“Dear Alec, Looking forward to seeing you in a week, and to introducing you to my sons, especially the eldest, who’s seems to be just about as food mad as you are. I know you’ll be away the first two nights we’re in Paris, so I’ve been poking around your blog to see if I could find a relaxed reasonably priced and decidedly French restaurant just out the door from our hotel in the 1st arrondissement. You’ve written about some terrific sounding spots in the 1st in your book and on your blog, but what I really need is a ‘normal people’ restaurant. Anything trendy would be lost on me and the boys, as would anything too cutting edge. Sorry to bother you with this, but maybe you’d have an idea of a friendly sort of meat-and-potatoes spot that won’t break the bank but will serve us some good food, and, for dear old Dad who’ll be running this excursion and is, as you know, fond of the grape, a nice bottle of wine!”
This was the message I received a couple of weeks ago from Todd, a college friend from Pittsburgh who was taking his sons to Paris for the first time while his wife was on a long business trip in Asia, and it got me to thinking about how rare ‘normal people’ restaurants have become in the heart of Paris. With a few wonderful exceptions, only chain restaurants or slickly designed places peddling the ersatz health food that’s become the new Gallic noon-time normal for office workers–smoothies, salads, soup, etc., can afford to set up shop these days on this prime turf, and this really can make it a challenge for visitors staying in any of the many hotels in the heart of Paris, or that turf defined by the Madeleine, Place de la Concorde, the Opera Garnier and the Place Vendome, to find a reasonably priced, good quality French meal. So I gave this request some thought. I like the Bistrot Volnay a lot, but knew it would be too fashionable for Todd and his boys. Then I remembered. As luck would have it, however, I actually had found a swell little bistro in this neck of the woods a few weeks back, Le Bistrot Capucine.
I’d met a friend who’s a hotel executive for lunch, and he told me that this friendly little spot with a gorgeous red Berkel slicing machine on the bar (anyone want to know what I’d like for Christmas? Yes! And the machine’s painted the very same red as Santa Claus’s jacket. Alas, these things run around $5000)–always a good sign, is not only his go-to spot for lunch but favorite new place to have a cave-man dinner, since it just started serving a swell small plate and côte de bœuf only menu in the evening.
That pretty Indian summer day, I loved chef Jean-Marc Berthelot’s market-driven menu, and we had a terrific lunch–roasted smoked mozzarella with artichoke cream and cherry tomatoes, poached cod with really nicely made squid’s ink risotto, and some brie de Meaux to see us through a last glass of a wonderful bottle of Minervois. It was while we were lingering over the rest of our wine and a coffee that we fell into conversation with the amiable Berthelot, who opened this restaurant in 1998 and who recently went through a royal battle with his landlord to prevent himself from being priced out the neighborhood. The reason that this later subject came up is that I’d been talking about how all of the ‘real people’ places in the neighborhood had been priced out of existence, and specifically reminisced about the excellent traiteur where I used to buy lunch almost every day when I worked in the rue Cambon. The nice lady who owned this place smoked the ham she sold in the chimney of her country house and made all of the salads–celeri remoulade, potato salad, grated carrot, etc., from scratch everyday and they were delicious.
Berthelot, whose interesting and accomplished career includes stints at Chez Pauline–the great now-gone bistro in the rue Villedo, Guy Savoy, various London kitchens and as a private chef on Caribbean yachts sailing out of Saint Martin, despairs of the economic gentrification that’s making it hard to find a good meal in the heart of Paris, and this is why he not only put up a fight to keep his restaurant, but takes pride in serving only the very best organic produce, which he buys himself at the Marche de Vincennes or the Marche d’Aligre, and sourcing his meat at the Boucheries Nivernaises. He obviously loves his work as a chef and a host, so it came as no surprise when he mentioned that execs from nearby Chanel like to privatize his place for let-their-hair-down feasts in the evening every once in a while.
In need of a similar let-down-your-hair meal a month or so ago, Bruno and I headed over here for dinner and had a terrific night. We sampled almost all of the small plate starters, including big fat fleshy Sicilian olives, grilled artichoke hearts, salami and sublime ham, and then tucked into a terrific côte de bœuf. This superb mountain of first rate meat came cooked perfectly medium rare with a generous side of sea-salted roasted baby potatoes and a chlorophyll bright sauce verte that was vivid with the tastes of flat parsley, chives, chervil and a little basil and tarragon. It met the char on the meat as a real treat, too. But since this dinosaur dinner weighed in at 900 grams, or almost two pounds, we struggled to finish it despite the fact that it was juicy flavorful meat with a perfect texture–it firm enough to require a sharp knife but was easy work under the blade.
Over coffee and a slug of great Basque eau de vie, we chatted with Berthelot and his wonderfully wry bar tender, and beyond politics and food, everyone railed about how no one makes time for a good time anymore–work has just about gobbled up everyone’s lives, and about how they’re fewer and fewer ‘real’ streets in the heart of the Paris anymore. By this we meant, streets with shops that sell things that you actually need and/or can afford, but a few survive, including the rue Vignon and the rue Caumartin, both of which we all like a lot.
So on the way home, I ressolved to try and cover more ‘real people’ restaurants on this blog, and I also sent a message to Todd about the Bistrot Capucine. A few days later, I had a response.
“Alec, Thanks so much! We were pretty jet-lagged when we wandered into Bistrot Capucine, but Jean-Marc was so welcoming, speaks great English, and his beef was some of the best any of us have ever eaten. We liked this place so much we went for lunch a day later. I persuaded the boys to try Jean-Marc’s cod steak with risotto and they loved it! Big step for American teenagers who will only eat pasta, pizza and burgers at home! See you on Friday and maybe we can talk them into some foie gras…or keep it all for ourselves! Best, Todd”
22 rue des Capucines, 2nd, Tel. 01-49-26-91-30. Métro: Madeleine or Opéra. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Lunch menu 28 Euros; average la carte dinner 30 Euros
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)