Letter from Paris: A Lively Les Halles Bistro

Posted on 24 May 2011

A few of the wine suggestions at L'Hedoniste, Paris

By Alexander Lobrano

Though I don’t like its name, L’Hedoniste, because I find it smug (per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life), I would still heartily recommend this friendly, lively and very good-looking bistro on the northern edge of Les Halles.

Exposed stone walls, big mirrors on the walls, widely spaced bar wooden tables, and a beamed ceiling create a pleasant Parisian atmosphere, and coming by the other for dinner with Bruno and a pair of friends, our quartet instantly liked this place as we sipped a very good bottle of white Puzelat Cherverny, a great buy at 21 Euros. There were, in fact, a lot of other good bottles of organic or ‘naturel’ wine on the list for less than 25 Euros, and this sparked a communal lament about how prices have gone up a lot at most Paris restaurants this year and also about how hard it is to find decent drinking in most restaurants for less than 25 Euros. To be sure, many restaurants count on the margin they make on wine to keep their balance sheets in the red, but when both food an wine prices are sky rocketing, it’s nice when someone occasionally cuts you some slack. Recent trips to Marseilles, Rome and Barcelona only underlined how high Paris restaurant prices have become–it’s getting harder and harder to have a really good meal in the French capital for less than 50 Euros, wine included, and while rents may be lower in that trio than they are in Paris, the cost of dining out in the French capital really is getting out of hand.

L'Hedoniste

While nibbling some excellent Spanish ‘El Payo’ charcuterie, I also found myself wish that Paris restaurants would make more of an effort to high light French charcuterie on their menus. There’s no doubt that Spain makes some superb charcuterie, but why not showcase Gallic glories like the sublime jambon de coche de la chataignerie from the Auvergne, jambon de Reims or maybe some of the wonderful charcuterie you find in Brittany or the Ardennes instead of reflexively going for the Spanish stuff?
Asparagus with fava beans and goat cheese ravioli  Our first courses were delicious. Two of us went with the green asparagus served with fava beans and a plump ravioli filled with creamy goat cheese, one sampled the ‘tataki’ (thin slices) of beef with a light sauce of reduced beef jus and beets, and the fourth, clams in a gently briny bouillon spiked by galanga and garnished with chunks of chorizo sausage. All three dishes showed off the kitchen’s cosmopolitan imagination and precise cooking skills.

At the bar at L'Hedoniste, Paris.

When the waitress came to clear our first-course plates, one of my friends, also American–we were two Americans and two Frenchmen, politely commented on how good the asparagus had been, and she smiled, looked at us quizzically, and paried: “Vous n’etes pas des touristes?” No, none of us were tourists, but this got me to thinking about how this innocent enough word has developed pejorative connotations in practically all of the world’s major languages, which is sort of odd in view of the fact that most of us are lucky enough to be tourists more than a couple of times in our lives. Why, I wondered, do people assume that tourists won’t know or notice if food is good or bad? An avid interest in good food is more international today than it’s ever been before, so the idea that tourists will tolerate poor food, never a very nice one to begin with, seems seriously flawed. To be sure, not knowing the local gastronomic landscape and/or being  poorly advised, tourists do end up in the generally awful restaurants along the rue de la Huchette in the 5th arrondissement in Paris or the mediocre tables surrounding the Piazza Navona in Rome, but I think it’s high time we inter the superannuated high Victorian snobbery that is so dismissive of tourists as a species.
Our main courses were very good, too. A thick and perfectly cooked steak of lieu jaune (yellow pollack) came on a bed of black rice with a delicious paella inspired crust, and veal was done rosy and served with a red curry condiment, sweet potato puree and piquillo peppers. Two of us finished up with a first-rate cheese course, the others with an imaginative pastilla of black chocolate served with a compote of spiced dried fruit.
Given the excellent quality of the cooking, the friendly service, and the reasonable prices here, this is an address I’ve already been back to two more times, and one at which I expect to become a regular. So does this make me a hedonist? No, not really, just someone who passionately loves good food.
L’Hedoniste. 14 rue Léopold Bellan, 2nd, Tel. 01-40-26-87-33. Metro: Sentier or Chatelet/Les Halles. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch menu (plat du jour and dessert) 19€, two-course prix-fixe (starter and main or main and dessert) 28.50€, average a la carte 35€.

Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris”  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

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