Tag Archive | "Alexander Lobrano"

5 Myths about France

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By Everett Potter

France is a country beloved by many Americans, yet it’s hard to name another destination that is so culturally intimidating to visitors. Perhaps it’s just a cultural clash between French customs and American expectations? That may be, but thanks to a strong dollar that will take many Americans to Gallic shores this summer, it will no doubt confound U.S. visitors yet again. So this seems like an especially good time to address five widely held myths about France.

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Hexagone, Paris: The New Shape of French Gastronomy

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Hexagone, Paris. Credit Jerome Galland.

Hexagone, Paris. Credit Jerome Galland.

By Alexander Lobrano

There are many things to like about chef Mathieu Pacaud‘s new restaurant Hexagone in Paris. Not only does it serve some exquisitely refined contemporary French cooking that tips its hat at the great traditions of Escoffier, it also has one of the best wine lists of any recent restaurant in Paris. This lavish list, which also includes a spectacular selection of grand cru wines by the glass, is run byBenjamin Roffet, one of the city’s most talented and charming sommeliers, too. There’s also a serious bar at this address with a major mixologist in the person of Thomas Girard.

What I find interesting about Pacaud’s new place, though, is that it represents what a talented and ambitious young chef with a serious culinary pedigree–his father Bernard Pacaud cooked at L’Ambroisie for many years before turning the kitchen over to his son–thinks French gastronomy should be about in the 21st century.

Hexagone, Paris. Credit Jerome Galland.

Hexagone, Paris. Credit Jerome Galland.

Oh, and there’s also the wild card of its address in the 16th Arrondissement, a silk-stocking part of Paris which never previously attracted young chefs setting up shop. Now, though, it’s starting to simmer with the arrival of Pacaud and other terrific new tables like Restaurant Pages.

“Many of the old style three star restaurants in Paris are struggling right now,” Pacaud said during a chat I had with him when I went to Hexagone for dinner with Bruno the other night. “They’re too expensive and too formal. The meals they serve take too long, and the whole drill isn’t appealing to a younger generation of Parisians or foreigners visiting the city. So my idea here was to create a place that my friends would want to come–a place that’s relaxed and where you have a good time,” said the chef, adding, “And I chose the 16th Arrondissement, because it delivers a good clientele of business diners at noon and an interesting and international mixture of people at night. Eventually, I’ll open a real restaurant gastronomique on the same premises (Hexagone occupies a duplex space space in the former Hotel K),” says Pacaud, who also plans a new seafood restaurant sometime this year. “I think it’s a really exciting time in Paris, because the old guard is changing and the future is emerging,” says the chef, a who insists that despite coming off as a very amiable and easygoing guy, he’s actually intensely demanding. “I dine in my own restaurant regularly and we’re still fine tooth combing everything,” he said.

Pacaud may still be putting the finishing touches on this place, but it already has a lot of charm and is quite unlike any other restaurant in Paris. Arriving, it gives off a decidedly fashionable vibe that had me dreading an imminent bout of attitude from the staff and servers, but no, the welcome was warm, and the staff was charmingly playful from time to time, as if winking at the whole idea of the ‘very serious restaurant,’ and yet they were also flawlessly professional. We were immediately at ease in the good looking dining room designed by interior architects Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier, too, because tables are large and widely spaced, the lighting is impeccable, and the tongue-in-cheek look of the place–the designers were inspired by “Alice in Wonderland”–was witty without going over the top.

Waiting for our first course, it was interesting to observe the evolving clientele here. There was a business dinner going on over my shoulder, and the crew of six hailed from several different countries and went back and forth between speaking French and English. A few pearls gathered from their chatter included the observation that “The United States isn’t a serious country if anyone could really take people like Mick Huckabee and Rick Perry seriously as possible presidential candidates,” (D’accord); “The food in Holland is terrible” (Wrong, the food in Amsterdam has become very good); and “Portuguese cooking is so peasant and basic” (And this with a very good-looking Portuguese woman at the table! I’m not sure if I’d describe it as ‘peasant and basic,’ but rather as often hearty and appealingly rustic, but then I like ‘peasant and basic.’) There were also several tables of well-groomed beautifully dressed middle-aged professional women, always a good sign, since this local tribe is both keen and discerning at the table, and surprisingly, a couple of tables of young stubbled types with their plastic motor cycle helmets sitting on the banquette next to them and their apparently bored girl friends, who spent a lot of time fiddling around with their phones. Soft lounge music played in the background, and for once it wasn’t irritating.

At Hexagone, you can order the tasting menu, a gastronomic phenomenon I no longer really enjoy, or go a la carte with a starter, fish, meat and dessert, since the portion sizes are perfectly calibrated to produce satisfaction without leaving you feeling overfed at the end of a meal. With the gizzards a little squeamish after so much lavish good eating during the holidays, I loved our first course, a feather-weight ‘Marquise’ of blanc manger meringues on a bed of truffled celery root puree that contained a slow-cooked egg hidden under a tumble of black truffles cut into fine match sticks. What intrigued about this dish is that it manages to be pretty and light but deliver a full punch of comfort-food pleasure, since the thickly runny egg yolk perfectly sauced the puree.

Crayfish from Lake Geneva  on a bed of star-anise-flavored aspic with green mango puree and cauliflower mousseline was magnificent.

Crayfish from Lake Geneva on a bed of star-anise-flavored aspic with green mango puree and cauliflower mousseline was magnificent.

For anyone who hadn’t guessed, Hexagone in French, means hexagon in English, and the reference here is more than just geometric, since the French often affectionately refer to France as the Hexagone, because of its six different borders with several seas and different countries. In this instance, the word has other resonances, too, since Pacaud aspires to serving profoundly French food, and in this he succeeds, because the modernity of his plated aesthetics and his dextrous culinary lightness notwithstanding, the flavor constellations in his dishes are indeed exquisitely French. If a single langoustine thatched with finely shredded root vegetables in a pool of saffron cream was pleasant, crayfish from Lake Geneva  on a bed of star-anise-flavored aspic with green mango puree and cauliflower mousseline was magnificent, with flowers decorating the plump sweet tails of shellfish and the percussion of the garnishes elongating their natural taste in a way that would make Escoffier proud even if the great French chef probably never worked with such ‘exotic’ seasonings.

Making things taste of what they are is Pacaud’s compass point, and the subtlety with which he pulls this off is thrilling. But his real shrewdness comes from understanding that Escoffier would have been horrified to find himself cast in the role of ‘curator’ chef, which is how too many French cooks see him today. Instead, I suspect that he’d rejoice at Pacaud’s intelligent gustatory innovations in the kitchen.

John Dory with shellfish.

John Dory with shellfish.

If my sole in vin jaune sauce was pleasant and very pretty with its carrot roses, both of us preferred Bruno’s John Dory with with a reduction of Noilly Prat vermouth that shirked its retro mantle with the clever addition of mace and garnishes of finely shredded leeks, cockles and razor-shell clams. Our meat courses were excellent, too–a riff on a carbonnade (beef in beer sauce from the north of France) for Bruno and braised veal sweetbreads with a garnish of black-and-green olives and a vivid green herb reduction for me.

Hexagone-Chocolate-dessert-520x390

Bayano Brésil ganache.

 

By the time we got to dessert, the quiet question that had been bobbling around in the back of my thoughts all night had been answered. To wit, is Mathieu Pacaud as talented a chef as his father? He is, I decided while tucking into a charming post-modern riff on a Poire Belle Helene. Meanwhile, across the table, Bruno was absent in the chocolate bliss induced by his Bayano Brésil ganache with honey ice cream, chilled buckwheat cream and a crunchy hazelnut wafer.

If Mathieu Pacaud is cooking this well just a few weeks after opening, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s on the starting blocks as one of the next great chefs in Paris.

Hexagone, 85 Avenue de Kléber 16th Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-42-25-98-85. Metro: Trocadéro. Bar open Tues.-Sat. 11am-2am; Restaurant open Tues.-Sat. for lunch (12pm-2pm) and dinner (7pm-11pm). Lunch menu 49 Euros; average four-course a la carte 175 Euros; tasting menu 180 Euros. www.hexagone-paris.fr  

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)

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)

Letter from Paris: California Dreaming

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Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

By Alexander Lobrano

I am very much looking forward to my California book tour from October 16 to October 24, and I really hope I’ll have the pleasure of meeting my Californian readers soon.

I’ve been besotted with California ever since I was able to replace the desperate jealousy I felt towards cousins who’d moved out there from Connecticut when my uncle was transferred from New York City to Los Angeles with a real experience of the state. The excitement I felt the night before I flew out there for the first time was so turgid, it kept me up all night, and the itchiness brought on by an over-zealous haircut by the local barber didn’t help either. Me and my brother had both emerged from the cold steel barber chair with oily black vinyl insets with a haircut that was known as a ‘Princeton.’ It was basically a crewcut, except that a few short locks had been spared just above the forehead so that we still needed combs. We despised our haircuts, and we hated the new knit Rooster ties that Mom had bought for us to where with our Madras jackets–it was early June–khaki trousers and penny loafers, the outfit she had ordained for our flight. I also hated the special bag of East Coast foods that my aunt missed–Thomas’s English Muffins, William Underwood deviled ham, Cain’s pickle relish and various other things–that I had to carry aboard the plane.

We took the ties off the moment the seat-belt sign had been turned off in our glamorous new 747 and only put them back on just before we landed in Los Angeles feeling more than a little worse for wear from probably having both drunk a gallon of Coca-Cola and eaten a pound or two of salted cashews at the bar on the second level of the airplane. It took forever for our suitcases to be delivered, but finally the ugly old tobacco-colored leatherette  bags tumbled down on the carousel. Then my uncle, a vice-president at a nationally known food company, showed up, and to my amazement, he was wearing shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip-flops, and aviator sunglasses. We drove home in the Mercedes he was so inordinately proud of and found our cousins riding bikes with their friends. It was decided that everyone would go for a swim, so me and my brother went into the bedroom where we’d be sleeping to change our clothes. A window was open, so it was easy to overhear one of our cousins’s friends when he said, “Jeez! Your East Coast cousins are just so weird! They wear penny loafers, and they have the dorkiest haircuts I’ve ever seen!”  Gulp. And more gulping.

Seeing that we’d been sent west with clothing more suitable for an English garden party than a week in LA, my aunt bought us each a new pair of Levis and a Hang-Ten shirt the next day, and I’d rarely been so happy in my whole life. The ten days in California were, in fact, a dream–we saw the ‘Fifth Dimension’  in the Hollywood Bowl, we went to Disneyland, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm, we ate loads of Mexican food, and then went to Tijuana and ate real Mexican food. We saw Shamu the whale at Sea World in San Diego, and we visited the nuclear plant at San Clemente, because my uncle wanted us to learn about ‘the energy of the future.’ We went to Laguna and saw people surfing, we ate at Swensen’s ice cream parlor, where they sprinkled little plastic monkeys all over our huge ice cream Sundaes, and we smoked a purloined Chesterfield cigarette behind the garage. The time went by so quickly that the next thing I knew, I was airborne again and heart-broken to the point of a tear or two as I stared out the window at a fluffy quilt of clouds. I desperately wanted to go back to California, and I still do, so I can’t wait for October 16 when I arrive in San Diego.

Here’s the tour schedule:

October 16, 2014 – SAN DIEGO

San Diego Wine Tasting with James Beard Award winner Alexander Lobrano

A fundraising event for the American Institute of Wine & Food scholarship program

Event Details

Thursday, October 16, 2014, 6:00pm
The Wine Sellar & Brasserie
9550 Waples St., Suite 115
San Diego, CA 92121
Cost: $45 per person (or $85 with signed book; includes discounted registration and donation to AIWF*)

http://www.adventuresbythebook.com/autherevent/hungry-for-france-wine-tasting-adventure-with-james-beard-winner-alexander-lobrano/

October 19, 2014 – LOS ANGELES (West Hollywood)

Steak Frites dinner with author Alexander Lobrano

Together with L’Assiette Steak Frites

Event Details

Sunday, October 19, 2014, 5:00-7:00pm
L’Assiette Steak Frites
7166 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046
Cost: $52 per person all-inclusive* ($5 discount if an autographed book is prepurchased at registration)
About the Event

Please join us for a Steak Frites Dinner & Wine Adventure at West Hollywood’s charming French restaurant, L’Assiette, with famed French food writer, author of the bestselling Hungry for Paris, and James Beard award winner Alexander Lobrano.

Your evening includes a L’Assiette’s signature steak frites dinner, soup or salad, bread, a glass of wine, tax, gratuity and book discussion.

*Copies of Hungry for France will be available for purchase and signing at the event, or prepurchase an autographed copy to be delivered at the event and receive a $5 discount on registration.

http://www.adventuresbythebook.com/autherevent/hungry-for-france-west-hollywood-l-a-wine-cheese-adventure-with-james-beard-winner-and-author-alexander-lobrano/

October 20, 2014 – SAN FRANCISCO – OMNIVORE BOOKS

OMNIVORE BOOKS

Mon. Oct. 20 • Alexander Lobrano • Hungry for Paris (second edition): The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants • 6:30-7:30. FREE
If you’re passionate about eating well, you couldn’t ask for a better travel companion than Alexander Lobrano’s charming, friendly, and authoritative books, Hungry for Paris and Hungry for France, are essential guides to a renowned culinary scene. Having written about France for almost every major food and travel magazine since moving there in 1986, Lobrano shares his personal selection of the country’s best restaurants.

http://www.omnivorebooks.com/

October 21, 2014 – NAPA, CALIFORNIA

HUNGRY FOR FRANCE NAPA DINNER ADVENTURE WITH JAMES BEARD WINNER ALEXANDER LOBRANO

Together with Angèle Restaurant and Bar

Event Details

Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 7:00pm
Angèle Restaurant and Bar
540 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559
Cost: $105 per person (or $185 for VIP package*)
About the Event

Please join us for a Hungry for France Dinner Adventure at Napa Valley’s renowned French Bistro, Angèle Restaurant and Bar, with Paris-based food writer, author, and James Beard award winner Alexander Lobrano. Your evening includes a French dinner featuring recipes from Alec’s book, wine, tax, gratuity, and book discussion.

*Why not make your evening really memorable with a VIP package that includes the dinner event, a pre-dinner reception with Alec, sparkling wine, canapes, and an autographed copy of Hungry for France. But hurry, only a limited number of VIP packages are available.

http://www.adventuresbythebook.com/autherevent/hungry-for-france-napa-dinner-adventure-with-james-beard-winner-alexander-lobrano/

October 22, 2014 – LARKSPUR, CALIFORNIA (Marin County) 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Left Bank Brasserie
507 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur, CA 94939
5:30pm Food & Wine Reception: $75* per person
7:00pm Dinner: $145** per person (includes autographed book) or $240** per couple (to share one book)

About the Event

Please join us for a Hungry for France Food & Wine Adventure at the renowned Left Bank Brasserie, featuring Paris-based French food writer, author of the bestselling Hungry for Paris, and James Beard award winner Alexander Lobrano.

The evening includes a food & wine reception featuring French wines and a selection of classic French regional appetizers inspired by Alexander Lobrano’s book and book discussion. Autographed books will be available for preorder at registration or at the event.

http://www.adventuresbythebook.com/autherevent/hungry-for-france-adventure-marin-county-with-james-beard-winner-alexander-lobrano/

 

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)

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)

Letter from Paris: Chardenoux

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Chardenoux, 1 rue Jules Valles, 11th Arrondissement, Paris

Chardenoux, 1 rue Jules Valles, 11th Arrondissement, Paris

By Alexander Lobrano

Chardenoux has always been a very good bistro. This is saying a lot, too, since it’s also one of the very rare restaurants with which I’ve had a long and consistently happy relationship during the more than twenty-five years I’ve lived in Paris. Oh, to be sure, as is true of most relationships, we’ve had our moments. But the longevity of this connection is precious to me less for its durability than because it’s proven to be so reliably delicious.

When I first began going to Chardenoux, the neighborhood where it’s located deep in the 11th Arrondissement was still quiet and filled with artisans of various kinds–wood-workers, furniture makers, metal casters, jewelers, lamp makers and others–working in local ateliers (workshops). Previously working class, the neighborhood immediately around the Bastille was becoming trendy, however, and the eastern arrondissements of Paris were just at the beginning of the transformation that eventually made them the younger and hipper half of the city. I was living a tiny apartment next to a convent on the Left Bank. I liked it during the summer, the season of open windows, when I was often awoken by the nuns softly singing hymns. The rest of the year, though, it had the distinct disadvantage of being too far away from Chardenoux.

The chef at Chardenoux then was Bernard Passavant, and the reason I remember his name is that I owe my mad love of foie gras to him. Maybe the second or third time I ever went to Chardenoux, I ordered something called a salade folle, or ‘crazy salad.’ I had no idea what this might mean, so the big mauve slab of foie gras that topped a tidy tumble of chive-flecked match-stick-sized green beans and shaved button mushrooms came as a hugely unwelcome surprise. Why? Well, believe or not, back in those days–this was probably 1987–I not only didn’t eat foie gras, but I actively avoided it. Like many suburban Americans, I flinched at anything offal, in fact, but that night I found myself shamed into trying the duck liver by the teasing of the Greek born Paris based men’s underwear designer who was taking me out to a business dinner I’d been avoiding a long time.

“Oh, how patheeeetic!” he said. “I can’t believe it! It’s delicious, a so so so sensual luxury! You must try!” So reluctantly I did, and I’ve never looked back. I also used to love Passavant’s veal with morels; cod with a warm vinaigrette of fresh herbs; “Cervelle de Canut” (silk worker’s brain, canut being Lyonnais slang for silk worker and the term a reference to how hard they once worked in deafeningly noisy mills). which is a Lyonnais cheese speciality of fromage blanc flavored with chives, garlic, shallot, parsley, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar and white wine; and black cherry clafoutis.

Terrace at Chardenoux.

Terrace at Chardenoux.

Every meal at this beautiful little dining room with a ceiling covered with swirling floral Belle Epoque moldings, a delicate screen of etched and beveled glass and wood panels diving the room in half, and a stone clad zinc topped bar just inside the door was a pleasure. Passavant eventually left, to be replaced by Michel Cornubet, and another chef or two, but the quality of the food remained uncommonly good. When young chef Cyril Lignac took over, however, I had my doubts. I was doubtless not being entirely fair, but his food-television celebrity made me dubious, and I feared an old favorite might be rejiggered into something trendy or fussy or both. Happily, I was wrong–Lignac respected the traditions and spirit of this century old bistro when he took it over in 2008 and painstakingly restored the interior. The food was good, if not better than good, too, but I hadn’t been in here in a very longtime before a recent sunny August day when I was trying to think of a good bistro when I might lunch with a friend visiting from London. The two new places she was keen to try–Le Servan and Restaurant David Toutain, were closed, but knowing how much she loves traditional French bistro cooking and also that they serve outside during the summer when the weather’s good, I booked at Chardenoux, where I hadn’t been for several years, and kept my fingers crossed.

My date was late, but I enjoyed sitting on the terrace on a sunny day mulling over the menu over a cool glass of Chateldon. It was also a pleasant diversion to observe my neighbors, all of whom were seriously enjoying their lunches with a pleasure that was absolutely contagious.

 

Coddled eggs with girolles and favas.

Coddled eggs with girolles and favas.

Then Madame arrived, hungry, and we ordered. Since she’s a talented London based cook and food writer, we usually try to order different things, so that we can taste some variety, but on this occasion no one was giving any ground on the starter of coddled egg with girolles, fava beans, and freshly made croutons. We both wanted it, we both had it, and it was superb, since the egg yolk slicked the perfectly braised mushrooms dressed with a little jus de veau and finely chopped shallot, and the favas and croutons added an earthy high note and some texture respectively. Coddled egg starters are surefire crowd-pleasers, since they appeal to something subliminally serene and infantile in all of us, but for them to work, the produce has to be of the very highest quality. Happily, here it was.

Since I’d come into town from the borrowed house in the country 75 minutes outside of Paris just for the day where I spent much of August, I was hankering for fish, since neither of the two larger towns near our hideaway has a fish market anymore, which means the only place to buy fish is at the ice-lined morgue-like counter of the local ‘grand surface,’ or giant supermarket. Having done that once, I’d never do it again, and besides, more pleasure was to be had from having a real live barbecue, which begged for the excellent sausage made by a local farmer or some of his superb free-range pork over and over again. So I chose the cod baked with white miso on a bed of fresh peas with lardons. The gently meaty taste of the miso flattered both the fish and the peas, while the lardons added texture and salt but most all appealed to that deep primal limitless yearning so many people–me very much among them–have for cured pork, aka bacon.

The cod at Chardenoux.

The cod at Chardenoux.

I rather envied Madame her sweetbreads, however, since they came with baby carrots and an elegantly acidulated sauce of chopped capers, lemon and meat juices spiked with tomato and turmeric. They were impeccably cooked, too, but when I tasted them, I immediately found myself thinking that a side of tagliatelle would have been a nice occasion to elaborate the pleasure that well-made sauce. “Some good sturdy noodles would have been nice with this,” Madame suddenly announced, and I laughed, because our friendship was born from the naughty avidity of our shared appetites. “Excellent product, and if at first I found it a little under seasoned, that’s really only because I’m too accustomed to food that’s been over-salted. This is some very suave bistro cooking indeed.”

Madame said she’d been craving a good baba au rhum ever since she’d gotten on the Eurostar in London that morning, so I left it to her, and had a fine slice of Corsican goat cheese with cherry-cinnamon marmalade and salad instead. The baba, which came from Lignac’s bakery across the street, had imbibed a perfect dose of rum-spiked sugar syrup, to which a nice little pour of caramel-and-sulfur scented Martinique rum, the world’s best, because it’s made with fresh cane juice instead of sugar, was deftly added by Madame.

“This rum is superb, so nuanced and ambered but clean tasting,” said Madame, adding, “I’d be half-tempted to tuck the bottle into my handbag and bring it home it’s so good but I rather doubt I’d get away with it.” I didn’t encourage her either, so the rum remained on the table, and after coffee we parted in search of our respective summer siestas, mine swaddled with the pleasure of knowing that one of my favorite Paris restaurants is still so good.

Le Chardenoux
1 rue Jules Valles, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. 01-43-71-49-52. www.cyrillignac.com Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 39 Euros, lunch menus 22 Euros, 27 Euros.

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)

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)

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)

 

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