Pavillon Ledoyen, Paris – Chef Yannick Alléno’s Comeback is a Quiet Triumph, and That’s a Good Thing, A-

November 19, 2014
Ledoyen Yannick Alléno (2)

Yannick Alléno @ Geoffroy de Boismenu

 

When chef Yannick Alléno  turned on the gas at the Pavillon Ledoyen on July 1, 2014, it was poignantly apparent to all early visitors to his new restaurant that he was exultantly relieved to be cooking again. After all, he’d been without a Paris kitchen of his own for over a year and a half since January 2013 when he left Le Meurice, the opulent dining room at the Hotel Le Meurice where he’d won three Michelin stars. And for anyone who’s known him as long as long as I have–we first met after the excellent dinner at the Hotel Scribe in 1999 that pricked my curiosity about who’d cooked it–he’d seemed a bit at loose ends during the well-earned sabbatical he’d claimed for himself after a decade as chef at Le Meurice. The reason is that despite some reasonably successful efforts to coin Alléno as a celebrity chef, he’s still much more of a feet-on-the-ground cook’s cook than he is anything else. Or at least for the time being anyway, although I very much doubt the world will ever bear witness for the full Kardashianization of Yannick Alléno. It’s just not his style.

If Alléno backed away from his job at Le Meurice, however, it was both because he needed a physical and creative respite from the ardors of running the huge culinary plant of a major Paris luxury hotel, but also, I think, because of an inchoate ambivalence about the way in which his job duties were evolving beyond anything to do with making a perfect beurre blanc, to say nothing of inventing a new recipe. In this eccentrically mannerist age where the trope of celebrity dictates that it’s more important to be talked about than to actually even have anything interesting or important to say, much less a real talent, the metier of Parisian chef has been awkwardly caught up in the nets of celebrity and the social media that fuels it, too. Suddenly, just being a great chef is no longer enough to land a spot running one of the most glamorous dining rooms in Paris. No, now you also have to be a persuasively charming, seductive, photogenic media personality to boot. You should also show up as often as possible in the people pages of the glossy magazines and beam from the screens of high-traffic websites. You should pen opulent cookbooks, get a TV gig, make your own wine, endorse all sorts of probable and half-probable products, and think of dozens of reasons every month that you and your restaurant warrant a sound-bite or a Tweet. A Kim Kardashian shaped cupcake? Hey! That’s a great idea!

The problem here, of course, is that many of the men and women who are drawn to this physically punishing and relentlessly hard-working metier do so out a real dedication to their craft rather than as a vehicle to fame. To be sure, almost none of them would fly-swat a Michelin star or three if it came their way, but the passion that drives a love of bone-achingly hard work and constant repetitive stress day in and day out isn’t a desire for creative expression, although this certainly becomes part of the metier of any fully evolved chef. Instead, it’s a behind-closed-doors love of great produce, the precision of culinary chemistry, the camaraderie of the kitchen and a collective quest for excellence that begins all over again everyday when the lights go on in the kitchen. This is the world that beckoned to Yannick Alléno as a shy fifteen-year-old apprentice to chef Gabriel Biscay at the Hotel Royal Monceau, and it remains beloved ballast of his career in the same way that it does that of any seriously talented chef.

Ledoyen salle side view Philippe Vaurès

Dining room at Ledoyen @ Philippe-Vaurès

So it was exciting to go off to Ledoyen on a soft summer night for dinner with a very witty and food-loving colleague from London. For openers, I couldn’t wait to see what Alleno would be up to, but I was also eager because Ledoyen is one of the loveliest restaurants in Paris. Just a few minutes from the heaving traffic circle that is the Place de la Concorde–it suddenly strikes me that this beautiful but automotively encumbered square offers up an obvious opportunity to retool Paris towards being a greener and more pedestrian friendly city in the 21st century, since it’s an absurd extravagance that the whole square is given over to cars–Ledoyen is a romantic white wedding cake of a building tucked away in the gardens at the bottom of the Champs Elysees that offers a surprisingly instant respite from the aural and mental roars of city life without leaving town.

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Le Frank, The New Restaurant at La Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, B+

November 6, 2014

Le Frank - Entrance to MuseumLe Frank - Entry to salle

On my way to dinner at Le Frank, chef Jean-Louis Nomicos’s very good new restaurant at La Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, I found myself musing on museum dining.

I’ve always had a soft spot for museum restaurants, even if many of them have never previously been very good, because they were such a relief from the long studious hours I was required to spend gazing at saints with arrows sticking out of their sides or fleshy ladies being chased by a satyr or other paintings in the museums I was taken to in various East Coast cities as a boy by my well-meaning mother and grandmother. It’s not that I didn’t like looking at the paintings, but rather that we always stayed much too long, and that the real treat during any visit to the city–mostly New York, but sometimes Boston or Philadelphia–was going to a restaurant. On rainy or snowy days, of which there were many, the ladies in charge often opted for the museum restaurant, however.

So I have vivid memories of the mediocre fried chicken, meat loaf and other hot food served at the now long vanished cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. If the food was as dull as the invariably wet-from-the-dishwasher fiberglass tray on which it was pushed down the rails, the restaurant itself was exquisitely glamorous. It was styled like a Roman villa around a central atrium with a big fountain ornamented with verdigris bronze figures, and it used to prick my imagination with yearning to live like an ancient Roman rather than as a boy in a colonial house in suburban Connecticut.

“I bet the Romans didn’t eat meat loaf,” I once said to my grandmother, and my assertion disguised, sort of, as a question elicited a puzzled look from her.

“Well–probably not. But if they did, I expect they’d have covered it with garum,” she said, and puffed her Parliament.

“What’s garum?”

“A fish sauce the Romans used to fancy. I expect it tasted a bit like a cross between A1 Sauce and Worcestershire sauce with a lot of anchovy paste.”

Be that as it may, even garum probably couldn’t have rendered the Met’s gray meat loaf palatable, and these feelings of general dubiousness towards museum food remained my a priori until very recently.

Then several years ago, I had a very good meal at the restaurant at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain when it was run by Basque chef Martin Berasategui (it no longer is). This was followed by an excellent lunch at Danny Meyer’s The Modern restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and then a terrific feed at M. Wells Dinette at the MoMA P.S. 1 in Long Island City, New York. Recently I read that chef Michel Bras is running the restaurant at the new Musée Pierre Soulages in Rodez, too.

The museum restaurant, once the last resort dining choice for grandmothers with their grandsons on rainy days, is clearly on a roll.

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Restaurant 52 Faubourg Saint Denis, Paris – Good Casual Dining in the Trendy 10th Arrondissement, B-

October 24, 2014

Le 52 Salle

With the opening of Restaurant 52 Faubourg Saint Denis, a studiously hip bistro with non-stop service, shrewd restauranteur Charles Compagnon continues to define the emerging culinary style of Paris’s rapidly gentrifying 10th Arrondissement.

This new place, which occupies a former butcher shop on the Faubourg Saint Denis neighborhood’s busiest shopping street, expands on the style he originally launched when he took over L’Office, the still very good modern French bistro that brought an initial gust of hip into a quiet faded residential corner of the quarter then dominated by Kosher bakeries and butchers. Next Compagnon opened Le Richer, a sort of a Parisian version of a New York coffee shop cum London gastro pub a few blocks away, and now with 52 Faubourg Saint Denis he’s built out his popular formula even more concisely.

In much the same way that New York based restauranteur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe in New York City defined the gastronomic personality of the Union Square neighborhood when it was in the earliest stages of its now fulsomely achieved gentrification, Compagnon is framing a distinctive restaurant idiom for the 10th Arrondissement.

It’s a real winner, too. This place has the same in-the-raw industrial chic as the other two addresses, with a polished cement floor, walls that are still attractively scared by the now exposed grout of the demolished tile work of the butcher shop which formerly occupied the premises, and a an eye-catching bar where you linger over a drink or have a proper meal. Compagnon lived in New York–where he worked at the James Beard Foundation–for several years, and he has proved to be a good student of the myriad styles of casual eating venues that make that city so interesting.

To wit, Compagnon has gambled that young Parisians will like the idea of a relaxed friendly no-reservations-required restaurant with healthy, affordable, interesting contemporary cooking as much as New Yorkers or Londoners do. And they do. But this address is also a really appealing address for visitors to Paris, since it’s open daily from 8am to midnight–they serve light eats outside of the main lunch and dinner serving hours, the prices are relatively reasonable, and it offers a keyhole view of one of Paris’s most interesting neighborhoods right now.

Le 52 Mushroom ravioli

The menu is short–four starters, four mains, four desserts–but the prevailing gastro gestalt is modern French comfort food, and this the kitchen does very well indeed.

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Restaurant Pages – The Best New Restaurant of La Rentrée (Fall Season) 2014, A-

October 10, 2014

Pages - Veal tartare w:anchovy puree

On the eve of my California book tour, I’ve been thinking about all the good news from Paris I’ll have to share, since this year’s rentrée (Fall season) has seen so many superb openings, with the best new restaurant among them being Restaurant Pages, a handsome new bistro near the Arc de Triomphe by Japanese chef Ryuji Teshima. I had already been to Porte 12 and Neige d’Ete, the two other stand out newcomers, before I went to dinner at Pages. To be perfectly honest, I arrived for this meal feeling a little weary of the trope of new restaurants in Paris these days: a no-choice tasting menu, a ‘suggested’ glass of wine to accompany every course, acolyte-in-a-temple style service, and produce from the same handful of suppliers. Even if it’s excellent food, there is something wilting and a little unnerving about immediately being able to identify the wares of Terroirs d’Avenir, Annie Bertin, Joel Thiebault, Hugo Desnoyer and other hyped brand-name suppliers of the new generation of ‘artiste’ chefs who are doing what I would describe of as a sort of precious cuisine Angelique (Angelic cooking style), or one that’s very delicate and sort of aggressively innocent.

Pages - the Open Kitchen

Still, despite its odd location–the 16th Arrondissement, never a lively or particularly interesting part of the city, which has now gone rather slack due to the palpable exodus of affluent Parisians who’ve decided they just can’t bear to let the government skim them so deeply anymore–this restaurant seduced me the moment I walked through the door. It’s beautiful. Aside from the exposed stone at the back of the room, the walls are white, there’s an immaculate open kitchen up front, tables are comfortably spaced and the lighting from black matte re-editions of lamps that are a famous sixties French design is gentle and beautiful. This initial impression of an alluring serenity was immediately enhanced by the elegance and graciousness of the all Japanese serving staff.

“One of the things I love best about the Japanese is that they’re able to be proud and humble at the same time,” said Bruno, a spot-on observation, since the humility of the serving style here was deeply nourishing and revivifying–you felt like a welcome and respected guest–even before any food came to the table. That said, our waitress, an attractive young Japanese woman who’d grown up in Virginia before going to university in France, seemed to have drunk the whole old-school boilerplate of now very out-dated mannered French formality right down to the horrendous phrases, “Ca vous a plu?” and “Je vous souhaite une tres bonne continuation.” This latter phrase has always puzzled me, because it sounds more like something you’d say to a motorist rather than someone eating a meal. Despite the socio-psychological corset she’d laced herself into, she was charming, and winsomely excited about both the restaurant and chef Teshima’s cooking. It was from chatting with her that we learned that Teshima has previously cooked at Passage 53, Alain Senderens and In de Wulf in Belgium. As impressive as these credentials might be, what impressed me most, however, was that Teshima has also been an apprentice to butcher Hugo Desnoyer, the best meat master in Paris.

Even if I hadn’t known about the Desnoyer connection, I might have guessed it when the first course of our meal arrive, a pretty composition–almost none of the young chefs in Paris actually ‘cook’ anymore, rather they layer flavors and textures in artful compositions–of candy beets, fresh coarsely chopped veal tartare, and a gentle but bracing anchovy sauce. It was an exquisite and very sexy way to begin a meal, since the carefully dosed presence of the potent little fish playfully flattered the baseline minerality of the meat.

Pages - Langoustine w:celery root

Next, an exquisite little miniature: a plump perfectly flash-fried langoustine escorted by shavings of celery bulb that had been baked in a crust of bread and a silky yuzu spiked sabayon. This dish demonstrated a stunning mastery of technique and timing, but it was with the next one where Teshima’s signature started to become apparent.

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“So What is French Food?” Benoit and Gaby Offer a Delicious Answer to That Question in New York City

September 9, 2014
The Sofitel, New York City

The Sofitel, New York City

 

“So what is French food?” she asked me. I very much doubt that she’ll ever read these words, but before all else, I want to thank Betty Russo for both her question and her kindness.

Several months later, I still cringe when I remember the way our conversation began. On a warm Spring night, a New Haven bound Metro North train jolted when the transformers were turned on, and then gently rocked its way out of New York City’s Grand Central Station and under Park Avenue to come above ground a few minutes later just before a stop at 125th Street. On my way to speak about my books HUNGRY FOR PARIS and HUNGRY FOR FRANCE at the public library in Westport, Connecticut, my hometown, that night, I was roiled by various emotions. Earlier in the day, it had first dawned on me that this event would be about much more than a just little speech about a pair of books I’d written and my life in Paris to a group of politely interested people. My mother would be in the audience, along with other family members and many other people who’ve known me since I was a little boy. Having chosen to live abroad for most of my adult life, I’d realized that my speech in Westport, a place I’ve always had mixed feelings about–it’s beautiful, smart and morally self-examining on the one hand and way too grossly privileged on the other, would be about splicing myself together, or reconciling the shy little boy who spent hours reading about faraway places and who yearned to know a larger and more vivid world than the one I inhabited with the adult I have become.

So on the train I was sort of fitfully reading a copy of PARIS MATCH I’d lifted from the airport lounge in Paris a few days earlier, and I was so preoccupied on so many different levels that I was startled when someone, the woman I’d sat down next to but hadn’t really seen, spoke to me.

Escargots at Benoit @pierremonetta

Escargots at Benoit @pierremonetta

 

“Do you speak French?” she asked, which momentarily exasperated me. Why would I be reading a French magazine if I didn’t know the language? So I nodded, and then registering that she was an older lady, I relented, and I spoke. “I do,” I said and smiled. “And where did you learn that?” she asked. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk, and I’m not generally much of a talker with total strangers in public transport situations under any circumstances, because I like the rare time to myself, but I certainly wasn’t going to be unkind. Maybe I didn’t feel like having a conversation, but maybe someone else really needed one. “Well, I started learning French in school–” I noticed the lady had gentle green eyes “–but I really learned it after I moved to Paris.” “Oh! So do you live in Paris now?” I nodded. “Is that where you bought that magazine?” Another nod. “How lovely that must be, especially now that you know how to speak French.” I nodded, and was still tempted to return to my reading out of some ill-defined fear that this conversation could be depleting me of the fragile social and psychic energies I’d soon be needing in front of the crowd at the public library. Then I noticed that her soft white hands, which she held together loosely in her lap, were lightly trembling. “So are you on your way home then, or is New York home?” I asked. “Oh, New York, I don’t think I could ever do that. It’s very interesting but I love my little garden too much to ever sell my old house in New Haven.” “What do you grow in your garden? “Tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplant, corn, all kinds of nice things. Right now, though, all I’ve got is just a little bit of lettuce and some radishes.” Her name was Betty Russo, a retired seamstress who used to work in a Gant shirt factory, and she’d gone into New York City for the first time in five years to visit her son, “Tommy,” who’d just had a serious operation in a Manhattan hospital.

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CHARDENOUX, Paris-An Eternally Charming Bistro, B+

August 25, 2014

Chardenoux Salle with waiter

Chardenoux has always been a very good bistro. This is saying a lot, too, since it’s also one of the very rare restaurants with which I’ve had a long and consistently happy relationship during the more than twenty-five years I’ve lived in Paris. Oh, to be sure, as is true of most relationships, we’ve had our moments. But the longevity of this connection is precious to me less for its durability than because it’s proven to be so reliably delicious.

When I first began going to Chardenoux, the neighborhood where it’s located deep in the 11th Arrondissement was still quiet and filled with artisans of various kinds–wood-workers, furniture makers, metal casters, jewelers, lamp makers and others–working in local ateliers (workshops). Previously working class, the neighborhood immediately around the Bastille was becoming trendy, however, and the eastern arrondissements of Paris were just at the beginning of the transformation that eventually  made them the younger and hipper half of the city. I was living a tiny apartment next to a convent on the Left Bank. I liked it during the summer, the season of open windows, when I was often awoken by the nuns softly singing hymns. The rest of the year, though, it had the distinct disadvantage of being too far away from Chardenoux.

The chef at Chardenoux then was Bernard Passavant, and the reason I remember his name is that I owe my mad love of foie gras to him. Maybe the second or third time I ever went to Chardenoux, I ordered something called a salade folle, or ‘crazy salad.’ I had no idea what this might mean, so the big mauve slab of foie gras that topped a tidy tumble of chive-flecked match-stick-sized green beans and shaved button mushrooms came as a hugely unwelcome surprise. Why? Well, believe or not, back in those days–this was probably 1987–I not only didn’t eat foie gras, but I actively avoided it. Like many suburban Americans, I flinched at anything offal, in fact, but that night I found myself shamed into trying the duck liver by the teasing of the Greek born Paris based men’s underwear designer who was taking me out to a business dinner I’d been avoiding a long time.

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