Tag Archive | "Alexander Lobrano"

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Aux Enfants Gâtés

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Aux Enfants Gâtés

Aux Enfants Gâtés

On my way to meet Bruno and some friends for dinner the other night, I was in sort of a bad mood. An old college friend had called for a chat just before I went out, and it had been terrific to catch up with him until the talk turned to our work. He’s a very successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., and I, well, I’m a food and travel writer who lives in Paris, bien sur. He mentioned having seen something that I’d written in the Wall Street Journal and said that he’d liked it. I’m so glad, I told him, and then there was an ominous pause. “Alec, one thing I’ve always wondered–I’ve always enjoyed your writing, but why did you decide to write about food when you could be writing about so many other things?” Oh, dear. Where to start? Some day, I’ll answer this question in much greater length and detail, but my brief reply was that my love of food was born as an expedient way for a shy boy to indulge his curiosity about the world and access a dimly perceived sensuality that was, I instinctively knew at the time, inappropriate for someone of my age. Also, there just isn’t a faster way, of course, to know where you are or learn something personal about someone than there is by eating that country or that person’s food. And besides, I’ve always loved to eat, and as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to eat almost anything, or at least once. So my love of food, and writing about, is just as essential to my seeing the world clearly as putting on my glasses every morning after the alarm clock goes off.

What I found wilting, however, was the implication that food writing is somehow unimportant or accessory, when I know with great certainty that it’s not. How could I ever have begun to understand Transylvania during a trip to one of the most beautiful places in Europe if I hadn’t visited the shepherds who were tending their flocks of sheep above the little village where I’d rented a house for a week and tasted their freshly made cheese? It was warm and tangy and dripping with whey, and it was startlingly funky and just delicious. Their gift made me shy, but I laughed when I ate it, and the shepherds laughed with me. Though I could sort of make my way in Romania, because I speak Italian and Romanian is, of course, a Latin language, our shared tongue on that hot afternoon, which smelled of freshly cut hay, sheep and the shepherd’s sweat, was cheese. And similarly, how could I have ever begun to make sense of Paris when I arrived here twenty-seven years ago with a knowledge of the language that was a confused and self-conscious linguistic school-boy pottage if I hadn’t started assiduously going to the city’s restaurants? Everyone one of them taught me something about the city and about France, and even though I now speak French, this is as true today as it was then. I love restaurants, all restaurants, because they’re like little theaters, where there’s always a show going on and a spectrum of lessons to be observed and learned.

Aux Enfants Gâtés

Aux Enfants Gâtés

So this was what was going on in my head on my way to Aux Enfants Gâtés, a place I’d read about in Le Figaro. It also happened to be a very pretty Spring night, however, and the terraces were full along the rue Daguerre, the spine of a nice little neighborhood where I’ve often thought it might be good to live, because it’s one of those avowedly gastronomic precincts that make eating in Paris such a pleasure. I was also hungry at the end of a busy day, and looking forward to seeing my friends (it goes without saying that I’m always looking forward to seeing Bruno).

I liked this little restaurant as soon as I came through the door, too. Nadine and Bruno were already at the table having a glass of Petit Chablis, and the small space had a warm witty decor that included attractive geometric wallpaper that stopped just short of being a tongue-in-cheek reference to French design in the Seventies, suspension lamps, and oak tables. A pleasant and welcoming blonde lady–Caroline, the wife of chef Frédéric Bidault–ex Grande Cascade and Lasserre with Jean-Louis Nomicos, as it turned out, was running the busy room with efficiency  and good-humor, and from the relaxed happy atmosphere in the space, I suspected we’d eat well, and we did, in fact, very well indeed.

 The short menu was impressively seasonal, and three of us immediately decided on the vegetables in aspic as our first course. I can’t speak for Nadine or Judy, but my decision was propelled by both an atavistic affection for aspic–memories of the wobbly tomato aspic Mom used to serve when she had a ladies luncheon during the summer came to mind–and a vernal desire for greenery, and what came to the table after an amuse bouche of foamy potato soup was just the little still-life I had in mind. Carrots and leeks suspended in a layer of vegetable bouillon aspic topped a bed of duxelles, or hashed mushrooms, and this deceptively simple–it was obviously a laborious thing  for any chef working on his own in a restaurant to have made–and sort of poignantly sincere, since you just wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to cook something like this if you weren’t motivated by a real desire to give other people pleasure. Garnished with lava beans, asparagus, red peppers and roasted tomato, it was also one of those wonderful dishes that was as healthy as it was gastronomic. The scattering of freshly chopped chives brought an image of the chef’s strong hand on a knife on a chopping board in the kitchen to mind, and also communicated the real pride and pleasure he takes in his craft.

Bruno’s pâté de tête (head cheese) was homemade, too, and made him very happy. I forked my way across the table, and loved the mix of tender meat, perfect seasoning and great garnish of freshly made celeri remoulade.

Lieu Jaune with radishes

Lieu Jaune with radishes

Our main courses continued the welcome theme of precise modern bistro cooking with beautifully sourced and vividly fresh produce, too. Judy and Nadine had the lieu jaune (yellow pollack), which came on a bed of wilted baby spinach in a light sauce of pan drippings, good butter and citrus, and was garnished with shaved radishes. “Just lovely,” said the ladies.

Roast veal and gnocci

Roast veal and gnocchi

Bruno’s saddle of lamb was stuffed with herbs and was a gorgeous piece of meat cooked rare the way it should be, and my roasted veal was garnished with morels and homemade gnocchi that had been griddled to give them a nice crust. The simple sauces of cooking juices on both of these dishes were expertly made and welcomely light. This was clearly food that had been made by someone with a deep love and knowledge of cooking, in a style that was pleasantly homey but decidedly professional. I rather doubt that the Clos Siguier Cahors–a bargain in terms of restaurant pricing at 23 Euros a bottle–we chose was an ideal choice for the fish, but it was good drinking with the lamb and the veal.

Fourme d’Ambert and romaine

Fourme d’Ambert and romaine

A perfect wedge of Fourme d’Ambert, one of my favorite cheeses, came garnished with trident of dressed romaine, and the others concluded this very happy meal with a streudel like tourte de pommes with caramel ice cream. All said, this meal was a perfect retort to the ongoing kerfuffle about whether French food is still good anymore or needs to be saved or some such. If the menace of industrialized cooking is a global plague for anyone who loves to eat as much as I do, Paris remains blessedly truffled with outstanding little neighborhood restaurants like this one, where I couldn’t help by being moved by the deep desire to please and nourish that so clearly motivates the admirably proud, hard-working and hospitable Bidaults.

4 rue Danville, 14th, Tel. 01-40-47-56-81. Metro: Denfert-Rochereau or Gaîté. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch menu 25 Euros, three-course prix-fixe 34 Euros. www.auxenfantsgates.fr

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.



Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

“Hungry for France” by Alexander Lobrano

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The Interview: Alexander Lobrano, Hungry for France

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Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld


Interview by Everett Potter

The writer Alexander Lobrano has lived in Paris for three decades and his latest book, Hungry for France, is a culinary love letter to his adopted country. It’s much more than a logical follow up to his earlier book, Hungry for Paris (which was just released in its second edition). This is a lively and opinionated hybrid, a mash up of travel book, cookbook, memoir and even coffee table tome, thanks to Steven Rothfeld’s wonderful color photographs. It’s a highly selective guide to restaurants, regions and specialties but also a road map for some of the newest culinary trends in a tradition-bound country.

Lobrano was the late Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent and writes now for the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, The Guardian and Everett Potter’s Travel Report.

In short, he is a born storyteller, and his vignettes take you into his life even as he’s waxing poetic about the world’s best butter (Bordier), stating his personal belief for where the south of France really begins (Valence) or talking about buying a five franc tie from Monoprix on his 20th birthday so he could dine in the tony surroundings of Le Chantecler at the Hotel Negresco in Nice.

The recipes – for curried pork in cider sauce, buckwheat crepes with salted caramel, chard-roasted salmon with fennel salad, and apple-apricot strudel tartlets, etc – are a delicious addendum to each chapter. I spoke with him recently about the new book.

The idea of traveling from region to region of France, dining as you go, remains one of the most inviting travel experiences that I can think of. Do you see Hungry for France as a companion for such travelers, a sort of culinary road map for such excursions?

Yes, very much so. The reason that I wrote this book was to share a deeply meditated list of my favorite addresses in France after having lived, traveled and eaten from one end of this beautiful country to another over the course of nearly 30 years for reasons both personal and professional. As someone who travels constantly, I’ve come to understand that what food-loving travelers to France want most is a carefully curated menu of superb addresses rather than a phone directory length lowdown. Looking at long lists, or sifting through all of the information available on the internet I always find myself thinking, oh, dear, this is really time-consuming and how do I know which places are really good? So Hungry for France is the little black book I’d give to my closest friends, but it’s not really a guidebook either. Instead, with its gorgeous photographs and terrific recipes, it’s a combination dream book, cookbook, memoir and gastronomic primer, since I celebrate and explain the food of France region by region.

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.

I was going to ask you how long it took you to write this book but I guess the answer must be the 30 years you’ve spent in France. That said, was there some hard travel and research during the past couple of years to produce this labor of love?

My gastronomic knowledge of France is thirty years deep, but since I really focus on the remarkable new generation of chefs, food producers and hotel keepers who’ve emerged in France, a lot of travel was necessary for simple reason that I worked by a process of elimination. Since I wasn’t writing a restaurant directory, but rather a gastronomic gazetteer of my favorite places in France, I had to be ruthless. And to say that the travel was very much a labor of love is to put it very mildly. It took over two years to do this book.

You say in your introduction that “France still has the finest and most deeply rooted culinary culture of any country in the western world, and can also stand up to challenges from any other place on the compass.” Is that a red flag to all the France bashers out there who think it’s lost its culinary supremacy?

William Randolph Hearst proved a longtime ago that nothing sells better than a story about smashing or slashing a sacred idol. So kicking France in the shins re. the quality of its gastronomy has been a great print lede and SEO website bait for at least ten years. The reality of what’s happened is considerably more nuanced. For starters, one can eat well almost everywhere now, which means that France is perhaps a neck or two above the crowd, rather than on a misty peak of absolute supremacy. And if there’s no doubt that the French food chain has been hit by the noisome effects of industrial catering, supermarkets and the same things that have diminished the quality of food almost everywhere, what’s different in France is that the French retain an intense exigence based a real historical knowledge of cooking and their country’s best produce when they sit down at the table. This enlightened gastronomic culture isn’t elitist either—almost everyone in France could name a couple dozen cheeses and tell you where they’re from, for example. Then, too, French produce actually is extraordinary–take fish, for example. Here there’s an expression that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world–”de ligne,” as in “bar de ligne,” which means line-caught sea bass, or fish caught by an individual fisherman on an individual fishing pole, since the French consider that this fish is higher quality than that which is landed in nets. The same is true of butter, vegetables, meat, everything–the language of food in France is hugely rich with phrases and designations that signal a specific type of quality. And finally, the quality and seriousness of French culinary education, or cooking schools, is point blank the best in the world. So if you can get a really lousy pizza in a shopping center in suburban Paris like you can get a really lousy pizza in suburban Madrid or Houston. What you won’t find in these other places is the same exalted caliber of excellence that informs French food.

You make the point that “the talent pool in urban France is deeper and more cosmopolitan than it’s ever been in the country’s history. Hundreds of ambitious young cooks from all over the world, but especially Japan.” Japan? Tell us why.

There’s always been a seriously love affair between France and Japan for a variety of reasons. Both cultures exalt the aesthetics of daily life, prize refinement and subtlety, and adore good food. So France continues to attract ambitious young Japanese chefs who come in search of the holy grail of the greatest western gastronomy, and once they’re here and have done an apprenticeship or two, they often chose to stay on, because life in France is so pleasant, the produce is so good, and the French provide an ambitious chef with such a demanding but receptive audience at the table.

Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

A restaurant in Bordeaux. Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

I almost get the sense that gastronomic traveling through the various regions of France, whether it’s Normandy, Provence or Burgundy, is akin to traveling in different countries, because each region is so distinct and so proud of what they have. Is that a reasonable comparison?

Very much so, because every region’s history and geography determine what you find on the table. They’re lots of invisible gastronomic frontiers in France, too, perhaps the most famous being between those parts of the country that love butter and those that prefer olive oil. This was pretty much defined by the Roman occupation of Gaul, but olive oil is now popular Lille in the same way that butter is well-liked in Nice. Still, every region’s vividly different history and geography explains the menu in any restaurant.

Auberge des Templiers, Loire Valley. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Auberge des Templiers, Loire Valley. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

One statement I like is “I’d defy you to find another country anywhere in the world where you can so reliably find a spectacular meal—at all levels of the food chain—in its most remote and forgotten villages.” Give us an example of one of those forgotten villages and restaurants.

Two of my favorite restaurants are in tiny little places–Auberge La Prieure, which is in the minuscule village of Moirax just outside of Agen in the southwest, and La Grenouillere, a spectacular auberge in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil in the north of France.

Was there a single big lesson that you learned while writing Hungry for France?
I came away humbled by the passion and seriousness of the hundreds of chefs, food producers, bakers, butchers, hotel keepers and others that I met during my travels. I was also reminded of how much the French love to share everything that’s wonderful about their country with foreigners. Contrary to what some people may think, they’re extremely generous and gracious.

Plates of oysters, Cancale. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Plates of oysters, Cancale. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Your life may look to some like an endless array or champagne, oysters and foie gras. Perhaps it is. But what is the biggest misconception that people have about what you do for a living?

I became a food writer because sharing and discovering food it’s the fastest way to understand where you are and who you’re with. Food is a deeply serious subject, so the idea of the over-fed restaurant critic who subsists on luxury produce like foie gras and Champagne is light years from the life I live. Of course I love Champagne, foie gras and oysters, but I’d be miserable if I were confined to the highest end of the French food chain, especially since street food, family cooking and comfort food–choucroute garni in Alsace, for example–is often the best eating to be found wherever you go not only in France but any country.

Finally, give us a Sunday meal you might prepare at home from a couple of the recipes in Hungry for France?

I’d go for the pan-roasted chicken with garlic and vinegar, the potato and cepe mushroom gratin and a strawberry tart–easy but delicious recipes that will leave you with some left-overs with which to see in the week.


Alexander Lobrano will be reading from Hungry for France at French Institute Alliance Française in New York on June 3.

Visit Alexander Lobrano’s website.


Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: La Boîte à Sardine

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La Boîte à Sardine, Marseilles

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

It may sound odd, but as far as I’m concerned, the best time of the year to visit Marseille is during the winter. This is when the city is quiet without its growing tourist throngs, and the Mediterranean sun is more welcome than ever. The strong wind-scoured light at this time of the year makes the city rather beautiful, too. Marseille is a wonderful weekend away from Paris as well, since it’s only three hours away by TGV train and rooms in most of the city’s hotels go for low-season rates. If Marseille is never a particularly self-conscious city even in high season–it’s bluff disinterest in travelers is one of the reasons I like it so much, actually–it’s even more devoid of any social artifice during the winter.

Spending a few days here recently, I loved the fact that no one asked me about my accent when I spoke French, probably because in Marseille, France’s second largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan city, almost everyone has an accent. The only exception was when I went for lunch to my favorite seafood restaurant, La Boîte à Sardine, which recently moved to a new location near the church of  Saint-Vincent-de-Paul at the top of la Canebière, the city’s storied main artery, which runs down hill to Le Vieux Port, or the old harbor where the city was founded as a colony by the Greeks some 2600 years ago. There’s simply no better place in this port town to get a really good reasonably priced feed of just-out-of-the-water seafood, so I popped in early and took a stool at the counter, since I knew they wouldn’t waste a table at this very popular place on a single diner.


Table with life vests at La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

Table with life vests at La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

I was very much hoping my favorite dish would be on the catch-of-the-day menu—sea anemone beignets, but when I asked the owner, Fabien Rugi, who directs the restaurant from behind the bar in front of the kitchen, he told me that he hadn’t been able to get any the day before and suggested I go have a look at the fish stand (they also sell fish) to see what else might tempt me. Before I could slip off my stool, though, he slid a glass of white wine across the bar and said, “Votre accent–vous n’etes pas d’ici.” No, I told him, I’m not from Marseille. “Vous venez d’ou? Vous etes Belge?” (Where are you from? Are you Belgian?”) No, I told him, I come from across the sea.

There were a few beautiful loup de mer (sea bass) on the stand, but I knew I’d have to order quickly to get my hands on one, since the restaurant was filling up quickly, and the reason it has so many regulars is that Rugi sources his menu from local small-boat fishermen. So I darted back to the bar and ordered some shrimp as a starter and then a loup de mer. Rugi warned that it might be a lot for one person, but I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finishing a large specimen of one of my very favorite fish. The grilled baby squid, spaghetti with langouste (rock lobster), and rougets (red mullet) also tempted, but I held firm.

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille


If I had any doubt as to where I was, the shrimp–plump perfectly cooked crimson curls of juicy sea meat–came with a big spoonful of garlicky aioli as well as a lemon wedge, and I’d just finished my first one when I heard Rugi telling a businessman down the bar from me that he couldn’t have his fish if he didn’t close his iPad and devote his attention to his meal. “I just wanted to read the paper,” the man implored, but Rugi insisted. “Concentrate on your meal instead–how can you really enjoy your food when you’re reading? My fish deserves your full attention.” One way or another, the triangular shaped room hung with fish nets and decorated with nautical bric brac offered ample distractions of one stripe or another. I loved watching chef Celine Bonnieu at work in the kitchen behind the bar, and the high spirits of a table of molls with dolls  getting happy on a bottle of Champagne were contagious, too.

Some people might perceive of Rugi, a lean man in a knit cap who’s as light on his feet as a boxer, as being a little high-handed with his customers, but I rather admire it, because he’s incredibly proud of the quality of the fish he serves, and rightly so. And if I often have a magazine with me when I go for a solo meal, I rarely read it, for the simple reasons that I enjoy observing what’s going on around me and I prefer to focus on my food.


La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

When my sautéed sea bass arrived, with sides of deliciously smoky tasting caponata filled with capers, a timbale of Camargue rice and some broccoli florets in lemon butter, the first thing I ate were the gorgeous fish’s succulent meaty cheeks. “Bravo!” I heard and looked up. Rugi was nodding at me with a smile and some curiosity. “They’re the best bit,” he said, referring to the cheeks and topping up my glass even though I hadn’t ordered more wine. “Les Anglo-Saxons never know to eat the cheeks. In fact they don’t really know how to eat fish at all,” he said and shook his head. The curious French habit of referring to English speakers by the name of a long gone early medieval tribe notwithstanding, I felt more flattered than patronized by his remark for the simple reason that it’s often true as concerns people who come from countries that prefer filets to anything whole.

With just a little dribble of green olive oil from a mill in Les Alpilles, the fish was superb–firm and delicately tasting of the sea. I was completely lost in its voluptuousness when a handsome blonde woman edged up to the bar next to me and exchanged ‘Bonjours’ with Rigi. Then she asked him if he served bouillabaisse, and I knew what was coming.  ”You don’t eat bouillabaisse in a restaurant!” he told the abashed Scandinavian. “It’s really only good when you make it at home!” After the chastened woman withdrew, he picked up a plump red mullet by the tail. “This is what she should eat in Marseille!” he said, to me and the previously scolded businessman a stool down, and we nodded. He was right, of course, but I also couldn’t help but thinking how the cameo I’d just witnessed summed up so much of the impasse between Marseille and the rest of the world. In this city, you see, they’re blunt, they’re proud and they’re honest, and the power of this trinity often startles people who don’t realize it’s well intended. For my part, I like knowing I never have to bring a magazine with me to lunch at La Boîte à Sardine, and if it were just out my door, I’d be tempted to have lunch there every other day at least.

La Boîte à Sardine, 2 boulevard de la Libération, Marseille, Tel. 04-91-50-95-95, Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch only from 11am-3pm. Average 35 Euros.www.laboiteasardine.com



alec  Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Bistrot Belhara

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Bistrot Belhara, Paris

Bistrot Belhara, Paris

It’s hard for me to say exactly when my deep love of good food first surfaced, but suffice it to say that the thing that interested me most when our local newspaper arrived on Wednesdays were the school-lunch menus, which were published weekly so mothers could decide what days they’d pack a lunch for their kids or let eat the hot meal at school. My first school, the GreensFarmsElementary School, had a crew of smiling Italian ladies in hairnets who cooked everything from scratch, so the food was usually delicious. They made lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, baked zitti, grilled Italian sausages with peppers, and lots of other hearty, healthy dishes, including corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s Day, and once when my mother ate with us in the cafeteria before an afternoon field trip to a nearby dairy farm, she got up at the end of the meal and went into the kitchen to thank the cooks. I’d returned to the rails for a spoon for my butterscotch pudding, and so witnessed the scene. Abashed by my mother’s thanks, one of the cooks replied, “You’re very welcome, Ma’am, but it’s a privilege to feed the children,” she said.

Similarly, I loved going to restaurants, which was an infrequent pleasure for me as a child, and not only because they offered an opportunity to eat things like egg rolls or fried clams (Howard Johnson’s) that Mom didn’t make at home, but because they were so interesting. I loved watching the people, catching snatches of other people’s conversations, observing all of the little dramas unfold all around the room–here a birthday party, there a quarrel or a romance. I couldn’t have expressed it this way then, but aside from the food, what I fascinated me was that every restaurant is like a little theater where you can glean a lot of information about where your are.

All of this came to mind the other night when I went to the Bistrot Belhara, a very good new bistro deep in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. I lived in the 7th arrondissement for many years, first on the rue Monsieur and then on the rue du Bac, and so I was sort of bemused to find the same cast of characters who populated my life for many years.

Diners at Bistrot Belhara, Paris

Diners at Bistrot Belhara, Paris

While waiting for Bruno, I listened to the cashmere sweater drapped couple next to me planning a golf holiday in Mauritus, while the quartet to my right was fulminating about Francois Hollande. There were at least a half-dozen velvet covered Alice bands in the room and tight chignons galore. On a weekend night, the coat tree just inside the door was hung thick with loden, Barbours and vintage Burberry, as if many of those dining in this snug but handsome old-fashioned dining room with stenciled tile floors and bare wood tables were planning to head off to hunting parties in the Sologne after dinner. All told, the clientele presented such an intricate and irony-free tapestry of the habits, manners and preoccupations of the French bourgeoisie that it would have made great material for a sociological dissertation.

As I sipped a glass of white wine and studied the menu, I wondered what sort of gastronomic baseline chef  Thierry Dufroux would chose to cater to such a crowd. On the one hand, he’s had a really distinguished career cooking in the kitchens of the Grand Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, Michel Guerard, Bernard Loiseau and Alain Ducasse in Monaco, and on the other, every chef surely has to do some sort of culinary calculus in terms of what’s likely to please customers from the neighborhood in which he or she has chosen to locate. To be sure, there are some addresses that will pull people from all over Paris if the food’s good enough, and which will ring bells in the foreign press, but before that happens, he or she is very much dependent pleasing the locals. And as I know not only from the dozens of Sunday lunchs to which I was invited to by the Englishman and his French wife who were one set of landlords while I lived in the 7th–I’ll still never forget my astonishment when I realized one warm May afternoon when their windows were tightly closed and the radiator in the dining room was still hissing that they were mutedly making an attempt at match-making between me and their shy sturdy scholarly daughter–and many years of living in the 7th, what makes these people happy is a penny-wise vieille France cuisine bourgeoise.

The menu read well, though, and the restaurant was packed, so I guessed we’d eat well. In the meantime, the cordial waiter answered a question I had even before I’d asked it when he told me that the restaurant’s Moroccan sounding name actually refers to a type of very tall wave in the Bay of Biscay off of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque Country, a reference that might seem obtuse until you’re reminded that the chef worked in the Basque country for years and that it might be very roughly transliterated into “High Tide.” Once Bruno finally arrived from the distant suburb of Paris where he’d currently working, we ordered, and a homey well-made amuse bouche of butternut squash soup with brousse de brebis (fresh ewe’s milk cheese) and croutons announced the beginning of a very good meal.

As part of the 38 Euro prix-fixe menu, Bruno’s terrine of pheasant and patridge with foie gras was beautifully made and had a politely feral and charmingly bosky flavor, with twin tridents of Romaine referencing the fact that Dufroux had done time with Ducasse. And in a similarly autumnal register, my scallop stuffed ravioli in a light veloute of cepes might have made a pious old maid blush with pleasure and was just the sort of dish that the locals would love, because they’d never get up to anything this elaborate in the kitchen themselves. This dish tipped the kitchen’s hand, too, since it tacked safely away from cooking that might jar conventional ideas of French gastronomy while heading squarely towards a welcome haven of technical perfection and generosity informed by a well-disciplined creativity and the use of excellent produce.


escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham.

“Escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham.”

Our main courses were excellent, too. Bruno’s flaky golden petit pâté chaud was the type of exquisite dish that many of the other habituees of this restaurant that night might have enjoyed back in the sigh-inducingly long gone days when they could still afford full-time cooks, and it was filled with hashed duck and foie gras, one of the best pairings ever imagined in France. While Bruno was in a gamey mood that night, I couldn’t stay away from the escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham. In an inspired sleight of simplicity, the silky salty ham flattered the sweetbreads, and the appropriately unassuming sauce of deglazed pan drippings did what a sauce should do, which is meld the dish together. This preparation was perfect summary of Dufroux in the kitchen, too–casually elegant, technically perfect, and respectfully traditional with a tweak of irreverence to make it his own.

Small wonder then that this restaurant has so impressively established itself as a neighborhood favorite within months of opening, and this while walking the tight-rope of an affluent but reflexively parsimonious clientele who are wary of anything that wanders too wide of the mark of traditional French food.

I don’t own a loden coat, and I’m not planning on buying one anytime soon either, but I really enjoyed this meal too, and not just for Dufroux’s cooking, but for the alert, gracious service and the fact that even though it’s not a bargain address, it’s remarkably good value for the money given the caliber of the cooking.

"A Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf"

“A Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf”

With no trace of being tongue-in-cheek, the grand finales of our meal were vieille France enough to make me chuckle. Bruno had a Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf, and I had a fluffy rice pudding with caramel sauce, raisins, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios. So everything about this restaurant is sincere and wholesome, and it’s not only a good choice for a supremely French bistro meal with sly haute-cuisine credentials, but a fascinating place for some sociological sleuthing if you agree with me that there’s nothing better than a neighborhood restaurant in any city for an intriguing keyhole wide view or two of local life.


Bistrot Belhara, 23 rue Duvivier, 7th, Tel. 01-45-51-41-77.www.bistrotbelhara.com Metro: Ecole Militaire. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prix-fixe 38 Euros. Average 40 Euros


alec   Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Catalunya

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Seaside in Sitges

Seaside in Sitges

My discovery of Catalan cooking dates to an almost comically unsuccessful stint as an English teacher in Barcelona in the mid-eighties. I had a gap between two jobs in New York and a close friend’s brother, who was then living in Barcelona, told us a school there was looking for two native English speakers to run English conversation classes. My pal had a two-month hole in his schedule, too, so we applied and were hired despite the fact that neither of us had any teaching experience. The school specialized in teaching business English to executives, so reporting to work on our first morning on two hours of sleep and with nearly medical hangovers, we discovered that we were expected to wear jackets and ties at the school–a problem, since neither of us had brought either, and that there were two classes, one for men and one for women. It seemed a no-brainer to me that the women would be easier and more fun to teach than the men, and since my friend came to the same conclusion, we flipped a coin, and I lost.

There was an open communicating door between the two classrooms, so I could see and hear what my friend was up to, and I knew that things weren’t going very well when I heard him pose the following question to his ladies: “Do you like birds?” Silence was the appropriate response to this gambit, and silence was what he got. Meanwhile, my besuited men emitted a pleasant fugue of Puig Agua Lavanda and were shy and very polite. I explained, with major omissions, who I was and where I was from, and offered up that this was my first visit to Barcelona, a city I found very beautiful. Murmur of appreciation. Then I asked them what I should see in their city while I was there. A few murmured responses–Sagrada Familia, etc. Next I heard myself saying, “Do you like to barbecue in Catalunya?” My friend next door whopped with laughter at this one, but until you’ve tried you’d striking up a conversation with a room full of total strangers in dark suits old enough to be your father, I’d suggest you hold your fire. To my great surprise, someone raised his hand. “We do like to barbecue, and right now is the season of the calçots,” said a good-looking older man in the front row. Calçots? “Special onions of the springtime.” Now someone else joined in. “We make them grilled and mother (sic) them with romesco.” Romesco? (a delicious Catalan mortar-made sauce of almonds, peppers, garlic, olive oil and sometimes tomatoes) But how to mother them? “You roll the onion in the sauce like a baby.” But of course you’d never smother a baby.

Soon we were well out of the gate, since I’d inadvertently found a subject that impassioned this room full of accountants, copy writers and lawyers. They told me where to go to eat calçots, which are indeed delicious, and they became my tutors in one of the Mediterranean’s great kitchens, since they’d come to our morning classes with restaurant recommendations written down on little scraps of paper and deliver oral recipes for their favorite dishes. Meanwhile, next door, I was still hearing things like, “Do you like cats or dogs?, which was almost the equivalent of a phrase from a German-English phrasebook my grandmother owned, which had became a family joke: “Excuse me, Madame, but there’s a cinder in your hat.”

Mare Nostrum, Sitges

Mare Nostrum, Sitges

Some years later, my fledgling knowledge of Catalan cooking got a big boost when I met Marimar Torres, the California winemaker from the distinguished Vilafranca de Penedes wine family, while I was doing a story on her family for a nice and now sadly defunct wine-country living magazine based in Napa, California. She cooked a superb lunch for me at her family’s house in Sitges and gave me a copy of her wonderful cookbook, Catalan Country Cooking, which I worked my way through in my kitchen in Paris over the course of the following year.

Despite my best efforts, however, many of the dishes in this book taste much better in situ, because the ingredients they require are not easy to find in Paris, so I always keenly look forward to my trips to Catalunya for the chance to eat its wonderful food.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not always easy to find really good and authentic cooking in the more tourist-oriented beach towns along the Catalan coast, and this is why I was so looking forward to dinner with friends at the restaurant Mare Nostrum in Sitges the other night. This table had come highly recommended by several of the delightful people at the terrific Pares Balta winery in Vilafranca de Penedes and had also been confided to me by the butcher where I shop when Bruno and I are on holiday by the seaside. The egg lady in the market had mentioned it, too, so when we decided to meet our South African pals for dinner, we booked here.

Arriving, it was a jaunty looking place with a taut white awning equipped with ceiling fans sheltering a terrace with well-spaced tables mostly occupied by handsomely groomed Catalan couples and families–the sartorial reflex to a certain relaxed formality in Spain is a wonderful visual tonic, and the welcome was warm. Sliced salami and good warm bread with a bottle of excellent olive oil arrived immediately, and I instantly had the sense of being in a very well-run restaurant with a sincere desire to please. Bruno and I try to eat our arroz (rice) dishes or fideus (short vermicelli) dishes at noon, but the South Africans had just arrived in Spain, so we agreed to throw the dice for rice, which was the only way to decide which one we’d eat, since everyone wanted something different, they’re served for a minimum of two, and they’re even better when made for four.

First, though, some nibbles, and they were wonderful–a mix of tender battered baby squid and flash-fried pimientos de padron, those delicious little green peppers from Galicia that you eat whole, and some delicate, perfectly fried and surprisingly airy salt-cod fritters. With a bottle of chilled 100% xarel lo (local cepage) from nearby Vilafranca de Penedes, the meal was off to an excellent start.


Rice dish at Mare Nostrum

Rice dish at Mare Nostrum


The rice dish was outstanding, too. Cooked in fish stock, the short grain rice from Valencia was still al dente and was an unctuous casserole generously garnished with tender baby artichoke hearts, squid, peas, and peppers, with two rather overcooked prawns on the edge of the plate for decoration. Unlike many Catalan rice dishes, this one came without aioli, but it was so richly flavored and even a little sweet from the artichokes that aioli would have been gilding the lily. Next week when I’m back in woefully rainy Paris, I know this dish will come to mind someday when I’m holding a dripping umbrella in a crowded Metro car, because for me, the best souvenirs you can take home from any holiday are always gastronomic.

After we’d finished slices of homemade fig tart, one of the charming owners of this restaurant served us complimentary shots of some local firewater that went down easily after such a hefty feed, and we learned that this restaurant opened in 1950 and is now run by the third generation of the Marti family, who have an exceptional gift for hospitality. This is the seaside restaurant you always hope you’ll find while you’re on holiday, so special thanks to Maxime Bazart for the wonderful recommendation.

Now if only I could break Bruno of his penchant for elaborate post-dinner cocktails…. But then again, he probably wanted to fling my snifter of very good brandy over the railing, too, and happily we were walking home.    Passeig de la Ribera 60, Sitges, Tel. (34) 93-894-3393, www.restaurantemarenostrum.com, Closed Wednesdays, Average a la carte 50 Euros.


lobrano-150x150    Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. 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)


Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: La Table des Anges

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La Table des Anges, Paris

La Table des Anges, Paris

Unfortunately it doesn’t happen very often, which is why I appreciate the very rare pleasure of spontaneously deciding to try a restaurant in Paris even more. As a food writer, you see, I’m obviously obliged to keep up with the latest new addresses, and since I don’t like going to restaurants on the weekend if I can avoid it–as a rule of thumb, Parisians generally cook or entertain at home then, which leaves the city’s restaurants to suburbanites or tourists, and I’m also too busy to go out to lunch, this leaves me five available meals per week to test the latest openings. This may sound adequate, but recently a whole week went by during which I didn’t find a single meal that was worthy of writing up here, even if only in negative terms.  

Yesterday, though, after we couldn’t get into “Mud,” which opened here yesterday, Bruno and I decided to go for a long walk after having spent a print-drunk day at home. Knowing that the fridge was bare, I hoped the Tunisian green grocer at the bottom of the rue des Martyrs would be open so that we could buy some asparagus and rustle up a simple dinner at home. But he’d already closed, so we keep walking up the rue des Martyrs with the idea of doing sort of a H shaped walk home. Along the way, I found myself regretting the two branches of Fuxia that have opened here–the food’s okay, but it is a chain, and also thinking that it had been a very long time since I’d last eaten at Le Cul de Poule, which was packed last night. The menu there didn’t really speak to me, though, and Bruno had already said he didn’t want to eat at a restaurant, so we keep moving, and then it started to rain again, so we stopped under the awning of La Table des Anges to wait out the shower, and of course I read the menu posted outside. It looked really good, and there was a reasonably priced 32 Euro prix-fixe, so I turned to Bruno, who said “Non” even before I’d opened my mouth. “Well, why ‘Non,’? We don’t have anything to eat at home, it’s getting late, I’m hungry, this place looks good.” “We still have some salad.” He could live on lettuce and other leaves, but I can’t and won’t so I told him I’d invited him to dinner and stepped inside.

La Table des Anges, Paris

La Table des Anges, Paris

Seated at a wooden table with Kraft paper place mats by one of friendly owners, who immediately brought us a complimentry serving of speck and salami to nibble while we studied the menu, I liked the look of this place. The exposed stone walls gave it a warm atmosphere, and the slicing machine by the chalkboard announcing the daily specials inspired confidence, too. Still, tempted though I may have been, I was not going to order langoustine risotto in a Paris restaurant I didn’t know–I’ve had good risotto exactly once in Paris during twenty-five futile years of trying, and so instead decided on the asparagus veloute and the brandade de morue, which is one of my favorite dishes. Bruno chose the homemade duck terrine and the quenelles de brochet (pike perch dumplings), and we ordered a bottle of Fleurie, a perfect Spring time wine, from the short but interesting wine list. Happily, the bright cherry-jam nose of the Fleurie dissolved whatever peevishness Bruno was still nursing over this impromptu dinner outing, and then things took a decided shift for the better when our starters arrived.

Studded with pistachios, Bruno’s duck terrine was homemade, beautifully seasoned (thyme, green pepper corns), generously served and accompanied by a ramekin of tangy onion jam. My froathy soup had a superb depth of flavor, too, and the bread served with these dishes was excellent crusty baguette with a lacy crumb and a faint perfume of wood smoke. I overheard the couple sitting in the corner across from us congratulating themselves for having found this place, too, and grinned as I watched the owner serving them each a complimentry tot of fiery hazelnut eau de vie that had been made by monks somewhere in the Yonne. I hoped we’d get to taste it, too.

Menu at La Table des Anges, Paris

Menu at La Table des Anges, Paris

Since brandade de morue, that sublime mixture of baked olive-oil lashed whipped potatoes, salt cod and garlic that’s perhaps best sampled in Nimes, can be a sorry business when it’s not made with real care, I hoped our luck would hold with the main courses. Ditto Bruno’s quenelles de brochet, which can be leaden and tasteless when made from industrial ingredients in industrial quantities. This apprehension surely explained Bruno’s alarm when the waiter revealed his enormous quenelle in a covered Staub casserole. As if reading his mind, however, he reassured Bruno that it was homemade and also explained that the accompanying sauce had been made with broth and a little cream but no flour. The quenelle’s delicate sauce was also garnished with mushrooms, carrots, baby onions and a potato. 

Potently garlicky and almost airy in its lightness, the brandade was superb, as was Bruno’s quenelle. When we claimed a well-fed pause before dessert, the owner returned to the table with two glasses of Fleurie from another producer, a thoughtful gesture, and we complimented him over his chef. “Thank you, yes, he’s very talented,” said the proprietor, who told us his name is Yan Duranceau, a young up-and-comer who has already worked at Le Grand Véfour, the Plaza Athénée and Taillevent.

Both of us finished up with fine slices of brebis d’estive, which is made by Christine Arripe at her Ferme de la Montagne Verte in the Ossau valley and shipped directly to this restaurant in Paris. The particularity of this rich but subtle ewe’s milk cheese is that it’s only made during the transhumance period from June to September in the up-mountain valleys of the Bearn. Not surprisingly, it has won a Slow Food label, and it’s just superb.

And finally, two slugs of that mysterious hazelnut eau de vie, which made our eyes water and tasted exactly the way a rafter in the attic of Burgundian barn might if you gave it a good lick–grass, dust, caramel, smoke, it was just lovely, and we walked home with the fuzzy happiness of having inadvertently discovered a delightful new everyday restaurant in our neighborhood embroidered with the warm halo induced by the monks’ skills with a still.


La Table des Anges, 66 rue des Martyrs, 9th, Tel. 01-55-32-24-89. Metro: Pigalle or Notre Dame de Lorette

www.latabledesanges.fr, Closed Sundays and Mondays. Lunch menu 16 Euros, prix-fixe menu 32 Euros. Average a la carte 45 Euros. 


lobrano-150x150   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)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Goust

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Enrico Bernardo of Goust

Enrico Bernardo of Goust

I’ve known and admired Italian born sommelier and restaurateur Enrico Bernardo for a long time, or ever since I first met him when he was working at the Four Seasons George V Hotel, the setting from which he won the prestigious title of Meilleur Sommelier du Monde (world’s best sommelier) in 2004 at the remarkably young age of twenty-seven, with this honor following on the heels of Best Sommelier in Europe, 2002; Best Sommelier in Italy, 1996-97; and Master of Port, Italy 1995.

Not only does the elegant and charming Mr. Bernardo have a truly extraordinary nose and palate when it comes to wines, he also has a deep hands-on knowledge of cooking that he acquired while working as an apprentice at Troisgros in Roanne and Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, and it’s the profoundly sophisticated and sensual complicity that he spins between these infinitely complementary realms that makes Goust, Bernardo’s handsome new restaurant near the Place Vendome, the best new table to have opened in Paris for a long time.
Goust, Paris

Goust, Paris

For starters, there’s an ambience of worldly hospitality in the good-looking and stylishly decorated dining room on the first floor of a Napoleon III townhouse on a quiet street in the heart of Paris. The staff are polite and precise but also warm and relaxed, a service style that’s an important prerequisite for enjoying the highly curated meals Bernardo serves here. To wit, Goust is all about wine and food pairings, so the best way of dining here is to opt for a tasting menu with a different pour being served with every course.

This is what I did with my friend Ammo, who kindly invited me to join him at dinner here the other night and who also was just about the perfect person with whom to have shared such an experience. Why? This tasting concept works best when you’re with someone who’s curious, alert and observant, and yet the pleasure of savoring and discussing each pairing would have been utterly ruined by someone who took it too seriously. Bernardo’s joy is in constructing liasons that are so perfect and so passionate they seem metaphysically inevitable, which means that a meal here is an intense and intriguing experience. Fortunately, the dry senses of humor we share forestalled any drift to the lyrical. Instead we ate and drank extremely well, and appreciated every sip and every bite.
Settling in over a glass of Champagne, we put ourselves in the hands of Mr. Bernardo, who orchestrated a meal I knew would be superb from the moment I tasted the beautifully seasoned tuna tartare with an ‘egg’ filled with mango coulis. And if I didn’t know that chef Jose Manuel Miguel was Spanish (he’s from Valencia, worked at Martin Bersategui in the Spanish Basque Country and was most recently with Eric Frechon at Le Bristol), I’d have guessed it when he sent out a ruddy and deepy satisfying dish of riso alla Bomba, the short-grain rice from the fields around Valencia, with chopped razorshell clams, a good gust of pimenton and a citrus foam.
In the kitchen at Goust

In the kitchen at Goust

These days, I’m often exasperated by foam, which seems to be one of the preferred affectations of ambitious young chefs, but in this instance, the tart evanescent citric veil on the rice beautifully accentuated the gently iodine-rich flavor of the clams, which were a great foil to the al dente rice. The Manchego foam on the grilled rougets and potato with a sublime coulis of piquillo peppers was a bit timid and repetitive, however–this dish would have been just as effective in both visual and gustatory terms if it had been served nude.
The meal shifted to a more decidedly Gallic register with a gorgeous dish of poached egg with a generous garnish of black truffle on a bed of long-stewed beef and then a beautifully cooked duckling breast–juicy and rare, with a light jus and an intriguing garnish of lightly mentholated shiso leaves. The 2011 J.M. Doillot Volnay that was served to accompany these dishes was delightful and made a fascinating segue from the spectacular 2010 Weinbach Pinot Gris that has proceeded it (the wine flight began with a nice 2011 Louis Michel Chablis, followed by a 2011 Ferriato Grillo from Sicily, and a Lurton Rueda, the later being the least interesting pour). And dessert…to tell you the truth, I was so smitten with the final pour, a Graham’s Loans Tawny Port, a real invitation to musing and meditation, or as was the case with Ammo, another round of lively tale telling, that I finished this charming chocolate composition with my mind in a pleasant muddle and my camera lying idly on the table (Unless you do a blog yourself, you can’t imagine how tiresome it can sometimes be to be obliged to snap away all through your dinner instead of just enjoying it).
 As is true of any really great restaurant, Goust would be as good for a romantic night out as it is for a business meal. The lighting is good. The good bourgeois bones of the room with its handsome fireplace and parquet floor have been tweaked by the sort of 70s lighting fixture you’d expect to see in the old East German parliament building., which makes it witty looking. There’s a nice buzz in the room, too, and it’s a winningly adult, fairly priced and terrifically sincere restaurant that succeeds for being something completely unique in Paris. I can’t wait to go back, although it’s likely that my next meal will be in the new tapas bar that will soon open on the ground floor at this same address. N.B. Berardo has another card up his sleeve, too, which is a complete reboot of his first restaurant, Il Vino, in the 7th arrondissement. Suffice it to say that Italy will dominate the menu, and that the new place will be a lot of more relaxed than Il Vino, which I always liked but always found a bit too serious. Or a place I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed going with Ammo, one of my favorite partners in gastro crime.
Restaurant Goust, 10 rue Volney, 2nd, Tel. 01-40-15-20-30, Metro: Opera or Tuileries, Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch menuy 35 Euros, Prix-fixe menus 75 Euros, 130 Euros (with wine), average a la carte 85 Euros (wine included), www.enricobernardo.com
lobrano-150x150   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)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: That Great Little Place Just Around the Corner

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Bistrot Capucine’s Berkel machine.

“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.

Chef Jean-Marc Berthelot of Bistrot Capucine.

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.

Freshly sliced ham at Bistrot Capucine

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)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: A Sweet Little Bistro in the Marais

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Le Temps des Cerises. Photo by Alexander Lobrano.

I have to admit that my immediate reaction when I first laid eyes on Le Temps des Cerises in the rue de la Cerisaie in the Marais was wariness. There was just no way any restaurant with a setting as winsomely pretty and well-preserved as this little 18th century house with geraniums in its second-story windboxes and a picture-perfect mosaic facade could possibly be anything but an egregious tourist trap. Except that it isn’t. Indeed, my opinion changed from the moment I stepped inside and charming young owner Grégory Detouy welcomed us and promptly brought us an excellent carafe of Rhone valley Viognier, along with some crunchy radishes and a shotglass of salt to dip them in, always a good sign.

My doubts revived, however, when we studied the menu, because the prices were so reasonable. Again, if this place existed in the sad mad mode of a prima-donna tourist hell-hole like Chartier, it struck me as extremely unlikely that the food could be very good. I kept all of this to myself, though–Bruno had been wanting to try this place, and decided there was some very real consolation in the beauty of the snug old-fashioned dining room with a zinc topped bar just inside the front door, tawny walls, bare wood tables with bent-wood chairs, and a beautiful art-nouveau framed chalkboard on the wall. The appealingly diverse crowd was also almost entirely Parisian, too, and the small packed room radiated an atmosphere of bona-fide bonheur.

Detouy returned again to see if we had any questions about the menu. I asked about the specialities of the restaurant and he cited the escargots, boudin noir facon Parmentier (shepherd’s pie made with blood pudding) and steak Paname, an entrecote garnished with a vinaigrette of shallots, garlic and fresh herbs. He also told us that he was a chef by training but had fall in love with the idea of running a real old-fashioned bistro while working at Chez Janou, and had decided to take the leap and become an owner when this place became available two years ago. Our curiosity encouraged by several glasses of the good white wine, we continued asking questions and learned that the small charming house was originally built during the Middle Ages, had once been an annex to a Celestine convent and first became a bistro in 1830. To his credit, he also never once let on that he might be impatient or alarmed by these two garulous and slightly bibulous men, Bruno and me.

Inside Le Temps des Cerises, with its Art Nouveau chalkboard. Photo by Alexander Lobrano.

Since I’ve spent so much of the summer traveling outside of France, I was aching for my first course, a grandly Gallic warm salad of Morteau sausage and potatoes, and it was superb–the smoky sausage from the Jura was obviously of good quality, it came with a nice little nosegay of fresh herbs and salad leaves and was very generously served. Bruno liked his seared sliced tuna on eggplant caviar, too, and the contrast between these two dishes well-expressed chef Pascal Brebant’s smart menu. Brebant, who trained with Marc Veyrat, offers a run of bistro classics side-by-side with modern dishes like lamb marinated in lime juice with spices and the salmon steak with sage and a Porto vinegar spiked cream sauce that Bruno enjoyed as his main course.

I decided to have the Steak Paname (Paname is French slang for Paris) when Detouy told me that it came with freshly cut and fried frites, which are regrettably rare in Paris these days. Thin and often rather leathery, entrecote is not one of my favorite French cuts of beef, especially since it’s inevitably overcooked. So it was a terrific surprise when this steak arrived rare and juicy as ordered, with a pile of frites so good I almost had to drive my knife into Bruno’s hand to keep him away from them. The shallot-garlic-and-herb vinaigrette that sauced the meat was excellent, too, and was also the detail that made me realize that this an absolutely perfect bistro to send foreigners to. Why?
During the 26 years I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve noticed that visitors are often letdown when I take them to a real bistro. This is because many people from big cities all over the world are accustomed to food that’s lighter and brighter (in terms of seasonings and garnishes) than what you usually find in an old-time French bistro. The modern palate likes herbs and vivid spices, favors fish and vegetables, and exhibits a preference for briefer cooking times. So Detouy, a shrewd restaurateur, and Brebant, an experienced and talented cook, have pulled off the nifty hat trick of creating their two strut menu and also preserving the warmth and conviviality of a traditional pre-war bistro without creating a pastiche. To be sure, the red-fruit sable we shared for dessert was dull and the bread here could be better, but this is a delightful little bistro, and a place that’s instantly won a place on my to-go list, especially since it’s open on Sunday nights and is so reasonably priced.
Le Temps des Cerises
31 rue de la Cerisaie, 4th, Tel. 01-42-72-08-63. Métro: Saint Paul. Open daily 8am-2am. Lunch menu 13 Euros, Sunday brunch 22 Euros, Average dinner a la carte 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)