Tag Archive | "Letter from Paris"

Letter from Paris: L’Assiette

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L’Assiette @ Stephane Riss

L’Assiette @ Stephane Riss

By Alexander Lobrano

Chef David Rathgeber’s restaurant L’Assiette is not only the best bistro in Montparnasse, but one of the best bistros in Paris. Why? I’ll let the chef himself explain why it’s so good. “I don’t like la cuisine d’assemblage (the modern mode for plates of food that are layered compositions of flavors). I like melded flavors that wouldn’t exist without real cooking, and this is what I do at L’Assiette. ..”  Continue reading…

 

aleclobranohungryfe4e99_2 2Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He 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 109 Best Restaurants(Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and is a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website,www.alexanderlobrano.com (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Letter from Paris: Papillon

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Photo copyright Pierre Monetta.

Christophe Saintagne in front of Papillon. Photo copyright Pierre Monetta.

 

By Alexander Lobrano

Papillon, chef Christophe Saintagne’s new bistro in the 17th Arrondissement, brings a bracing shot of hipster energy to a very bourgeois part of Paris. From its cobalt-blue facade to its friendly suspender-wearing waiters and market-driven Nordic inflected modern bistro menu, this relaxed, happy place with a decor of oak tables, parquet floors, and suspended lamps looks like a restaurant you could as easily find in Santa Monica or Sydney as western Paris. And that is a mostly good thing, since this Gaullist redoubt is long overdue for a good social, political and gastronomic shakeup.

Continue reading …

 

aleclobranohungryfe4e99_2Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He has written about food and travel for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is a Contributing Editor at Saveur  and writes a weekly column on restaurants in French for the weekend magazine of Les Echos, France’s largest business newspaper. Lobrano is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website,www.alexanderlobrano.com (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Letter from Paris: At Mensae, Belleville Goes Gastro

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Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

By Alexander Lobrano

When I asked chef Kevin d’Andréa why he and business partner and fellow chef Thibault Sombardier had chosen the Belleville district of Paris as the location for their excellent new bistro Mensae, he said, “The neighborhood is really happening right now.” And for better or worse, it is. In fact this old working-class neighborhood in northeastern Paris where Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier were born is changing so quickly it’s inducing emotional and sociological vertigo in many longtime residents, like the delightful and sublimely talented chef Raquel Carena of Le Baratin, for example (for more on Mme. Carena’s feelings on the subject, see here).

City planners regularly ignore or underestimate the impact that restaurants can have on the health and evolution of an urban neighborhood. The first example that always comes to my mind is Danny Meyer‘s Union Square Cafe in New York City, since it both anticipated and accelerated the gentrification of a rundown, crime-ridden part of Manhattan when it opened in 1985. Ironically enough, Le Chapeau Melon and Le Baratin may have both had the same seminal impact on Belleville, too. To judge from the comments some people leave about the neighborhood on TripAdvisor, Belleville still elicits a sort of ‘Lions-and-tiger-and-bears, oh no!’ reaction from the world’s well-heeled suburbanites, and the first but rarely only time these people ever set foot in the area is to eat at these restaurants. The same thing is going on in New York City’s Harlem today, too.

A couple at the bar at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

A couple at the bar at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Even with the soft French economy, the irrevocable mill of the real-estate speculation that leads to disruptive renovation continues to churn through what remains of those districts of Paris that once housed the city’s working classes, who are now gradually being expelled to the modern suburbs on the other side of the peripherique, the beltway that constitutes the rather constricting collar of the French capital. It’s the same everywhere, too: living in the city has become a privilege. And who can blame the young bobo couples who prefer good architecture, a strong sense of place and history, urban liveliness and diversity and great food to the murky blandness of most suburbs (I speak from experience, too, since I grew up in suburban Connecticut and told my mother as a nine-year-old that I hated living in a ‘melted city,’ which is how I perceived of our suburb, and would move to New York City, where my much envied cousins lived, as soon as I could; and I did).

Et donc à table, since the Latin word for table is mensa and the one that D’Andréa and Sombardier have created is very good indeed. Arriving, it presents an unexpectedly polished, almost television-studio perfect face to the world, with a service bar of recycled wood, ecru walls, suspension lamps, plank floors, a set of copper cookware on one wall and shelves filled with appetizing jars of preserved mushrooms, fruit and vegetables. So somehow it’s not surprising that the very experienced and media savvy D’Andréa and Sombardier were both finalists on the predictably noisy and not very convincingly gastronomic French television cooking show “Top Chef.”

Leeks at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Leeks at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Happily, however, the meal we had the other night was just about as many light years from a TV dinner as you could possibly get. This kitchen is very serious about its sourcing, always a good sign, with vegetables coming from the Bretonne produce princess Annie Bertin and Joël Thiébault, Armara for fish, Hugenin and Les Boucheries Nivernaises for meat, and Lyon’s La Mère Richard for cheeses (insofar as this last supplier is concerned, I detect that quality has been slipping since the business was bought by a company in Normandy). The menu is intelligently constructed with an appealing assortment of plates to share–frogs’ legs sautéed in garlic and parsley, charcuterie from Sibilia in Lyon, and Basque style squid, then five starters, five main courses, and three desserts.

On a rainy night when I arrived at the restaurant a bit shaken after having passed an impromptu shrine of wilting flowers and votive candles in a nearby doorway–one of the victims of the recent terrorist attack on Paris lived the building–the dining room was warm and soothing when I stepped inside, and the waiter was suavely charming when he brought us menus and aperitifs of white wine. More on him later, but we were both hungry and our starters were excellent. Bruno’s pastry-enclosed terrine de gibier(game) was unctuously rich and autumnal, with a bright garnish of sweet-and-sour pickled vegetables, and my leeks with a mimosa garnish (sieved hard-cooked egg) were gently marinated and delightfully accompanied with crispy croquettes of de-boned calf’s feet.

Paleron with puree at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Paleron with puree at Mensae. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Our main courses were excellent, too. My chicken was pleasantly crisped but still  succulent and came with an earthy mix of winter vegetables–parsnips, carrots, and chestnuts–in a creamy vin jaune seasoned sauce that would have been better if the wine had been just a little more assertive. Bruno ordered the grilled paleron, a cut of beef that comes from between the neck and shoulder blade and which is often braised to break down the muscle in the meat. Served rare, it was full of flavor and unexpectedly tender, although this perception was doubtless abetted by a pool of fluffy feather-weight white polenta.

At a time when Paris is still a little raw and on edge, it was reassuring and mood-lifting to be in a busy, happy dining room that’s clearly a new neighbourhood favorite. It’s easy to see why, too, since everything about this place is so flawlessly thought through and professional, including the cooking, but on the other hand, it’s relaxed enough so that a young couple could come through the door around 10pm, ask if they were still serving, and be cheerfully seated at the service bar, where one of the dramatic taps dispenses Gallia, a legendary local brew that was made in Paris from 1890 to 1969, and then revived again in 2009.

Mensae's Compression de Pomme. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Mensae’s Compression de Pomme. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

Since portions here are generous, we split a compression de pomme, a sort of deconstructed apple tart, for dessert,  and finished up our pleasant bottle of Fleurie, before coffee. When the waiter brought the coffee, we chatted a little bit about the restaurant, and he mentioned he’d previously worked at chef André Chiang’s brilliant Restaurant André in Singapore for two years. That’s when I recognized him, since he’d served me when I ate there last January. And I guess this little coincidence says a lot about what Belleville’s becoming these days, too. One way or another, there have never been so many good restaurants in this neighborhood, and this mensa is definitely one of them.

Mensae, 23 rue Mélingue, 19th Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-53-19-80-98. Metro: Pyrénées. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch menu: 20 Euros, Dinner menu 36 Euros, average a la carte 35 Euros.www.mensae-restaurant.com 

 

aleclobranohungryfe4e99_2 2Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He has written about food and travel for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is a Contributing Editor at Saveur  and writes a weekly column on restaurants in French for the weekend magazine of Les Echos, France’s largest business newspaper. Lobrano is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website,www.alexanderlobrano.com (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

 

Letter from Paris: Le Bon Saint Pourçain

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Le Bon Saint Pourcain. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

Le Bon Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

By Alexander Lobrano

In Paris, the assiduously institutionalized exultation of the city’s past poses the same sort of risk as the sugar water in a bee trap. Like many people who live here, however, I forget how easy it is to succumb to the easy nectar of memory and to gloat over the beauty of a place that has pretty much shunned modernity, or at least inside of Le Peripherique, or the beltway that separates the city from the suburbs it ignores.

"Provence 1970." by Luke Barr. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

“Provence 1970.” by Luke Barr. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

So as luck would have it, just before going to dinner at the new version of Le Bon Saint Pourçain, a Saint-Germain-des-Prés bistro I’ve known for years, I’d just read Luke Barr’s fascinating and beautifully written book Provence 1970, which puts the relationships of many legendary American and British food writers under a magnifying glass as they interact during a series of cross-hatching visits to Provence. What especially intrigued me in these pages was that two of my heroes, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, were both so wary of becoming trapped by the past. Both women saw that France was changing, in ways both good and bad, and so they sought in their own ways to re-situate themselves in their relationship to Gaul, not loving it less but perhaps not needing it as much as they once had. And both women also felt a powerful eagerness live in the present and discover new things, which struck a chord with me, because so many people, myself included a lot of the time, don’t want Paris to change.

But the city will change, and it does, and often that’s a good thing, especially in the kitchen. And for all of the dozens of very happy meals I’ve had at Le Bon Saint Pourçain through the years, the best dish here was always off-menu, since it was the ineffably charming and rather clubby conviviality of the place. And the food? Depending on who was in the kitchen, it was usually just fine, if rarely better than that, or the type of cuisine ménagère (home cooking)  your French maiden aunt might have served you, where the pleasure was derived more from her good intentions than her skills in the kitchen. To be sure, I always liked the leeks in a vinaigrette sauce and the boeuf aux olives (braised beef with green olives), and sometimes there was a good fruit tart to be had as well.

Inside Saint Pourcain. Credit Alexander Lobrano

Inside Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano

But the best of being here was the banter of François, the beetle-browed owner, and the fun of seeing who else would be there of a given evening, maybe Leslie Caron or Catherine Deneuve or a politician or writer or two, because this was always anur Saint-Germain-des-Prés kind of place. Happily, David Lanher, the shrewd restaurateur who took this place over, understood all of that, so it was no surprise that he hired a former waiter from the Cafe de Flore to run the dining room, and no one in the dining room did more than bat a complicit eye lash or five the other night when François-Marie Banier came through the door with two friends (and if you don’t know who he is, you can read more about this man, who would have been a wonderful character in a Guy de Maupassant short story, here). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Monsieur Lanher had been behind some last minute accessorizing in the dining room as well, see above.

When the waiter came to prop the chalkboard menu up on a chair next to our table, I was extremely curious to see if his next move wouldn’t be to pour us both a welcome glass of white Saint Pourçain wine, since this was one of the hospitality fixtures that distinguished this restaurant for years. Reading my mind, Bruno answered my question. “I don’t think so,” he said, so we had a rather skimpy pour of Petit Chablis instead, and a trip wire went off. As moneyed and worldly as the regulars at Le Bon Saint Pourçain have always been, they’ve also always been a particularly pennywise crowd who are most expediently seduced by generosity.

Eggs and leeks at Saint Pourcain. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

Eggs and leeks at Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

So this one little tradition might wisely have been perpetuated, and wines served by the glass should be poured generously. If the menu had very little to do with what had previously been served in this dining room, there was a wink or two at the past, particularly in terms of the marinated leeks in a silky camel-brown Satay like peanut sauce with a coddled egg that I had as my first course. Though it was rather murky looking on a matte black plate, this dish was unexpectedly satisfying–the peanuts actually flattered the vegetable, and everyone loves the drama of slitting open a coddled egg. Bruno’s foie gras with pickled mushrooms was lush, pleasantly salt and peppered, and generously served to boot.

Mychine de porc at Saint Pourcain. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

Echine de porc at Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

And on a summer night, the discreetly refreshed look of the dining room, with its globe lamps, patches of exposed brick and curtain-less windows (they’d formerly been dressed with the sort of thick lace you might once have seen on your grandmother’s dresser) was appealing in its Gallic simplicity. Our main courses registered as excellent modern French bistro cooking from the moment they arrived at the table, too. Myechine de porc (pork shoulder butt) was cooked pink, which is just how I like it in spite of the fact that my mother used to reduce nice pork standing rib roasts to near cinders in the belief that pork had to be nearly incinerated to be safe to eat, and this rosy meat road a bed of sautéed mushrooms and greens lapped with a nicely jus de viande that I’d guess was veal based. Perfectly braised, with a crispy skin, and an identical garnish, Bruno’s free-range chicken was similarly satisfying modern French comfort food, too. And because this was Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where everyone knows the carnal catechism that you should never eat anything starchy or farinaceous in the evening, because it leads, quel horreur, to weight gain, there wasn’t a grain of rice, a potato or a noodle to be found within a block of our table.

Three ladies at Saint Pourcain. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

Three ladies at Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

As it got later, the early-bird Americans on the terrace left and more and more old regulars arrived in the snug little dining room, eye balling the changes with guarded curiosity, as if still hoping for the best. Since we were at the end of our meal, like the three elegant ladies next to us, we’d spent an evening watching people attempting to diagnose and decide about the change, and every newcomer caused us to exchange fleeting complicit glances. But what consistently brought us to the edge of mirth was the frustration of the regulars at the stingy pours of the wines by the glass–we’d glance at each other, exchange pursed lipped smiles and half nods, and savor this recurring moment, since the few people who still drink in Saint-Germain-des-Prés–so many have lost their toys–are very serious about it.

Cheese plate at Saint-Pourcain. Credit  Alexander Lobrano.

Cheese plate at Saint Pourçain. Credit Alexander Lobrano.

A good cheese plate and a pleasant modern riff on a baba au rhum (sponge cake with whipped cream and lashings of rum) ended this pleasant if pricey meal, and the grand finale occurred a few minutes later when we were walking to our car and saw Catherine Deneuve peck someone on the cheek before hoping out of his car and immediately lighting a cigarette. Noticing Bruno and me standing there rubber necking, she grinned and said, “Ca va, les garçons?” (How’s it going, boys?), which was a rather wonderful conclusion to our Left Bank outing. So the only things that are missing at David Lanher’s reboot of this venerable bistro are the welcome pour of wine, and, I’m afraid, the young eager eyes that would be intrigued by this profoundly Parisian institution but which are very rarely found in gentrified and vaguely geriatric Saint-Germain-des-Prés anymore.

10 rue Servadoni, 6th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-42-01-78-24. Metro: Saint Sulpice or Mabillon. Open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. Closed on Sunday and Monday. Average a la carte 65 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 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 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and is a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website, www.alexanderlobrano.com  (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 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 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and is a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website, www.alexanderlobrano.com (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)

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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Desvouges

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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