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Letter from Paris: Les Saisons

by Alexander Lobrano

The longer I live in the 9th arrondissement, the more I like it, and one of the main reasons why is that my neighbors in this wonderful quartierreally love good food. If it was an admirable pitch of turf when I first crossed the Seine twelve years ago, it just keeps getting better and better, too.

 “From what I’ve seen during the few months since I opened, the locals know and love good contemporary French cooking,” amiable chef Jonathan Lutz told me when we had a chat after a very good dinner at his new Les Saisons restaurant. Lutz previously headed the kitchen at Glou, a painfully pretentious wine bar cum bistrot a vins (bavins) in the Upper Marais, but it turns out that the mostly assembled -and-plated dishes served there were actually hiding the fact that he’s a talented young chef. Oh, and by the way, Lutz had absolutely no idea that I’m a food writer.
To wit, allow me remind regular readers, and clarify my intent and methods to new ones, by avowing that I remain as anonymous as I possibly can when I dine out in Paris. No, I don’t wear fake noses or yellow-yarn wigs, but the last thing in the world I’d ever want is for any Paris chef to consider me a ‘buddy.’ I know, like and respect many of them enormously, but a certain degree of arm’s length distance really is essential to doing this work honestly.
So Bruno and I tumbled through the door on a icy night, ordered glasses of excellent Vouvray, and settled in at a cozy table with a nearby silhouette cast by the polished-and-engraved glass window adjacent to us that was so profoundly Parisian I know I’ll never forget it. Fortunately, Lutz didn’t touch the gorgeous engraved glass front windows when he pulled off a really attractive redecoration of what had always been a rather ungainly space during previous incarnations as the very good Velly and more recently the unimpressive Villa Victoria
Before we really got to work on the chalkboard menu, however, I couldn’t help noticing that this restaurant has a warm and friendly atmosphere, and that the staff, including Lutz’s delightful Japanese wife, fall all over themselves in a desire to please, which certainly sets up the food in a very positive way. I also rather liked the fact that the dashing dandy Alfonse de Lamartine, the great French poet, writer and politican who gave his name to the street where Les Saisons is located, was gazing at us from the entryway of a hotel across the street while we built our meal.
Since the menu was very appealing–I almost ordered the sauteed duck foie gras with Jerusalem artichoke hearts, was tempted by the oysters, and toyed with the artichokes barigoule before settling on what seemed the more seasonally appropriate lentil salad with shavings of Beaufort cheese and country ham as a starter and mushroom risotto, both part of a good value 32 Euro prix-fixe menu. Yes, the risotto was risky, because it’s always risky to order risotto in Paris–the rice is almost always overcooked and French chefs have a baleful tendency to add creme fraiche to a preparation where the creaminess should come from the starch released by good arborio rice, but I was pretending to eat light before a twelve-hour plane flight the following day. To be sure, the cod with “unusual” (insolite) vegetables in a dashi bouillon would have done the trick, too, but I was craving mushrooms and Parmesan, as I have since I first gave up the Gerbers many years ago.
Jonathan Lutz of Les Saisons
Bruno can’t stay away from salmon, which was just fine with me, since I wanted to taste the tataki (the Japanese word for seared salmon, which has become a fashionable cliche on Paris menus recently) with horseradish cream (Chef Lutz isn’t an Alsatian for nothing, and I am a huge horseradish fiend), and then, good Frenchman that he is, he went for the rumsteak before an onslaught of fiery soups, dumplings and noodles in Asia. Me–I’d been dreaming about this fiery, flavorful Asian food for weeks already.
  But before the Laotian dips and the pho, I thoroughly enjoyed my lentil salad, which was generously served and nicely seasoned with a light vinaigrette that included a really good Xeres, and terrific risotto, which came topped by a frizzle of fried leeks and dashed with a really nice herbal pesto. It was full of shitakes and morels, too, and was impeccably well cooked. Served on a square of slate–another recent Paris table-top trend I’ll be glad to see receed in the same way that oddly shaped plates seem to have bitten the dust, Bruno’s salmon was good quality fish, nicely cooked and seasoned, and the same was true of his steak, which came with good but rather poignant homemade potato croquettes. In America, we’d call them Tatter Tots, but other freezer-counter versions of this preparation–mashed potato rolled in bread crumbs, lurk in the U.K., Canada, Australia and many other countries, which is why there was something winningly earnest about a chef who actually went to the trouble of making them from scratch; they were good, too, with a gentle whiff of nutmeg.
  We split a slice of excellent apple tart for dessert, chatted with Lutz, and then walked home buoyed by that great sense of well-being that comes from having had a really good meal to do our packing. Thinking about this meal this morning as I listen roar of the surf rolling in just out my window overlooking the South China Sea, it’s every bit as appealing as it was that chilly night in Paris last week, and I look forward to rediscovering Lutz’s cooking when I get home and also during three seasons to come.
Les Saisons, 52 rue Lamartine, 9th, Tel. 01-48-78-15-18. Metro: Cadet, Notre Dame de Lorette or Saint-Georges. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch rmenu 15 Euros, prix-fixe 32 Euros, a la carte 40 Euros.
  Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris”  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.(Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
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