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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)

L.A. Restaurants Go Global

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Kevin Luzande, chef de cuisine at Acabar in West Hollywood, was a Zagat’s “30 under 30”honoree. PHOTO CREDIT: Acabar

Kevin Luzande, chef de cuisine at Acabar in West Hollywood, was a Zagat’s “30 under 30”honoree. PHOTO CREDIT: Acabar

 

By Rochelle Lash

The top restaurants in Los Angeles are meeting the world half-way. Cuisine in La-La Land has gone global and stayed local – and both directions are trending at the same time.

California changed everything about European-style fine dining 40 years ago when Alice Waters of Chez Panisse introduced dressed-down food and farm-to-table ingredients to a world of gastronomy that had prized imported products and fancy preparations.

Creativity still abounds, with new dining spots opening as fast as Hollywood produces action flicks, and seamless new fusions emerging as chefs without borders embrace foreign flavours that complement Americana.

There is wine, of course, from exclusive Napa Valley vineyards to the great regions of Europe. But exotic mixology rules the L.A. restaurant scene for now – cocktails popping with vivid garden colours, turbo-fuelled fun and an array of zingy tastes.

Freds at Barneys New York, Beverly Hills.

Freds at Barneys New York, Beverly Hills.

Several events around L.A. celebrate food: California Restaurant Month (Jan. 1-31), Santa Monica Eat Well Week (Jan. 4-11), Los Angeles’ Winter dineLA Restaurant Week (Jan. 19-Feb.1), and the Summer dineLA Restaurant Week (July dates TBA). These culinary events will spotlight celebrity chef events, wine-pairing specials, gourmet prix-fixe dinners and seasonal tastings.

But we live in the Insta-moment. Right now in Beverly Hills, power lunchers and power shoppers are flocking to Freds which opened in October in the I-must-have-everything department store, Barneys New York. Freds is an established blend of couture and comfort cuisine for Tinseltown’s VIP clientele, It’s wildly popular for the Beverly Hills Club Sandwich and artisan pizzas such as robiola cheese with truffle oil. Carb-deniers are opting for Estelle’s Chicken Soup and salads of shrimp, kale, artichoke and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.

Venturing farther on the culinary map, here is a peek at four L.A. dining spots that invited me to sample their interpretations of the essences of Asia, South America, Europe and the good old U.S.A.: The new-in-2014 Faith & Flower that is shaking up California style in downtown L.A.; the inviting, French-inspired Jiraffe in Santa Monica; the exotic, eclectic Acabar in West Hollywood; and the slick, worldly Hakkasan in Beverly Hills.

Faith & Flower in downtown L.A. boasts stunning post-modern décor and sumptuous cuisine. PHOTO CREDIT: Faith & Flower

Faith & Flower in downtown L.A. boasts stunning post-modern décor and sumptuous cuisine. PHOTO CREDIT: Faith & Flower

NEWEST OF THE NEW

Faith & Flower has been rocking the L.A. scene since it opened downtown in April. Spectacular post-modern interiors and the finesse of executive chef Michael Hung make this the city’s most important recent launch.

Chef Hung brings precious Michelin-starred experience from Daniel and Aquavit in New York and La Folie in San Francisco. His range is impressive: Think gossamer halibut carpaccio all the way to rich, aromatic quail and wild mushrooms, hot from a wood-fired oven with a hint of a European hunting lodge.

He calls the provenance “rustic Californian,” but I sense a universe of flavours and aromas in these delightfully different dishes: Tai snapper roasted in seaweed with scallion vinaigrette, kimchee devilled eggs, duck-liver mousse tarts, N.Y. steak tartare flavoured with miso cream, Longanisa sausage grilled over mesquite and pizza spiced with pork confit and chile verde.

Faith & Flower has an all-star team from drinks to dessert. Chief mixologist Michael Lay has adopted a Russian way of inhaling absinthe fumes, as well as cocktails brewed with Dutch gin, Japanese whisky and hints of basil, apricot and ginger.  Executive pastry chef Ben Spungin marries light textures and rich flavours with Greek yogurt panna cotta and a hazelnut chocolate feuilletine.

Jiraffe in Santa Monica. PHOTO Jiraffe

Jiraffe in Santa Monica. PHOTO Jiraffe

FRANCE VIA CALIFORNIA

If you stroll through the Santa Monica Farmers’ markets, you might run into chef Raphael Lunetta sourcing ingredients for his charming gourmet restaurant, JiRaffe.

JiRaffe is a rare gem: a real dining spot in unreal La-La Land, driven by a chef deeply committed to his calling. JiRaffe serves sophisticated food, but it’s not fussy or precious.

Lunetta, a popular personality on TV and in L.A.’s culinary community, has operated JiRaffe for nearly 20 years and it is has stayed as fresh as Day 1. Crystal chandeliers add a touch of Europe to a Santa Monica storefront and the pretty bistro decor in ebony and ivory reflects California’s casual style.

JiRaffe boasts no other frills, only authentic French-inspired food, good Champagne, Cabernet and Chablis by the glass and cocktails such as the white-peach vodka martini – infused with ripe fruit from the farmers’ market.

Lunetta was born in N.Y. and raised in Southern California, but when he was young, he regularly visited his aunt’s farmhouse in the south of France. The family would cook Mediterranean seafood and Provençale vegetables over open fires stoked with grapevines. Et voilà! A chef with a passion for French-style cooking was born.

The tasty treats start with JiRaffe’s caramelized onion soup, tomato tart with burrata cheese and balsamic, the summery shrimp salad with white beans and fennel and the dramatic black linguini with sea crab in a spicy tomato sauce. JiRaffe’s signature mains include pan-roasted venison or rack of lamb, halibut au poivre, mushroom salad with shaved black truffles and chicken with polenta and roasted grapes.

Acabar in West Hollywood boasts Moorish decor and a world-beat of delicacies. PHOTO CREDIT: Acabar

Acabar in West Hollywood boasts Moorish decor and a world-beat of delicacies. PHOTO CREDIT: Acabar

MOORISH MYSTIQUE

At Acabar in West Hollywood, the design is Moorish and the menu is a melting pot of Middle Eastern, French, Mediterranean and Asian dishes.

Acabar is an exotic space of Arabic arches and secluded booths, an exciting gathering spot for dinner as well as a pre- and post- stop for cocktails and bites, with weekly live music and DJs on select nights.

It has solid L.A. credentials with high-profile patrons such as Charlize Theron, Ashton Kutcher, Tyra Banks, Will Farrell, Jim Carrey, Halle Berry, Sara Silverman and Mila Kunis. And, Acabar is partly owned by movie producer-director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, White House Down).

Acabar’s drinks kick off with tequila, mescal and vodka in fruity, spicy, aromatic, floral and spicy concoctions. Then, there’s a category of just plain strong, like the Acabar Sazerac, a potent blend of cognac, rye and bitters.

Chef de cuisine Kevin Luzande is a former Zagat’s “30 under 30” honoree and he doesn’t hold back. Dinner is a world-beat of delicacies : crispy shrimp toast with Thai basil; spicy prawns in a Lebanese presentation of labneh and harissa; charred octopus with Spanish sausage, white beans and Valencia oranges; luscious lamb tagine with coucous. And the sea bass is served whole, for two people, with Chinese greens, peanuts and Sichuan peppercorn sauce.

By now, you have lost all will power, bowing to premium spirits such as Brazilian cachaca or small-batch bourbon from Kentucky. The build-your-own dessert plate is the final blow. It’s an unbridled platter of caramel, meringue, macadamia cookies, and bonbons of cherry, chocolate and banana.

Black pepper beef is one of the signature dishes at Hakkasan, a global group of 12 superb restaurants helmed by the Michelin-starred chef, Ho Chee Boon.  PHOTO CREDIT: Hakkasan

Black pepper beef is one of the signature dishes at Hakkasan, a global group of 12 superb restaurants helmed by the Michelin-starred chef, Ho Chee Boon. PHOTO CREDIT: Hakkasan

CHINESE EMPIRE

If you are accustomed to dining well in London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai, you probably have experienced the exquisite Chinese fare at Hakkasan, a global group of 12 superb restaurants helmed by the Michelin-starred chef, Ho Chee Boon.

Hakkasan radiates the high life. The contemporary Asian interiors are striking.  The service is pitch-perfect. And the food is divine.

At Hakkasan Beverly Hills, the bar scene looks like a Scorcese-di Caprio take on swish night life: successful “suits” celebrate the day’s successes with meaningful drinks like the Dark & Stormy (rum-ginger) or Buddha’s Palm (bourbon-yuzu).

Moving to subdued tables behind an elaborate Chinese screen, the focus is on gastronomy. Chef Tong Chee Hwee creates Cantonese-inspired feasts such as wok-fried lobster, crispy duck salad, silver cod with Champagne, black-pepper beef rib-eye with Merlot. Grilled Waygu beef and black-truffle roasted duck.

The repertoire – and it’s a biggie — ranges from comforting jasmine rice and dim sum with scallops to the extravagant roll-your-own Peking duck with caviar, pancakes and veggies. The whole duck, a mouth-watering prospect, costs $288 for four.

The newly designed bar at Hakkasan Beverly Hills is a hot spot for cocktails such as the Dark & Stormy (rum-ginger) or Buddha’s Palm (bourbon-yuzu). PHOTO CREDIT:  Hakkasan Beverly Hills

The newly designed bar at Hakkasan Beverly Hills is a hot spot for cocktails such as the Dark & Stormy (rum-ginger) or Buddha’s Palm (bourbon-yuzu). PHOTO CREDIT: Hakkasan Beverly Hills

DETAILS:

Tourism info at: discoverlosangeles.com, visitcalifornia.com.

Acabar: 323-876-1400, acabar-la.com; 510 N. Stanley Ave. at Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood/Los Angeles, Calif.; Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.

Faith & Flower; 213-239-0642, faithandflowerla.com, 705 W. 9th St., bet. Figueraoa and Flower Sts.; lunch from 11:30 a.m, Mon.-Fri..; dinner from 5:30 p.m., Mon-Sun. Brunch, from 10:30 a.m., Sat.-Sun.

Freds at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills: 310- 777-5877, www.barneys.com; 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, Calif.; open from 11 a.m., Mon-Fri.; from 10 a.m., Sat.-Sun.

Hakkasan, Beverly Hills: 310-888-8661, hakkasan.com; 233 N. Beverly Drive at Wilshire, Beverly Hills; dining from 6 p.m, Mon.-Sat.; bar from 5:30 p.m.  Other U.S. locations include Miami, N.Y., Las Vegas and San Francisco.

JiRaffe: 310-917-6671, jirafferesturant.com; 502 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif; dinner from 5:30, Mon.-Sat.

 

Rochelle Lash is a career newspaper and magazine editor and writer in lifestyles and news. She has written about travel for the Montreal Gazette/ Postmedia Group, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Robb Report, The New York Times, and Town & Country.  A Montrealer, she has an M.A., in Journalism from Univ. of Missouri, Brad Pitt's alma mater (he dropped out).  When not traveling, she is skiing, cycling, paddle-boarding and reading. rochelle@rochellelash.com

Rochelle Lash is a career newspaper and magazine editor and writer in lifestyles and news. She has written about travel for the Montreal Gazette/ Postmedia Group, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Robb Report, The New York Times, and Town & Country. A Montrealer, she has an M.A., in Journalism from Univ. of Missouri, Brad Pitt’s alma mater (he dropped out). When not traveling, she is skiing, cycling, paddle-boarding and reading. rochelle@rochellelash.com

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)

“Hungry for France” by Alexander Lobrano

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Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: La Boîte à Sardine

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La Boîte à Sardine, Marseilles

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

It may sound odd, but as far as I’m concerned, the best time of the year to visit Marseille is during the winter. This is when the city is quiet without its growing tourist throngs, and the Mediterranean sun is more welcome than ever. The strong wind-scoured light at this time of the year makes the city rather beautiful, too. Marseille is a wonderful weekend away from Paris as well, since it’s only three hours away by TGV train and rooms in most of the city’s hotels go for low-season rates. If Marseille is never a particularly self-conscious city even in high season–it’s bluff disinterest in travelers is one of the reasons I like it so much, actually–it’s even more devoid of any social artifice during the winter.

Spending a few days here recently, I loved the fact that no one asked me about my accent when I spoke French, probably because in Marseille, France’s second largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan city, almost everyone has an accent. The only exception was when I went for lunch to my favorite seafood restaurant, La Boîte à Sardine, which recently moved to a new location near the church of  Saint-Vincent-de-Paul at the top of la Canebière, the city’s storied main artery, which runs down hill to Le Vieux Port, or the old harbor where the city was founded as a colony by the Greeks some 2600 years ago. There’s simply no better place in this port town to get a really good reasonably priced feed of just-out-of-the-water seafood, so I popped in early and took a stool at the counter, since I knew they wouldn’t waste a table at this very popular place on a single diner.

 

Table with life vests at La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

Table with life vests at La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

I was very much hoping my favorite dish would be on the catch-of-the-day menu—sea anemone beignets, but when I asked the owner, Fabien Rugi, who directs the restaurant from behind the bar in front of the kitchen, he told me that he hadn’t been able to get any the day before and suggested I go have a look at the fish stand (they also sell fish) to see what else might tempt me. Before I could slip off my stool, though, he slid a glass of white wine across the bar and said, “Votre accent–vous n’etes pas d’ici.” No, I told him, I’m not from Marseille. “Vous venez d’ou? Vous etes Belge?” (Where are you from? Are you Belgian?”) No, I told him, I come from across the sea.

There were a few beautiful loup de mer (sea bass) on the stand, but I knew I’d have to order quickly to get my hands on one, since the restaurant was filling up quickly, and the reason it has so many regulars is that Rugi sources his menu from local small-boat fishermen. So I darted back to the bar and ordered some shrimp as a starter and then a loup de mer. Rugi warned that it might be a lot for one person, but I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finishing a large specimen of one of my very favorite fish. The grilled baby squid, spaghetti with langouste (rock lobster), and rougets (red mullet) also tempted, but I held firm.

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

 

If I had any doubt as to where I was, the shrimp–plump perfectly cooked crimson curls of juicy sea meat–came with a big spoonful of garlicky aioli as well as a lemon wedge, and I’d just finished my first one when I heard Rugi telling a businessman down the bar from me that he couldn’t have his fish if he didn’t close his iPad and devote his attention to his meal. “I just wanted to read the paper,” the man implored, but Rugi insisted. “Concentrate on your meal instead–how can you really enjoy your food when you’re reading? My fish deserves your full attention.” One way or another, the triangular shaped room hung with fish nets and decorated with nautical bric brac offered ample distractions of one stripe or another. I loved watching chef Celine Bonnieu at work in the kitchen behind the bar, and the high spirits of a table of molls with dolls  getting happy on a bottle of Champagne were contagious, too.

Some people might perceive of Rugi, a lean man in a knit cap who’s as light on his feet as a boxer, as being a little high-handed with his customers, but I rather admire it, because he’s incredibly proud of the quality of the fish he serves, and rightly so. And if I often have a magazine with me when I go for a solo meal, I rarely read it, for the simple reasons that I enjoy observing what’s going on around me and I prefer to focus on my food.

 

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

La Boîte à Sardine, Marseille

When my sautéed sea bass arrived, with sides of deliciously smoky tasting caponata filled with capers, a timbale of Camargue rice and some broccoli florets in lemon butter, the first thing I ate were the gorgeous fish’s succulent meaty cheeks. “Bravo!” I heard and looked up. Rugi was nodding at me with a smile and some curiosity. “They’re the best bit,” he said, referring to the cheeks and topping up my glass even though I hadn’t ordered more wine. “Les Anglo-Saxons never know to eat the cheeks. In fact they don’t really know how to eat fish at all,” he said and shook his head. The curious French habit of referring to English speakers by the name of a long gone early medieval tribe notwithstanding, I felt more flattered than patronized by his remark for the simple reason that it’s often true as concerns people who come from countries that prefer filets to anything whole.

With just a little dribble of green olive oil from a mill in Les Alpilles, the fish was superb–firm and delicately tasting of the sea. I was completely lost in its voluptuousness when a handsome blonde woman edged up to the bar next to me and exchanged ‘Bonjours’ with Rigi. Then she asked him if he served bouillabaisse, and I knew what was coming.  ”You don’t eat bouillabaisse in a restaurant!” he told the abashed Scandinavian. “It’s really only good when you make it at home!” After the chastened woman withdrew, he picked up a plump red mullet by the tail. “This is what she should eat in Marseille!” he said, to me and the previously scolded businessman a stool down, and we nodded. He was right, of course, but I also couldn’t help but thinking how the cameo I’d just witnessed summed up so much of the impasse between Marseille and the rest of the world. In this city, you see, they’re blunt, they’re proud and they’re honest, and the power of this trinity often startles people who don’t realize it’s well intended. For my part, I like knowing I never have to bring a magazine with me to lunch at La Boîte à Sardine, and if it were just out my door, I’d be tempted to have lunch there every other day at least.

La Boîte à Sardine, 2 boulevard de la Libération, Marseille, Tel. 04-91-50-95-95, Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch only from 11am-3pm. Average 35 Euros.www.laboiteasardine.com

 

 

alec  Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Bistrot Belhara

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Bistrot Belhara, Paris

Bistrot Belhara, Paris

It’s hard for me to say exactly when my deep love of good food first surfaced, but suffice it to say that the thing that interested me most when our local newspaper arrived on Wednesdays were the school-lunch menus, which were published weekly so mothers could decide what days they’d pack a lunch for their kids or let eat the hot meal at school. My first school, the GreensFarmsElementary School, had a crew of smiling Italian ladies in hairnets who cooked everything from scratch, so the food was usually delicious. They made lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, baked zitti, grilled Italian sausages with peppers, and lots of other hearty, healthy dishes, including corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s Day, and once when my mother ate with us in the cafeteria before an afternoon field trip to a nearby dairy farm, she got up at the end of the meal and went into the kitchen to thank the cooks. I’d returned to the rails for a spoon for my butterscotch pudding, and so witnessed the scene. Abashed by my mother’s thanks, one of the cooks replied, “You’re very welcome, Ma’am, but it’s a privilege to feed the children,” she said.

Similarly, I loved going to restaurants, which was an infrequent pleasure for me as a child, and not only because they offered an opportunity to eat things like egg rolls or fried clams (Howard Johnson’s) that Mom didn’t make at home, but because they were so interesting. I loved watching the people, catching snatches of other people’s conversations, observing all of the little dramas unfold all around the room–here a birthday party, there a quarrel or a romance. I couldn’t have expressed it this way then, but aside from the food, what I fascinated me was that every restaurant is like a little theater where you can glean a lot of information about where your are.

All of this came to mind the other night when I went to the Bistrot Belhara, a very good new bistro deep in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. I lived in the 7th arrondissement for many years, first on the rue Monsieur and then on the rue du Bac, and so I was sort of bemused to find the same cast of characters who populated my life for many years.

Diners at Bistrot Belhara, Paris

Diners at Bistrot Belhara, Paris

While waiting for Bruno, I listened to the cashmere sweater drapped couple next to me planning a golf holiday in Mauritus, while the quartet to my right was fulminating about Francois Hollande. There were at least a half-dozen velvet covered Alice bands in the room and tight chignons galore. On a weekend night, the coat tree just inside the door was hung thick with loden, Barbours and vintage Burberry, as if many of those dining in this snug but handsome old-fashioned dining room with stenciled tile floors and bare wood tables were planning to head off to hunting parties in the Sologne after dinner. All told, the clientele presented such an intricate and irony-free tapestry of the habits, manners and preoccupations of the French bourgeoisie that it would have made great material for a sociological dissertation.

As I sipped a glass of white wine and studied the menu, I wondered what sort of gastronomic baseline chef  Thierry Dufroux would chose to cater to such a crowd. On the one hand, he’s had a really distinguished career cooking in the kitchens of the Grand Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, Michel Guerard, Bernard Loiseau and Alain Ducasse in Monaco, and on the other, every chef surely has to do some sort of culinary calculus in terms of what’s likely to please customers from the neighborhood in which he or she has chosen to locate. To be sure, there are some addresses that will pull people from all over Paris if the food’s good enough, and which will ring bells in the foreign press, but before that happens, he or she is very much dependent pleasing the locals. And as I know not only from the dozens of Sunday lunchs to which I was invited to by the Englishman and his French wife who were one set of landlords while I lived in the 7th–I’ll still never forget my astonishment when I realized one warm May afternoon when their windows were tightly closed and the radiator in the dining room was still hissing that they were mutedly making an attempt at match-making between me and their shy sturdy scholarly daughter–and many years of living in the 7th, what makes these people happy is a penny-wise vieille France cuisine bourgeoise.

The menu read well, though, and the restaurant was packed, so I guessed we’d eat well. In the meantime, the cordial waiter answered a question I had even before I’d asked it when he told me that the restaurant’s Moroccan sounding name actually refers to a type of very tall wave in the Bay of Biscay off of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque Country, a reference that might seem obtuse until you’re reminded that the chef worked in the Basque country for years and that it might be very roughly transliterated into “High Tide.” Once Bruno finally arrived from the distant suburb of Paris where he’d currently working, we ordered, and a homey well-made amuse bouche of butternut squash soup with brousse de brebis (fresh ewe’s milk cheese) and croutons announced the beginning of a very good meal.

As part of the 38 Euro prix-fixe menu, Bruno’s terrine of pheasant and patridge with foie gras was beautifully made and had a politely feral and charmingly bosky flavor, with twin tridents of Romaine referencing the fact that Dufroux had done time with Ducasse. And in a similarly autumnal register, my scallop stuffed ravioli in a light veloute of cepes might have made a pious old maid blush with pleasure and was just the sort of dish that the locals would love, because they’d never get up to anything this elaborate in the kitchen themselves. This dish tipped the kitchen’s hand, too, since it tacked safely away from cooking that might jar conventional ideas of French gastronomy while heading squarely towards a welcome haven of technical perfection and generosity informed by a well-disciplined creativity and the use of excellent produce.

 

escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham.

“Escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham.”

Our main courses were excellent, too. Bruno’s flaky golden petit pâté chaud was the type of exquisite dish that many of the other habituees of this restaurant that night might have enjoyed back in the sigh-inducingly long gone days when they could still afford full-time cooks, and it was filled with hashed duck and foie gras, one of the best pairings ever imagined in France. While Bruno was in a gamey mood that night, I couldn’t stay away from the escaloppe of veal sweetbreads, unctuously cooked to the texture of a nervy custard and garnished with baby potatoes and some Bayonne ham. In an inspired sleight of simplicity, the silky salty ham flattered the sweetbreads, and the appropriately unassuming sauce of deglazed pan drippings did what a sauce should do, which is meld the dish together. This preparation was perfect summary of Dufroux in the kitchen, too–casually elegant, technically perfect, and respectfully traditional with a tweak of irreverence to make it his own.

Small wonder then that this restaurant has so impressively established itself as a neighborhood favorite within months of opening, and this while walking the tight-rope of an affluent but reflexively parsimonious clientele who are wary of anything that wanders too wide of the mark of traditional French food.

I don’t own a loden coat, and I’m not planning on buying one anytime soon either, but I really enjoyed this meal too, and not just for Dufroux’s cooking, but for the alert, gracious service and the fact that even though it’s not a bargain address, it’s remarkably good value for the money given the caliber of the cooking.

"A Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf"

“A Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf”

With no trace of being tongue-in-cheek, the grand finales of our meal were vieille France enough to make me chuckle. Bruno had a Mont Blanc–pureed sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream and little fluttering shreds of gold leaf, and I had a fluffy rice pudding with caramel sauce, raisins, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios. So everything about this restaurant is sincere and wholesome, and it’s not only a good choice for a supremely French bistro meal with sly haute-cuisine credentials, but a fascinating place for some sociological sleuthing if you agree with me that there’s nothing better than a neighborhood restaurant in any city for an intriguing keyhole wide view or two of local life.

 

Bistrot Belhara, 23 rue Duvivier, 7th, Tel. 01-45-51-41-77.www.bistrotbelhara.com Metro: Ecole Militaire. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prix-fixe 38 Euros. Average 40 Euros

 

alec   Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014.  Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

Travels with Larry Olmsted: 12 Great Las Vegas Restaurants

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vegas

 

In recent years Las Vegas has emerged as one of the world’s greatest eating cities, home to more acclaimed celebrity chefs and Michelin-Star winners than anyplace else, but also full of less glamorous yet still delicious down home eats.

With close to 40 million annual visitors, Las Vegas is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and its clientele is amazingly diverse, from every part of the country and every corner of the globe, and the cuisine it offers represents this, with everything from kaiseki to tapas, Hawaiian specialties to Brazilian barbecue, rare Florida stone crabs to fish and chips. Carnivorous Vegas is awash in steakhouses, with the best selection in the world – and at every price point – while it also has an amazing array of fine French dining, with the most famous Parisian masters represented here. Then there is Las Vegas’ own homegrown specialty, the all-you-can-eat buffet, offered here in more iterations and staggering variety than anywhere else.

In that vein, the following are twelve eateries that are all exceptional within their genre, span a huge variety of tastes and price points, are located on and off the Strip, and in every case will deliver what the Vegas visitor desires most – a delicious and satisfying meal.

Continue reading 12 Great Vegas Restaurants

 

larry   Award-winning travel journalist Larry Olmsted is a Contributing Editor to US Airways Magazine and Cigar Aficionado Magazine and “The Great Life” columnist for Forbes.com.

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Bistro Bellet

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Blanquette de Veau at Bistro Bellet, Paris

Blanquette de Veau at Bistro Bellet, Paris

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 in 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, the 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 trendiest quartiers 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.

Bistro Bellet

Bistro Bellet

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 Niçois restaurant Réparate in the 11th arrondissement, and he recruited a really excellent cook, François 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 of pissaladiere–Niçoise 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.

Mussels at Bistro Bellet

Mussels at Bistro Bellet

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’s Sangaré 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.  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.

Erquy scallops at Bistro Bellet

Erquy scallops at Bistro Bellet

 

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.   Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the four of us might have been likely to skip dessert– weight-watching and alarm clocks, 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.

Creme caramel at Bistro Bellet

Creme caramel at Bistro Bellet

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: Château d’Eau, Gare de l’Est or Jacques Bonsergent. Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner only. Prix-fixe menu 32 Euros, average 40 Euros.

 

alec  Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for Paris  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

 

 

 

Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Les Enfants Rouge

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Les Enfants Rouge, in the Marais

Les Enfants Rouge, in the Marais

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 chef Daï 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.

 

Saute of mushrooms with an egg.

Saute of mushrooms with an egg.

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.

Roasted filet of cod with razor clams.

Roasted filet of cod with baby clams.

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.

Cheese board at Les Enfants Rouge

Cheese board at Les Enfants Rouge

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, 9 rue de Beauce, 3rd, Tel. 01-48-87-80-61. Metro: Arts et Métiers, Filles du Calvaire or Saint-Sébastien-Froissart. Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner. Average 35 Euros.

 

lobrano-150x150  Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for Paris  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

 

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