Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal, Paris | A Perennially Romantic Restaurant Gets a Great New Chef, B+

July 15, 2015

Restaurant du Palais Royal - Vue extérieure côté Jardin du Palais-Royal

When summer blooms, the urge to dine outdoors sweeps through many major western cities, but perhaps nowhere is the choice of an al fresco dining venue more fraught than it is in Paris. Why? Landing a choice fresh-air table is a great Parisian seasonal game. If anyone can decide to sit down on one of the city’s hundreds of cafe terraces and order one of the worlds best summer meals–a glass of rose, an omelette and a green salad (more often mediocre than not, alas, in the French capital these days, since cafes generally contend with a clientele that’s even more centime-sensitive than any fast-food restaurant. To wit, break an invisible mental price barrier–most recently fifteen Euros, now twenty—and your clientele starts melting; what this means, of course, is constant cost-cutting in the kitchen), not everyone has the well-filled purse and social wiliness required to bag a table at a place like Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal, which occupies a corner of the Palais Royal and possesses a small seasonal terrace which overlooks not only the magnificent arcades and facades of this former royal residence in the heart of Paris, but its the stunningly beautiful gardens as well.

So fiercely in demand are these tables of a given summer day when the weather is good, that Parisians have long ignored this restaurant’s formerly uneven cooking and eye-watering prices. Now, though, with the arrival of a new chef, Philip Chronopoulos, 28, ex L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal not only offers an ethereally charming setting for a meal but some superb contemporary French cooking as well.

Resto du Palais Royal artichoke poivrade

Artichokes poivrade at Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal

 

Just for the back story, Paris’s love of fresh-air dining in beautiful bucolic venues was born of the romantic movement in the 18th century and flowered during the 19th century, when many of the city’s then newly built parks included a restaurant or two. Then as an ancient Gallic fear of draughts–courants d’air, which were thought to be cause colds or that vast category of diseases once known as ‘fevers’ faded with access to better medicine, improved urban hygiene and new ideas about health which held that fresh air and sunshine was good for you, picnicking became a popular past-time and guinguettes, or open-air pleasure barges, came to line stretches of the Seine and the Marne. Cafe terraces long the broad avenues and boulevards that Haussmann drove through the city became a fixture of Parisian life, too.

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Etoile sur Mer, Paris | Guy Savoy’s Very Good New Fish Restaurant, B+

July 1, 2015

Etoile de Mer salle

After chef Guy Savoy moved his eponymous three-star table to La Monnaie de Paris, the magnificent Paris mint building on the banks of the Seine in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés two months ago, his former premises on the rue Troyon have been transformed into a chic little seafood restaurant called Etoile sur Mer. This punning name requires a bit of explanation for English speakers, since etoile de mer is not only the French word for a starfish but a reference to the tentacular circular intersection around the Arc de Triomphe, which the French refer to as l’étoile (the star) and which is just around the corner from Etoile sur Mer.

Be that as it may, chef Clément Leroy, Savoy’s right-hand man, runs the kitchen here, and Savoy’s favorite interior-architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte signed the new decor, which includes bare sea-foam-colored anodised tables and dishes that look like they were inspired by shells and drift wood. The atmosphere in this intimate place is confidential and perhaps a bit too hushed, but ultimately it made me think of the the subtle sultriness so beautifully depicted in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love.” Though I expect it’s busy with a business crowd at noon, in the evening, it becomes the kind of place you’d chose to go with a lover you have a hard time keeping your hands off of, because the lighting is low, the dining rooms are flirtatiously private, service is discreet, and a meal of impeccably fresh beautifully prepared wild seafood is perhaps the greatest gastronomic luxury you can share these days.

Etoile de mer sardine

Having astutely observed the ongoing evolution of the international beau-monde’s culinary predilections from his perch on the rue Troyon for nearly thirty years, I think Savoy knows this, too. To wit, the inflection point between the scarcity that always informs luxury and gastronomic pleasure parsed out according to the principles of healthy eating is seafood, but this doesn’t have to mean monastic minimalist preparations either. Modern French seafood cookery basically banned added fat or dairy when it was first birthed by chefs like Paul Minchelli some forty-five years ago. So this is the idiom in which chef Clément Leroy, 33, came of age, and the one from which he so shrewdly innovates. A perfect preview of Leroy style and that of the meal to come was an amuse bouche of sardine sushi on a bed of chive flecked potato puree–what it told was Leroy’s Asian style restraint with fresh seafood and also his attachment to intensely studied but simple looking Oriental aesthetics on the plate.

Etoile de Mer lobster salad

Etoile de mer octopus and artichokes

 

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Grand Coeur | A Delightful New Brasserie in the Marais, B+

June 20, 2015

Grand Coeur courtyard shot flower dress

Tucked away in a courtyard in the Marais, and occupying the same space as The Studio, a long-running but not regretted Tex-Mex restaurant that claims a flickering wick of memory only by reminding me of how much I miss authentic Mexican cooking in Paris, Grand Coeur is a delightful new brasserie that serves a very good contemporary French menu. It also has one of the city’s loveliest terraces for out door summer dining, which is a Parisian passion. Grand Coeur (The Big Heart) comes with a seriously impressive pedigree, too, since it’s the creation of seasoned Marais restaurateur Julien Fouin (Jaja and Glou, neither of which I much like) and Argentine born chef Mauro Colagreco, whose restaurant Mirazur in Menton is one of my favorite tables in France and who is widely considered to be one the country’s five or six best chefs. Talented acting chef, Brazilian born Rafael Gomes, has cooked everywhere from Eleven Madison in New York City to an Alaskan fishing trawler, and he brings a lot of nonchalantly cosmopolitan finesse and creativity to this restaurant, too.

Grand Coeur courtyard crowd shot

I hadn’t been to this address in many years, so coming for dinner the other night unexpectedly brought-on a little avalanche of fuzzy flashbacks when I stepped into the courtyard. Rather surprisingly–given how much the Marais has gentrified, the dance studio at the head of the courtyard is still in business after all of these years, which explains the constant stream of impressively lean and lithe dancers trailing across the big flat cobblestones. I also couldn’t help but being impressed by the architectural beauty of this 18th century setting, which once housed the Aigle d’Or (The Golden Eagle), a coaching inn that eventually became the premises of The Studio.

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Le Bon Saint Pourçain | A Change for the Better in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, B+

June 5, 2015

saint pourcain long view street

In Paris, the assiduously institutionalised exultation of the city’s past poses the same sort of risk as the sugar water in a bee trap. Like many people who live here, however, I forget how easy it is to succumb to the easy nectar of memory and to gloat over the beauty of a place that has pretty much shunned modernity, or at least inside of Le Peripherique, or the beltway that separates the city from the suburbs it ignores.

Provence 1970 2

So as luck would have it, just before going to dinner at the new version of Le Bon Saint Pourçain, a Saint-Germain-des-Prés bistro I’ve know for years, I’d just read Luke Barr’s fascinating and beautifully written book Provence 1970, which puts the relationships of many legendary American and British food writers under a magnifying glass as they interact during a series of cross-hatching visits to Provence. What especially intrigued me in these pages was that two of my heroes, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, were both so wary of becoming trapped by the past. Both women saw that France was changing, in ways both good and bad, and so they sought in their own ways to re-situate themselves in their relationship to Gaul, not loving it less but perhaps not needing it as much as they once had. And both women also felt a powerful eagerness live in the present and discover new things, which struck a chord with me, because so many people, myself included a lot of the time, don’t want Paris to change.

saint pourcain sidewalk shot

But the city will change, and it does, and often that’s a good thing, especially in the kitchen. And for all of the dozens of very happy meals I’ve had at Le Bon Saint Pourçain through the years, the best dish here was always off-menu, since it was the ineffably charming and rather clubby conviviality of the place. And the food? Depending on who was in the kitchen, it was usually just fine, if rarely better than that, or the type of cuisine ménagère (home cooking)  your French maiden aunt might have served you, where the pleasure was derived more from her good intentions than her skills in the kitchen. To be sure, I always liked the leeks in a vinaigrette sauce and the boeuf aux olives (braised beef with green olives), and sometimes there was a good fruit tart to be had as well.

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Lucas Carton | The Rejuvenation of a Mythic Parisian Table, A-

May 24, 2015

Lucas-Carton art nouveau detail

They’re few dining rooms in Paris that are so deeply invested with a long and mostly very happy album of memories for me than Lucas Carton, the magnificent landmarked restaurant with a spectacular art-nouveau decor by Louis Majorelle just across the street from the Église de la Madeleine in the heart of the city.

So I was a little anxious when I went to dinner here the other night for the first time in a very long time–my purse doesn’t allow me to be a regular, and ultimately relieved but not surprised to rediscover that young chef Julien Dumas’s cooking makes him a brilliantly worthy successor to Alain Senderens, who had billing as head chef here for almost thirty years, despite the fact that it was his lieutenant Jerome Bactel who’d actually been running the kitchen on a daily basis for a while.

LUCAS CARTON INTERIEUR bis 2

In fact Bruno said that our meal reminded him of his initial experience of Yannick Alleno’s cooking, or a dazzling first encounter with a startlingly talented and rapidly rising young chef, and I quite happily agreed. Dumas is exactly what Lucas Carton needs to remain a relevant and desirable restaurant in Paris in 2015. So ultimately I was able to add another gastronomic sketch to the brief but privileged album I carry around in my head of occasions spent on these premises.

To be perfectly honest, the one that really sticks out in this slender volume of memory is deeply tinted to this day by trauma. When I arrived in Paris from London to work as an editor in the rue Cambon offices of Fairchild Publications, this restaurant was the setting for one of the most excruciating meals I’ve ever had in my entire life. Sifting through the still tender shards of remembrance attached to that evening, I don’t find the name of my host or hostess, but I know it was a Paris fashion designer and that the chic little supper was intended to size me up and ‘welcome’ me to Paris, in that order of importance.

To say that things did not go well that night is a massive understatement. My eight years of French failed me miserably within minutes of being seated between the attache de presse who’d organized the evening and a druggy middle-aged Countess who immediately told that she thought les Americains were “des sauvages” (savages) and who regularly left the table for five minutes or longer to then return with white-powder-rimed nostrils. In retrospect, the least she could have done in those days before I became sensible and settled was to offer to share her loot. In any event, the meal was a horror, and the worst of it was a starter salad, a tumble of pretty little leaves, that looked innocent enough until I noticed a tiny gnarled bird’s leg sticking out of the greenery. This leg was so tiny I couldn’t imagine anyone would actually want to eat it, and I found myself wondering if it might have found its way into my plate by dint of some horrific accident in the kitchen, or maybe it was a practical joke, or maybe….

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Benoit |The Definition of a Paris Bistro

May 10, 2015
Restaurant Benoit - Devanture(c)Pierre Monetta

@ Pierre Monetta

Paris without Benoit, a wonderful old bistro on the edge of the Marais that’s been in business since 1912, would be almost as unimaginable to me as Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Why? Though I’ve occasionally had a bone or two to pick with Benoit through the years, it remains an august monument to the eternal goodness of Parisian bistro cooking. And that’s why today I’m grateful to Alain Ducasse for taking it over in 2005. I was a bit skeptical at the time–after all, what could Ducasse bring to a bistro register as brilliant as the one perpetuated by the Petit family for 93 years? Not much, as it turned out, but in his quiet role as a restaurant curator and collector, he saved this place.

Without Ducasse, Benoit might have suffered the same ignominious fate as Le Grizzli, a once charming old-fashioned Auvergnat bistro across the street where I used to love the fricot de veau (veal stew with wild mushrooms) that’s now become an insipid could-be-just-about-anywhere  type of table–I mean, does anyone really come to Paris to eat skewered chicken with sate sauce?

@ C. Sarramon

My most recent meal at Benoit was born of a heart-felt desire to lift the spirits of a much-loved friend, a longtime American resident of Paris like me, who’s going through a very hard time. Aside from daily phone calls, I was trying to think of what I could do to cheer her up, to distract her, and then it occurred to me that a really good meal with some great wines would be perfect. So I invited her to join me at Benoit.

On the way to dinner, it was a soft Paris night in May when the air was scented by chestnut flowers, a distinct but soft and fleetingly floral moment in the city’s annual calendar that never lasts more than a few days, and I thought of the first time I went to dinner at Benoit, with Ken, a handsome guy from the corn-belt in Ohio who used to work for the same company I did. He liked to eat as much as I do, and we drank a what-the-hell expensive bottle of Cote Rotie with our meal, which wasn’t a long-planned event, but rather an off-the-cuff let’s-go-out-to-dinner feast before obligatory reservations strangled such spontaneous pleasures. Yes, there really was a time in Paris where you could walk in the door of a very good restaurant in Paris and get a table. What a shame it is that meal planning has become as strategic, intricate and carefully plotted as D-Day.

Benoit - Asparagus

What was racketing around in my head on the way to dinner was my recurring exasperation with several of the most exhausted cliches of contemporary food writing, to wit, women love salad and fish, while men want meat and more meat, and younger people don’t want traditional French bistro food like older ones do but would rather have pizza, sushi and cheeseburgers. None of these ideas are true, actually, but their persistent existence throws any discussion about good food in Paris way off course. Many of the women I know and love are even more enthusiastic eaters of offal and big bloody steaks than I am, and a good number of my youngest friends crave blanquette de veau and coq au vin even more than I do.  So do you care to guess which one of us ordered the asparagus with a truffled mousseline sauce?

Well, we both did, but that was after we’d shared an order of Langue de Lucullus, a speciality of Valenciennes in northern France comprised of fine layers of smoked tongue interleaved with pork-liver pate; it’s a dish I never eat without thinking of Bruno’s lovely mother, who now insists I call her “Maman,” because I’m her ‘American son,’ since she was the one who introduced it to me. It’s sturdy old-fashioned French food, and as much as I love it it always induces an apprehension that I might soon be a worthy model for Rodin, the sculptor of large solid people, if he were still alive.

Benoit - Boeuf Wellington

There were ever so many tempting things on the menu at Benoit the other night, but what caught my eye, oddly, was Boeuf Wellington, that ur American suburban dinner-party show-off recipe from the Seventies, which consists of a filet of beef anointed with a sauce Perigueux (foie gras and truffles) wrapped in pastry. I hadn’t eaten Beef Wellington in beyond the nets of recent memory, but since it’s served here for two (until the end of May 2015, as part of a tiny collection of wonderfully retro recipes) I had to be sure my friend was onboard as well.

She was, so we did, and it was wonderful, because the beef wasn’t the insipid filet most often found in the same preparation in North America, where tenderness is the ultimate and rather sorry measure of good meat, but juicy mineral-rich French beef with a pleasantly chewy grain. And as I ate it, I thought of the long butterfly-print culotte halter dress that my mother wore with tangerine sandals when she wanted to buck back against a world of make-up-free suburban women in wrap skirts with the same bob haircuts they’d had since they were twelve. Mind you, my mother was all scorn (and still is) when it comes to anything that might be construed as feminine wiles, but she still occasionally felt the need or desire for a little bit of glamour, a timeout from the spaded femininity of American suburbs in the Northeast in the sixties and seventies, and it’s true I’ve never ever known a man who looked at a metal duck-head belt buckle, one of the embarrassing emblems of female preppy privilege, and gone wild with desire

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