Itâs 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 theyâd 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 Patrickâs 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. Iâd returned to the rails for a spoon for my butterscotch pudding, and so witnessed the scene. Abashed by my motherâs thanks, one of the cooks replied, âYouâre very welcome, Maâam, but itâs a privilege to feed the children,â 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 Johnsonâs) that Mom didnât make at home, but because they were so interesting. I loved watching the people, catching snatches of other peopleâs conversations, observing all of the little dramas unfold all around the roomâhere a birthday party, there a quarrel or a romance. I couldnât 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 theÂ 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.
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 Â Thierry DufrouxÂ would chose to cater to such a crowd. On the one hand, heâs 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 whatâs 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 foodâs 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 7thâIâll 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 daughterâand many years of living in the 7th, what makes these people happy is a penny-wiseÂ vieille FranceÂ cuisine bourgeoise.
The menu read well, though, and the restaurant was packed, so I guessed weâd eat well. In the meantime, the cordial waiter answered a question I had even before Iâd asked it when he told me that the restaurantâs 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 youâre reminded that the chef worked in the Basque country for years and that it might be very roughly transliterated into âHigh Tide.â Once Bruno finally arrived from the distant suburb of Paris where heâd currently working, we ordered, and a homey well-made amuse bouche of butternut squash soup with brousse de brebis (fresh eweâs milk cheese) and croutons announced the beginning of a very good meal.
As part of the 38 Euro prix-fixe menu, Brunoâs 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 theyâd never get up to anything this elaborate in the kitchen themselves. This dish tipped the kitchenâs 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.
Our main courses were excellent, too. Brunoâs flaky golden petit pĂątĂ© 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 couldnât 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, tooâcasually 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 donât own a loden coat, and Iâm not planning on buying one anytime soon either, but I really enjoyed this meal too, and not just for Dufrouxâs cooking, but for the alert, gracious service and the fact that even though itâs not a bargain address, itâs remarkably good value for the money given the caliber of the cooking.
With no trace of being tongue-in-cheek, the grand finales of our meal wereÂ vieille FranceÂ enough to make me chuckle. Bruno had a Mont Blancâpureed 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 itâs 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 thereâs 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.comÂ Metro: Ecole Militaire. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prix-fixe 38 Euros. Average 40 Euros
Â Â 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 ofÂ Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the Cityâs 102 Best RestaurantsÂ (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book,Â Hungry for France, will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Â Visit his website,Â Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
So after hurriedly shedding my winter work uniform of black watch plaid flannel pajamas at 7.30pm and taking a shower, I was late for a change. But this time I had an excuse, sort of. I was engrossed in a fascinating article about chilis by Lauren Collins inÂ The New Yorker, so by the time I looked up fifteen minutes after boarding a bus to go meet Bruno, Richard and Roberto for dinner, I was in front of the Gare de l’Est, well past my destination, theÂ Bistro Bellet, in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Rushing through the streets of the 10th arrondissement on a rainy night, I was amazed by the speed with which this once endearingly shabby and rough-and-tumble neighborhood continues to morph into one of the trendiestÂ quartiersÂ in Paris–it seems as though a new restaurant, bar and cafe or five opens in this quartier every week. At the rate it’s changing, it’s just a matter of time, I fear, before the Kurdish bakeries and African hair-dressing salons are driven out of business by shops selling gluten-free pasta and hand-dipped candles.
For the time being though, enough of the scrappy real-life texture of the old Faubourg du Strasbourg-Saint-Denis survives that it was a surprise to get to the door of the Bistro Bellet and find such a sleek, good-looking bistro in a neighborhood dominated by kebab shops. This airy gallery like space is the latest restaurant of Nicolas Lacave, who runs the very good NiĂ§ois restaurantÂ RĂ©parateÂ in the 11th arrondissement, and he recruited a really excellent cook, FranĂ§ois Chenel (ex-Chez Michel, ex-Cafe des Musees) to execute a menu of bistro dishes so classic as to make a bistro-lover like me almost misty eyed.
The boys were nibbling squares ofÂ pissaladiere–NiĂ§oise focaccia topped with sauteed onions, anchovies and black olives, over glasses of white wine when I blew in, and since everyone was hungry, we made fast work of the short but very appealing menu, which was provided by a lanky waiter in a black trilby hat that pointedly announced his hipster credentials. After he took our order, he returned to see what we wanted to drink. I told him we’d have a bottle of the 2011 Domaine des Schistes Cotes du Roussillon Villages, a supple medium-bodied red that’s a terrific food wine. He nodded, and then he said, “Uh, where are you from?” with a sort of exasperated tone of voice. I knew why he was asking, too–the other three had all showed up in their office gear, i.e., nicely cut jackets and dress shirts, and were well-groomed and prosperous looking. And though everyone (but most of all Bruno) spoke fluent French at the table, there were those accents. “Venezuela, Connecticut, Ohio, and Valenciennes,” I told him, and he shook his head as though this were just too much to take in, but we weren’t going to let a little low-grade attitude distract us from our excellent bottle of wine and our first courses, which arrived promptly from the open kitchen at the back of the room.
Since I love their faint taste of fresh hazelnuts against a bracing backdrop of iodine richness, I couldn’t resist tasting several of Bruno’s mussels, which were perfectly cooked, parsley flecked and generously served. On this damp night, though, I was craving good old-fashioned Gallic grub, a yearning that Chenel’s beautifully made terrine de campagne more than sated, since it had a perfect balance of ground pork and richly flavored fat and was served with cornichons and excellent bread from chef Thierry Breton’sÂ SangarĂ© Bakary (and no, that’s not a typo–it really is spelled bakary). “This is a really good restaurant, Alec,” said Roberto as our starters were being cleared. “And it’s great to be eating some food that isn’t intended to show off someone’s creativity for a change,” he added, and I agreed.
There’s no doubt that Paris has a flock of astonishingly talented and impressively creative young chefs, but sometimes all I want is the type of real old-fashioned French food which caused me fall in love with the French kitchen when I first came to Paris as a teenaged boy. Â Blanquette de veau is baby food for people with sharp teeth, and it’s as comforting as being under a heavy goose-down-filled quilt on a snowy night. The word that most often comes to mind when I eat it is kindness, since this dish is as reliably kind and comforting as my much loved grandmother Jean or Miss Lucy Gorham, the gentle woman who taught me to read when I was in first-grade. With me sitting nuzzled next to her, Miss Gorham smelled softly of lavender and vanilla pudding. Since she traveled during the summer when school was out, she had fascinating jewelry–Navajo turquoise bracelets, a pair of red coral earrings from Sorrento that look like little bunch of grapes with tiny gold leaves, a moonstone necklace from a London antique store, and after our lesson, she’d take off her treasures and let me examine them while she told me about where they were from. Her stories deeply nourished the incubus of my restless imagination, and I don’t think she’d be at all surprised today to learn that I live in Paris and that blanquette de veau is a dish that profoundly sustains both my ever weedy imagination and my love of French food. This blanquette was one of the best I’ve ever had, too, and I know that Richard, who’d ordered it as well, felt the same way, since there was a polite tension between us as we served ourselves from the shared cast iron casserole it was served in–neither of us wanted this pleasure to end, and both of us wanted every shred of meat, every last drop of satiny sauce.
Bruno was very happy with his Erquy scallops in the shell with caramelized endive, and though initially wary that it would be fatty, Roberto loved his juicy Bigorre pork, which was fork tender from having been braised and then grilled and rich with the flavors of unjustly maligned fat. There’s good fat and bad fat, of course, but when French food is as well sourced as it is at the Bistro Bellet, the fat is a gift for being so rich with flavor.
Just over the midway hump of a very successful meal, we were happy, and the conversation roamed from the serious to the silly in the way that it will inevitably do when old friends who don’t see each other very often–everyone’s just so damned busy–catch up, blow on the embers, have a laugh, remember why the friendship was born to begin with and relax. What we talked about: Venezuelan politics, a new luxury hotel in the Maldives, our upcoming trip to Vietnam, the insanity of how work is leeching leisure out of all of our lives, my new book, the threats to French raw-milk cheese culture, the madness of over-designed appliances, celebrity marketing, a brilliant Alice Munro story in a recent issue of The New Yorker, and where everyone will be for Christmas, leavened with gossip and hearsay about common friends. Â Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the four of us might have been likely to skip dessert– weight-watching and alarm clocks,Â oblige, but we were having too much fun to pack the tent early, and so Bruno ordered creme caramel, Roberto poached pears, and Richard and I had cheese, a superb Beaufort with a pretty little nosegay of mesclun.
So to our mutual regret, we paid the bill–the crowd in this restaurant was getting progressively more interesting during our meal, which ran from 8.30pm to roughly 10.30pm, because this place serves until midnight, rare in a city that’s become wiltingly early-to-bed. We jammed Richard and Roberto into Bruno’s Mini and drove them home. Fond farewells on the sidewalk, and then on our way home, Bruno said, “That was one of the best meals I’ve eaten in a long time.” And it was for me, too–the food was excellent, the room was great looking, and despite that feathery flutter of condescension towards four ‘mature’ men by the waiters, they did their jobs well. So put Bistro Bellet on your go list–I’ve already been back since the meal described here, and as a place to enjoy seriously good traditional French bistro cooking in a setting that doesn’t ape a farmhouse or a medieval auberge it was even better the second time around. Before I go back again, however, I might invest in a trilby hat
Bistro Bellet, 84 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel. 01-45-23-42-06. Metro: ChĂąteau d’Eau, Gare de l’Est or Jacques Bonsergent. Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner only. Prix-fixe menu 32 Euros, average 40 Euros.
Â Â Alexander LobranoÂ was Gourmet magazineâs European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for ParisÂ (Random House), his personal selection of the cityâs 102 bestÂ restaurants, which Alice Waters has called âa wonderful guide to eating in Paris.â Lobranoâs Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potterâs Travel Report. Visit his website,Â Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
Before I say anything else, let me state that Les Enfants Rouge, a new bistro in the Marais, is a good little restaurant and that Japanese chefÂ DaĂŻ Shinozuka, who most recently cooked with Yves Camdeborde at Le Comptoir du Relais, is a solidly talented chef. This established, the two main things that I took away from a meal here with a friend the other night is that “la Bistronomie,” or modern French bistro cooking as pioneered by Yves Camdeborde when he opened La Regalade in 1992, is no longer cutting edge or even particularly directional in Paris, and that the noise level in Paris restaurants is rising so relentlessly as to put them in the same deafening category as most new places in New York or London.
For anyone who doesn’t know the back story, “bistronomie’ is a contraction between “bistrot” and “gastronomie” that was coined in the 1990s by the French food writer Sebastien Desmorand, and it was arguably first championed by Camdeborde when he left the kitchens of the Hotel de Crillon, where he’d trained with chef Christian Constant, often referred to as the father of this movement, because he trained so many of the chefs who practice this style of cooking in Paris today, in 1992. The core idea was to lighten and enhance traditional bistro cooking by applying the exigencies of haute cuisine cooking to the bistro idiom. The idea was to revisit the traditional ‘cuisine du terroir’ with a certain creativity and to juxapose modest ingredients like offal or inexpensive fish like mackerel with luxurious garnishes, fresh herbs, lighter sauces, and tweaks of unexpected seasoning.
Perhaps the most ardent advocate of “la bistronomie” has been the French website and guide Le Fooding, which was founded to shake up the totemic conventions of restaurant reviewing and food writing in France in the same way “la bistronomie” was rebooting the much loved culinary traditions of the Paris bistro. What I realized during dinner at Les Enfants Rouge, however, is that this movement is now almost twenty-two years old and has become the new normal in Paris, and as the idiom has become mainstream, it’s no longer surprising. Depending on the restaurant, it’s often very satisfying, even superb, but today it lacks the originality it once had for the very fact of its omnipresence. In fact, it’s now easier to find a ‘bistronomique’ meal in Paris than it is to find a traditional bistro feed. And in similar terms, Le Fooding has become a trend-arbiting institution alongside many of the other established French food guides. Don’t get me wrong–I like Le Fooding, but its unconventional, anti-establishment edge has dulled as its business model has grown. Like almost every magazine in the world, they’ve bowed to the sirens of celebrity marketing and now have a dreary column of celebrities’ favorite restaurants, and it also still surprises me that they don’t invite readers to comment on their reviews when when even the venerable Michelin guide has opened itself up to feedback from the gastronomic peanut gallery. So ultimately, I find myself wondering, What’s next?
Still, for anyone who wants to discover a textbook perfect example of bistronomique cooking, Les Enfants Rouge is a very good address, and it also goes some way to redressing the fact that the Marais still doesn’t have as many good restaurants as the popularity of this Paris neighborhood would warrant. Arriving at this small attractive room off of the trendy rue de Bretagne, the space came off as sort of a small art gallery with contemporary paintings spot-lit on the white walls and a mixture of tables dressed with white table cloths–a break from the normal convention of bistronomique addresses, and a few, i ncluding ours, that were bare and looked like old linoleum topped school desks.
Service was attentive and charming, and after my friend Lady K from Washington and I had ordered, we were served little cups of foamy soup as an amuse bouche. It was so delicately flavored that we had trouble identifying its ingredients, but there was a vague but pleasant smokiness to the soup that suggest bacon. Next, Lady K was served a saute of mushrooms topped with an egg in a little enameled casserole dish perhaps that emphasized the stylized rusticity of the cooking here, and I ended up with a tureen of delicious chicken bouillon garnished with chopped mint, cubes of celery root and carrot, and, in very direct reference to Shinozuka’s previous kitchen (Le Comptoir du Relais) tapioca, which sounds much better in French as “perles du Japon” (Japanese pearls). Both dishes were earnest and well-executed, if more polite than intriguing.
My roasted filet of cod with baby clams was impeccable, however–a perfectly cooked piece of fish with the gently briny baby clams adding both texture and gastronomic punctuation to the quiet flavors of the cod. Lady K’s veal breast was beautifully cooked, too–browned so that it was crusted and caramelized and then slow-braised so that she could eat it without a knife. Her garnish of slivered griddled baby potatoes and chopped bacon in a light foamy cream sauce was excellent, too, for its bosomy autumnal earthiness. in fact the only problem mid-way through our meal was that the room had become so noisy that we had to shout at each other across the table to be heard. I think this was partially due to the full house in a small, low-ceilinged room with no sound-absorbing fabric in the windows, but also to the fact that the ambient noise level in Paris restaurants has risen dramatically during the last few years. I don’t regret the whispery staidness that once prevailed in many Paris restaurants, but it’s obvious that a certain aural restraint is falling by the wayside in Paris as its done long ago in London and New York. In New York, I’d note that many of the most amped up diners seem to be young Wall Street yahoos with absolutely no awareness whatsoever of those around them, while in Paris, it seems that an old Gallic taboo on being loud in public spaces has been discarded by a younger crowd out to have a good time.
I finished up with a generously served and well-selected cheeseboard, while Lady K had a nicely made Baba au Rhum, correctly soaked tableside from a good bottle of rum from the island of La Reunion. Because the room was so noisy, we decided to have coffee down the street at a cafe instead of lingering, and once we were in a calmer setting, Lady K said, “So what did you think?” “It was a good meal,” I replied, “But it lacked any distinctive signature.” Or in other words, it was like so many other ‘bistronomique’ meals I’ve had in Paris during the last twenty years, but I don’t fault chef Shinozuka for this. Instead, I think he’s a talented chef and a very diligent student of the idiom in which he was trained. But for the first time in years, I do find myself wondering: So what comes next in Paris?
Les Enfants Rouges,Â 9 rue de Beauce, 3rd, Tel. 01-48-87-80-61. Metro:Â Arts et MĂ©tiers, Filles du Calvaire or Saint-SĂ©bastien-Froissart. Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner. Average 35 Euros.
Â Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazineâs European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for ParisÂ (Random House), his personal selection of the cityâs 102 bestÂ restaurants, which Alice Waters has called âa wonderful guide to eating in Paris.â Lobranoâs Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potterâs Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
Perched on a hillside overlooking Paris, Montmartre, once a country village and later a bohemian neighborhood known for its lively cabarets and popular with artists like Toulouse Laurtrec and Utrillo, is one of the most visited districts of the city. The basilique du Sacre Coeur and the Place du Terte, where the artists once congregated, are its main attractions, but to enjoy the handsome church and the fine views over the city from its steps, I send out-of-town friends up there early in the morning and also advise them to skip the tourist-heavy Place du Terte in favor of a long walk with no itinerary through the streets of the neighborhood to enjoy its particular atmosphere and interesting architecture.
The dog days of August are a challenge in terms of finding places to eat when friends come to town, but they also offer me a rare opportunity to revisit places I haven’t been for a very longtime. So when a gaggle of pals decided on dinner a few weeks ago and wanted somewhere in Saint Germain des Pres, it occurred to me that we could go toÂ La Rotisserie d’en Face, a place I hadn’t been in years.
When chef Jacques Cagna opened this studiously ‘Country French’ style dining room specializing in roast chicken in 1992, I lived on the Left Bank and went often, because the straightforward food was good and it was reasonably priced. You often saw Cagna here, too, because his eponymous two-star main table was just down the street, and he was rightly proud of the simple but good-quality French comfort food he served here. So the La Rotisserie d’en Face got a lot of press coverage, and then became a listing i most of the world’s major English language guidebooks to Paris. It remains in these pages today, too, although I rather doubt that most of the writers have been back recently.
Cagna retired several years ago and closed his main restaurant, but this place soldiers on and fills a need in a popular tourist neighborhood for simple uncomplicated French food as much today as it did on the first day that it opened. I think concierges must love it, too, since it hits the right buttons for being within walking distance of their front doors, and also moderately priced with a menu to please almost all comers.
The fact that it was August and many Parisians are away on holiday notwithstanding, this is a restaurant that people who lived in the neighborhood pretty much stopped going to many years ago, because it became known as a tourist table. Rightly or wrongly, this is just a fact of living in a heavily touristed city. When a restaurant’s clientele becomes largely transient and mostly foreign, Parisians don’t want to eat there anymore. The other night, though, there was a large well-dressed family from Bordeaux, but as far as I could hear, almost everyone else was foreign, including the four of us, Americans who have all lived in Paris for a very longtime.
Eyeballing the menu, we agreed it looked more innocuous than interesting, but no one had any trouble finding something to eat. As it was a warm night, three of us had the cold tomato-zucchini soup with basil and the fourth chose the chicken liver and duck pate with watercress salad. Served in white porcelain bowls, the soup brought business-class dining to mind, since even at the height of tomato season in France, it lacked any depth of flavor or the rich scarlet color of ripe tomatoes and was timidly seasoned. The translation of the French word ‘courgette’ to ‘zucchini’ on the menu was another indication of their predominantly American clientele, too, since the British and most other northern European call them courgettes. In America, the vegetable must have either arrived with or gained popularity after the arrival of Italian immigrants. Though it was served too cold and defaced with a squirt-bottle dribble of sticky brown sauce that was probably some derivation of Balsamic vinegar, the pate was “correct,” as the French would say, the adjective in this instance meaning something that’s acceptable. Of more interest, actually, was the accompanying watercress salad, since these crisp peppery greens seen to infrequently on Paris menus were ideal for rousing heat-dulled appetites.
Our exceptionally attentive and polite waiter, who automatically spoke to us in English, because who else comes here but English-speakers and he’d overheard us speak English, asked the three of us who ordered the roast chicken with potato puree if we wanted a wing (i.e. breast) or a leg, a nice touch, and told me when I asked that he sells many more wings than legs. The fourth diner chose the ‘pastilla’ of guinea hen, eggplant and pine nuts in a honey sauce. Well, the birds were sad fowl, with dry compact meat with very little flavor and the sort of elastic skin that’s created by heat lamps. They were described as ‘spit-roasted’ and ‘free-range,’ but the hopefulness elicited by these phrases sputtered as soon as we tucked in, and almost as if to emphasize the sorry anonymity of these poor poulets was the way they were garnished–with a single sprig of flat parsley and a few cubes on unripe tomato. The accompanying potato puree was ‘correct,’ but theÂ jusÂ that sauced our plates was remarkable only for nearly total absence of flavor.
Meanwhile, the pastilla had flown the coop in terms of what this word should mean in Moroccan cooking, where it’s a specialty. Instead of flaky layers of pastry interleaved with fowl, my friend got a floppy confectioner’s sugar dusted crepe-like reticule stuffed with a “correct’ ragout of guinea hen and eggplant. Almost as some sort of vegetal consolation prize, her sack was accompanied by a large serving of salad and a few cubes of unripe tomato were scattered on her plate as–as what? Well, something decorative rather than edible. Not surprisingly, a pall briefly settled over the table as we tasted our food, and it was only banished by good conversation, a nice bottle of Saint Veran, and the well-intentioned ministrations of our very nice waiter. No one was tempted by dessert, and when we sat down on a cafe terrace for a coffee after dinner, one of the gang accurately judged the meal we’d just eaten as “Correct, sans plus,” or acceptable, but not more than that,Â helas!
La RĂŽtisserie d’en Face, 2 rue Christine, 6th, Tel. 01-75-85-14-60. Metro: Odeon. Open Mon-Fri for lunch and dinner. Saturday dinner only. Closed Sunday. Lunch menu 23 Euros, 28 Euros, 37 Euros.; average a la carte dinner 45 Euros.www.larotisseriedenface.com
Â Â Â Alexander LobranoÂ was Gourmet magazineâs European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for ParisÂ (Random House), his personal selection of the cityâs 102 bestÂ restaurants, which Alice Waters has called âa wonderful guide to eating in Paris.â Lobranoâs Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potterâs Travel Report. Visit his website,Â Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
By Alexander Lobrano
This year in Paris, a late, damp and often overcast Spring has been pushing and pulling my appetite in all different directions. To be sure, I’ve eating as much French grown asparagus–both green and white, as I can get my hands on, but the gray skies and cool temperatures have left me yearning for sturdier comfort food than I’m accustomed to craving at this time of the year. Then I went to dinner the other night atÂ Les Climats,Â a very pleasant new restaurant in one of my favorite restaurant venues in Paris, the elegant Belle Epoque dining room of a handsome old dormitory building that once housed young single ladies who worked for theÂ P.T.T. (Poste Telegramme, Telephone), and found my seasonal groove again.
In the early nineties when this place first became an open-to-the-public restaurant, it was calledÂ Le Telegraphe, and it enjoyed a two or three year run as one of the most fashionable restaurants on the Left Bank, despite the fact that the food was never better than a little better-than-average. Tipped off by a friend who lives nearby that it had recently re-opened yet again–it’s been through several middlingly successful incarnations since it was Le Telegraphe, Bruno and I decided to treat ourselves to what we hoped would be a good dinner on yet another drizzly cool Friday evening. I knew nothing about the chef, but my friend did tell me that it had a ‘lush’ decor and that the wine list was all Burgundies, right down to a Cremant du Bourgogne instead of Champagne, and since I find Burgundies, especially white ones, absolutely perfect drinking for Spring, I thought we might be able to will the season into existence over a good glass of Burgundy or two.
Arriving, we had a choice to two different settings, the dining room up front with lots of scarlet wing chairs with leopard print trim and some very beautiful Secessionist style art-nouveau reproduction chandeliers, or a pretty terrazzo-floored terrace with white wicker chairs and a greenhouse walls overlooking the lush courtyard back garden where meals are served at noon only in deference to the neighbors. Since the dining room was one of those spaces that look too designed to be comfortable, we opted for the terrace, with its mix of British colonial and art-nouveau references.
Over a glass of very good Cremant de Bourgogne — I long ago learned that these sparkling wines not only offer exceptional value for the money but are often excellent — we studied the menu, which had clearly been been constructed to flatter the restaurant’s remarkable wine list. Willing summer to begin, Bruno ordered the sea bream carpaccio on a bed of razor-fine cucumber scales garnished with ambered colored gelee flavored with Xerex vinegar, a brilliant idea, and I had an impeccably well made Opera de foie gras on a bed of spice-bread sponge with Gewurtztraminer gelee. The steely artistry present in both of these dishes made me curious about the chef, and whom our very nice waiter informed me isÂ Phan Chi Tam, a young Frenchman of Vietnamese origin who had most recently been working forÂ Thierry MarxÂ atÂ Sur Mesure, his restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Paris.
The smart counter-casting of the eager young serving staff, most of whom commute to this plush corner of the Left Bank from far afield suburbs, leavened the atmosphere of the restaurant in a useful way as well. To wit, even the stuffiest B.C.B.G. poseurs were guilessly brought to heel by the sincerity of this trying-so-very-hard-to-please young crew.
Â Our main courses were excellent as well. Bruno loved his steamed turbot with baby clams and a rich foamy dashi broth and was delighted to get his hands on a glass of the same sublime Puligny Montrachet I’d had with my foie gras (in addition to the spectacular wine list, they also offer a terrific variety of pours by the glass). My veal tartare, a fine foil for good wine, was coarsely chopped excellent quality meat that was garnished with a puree of fava beans and baby peas and very timidly seasoned with a little bit of citrus zest. Even though it was lovely with a glass of Hautes Cotes de Beaune, a little pinch of piment d’Espelette and a light sprinkle of coarse sea salt with sea weed would have given this fine product more personality.
Desserts were excellent, too, including the Pierre Herme-inspired litchi and fresh raspberry macaron I enjoyed and a lime-flavored ‘boule de neige’ (frozen dairy confection) with ginger-and-passionfruit coulis that Bruno chose. Though it’s rather expensive at dinner–you could easily spend 130 Euros a head with a glass of wine or two, I suspect this sophisticated, worldly and well-conceived place will be hugely popular this summer at noon, when they serve two reasonably priced prix-fixe lunch menus (36 Euros and 45 Euros) in their secret garden. And after all of the years during which this type of restaurant–serious tables with seriously good French cooking for a well-heeled and well-dressed clientele, have been dying out, it’s nice that even during this balkish Spring, a welcome trend to their renewal continues not only with the charming Les Climats, butÂ GoustÂ and places likeÂ Les Tablettes de Jean-Louis Nomicos, this latter restaurant being a real forerunner of this gastronomic redux.
Les Climats, 41 rue de Lille, 7th, Tel. 01-58-62-10-08. Metro: Solferino. Open daily. Lunch menus 36 Euros, 45 Euros. Average a la carte dinner 120 Euros.www.lesclimats.frÂ
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazineâs European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for ParisÂ (Random House), his personal selection of the cityâs 102 bestÂ restaurants, which Alice Waters has called âa wonderful guide to eating in Paris.â Lobranoâs Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potterâs Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
Unfortunately it doesn’t happen very often, which is why I appreciate the very rare pleasure of spontaneously deciding to try a restaurant in Paris even more. As a food writer, you see, I’m obviously obliged to keep up with the latest new addresses, and since I don’t like going to restaurants on the weekend if I can avoid it–as a rule of thumb, Parisians generally cook or entertain at home then, which leaves the city’s restaurants to suburbanites or tourists, and I’m also too busy to go out to lunch, this leaves me five available meals per week to test the latest openings. This may sound adequate, but recently a whole week went by during which I didn’t find a single meal that was worthy of writing up here, even if only in negative terms. Â
Yesterday, though, after we couldn’t get into “Mud,” which opened here yesterday, Bruno and I decided to go for a long walk after having spent a print-drunk day at home. Knowing that the fridge was bare, I hoped the Tunisian green grocer at the bottom of the rue des Martyrs would be open so that we could buy some asparagus and rustle up a simple dinner at home. But he’d already closed, so we keep walking up the rue des Martyrs with the idea of doing sort of a H shaped walk home. Along the way, I found myself regretting the two branches ofÂ FuxiaÂ that have opened here–the food’s okay, but it is a chain, and also thinking that it had been a very long time since I’d last eaten atÂ Le Cul de Poule, which was packed last night. The menu there didn’t really speak to me, though, and Bruno had already said he didn’t want to eat at a restaurant, so we keep moving, and then it started to rain again, so we stopped under the awning ofÂ La Table des AngesÂ to wait out the shower, and of course I read the menu posted outside. It looked really good, and there was a reasonably priced 32 Euro prix-fixe, so I turned to Bruno, who said “Non” even before I’d opened my mouth. “Well, why ‘Non,’? We don’t have anything to eat at home, it’s getting late, I’m hungry, this place looks good.” “We still have some salad.” He could live on lettuce and other leaves, but I can’t and won’t so I told him I’d invited him to dinner and stepped inside.
Seated at a wooden table with Kraft paper place mats by one of friendly owners, who immediately brought us a complimentry serving of speck and salami to nibble while we studied the menu, I liked the look of this place. The exposed stone walls gave it a warm atmosphere, and the slicing machine by the chalkboard announcing the daily specials inspired confidence, too. Still, tempted though I may have been, I was not going to order langoustine risotto in a Paris restaurant I didn’t know–I’ve had good risotto exactlyÂ onceÂ in Paris during twenty-five futile years of trying, and so instead decided on the asparagus veloute and the brandade de morue, which is one of my favorite dishes. Bruno chose the homemade duck terrine and the quenelles de brochet (pike perch dumplings), and we ordered a bottle of Fleurie, a perfect Spring time wine, from the short but interesting wine list. Happily, the bright cherry-jam nose of the Fleurie dissolved whatever peevishness Bruno was still nursing over this impromptu dinner outing, and then things took a decided shift for the better when our starters arrived.
Studded with pistachios, Bruno’s duck terrine was homemade, beautifully seasoned (thyme, green pepper corns), generously served and accompanied by a ramekin of tangy onion jam. My froathy soup had a superb depth of flavor, too, and the bread served with these dishes was excellent crusty baguette with a lacy crumb and a faint perfume of wood smoke. I overheard the couple sitting in the corner across from us congratulating themselves for having found this place, too, and grinned as I watched the owner serving them each a complimentry tot of fiery hazelnut eau de vie that had been made by monks somewhere in the Yonne. I hoped we’d get to taste it, too.
SinceÂ brandade de morue, that sublime mixture of baked olive-oil lashed whipped potatoes, salt cod and garlic that’s perhaps best sampled in Nimes, can be a sorry business when it’s not made with real care, I hoped our luck would hold with the main courses. Ditto Bruno’s quenelles de brochet, which can be leaden and tasteless when made from industrial ingredients in industrial quantities. This apprehension surely explained Bruno’s alarm when the waiter revealed his enormous quenelle in a covered Staub casserole. As if reading his mind, however, he reassured Bruno that it was homemade and also explained that the accompanying sauce had been made with broth and a little cream but no flour. The quenelle’s delicate sauce was also garnished with mushrooms, carrots, baby onions and a potato.Â
Potently garlicky and almost airy in its lightness, the brandade was superb, as was Bruno’s quenelle. When we claimed a well-fed pause before dessert, the owner returned to the table with two glasses of Fleurie from another producer, a thoughtful gesture, and we complimented him over his chef. “Thank you, yes, he’s very talented,” said the proprietor, who told us his name is Yan Duranceau, a young up-and-comer who has already worked atÂ Le Grand VĂ©four, the Plaza AthĂ©nĂ©e and Taillevent.
Both of us finished up with fine slices ofÂ brebis dâestive, which is made by Christine Arripe at her Ferme de la Montagne Verte in the Ossau valley and shipped directly to this restaurant in Paris. The particularity of this rich but subtle ewe’s milk cheese is that it’s only made during the transhumance period from June to September in the up-mountain valleys of the Bearn. Not surprisingly, it has won a Slow Food label, and it’s just superb.
And finally, two slugs of that mysterious hazelnut eau de vie, which made our eyes water and tasted exactly the way a rafter in the attic of Burgundian barn might if you gave it a good lick–grass, dust, caramel, smoke, it was just lovely, and we walked home with the fuzzy happiness of having inadvertently discovered a delightful new everyday restaurant in our neighborhood embroidered with the warm halo induced by the monks’ skills with a still.
La Table des Anges,Â 66 rue des Martyrs, 9th, Tel. 01-55-32-24-89. Metro: Pigalle or Notre Dame de Lorette
www.latabledesanges.fr, Closed Sundays and Mondays. Lunch menu 16 Euros, prix-fixe menu 32 Euros. Average a la carte 45 Euros.Â
Â Â Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazineâs 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 âHungry for ParisâÂ (Random House), his personal selection of the cityâs 102 bestÂ restaurants, which Alice Waters has called âa wonderful guide to eating in Paris.â Lobranoâs Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potterâs Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.(Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
I’ve known and admired Italian born sommelier and restaurateur Enrico Bernardo for a long time, or ever since I first met him when he was working at the Four Seasons George V Hotel, the setting from which he won the prestigious title of Meilleur Sommelier du Monde (world’s best sommelier) in 2004 at the remarkably young age of twenty-seven, with this honor following on the heels of Best Sommelier in Europe, 2002; Best Sommelier in Italy, 1996-97; and Master of Port, Italy 1995.
For starters, there’s an ambience of worldly hospitality in the good-looking and stylishly decorated dining room on the first floor of a Napoleon III townhouse on a quiet street in the heart of Paris. The staff are polite and precise but also warm and relaxed, a service style that’s an important prerequisite for enjoying the highly curated meals Bernardo serves here. To wit, Goust is all about wine and food pairings, so the best way of dining here is to opt for a tasting menu with a different pour being served with every course.
By Larry Olmsted
There has been a lot of talk the past six months about rising airfares, here and abroad, but summer vacation season to Europe is when leisure travelers typically get sticker shock, with peak season fares ratcheted up.
The bad news is that fares are higher this summer to the most popular western European gateways. But the good news is that in most cases the increases are pretty small, not enough to make travelers change plans. For instance, according to leading travel booking website Orbitz.com, flights from the US to Dublin jumped all of 1% from summer 2012 to summer 2013, meaning you will pay on average $8 more than last year. Hardly a game changer.
But the most notable thing for summer travel is that in some European markets hotel rates are down so significantly they make up â or even surpass â any airfare increases. Read more at Forbes.com