Tag Archive | "Letter from Paris"

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)

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)

Letter from Paris: A Terrific Little Bistro in the Latin Quarter

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By Alexander Lobrano

Arriving at Desvouges on a chilly autumn night with Bruno, we were both cranky and hungry. You won’t be surprised to hear that he wearies of being my most reliable guinea pig, but after a couples-therapy session – ah oui, happens to us all — we needed to eat and despite the fact that he was still ranting about the weight he’d gained during a weekend with me in the north of France covering estaminets (i.e. northern French bistros) as part of a story I was doing, he was probably glad that I’d thought to book someplace for dinner even if he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. Or should I have saved this observation for the therapist-mediated space? Oh well, whatever.

Anyway, we were two worn-out pups when we pushed open the door of this store-front place in the deep 5th arrondissement and sat down at a bare wooden table in a rather overlit dining room. But burly owner Jerome Desvouges won me right off the bat with the friendly, enthusiastic way that he took us through his chalkboard menu and the fact that he was clearly mortified when I reminded him that he’d forgotten to bring us the carafe d’eau that I’d asked for ten minutes earlier (It’s been, in fact, much longer than I can remember since I’ve heard anyone in a Paris restaurant say, “Ouff, I’m very sorry.)

Desvouges, who was formerly an economic journalist but who, from his eager recitation and commentary on his menu, is not only a really nice guy but a real food-hound, had me drooling for his planche (cutting board) of Basque charcuterie, and indeed it was excellent, if not as generously served as I’d have liked, while Bruno, one of the most eager offal eaters I’ve ever meet, was blissed out by his museau vinaigrette, or thin slices of pig snout in a light dressing. I stuck fork in, and it was really good, too.

Next, Bruno went with the steak tartare dressed with sun-dried tomatoes, capers and herbs, and it was terrific, while I went with the curiously named Nem Toulousain, a skinned pork sausage boosted with fresh thyme and rosemary and wrapped Nem-style in crispy pastry. If Bruno scored a nice little salad with his tartare, he couldn’t stay away from the sauteed potatoes that came with my Nem and I loved the ratatouille that came in a small Staub casserole, too.

We scarfed down a bottle of very good Morgon with the meal, and afterwards, even though I knew that Desvouges cheese were probably as good as everything else on his menu, we just ordered espressos. The boss insisted on giving us each a small pour of Vieille Prune from Louis Roque in Souillac in the Lot, a distillery we’d visited last summer, and the smooth, ambered taste of prune eaux de vie was the perfect conclusion to a very good, there-will-always-be-a- Gaul- (I hope!) meal.

In fact, I loved this place and the owner, and just wish it was within walking distance of my smudged keyboard in the 9th arrondissement, in which case I’d be a happy regular. For anyone who lives on the Left Bank or who’s staying locally, this is a great address for a very good, relaxed, affordable French meal.

Desvouges, 6 rue des Fosses Saint Marcel, 5th, Tel. 01-47-07-91-25. Metro: Gobelins or Saint-Marcel. Closed Monday and Tuesday lunch, Saturday and Sunday. Prix-fixe menu 26 Euros.

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: La Tour d’Argent

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La salle - jour V1

The legendary view from the equally legendary La Tour d'Argent in Paris.

Walking to lunch at La Tour d'Argent from the Metro station at Maubert-Mutualite, I found myself so lost in thought that this post might never have seen the light of day if a strong-armed and quick-witted old lady hadn't yanked me back up on the pavement from the path of an oncoming van delivering butter and eggs. It was a hot June day, and after waiting a half hour at Sevres-Babylone because of yet another pointless RATP strike, I was puzzling over  a mysterious and unsettlingly sweet whiff of linden flowers when I completely lost track of where I was and what I was doing on the way to one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, La Tour d'Argent.

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Letter from Paris: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

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A table at Chez Maitre Paul.

Chez Maitre Paul and Chez Catherine Reviewed

By Alexander Lobrano

Though most of my meals during any given week in Paris are in new restaurants, I make it a point to regularly revisit places I included in Hungry for Paris and also to check in on other long-running and well-established local tables, such as Chez Maitre Paul in the rue Monsieur le Prince, for example. When I was choosing the restaurants to be included in Hungry for Paris, I ate at Chez Maitre Paul once a month for six months, hoping against hope on each new occasion that there would be a change in both the kitchen and the dining room, because I used to love this place so much when it was owned by a warm, generous, charmingly shy couple from Besancon.

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Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris

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L'Avant Comptoir. Photo by Alexander Lobrano.

We are thrilled to welcome Alexander Lobrano, Gourmet magazine's European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing, as a regular contributor. 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 will run monthly in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.

Jamin and L'Avant Comptoir

So "Jamin" is back, sort of. Or actually it's not. Instead, restaurateur Alain Pras has chosen to revive the name of the restaurant that propelled Joel Robuchon to international renown when he won his third Michelin star in 1984 and which went dormant when a short-lived Caribbean restaurant (La Table de Babette) occupied the space for a few years, but relaunch it in the ilk of the Guy Savoy bistros where he worked for many years (La Butte Chaillot, etc.).

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