The Interview: Alexander Lobrano, author of “Hungry for Paris”
Back in the 80’s, I was one of those Americans who never went to Paris without my dog-eared copy of “The Food Lovers Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells. Wells opened my eyes, and those of countless others, to the bounty of Parisian restaurants, food shops and market places. But that book is long out-of-print and many of those bistros and brasseries are closed or long past their sell-by-date. So I was more than happy to receive a copy of Alexander Lobrano’s newly published “Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants.”
Lobrano is Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent, an American who has been living in Paris since 1986. That’s good street cred, but his book is even better, offering more than the title promises. It’s focused on food, but it’s also about friendship, Parisian life and what it means to be an expat. Written with humor and intelligence, these aren’t restaurant reviews so much as 102 expertly drawn vignettes. I can hear the echoes of Wells here, but also of A.J. Liebling and M.F.K. Fisher, good company indeed. It’s pitch perfect and delightfully conversational.
When you dip into “Hungry for Paris,” you’ll get to know Lobrano’s dining companions (he has interesting friends) and the cast of characters that populate a restaurant (like the aristocratic loden-coat wearing locals in Le Florimond). There’s lovingly detailed writing about the food and the wine: he clearly knows his turf, his chefs and his arrondisements. And you’ll also learn a lot about Parisian dining habits (reservations are absolutely essential) and tips on the art of eating alone in Paris (dress well, go armed with a sense of humor, and never refuse the suggestion of an aperitif before dinner). It’s a true rarity, both an armchair read and a book that deserves to be in your carry-on the next time you head to Paris.
Did you set out to write something that was a hybrid guide-memoir or was it more organic than that?
I think the traditional guidebook, with its neutered and anonymous voice and dogmatic pretensions of expertise, has been killed off by the internet. In terms of Paris dining, hundreds of sites offer tips and judgments on where to go — the problem is that almost none of them establish their credentials persuasively enough to be credible, which is why I receive dozens of emails every week from people who need Paris restaurant advice. “Hungry for Paris” is my answer to all of these calls for help. From the start, I knew that I wasn’t writing a guidebook. Instead I wanted to write a book that could be the knowing, friendly, informed gastronomic companion for anyone traveling to Paris, a book that would be both a good read and an invaluable reference.
Do you think of your book as the successor to “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells?
Yes, I think “Hungry for Paris” is very much the natural successor to “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris,” a book that I loved and to which I am much indebted. Wells codified the aspirations of a whole generation of gastronomically ambitious Americans, and I think I am picking up where she left off. Where we differ is that I don’t subscribe to a certain high seriousness that I occasionally found in Well’s book — I’m more of a mind with A.J. Liebling, Julia Child, James Beard, or M.F.K. Fisher, writers and cooks who took glee in the sensuality and humor that are inherent in food as a subject.
How often do you dine out? How much do you cook at home and which markets do you frequent?
I dine out at least five or six times a week, but never on Saturday and Sunday if I can help it. Saturday is the worst night of the week to go out in Paris — restaurants tend to be frantic, crowded and tense. I also love to cook and need to stay in touch with good, simple food to keep my critical judgment keen. So I love to hole up on the weekend. Saturday morning, I shop the organic market on the Boulevard des Batignolles, hit the fish monger in the rue de Levis, my superb butcher (Chaptal in the rue Blanche, 9th), Delmontel (rue des Martyrs, 9th) for his amazing bread, and one of my favorite cheese shops Quatre Hommes, Barthelemy, or Alleosse, and then pull up the ladder until Monday, although we usually cook for friends at least once a weekend.
Paris has changed enormously during the last twenty years, and aside from the proliferation of what I call fashion restaurants, or see-and-be-seen places which are about atmosphere and attitude instead of food, the changes have mostly been for the better. The renewal of the bistro, which is the beloved bedrock of Paris dining, is the most exciting and important thing that’s happened — basically, an amazingly talented new generation of chefs with haute-cuisine training decided to open bistros instead of traditional “fancy” French restaurants. The trend began in 1994 when Yves Camdeborde opened La Regalade. Camdeborde had trained with Christian Constant at Les Ambassadeurs, the grand gastronomic table of the Hotel de Crillon, and so he had the background to do haute cuisine. Instead, he put a haute cuisine spin on the traditional bistro dishes of his native southwest (he’s from Pau), and this riff reinvented the bistro for a new generation. Other founding talents of the New Bistro include Thierry Breton at Chez Michel and Thierry Faucher of L’Os a Moelle, and more recently Stephane Jego of L’Ami Jean. If there’s been a change for the worse in Paris, it’s the almost total extinction of the traditional bourgeois French restaurant, that sort of formal, polite place that was the bastion of “important” dining (business meals, communion lunches, special occasion feasts like birthdays or anniversaries). In particular, I miss Le Recamier, Martin Cantegrit’s superb table in the rue Recamier; Pierre au Palais Royale; and Tante Louise, which survives but has been remodeled by the Bernard Loiseau group.
The worst American reflex in Paris is going to brasseries, since most brasseries sling sadly mediocre food for woefully high prices. Otherwise, there’s no reason to order bottled water — Paris tap water is fine and by French law every restaurant must provide it if asked, and the house wines in most Paris restaurants are generally quite reliable. Finally, Americans often don’t completely grasp that a 15% service charge is always included in any restaurant bill, so tipping really is optional. I usually leave a couple of extra Euros in a bistro, and between 10 and 20 Euros at a haute cuisine restaurant, but this is my choice no additional tip is necessary.
Aside from your review of L’Epi Dupin, what other restaurants come with such strong caveats?
Even before the dollar swooned, the prices at haute cuisine restaurants had turned me into a casuist, or student of the science of difficult moral issues. Is it sane and/or moral to spend $1,000 a head on a single meal? Can food really promise such transcendence? I suppose my answer to this pair of questions is the fact that I only very rarely go to haute cuisine restaurants. When I do, however, I expect to be transported, and this is why I have trouble with Arpege — baked onions for over $100? — and Guy Savoy, where the cooking strikes me as being too polite.
The French food guides and restaurant critics have been afraid to kill off the holy cows of Paris, usually for political reasons (someone’s a friend of a friend, etc.), and so they continue to live off of their reputations. When it comes to the American guidebooks, the reality is that other guidebooks are the guidebook writer’s best tools, so lots of places slog on in sort of closed, stale circle because no one’s actually been to them in years.
Without naming names, are there any places that you decided to keep secret?
No, I really didn’t hold anything back I really want to share. If there’s any terrific Paris restaurant that’s not in my book, it’s La Bigarrade on the rue Nollet in the 17th, and this is because it opened after we’d gone to print. I’d invite anyone looking for my latest rants and raves to visit my website, http://hungryforparis.squarespace.com/, where I’ll be doing a sort of ongoing on-line journal of my gastronomic adventures in Paris.
On a cold, wet gray Tuesday in late January, I’ll meet an old lover for lunch at Le Dome at 1pm. We’ll start with oysters, langoustines and shrimp, then share an order of ormeaux (conch fished off of the Channel Islands, and sauteed in garlic, parsley and butter), and then share a big sole a la meuniere (dredged in flour and fried in salt butter), that was line-caught of l’Ile de Yeu. We’ll drink Champagne to start, and then move on to a Montlouis with the shellfish, and maybe a nice Mersault with the sole. We’ll share a cheese plate — Banon, Coulommiers, Maroilles, Comte, Roquefort, and then share a Paris-Brest (choux pastry filled with hazelnut cream). Then, around 4.30pm, we’ll exchange a kiss and go our separate ways, surely wondering what it might have been like to end up in bed together after so many years.
Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants
by Alexander Lobrano, Random House.
Visit the Hungry for Paris website