Tag Archive | "Paris"

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: Les Poulettes Batignolles

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Les Poulettes Batignolles, Paris.

Les Poulettes Batignolles, Paris.

By Alexander Lobrano

After working for twelve years in Barcelona, Parisian-born chef Ludovic Dubois, son of the distinguished fromagere Martine Dubois, has returned to Paris and opened Les Poulettes Batignolles. It’s a good-looking modern bistro in a quiet side street with a very appealing Catalan inflected contemporary menu. “I really like the way the Catalans marry seafood and meat,” says Dubois, who runs the kitchen while his Catalan wife Judith Cercos, former sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Barcelona, supervises the dining room and excellent wine list. “I also developed an appreciation of arroz (rice), in all its many possible incarnations while living in Catalonia, an experience that tutored me in the Mediterranean palate,” adds the amiable Dubois, who apprenticed with Jacques Cagna and Michel Rostang before going off to Spain, where he cooked at the El Palace Hotel, among other kitchens.

An impeccably fresh sea bass tartare seasoned with seaweed and garnished with several types of fish eggs,

An impeccably fresh sea bass tartare seasoned with seaweed and garnished with several types of fish eggs,

Going to meet Marie, the lovely friend who tipped me off to this new address, for dinner on a frosty early winter night, I found myself thinking about how much I like Les Batignolles, a dense village-like neighborhood in the 17th arrondissement that only became part of Paris by decree of Napoleon III in 1860 and which is bisected by the train cut going into the Gare Saint Lazare. The old train yards at the north end of the neighborhood were intended to become the site of the Olympic village, had Paris’s bid for the 2012 games succeeded. Instead, they’re being redeveloped into a new urban neighborhood centered on a large garden named in honor of Martin Luther King. What will doubtless change this part of the city a lot is the arrival of all the courts now found on the Ile de la Cité in a new set of buildings, La Cité Judiciaire, which will open in 2017. For the time being, though, it’s a companionable and unpretentious old Paris neighborhood with a real vie de quarter, or neighborhood life, and with its chic pair of teal blue dining rooms, retro lighting fixtures, warm friendly service, and interesting menu, Les Poulettes Batignolles has immediately become a local hit with an enthusiastic following of regulars.

Since Marie once lived in Barcelona, and I’ve spent a lot of time there through the years and it’s one of my favorite cities, it was fun to discover the original but subtle cooking of Dubois and decipher the Catalan influences in various dishes. The Catalan love of seafood–Barcelona is still going mad for sushi and ceviche–was beautifully expressed by an impeccably fresh sea bass tartare seasoned with seaweed and garnished with several types of fish eggs, while the artichoke hearts and salad leaves that came with a coddled egg in bread crumbs with tartare sauce–a perfect

Artichoke hearts and salad leaves that came with a coddled egg in bread crumbs with tartare sauce

Artichoke hearts and salad leaves that came with a coddled egg in bread crumbs with tartare sauce

tapas sort of dish–reminded me of the tidy lovingly tended vegetable farms seen from the airport train that still fill the flat fertile plains between the city and its airport. This proximate patchwork of farms also explains why the produce in Barcelona is so good. In Paris, however, it comes from the rue de Levis market street where Dubois does his shopping every morning. “My cooking is completely market-

driven, so I really need to see and smell and touch the produce myself. It just wouldn’t work for me to be supplied by Rungis (the big wholesale market outside of Paris, bien sur),” said the chef. One way or another, I’m a hopeless sucker for tartare sauce, especially when it’s homemade–this might be explained by the fact that I liked this condiment as much if not more than the fried-clam strips once sold by Howard Johnson’s, a once-upon-a-time sincere Boston-based restaurant chain specializing in respectable quality American comfort food.What Howard Johnson’s never had, however, was the rich, melted-in-your-mouth jamon, or ham, which melded this dish together with a plucky porcine punch. With the possible addition of some good Cabrales, or Spanish blue cheese, I’d happily eat this perfectly pitched umami-rich soft ball for lunch everyday for the rest of my life.

Beyond the pleasure of Marie’s company–she’s not only beautiful but absolutely fascinating–the recurring reason for the strong sense of well-being all during my meal at this restaurant was the warm unselfconscious reflexive hospitality of Judith Cercos, a woman who deeply loves both wine and seeing the pleasure her shrewd choices bring to other people. I was too engaged by Marie and Bruno to break away from the good time I was having at the time, but later, I did find myself musing on the odd Paris phenomenon of

 Domaine Giudicel from Corsica.

Domaine Giudicel from Corsica.

restaurants that are run by people who would appear to find their customers a dreadful nuisance just for the fact that they’ve come through the door–Jadis and Saturne came to mind. In any event, the Domaine Giudicelli wine Judith served with our main courses was one of the best viniferous discoveries of the year for me, because I’d never have first guessed that it was a Corsican Patrimonio, because it was so supple and suave, but when we all paid it the attention it deserved, it had a lot of Mediterranean character and was a brilliant food wine.

In the quiet calendar of Parisian gastronomic pleasures I’ve learned so deeply it’s become the second much-loved almost subliminal alphabet that informs my daily life, few things are more welcome than the gusty arrival of seasonal crustaceans like oysters and scallops on the city’s menus. Perhaps with this in mind, but also likely guided by compasses of nostalgia with different true norths–hers, an old relationship; his, a lifetime of holidays spent on Catalan beaches over a span of more than forty years from the days of tents and ice cream cones purchased by Father to friskier adventures in Barcelona and Sitges–Marie and Bruno had the ‘creamy’ rice garnished with grilled artichoke hearts, mushrooms, squid, octopus, lobster and langoustines. What are I yearned for were the sweet fleshy Erquy scallops, which came cooked in their shells with breads crumbs, buttery leeks and a natty garnish of chives. “Rather nice, isn’t it, to be in a dining room where a pair of tattooed forearms fits in just as well as an Hermes pocketbook, isn’t it?” Bruno said, and it was true that there was a rare and bracing variety of Parisians around us who

Sweet fleshy Erquy scallops, which came cooked in their shells with breads crumbs, buttery leeks and a natty garnish of chives.

Sweet fleshy Erquy scallops, which came cooked in their shells with breads crumbs, buttery leeks and a natty garnish of chives.

were keenly enjoying their food as much as we were.

Since my sweet tooth, such as it exists, keens most to all forms of burnt sugar, aka caramel, then fruit, and finally really potent dark chocolate, I let Bruno and Marie rush in when it came to choosing a dessert–vanilla rice pudding with dulce de leche for her, and New York cheesecake for Bruno, who’s been obsessed by same ever since a first ecstatic artery-clogging encounter at the Carnegie Delicatessen in New York City a few months after we’d first met 17 years ago. Oh. And me? I know what a serious cheese mistress Ludovic Dubois’s Mom Martine is, so there was no way I’d pass up her Vacherin, that sublimely runny high-altitude cow’s milk dairy balm that’s in season right now, especially since it meant I could lay claim to the rest of the Patrimonio.

After dinner Ludovic Dubois came out of the kitchen to greet his customers, and watching him with Judith Decros, I finally got the X factor that makes Les Poulettes Batignolles so irresistible. This restaurant is an expression of their love affair, which they kindly decided to share with all comers. So if you want a really good and original won’t-break-the-bank holiday meal this year, I think you’d do very well at this charming table.

10 rue de Chéroy, 17th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. 01-42-93-10-11. Metro: Rome or Villiers. Closed Sunday and Monday. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. www.lespoulettes-batignolles.fr Average lunch 30 Euros, Average dinner 40 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)

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)

Poolside in Paris

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Swimming pool at Shangri-La, Paris

Swimming pool at Shangri-La, Paris

By Bobbie Leigh

If you were to hold a Paris hotel swimming pool competition today, the likely winner would be Shangri-La’s huge pool, delightfully bathed in natural light from a wall of glass doors leading to a lush outdoor garden. This is the pace to dip into paradise, a Paris equivalent of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” Like the novel, the pool’s narrative is peaceful and dreamy. The adjacent health club has a menu of treatments that are over-the-top, even for a Shangri-La. The “Experience Precieuse” is nothing less than rejuvenation if not the “unique rebirth….” as promised.

The former home of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew, the Shangri-La is a masterpiece of renovation. Clearly battalions of stoneworkers, gilders, master craftsmen of every stripe contributed to the massive renovation of what is now a mini-Versailles, a palace with distinct royal bloodlines in every room, most of which have stunning views of the Eiffel Tower.

The Grande Dame of Paris hotel pools used to be Le Bristol. It is shaped like the bow of a sailing ship and has panoramic views of Sacre Coeur. It is lovely but in a quaint sort of way. Other hotels including the Four Seasons Hotel George V and the Mandarin Oriental can share pride of pool place at least for a while… until two icons of Parisian luxury re-open. The Ritz and the Crillon, are currently closed for extensive reservations but when they finally make their grande entrée, their swimming pools are bound to be dazzlers.

The new Paris Peninsula, the former Hotel Majestic, is scheduled to open its doors beneath a new glass-and-steel canopy August 1. It has been a huge work in progress – including an underground pool and below level parking – for about six years. With rooms starting above 1,000 € per night, guests will enjoy all the usual Peninsula bells and whistles including a courtesy fleet of cars and drivers.

Paris hotels are always recreating themselves. Where once only a spiffy health club was obligatory, now to swim with the tide, it’s a palatial palace fit for a princely pool.

 

bobbie  Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Le Bon Georges

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Le Bon Georges, Paris

Le Bon Georges, Paris

Le Bon Georges, a recently opened bistro just five minutes from my front door in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, offers a delicious lesson in how to judge the city’s food right now. Let me explain. As someone who travels often, I’ve long since learned that the best way to evaluate the quality of the food in any given city isn’t by going to the trendy new openings crowed about in style supplements, much less any place that has been anointed with a Michelin star or one that’s popular with business diners, who have the luxury of an expense account.
 
No, the better way to see how well a city eats is to go into its neighborhoods and sample the places the locals go to all of the time, or a place like Le Bon Georges, for example. No surprise in this strategy, bien sur. For lots of reasons, the most obvious being that I’m constantly sampling new places or checking up on tables I recommend in HUNGRY FOR PARIS, I’m not really a regular, as such, at any Paris restaurant. And yet in deference to the indefatigable Bruno, who dutifully accompanies me to remote corners of the city on tasting missions night after night when he’d much rather be eating at home, I’ve somewhat improbably become something of a regular at Le Bon Georges, a place I’ve now been over a dozen times since it opened this past winter. Understandably, he loves the idea of going someplace he knows and likes with good, solid, simple food. And so when I recently returned from a fascinating but challenging-in-the-last-act trip to Fez to report on a new restaurant there (the bus from Beauvais airport to Paris is a circle of hell that Dante missed, since it has some of the rudest and most inefficient service of any public transport I’ve ever used in my life), Bruno blessedly collected me from the Porte Maillot, and told me he’d booked at Le Bon Georges.

Le Bon Georges, Paris

Le Bon Georges, Paris

“You need some good meat and a nice bottle of wine,” he said, and his diagnosis was pretty accurate, since a heavy travel schedule had been depriving me of both. The pretty dining room, which had previously been the venue of the clubby and over-rated trattoria Dell’Orto, was packed when we arrived, and we had a warm welcome from proprietor Benoit Duval-Arnould, a smart and charming restaurateur who’s done a better demographic analysis of the neighborhood he chose to set up shop in than anyone else I can think of in Paris in a longtime. To wit, Benoit aced its bobo appetite and gastronomic ticks, including a preference for pedigreed produce. Benoit, who trained as an agricultural engineer and who once worked for the Campbell’s Soup Company (Campbell’s owns the Leibig brand of soups in France), decided to bail on a successful corporate career, and it turns out he’s a natural in the restaurant business.
 
Benoit is extremely observant, reflexively generous, and good at casting, whether its his chef, Anton Guillon, who formerly cooked at Les Enfants Rouges, or his suppliers, who include the ever more omnipresent Joel Thiebault (the truck farmer from the Yvelines who supplies many young Paris chefs with locally produced seasonal produce, for those who don’t already know him), fish from Terroirs d’Avenir, and mostly importantly among many other good producers, beef from Alexandre Polmard, a farmer in the Meuse region of La Lorraine who raises Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle. Beef, you see, is the star product at Le Bon Georges, and the rich mineral taste of Polmard’s dense but intriguingly tender garnet-colored meat got my mouth to watering as soon as Bruno told me where we were going.
 
So we eye-balled the chalkboard menu, and Bruno lunged at the brioche with lobster, while I wanted a last feed of good white asparagus from Les Landes before the season ended. Bruno was happy with his brioche, which I’d have spread with something a little more emollient than just butter, and I liked my roasted asparagus with a well-made hollandaise sauce, but would have happily eaten more than the rather modest portion of four spears.

Steak tartare at Le Bon Georges, Paris

Steak tartare at Le Bon Georges, Paris

Tempted by a steak, I ended up with steak tartare–it’s just so good here, as are the home-made frites that accompany it, and Bruno did same. But Benoit decided to spoil us with baby carrots cooked in butter and a side of one of the best gratin dauphinois I’ve had in ages. Philippe and Natalie Gard’s Coume Del Mas – Schistes – Collioure 2013 went down a real treat, too, which is why we decided to end this very satisfying meal with some cheese, a perfectly ripened brie stuffed with walnuts for me and an ash-rolled chèvre for Bruno.
 
In Paris, we eat very well indeed.
 
45 rue Saint Georges, 9 Arrondissement, Tel. 01-48-78-40-30. Metro: Saint Georges or Pigalle. Open Tuesday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Saturday dinner only. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Lunch menu 19 Euros. Average a la carte 60 Euros. Website: http://www.lebongeorges.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 latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris & France. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Clown Bar

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Clown Bar, Paris

Clown Bar, Paris

Adjacent to the Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus), a handsome 1852 arena between the Place de la Republique and the Bastille, the Clown Bar has always been one of the most charming places in Paris for a quick bite and a glass of wine. Now under new management–a dream team that includes Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne from the restaurant Saturne, plus Xavier Lacaud, it’s suddenly better than it’s been for many years. They recruited talented Japanese chef Sota Atsumi, who cooked at Vivant, another intimate little place with landmarked Belle Epoque tiles, to run the kitchen, and Atusmi’s short produce focused menu, which changes often, runs to intriguing small plates, which are easily composed into a pleasant and very satisfying meal.

There’s also a deep terrace on the quiet street out front, and this has instantly made this beloved address even more popular than ever with a diverse but stylish crowd of Parisians. Coming for dinner the other night with Bruno after I’d returned from New York City the same day, we toyed with the idea of the terrace, but sat inside instead to enjoy the beautifully restored little dining room, a real triumph of French Belle Epoque decor with a glass ceiling in the bar area painted with a circus theme and a wall of tiles from Sarreguemines, the northern town that was once one of France’s great ceramics towns, with a frieze of clowning clowns behind the big zinc bar. The last time I came here, the room, which had been closed for a while, still had walls that were amber tinted by years of cigarette smoke, but that’s all gone now, and the sleek contemporary furnishings, including tables with the silverware tucked away in secret compartment, are flattered by the vintage setting.

Camembert croquettes

Camembert croquettes

We started with a plate of two-year-aged Basatxerri ham from the Basque Country and some delicate herb strewn camembert croquettes, both of which went well with aperitifs of Edelzwicker and a Viognier from the Languedoc. The hors d’oeuvres were good, but lest I bring the natural wine (unsulfured) crowd down on my head, I couldn’t help but thinking that not all wines are better in their ‘unadulterated’ form, since oxidation can mask the nuances of gentler cepages (grape varieties). Even though they arrived at the table stone cold, an order of grilled langoustines from the Breton port of Le Guilvinec were superb–sweet, cooked just to that perfect point where the tail meat had pearled, and garnished with a winning simplicity of salt, a little lemon, a few needles of fresh rosemary.

Getting things to the table warm will be a recurring challenge here, since the kitchen is in the basement, but our second starter, bonito in a bracing foam of fresh horseradish, a really inspired idea, since the raciness of the root met that of the fish, didn’t suffer a temperature problem and was a succulent dish, which might only have been improved by being served with some hot toasted country bread.

Turbot, clams and asparagus at Clown Bar

Turbot, clams and asparagus at Clown Bar

Turbot with razor-shell clams, white asparagus and rhubarb in salted butter was one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve had for a long time, since the product was impeccable and the constellation of tastes made sense on the palate but was pushed just off-center enough by the rhubarb to be unexpected. A brilliant puree of dates and yuzu played the same role with an exquisitely well-made pithiviers de canard, or ground duck in a little dome of buttery golden pastry.

“Natural wines often taste the same to me,” Bruno said of our white Haute Cotes-du Beaune as we finished it up with a good cheese course. I suggested that maybe if he’d learned to drink natural wines before ‘traditional’ ones he might feel differently, although I personally find it really interesting to pinch hit between them and liked this provocatively different orange-colored quaff from the terrific little wine list.

Couple on terrace of Clown Bar

Couple on terrace of Clown Bar

A caramelized pignoli nut tart filled buckwheat flavored pastry cream was the happy ending to this excellent meal where the only recurring problem was the timing of the service, not just in terms of hot dishes delivered cold but some slackness that jarred the rhythm of an otherwise excellent meal. All told, it’s really heart-warming to see this delightful little corner of Paris renovated and rebooted in the service of seriously good food and wine once again, and I know it’s going to become a new Sunday night favorite, especially during the summer when the terrace is open. N.B. They also serve breakfast, since this place functions as a cafe cum wine bar between lunch and dinner serving hours.

Clown Bar, 114 rue Amelot, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. 01-43-55-87-35. Metro: Filles du Calvaire, Saint-Sébastien-Froissart, or Richard Lenoir. Open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch (noon-2.30pm) and dinner (7.30pm-10.30pm). www.facebook.com/pages/CLOWN-BAR-PARIS/1443072882610254  Average 40 Euros.

 

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: 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)

Slideshow: Close Up at Le Marché aux Puces in Paris

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Wooden Soldiers at Le Marché aux Puces. Photo by Deborah Loeb Bohren

Wooden Soldiers at Le Marché aux Puces in Paris. Photo by Deborah Loeb Bohren

Photos & text by Deborah Loeb Bohren

 

From it’s humble beginnings as home to the “rag and bone” men of Paris around 1870, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (http://www.marcheauxpuces-saintouen.com)  — Paris’s most legendary flea market — today boasts 14 individual markets spread over more than 750,000 square feet providing the penultimate paradise for treasure hunters. Laid out along rue des Rosiers in the 18th arrondissement just beyond the city’s ring road, each market has it’s own unique character and timeless finds, and meandering up and down the alleys, and in and out of the stalls, is a great way to see Paris from a slightly different perspective. From used champagne corks to classic Ricard pastis glasses and from old money, lost marbles and lost letters to gilded clocks and french essential table dressings from the 17th and 18th centuries, the Puces is the perfect place to make a part of Paris past a part of your today.

Close Up at Le Marché aux Puces. Photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren

Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in Paris. All photos copyright Deborah Loeb Bohren.

Iconic Paris: Photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren

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Iconic Paris
Iconic Paris

Whenever I come to Paris, I always start by visiting the grand icons of Paris — Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Luxmbourg Gardens…the Metro.  Theses museums, churches, places and “things” are synonymous with the City of Lights and they help orient me to the city, providing a framework for exploring. They have become old friends over the years, and just like old friends, I never tire of them and each time we meet they surprise and delight, always revealing themselves to me in new ways.  Sabrina was right:  Paris is always a good idea!

– Deborah Loeb Bohren, Paris

Notre Dame

Musee d’Orsay

Pantheon

Sainte Chapelle

Jardin du Luxembourg

Centre Georges Pompidou

Le Metro

Sacré-Cœur Basilica

Musée du Louvre

Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer.  Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old.  Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.

All images copyright Deborah Loeb Bohren.

Visit Deborah Loeb Bohren Fine Art Photography

http://dlbohren.zenfolio.com/

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)

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