengers' fashionable Mediterranean destinations.

The menu reflects the traditional tastes still favored today by the French bourgeoisie: Starters include oysters, foie gras, escargots and a warm Lyon sausage with potatoes in a shallot vinaigrette.

Meat dishes include beef steak tartare, prepared at the table; duck breast in honey and spices; leg of lamb, sliced and carved in the dining room; among the fish specialties, grilled salmon and Sole Meuniere.

Desserts are as tempting as one would expect in such a temple to sumptuous dining: chocolate blinis with pear sticks in crushed sugar almonds, creme brulee and Royal amber Saint James rum baba.

This is a restaurant where you can set your own pace, and it's very comfortable to dine alone. At the table next to mine, an elderly Parisian gentleman took his time over lunch. First, a half-dozen oysters. For his main course, he ordered beef fillet with Bearnaise sauce, sauteed potatoes and green beans in butter.

He finished in style — he said to the waiter, "Why not?" — with crepes Suzette prepared flamboyantly at the table. He washed down his leisurely meal with a glass of amber-colored cognac.

I could not emulate him and opted for lighter fare: I ordered a special of the day, pan-fried shrimps with red onions and fresh coriander, pumpkin soup with spices and mushrooms, and a refreshing dessert — a salad of oranges, yellow and black carrots and yuzu sorbet.

The meal was very good, but Le Train Bleu is pricey — the fixed-price menu runs about $70 per person, while an a la carte meal costs about $90 per person.

If you want to experience the ambience without emptying your wallet, there is a cafe — with a less expensive menu — attached to the dining room, where the train motif is accentuated: Comfortable leather armchairs flank a long, narrowish corridor. It almost makes you feel like you are on the Orient Express or even in Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train.

The restaurant Web site says regulars have included Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Coco Chanel and the actor Jean Gabin. The dining room itself was immortalized on screen: It served as a backdrop in the 1972 movie Travels with My Aunt, based on the Graham Greene novel.

Le Train Bleu is a far cry from Paris' crowded, noisy brasseries where clients have to squeeze in between tiny bistro tables. And its priceless ambience is well worth a splurge, at least once.

Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train): Gare de Lyon, Place Louis Armand, 75012 Paris, France. Telephone: 33 1 44 75 76 76. Fax : 33 1 43 43 97 96. E-Mail: reservation.trainbleu@ssp.fr. Web site: www.le-train-bleu.com.

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