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.

Stopping by for a Sunday supper with Bruno on a rainy autumn night when we were just way too lazy to cook, I couldn’t stay away from the raviol0 (giant ravioli) with an egg yolk and soft cheese tucked inside and garnishes of croutons, cooked and raw mushrooms, and cubes of ham in a buttery, foamy sauce made with good bouillon.

Le 52 Tataki

Bruno was happy with his oddly named ‘maki’ (open sandwich) of cucumber, radishes, and horseradish cream, but I found it rather too cerebral and lacking in flavor. A smear of pureed seaweed was probably intended to add some balance to this dish, but as delicious as the condiment was, this one undershot the mark for me.

Le 52 Pork Belly 2

My slow-braised pork belly had a nice crust from a turn on the grill, though, and came to the table with refreshing garnishes of salad with a lively vinaigrette and a lush herbal persillade.

Le 52 Duck breast

Bruno loved his beautifully cooked duckling breast–crispy skin, juicy bird–with torn kale, turnips, a scattering of corn kernels, a few pickled grapes and a light sauce of pan juices, and it was probably more revealing of the kitchen’s style than anything else we ate during this pleasant meal. The menus in all of Compagnon’s restaurants spin on an axis of good product and the logical compositions of taste and texture that inform well-reasoned home cooking as opposed to restaurant food.

What makes the difference? Some subtle stripe of sincerity and an endearing lack of polish that pleasantly errs on the side of food you might very conceivably have cooked yourself if you were a really good cook. And as far as I’m concerned, this is a real sweet spot, too, since the ubiquity of restaurant going in most large Western cities is today as much a reflection of being time short as it is an expression of bourgeois leisure. If you’re an overworked professional in a big city today, you go to restaurants often, maybe even too often, and so it’s really nice to come across food that is more about making you happy than it is about expressing the chef’s ‘vision’ or ‘personality.’

This is, in fact, where I think much of the best cooking in Paris is coming from right now–that place where a professional culinary education intersects with an earnest desire to leave people feeling well-fed in the broadest sense of a restaurant meal. Examples? Le Servan, Restaurant Pages, and all of Charles Compagnon’s tables.

Restaurant 52 Faubourg Saint-Denis, 52 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Arrondissement, Paris, No phone. Metro:  Strasbourg-Saint-Denis. Open daily from 8am to midnight. Lunch service from noon to 2.30pm, dinner service from 7pm-11pm. Average meal 35 Euros.

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.

Continue reading…

“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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

LiLi Restaurant, Hotel Peninsula Paris–Elegant Cantonese Cooking Comes to Paris, B+

August 11, 2014

LiLi - Woman's Face, my photo

The LiLi Restaurant at the just-opened Hotel Peninsula Paris is an important restaurant beyond the fact it serves some seriously good Cantonese cooking. It’s not much discussed but consider that food is potentially a major instrument of any country’s economic, cultural or diplomatic power. In these terms French cuisine continues to have a glorious international radiance beyond the economic punching weight of France, and one of the most fascinating things to observe at the dawn of this still new century is the accelerating ascendency of Asian cooking. Oh, to be sure, many  Westerners grew up with a vague knowledge of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Japanese’ food, but the popularity of Asian kitchens has now translated to a momentum which means that lemongrass, galangal and other stapes are available at most French supermarkets. And as an Asian food loving American who’s lived in France for a longtime, I think this is wonderful. From my point of view, the growing influence of Asia on what we eat in Paris is welcome, too, and I rejoice at the way that ‘Asian’ food is now being taken seriously rather than hived off as an occasional inexpensive ethnic pleasure as was the case for so many years in France.

To a very great degree, this is a reflection of Asia’s burgeoning economic clout, but on the other hand, you can’t force people to eat food they don’t want. So it’s apparent Parisians, and visitors to Paris, love Asian food in all of its glory, which is why the offer in the French capital is finally leap-frogging the quaintly qualifying ethnic label. A major reason for this is the arrival of Asia’s great hotel chains, which are anointing travel to France for Asia’s new rich and other non-Western travelers for a new century, the 21st century one, with a fresh layer of luxury hotels that are rebooting what luxury means. To wit, if many affluent Asians admire French style and aesthetics, they don’t particularly want to pretend that they’re European aristocrats invited to the party for the price of a bedroom anymore. The faux aristocrat experience worked when the new money was American and South American, but it’s guttering out now as Chinese tourists become the most courted and perplexing new clientele of the French capital.  Continue reading…

MIRAZUR, Menton-The Riviera’s Best Restaurant, A-

July 31, 2014

Mirazur - My table at lunch, view

The best restaurant on the Cote d’Azur, the storied Mediterranean stalking ground of the world’s rich and famous that’s known as the Riviera in English, is Mirazur. It makes me happy to be this blunt, too, since the Riviera–I’ll opt for the English parlance, is encrusted with fussy over-priced restaurants where eager gastronomic novices flock every summer only to be fleeced and disappointed. Oh, to be sure, they’re many wonderful restaurants along the coast, but they’re usually the simple ones not the fancy places with waiters in tuxedos and food that’s served under silver-plated domes. I’m talking about great little bistros like L’Armoise in Antibes or Agua and L’Ecole de Nice in Nice. So the definitive superlative I’m awarding here is in the context of what the French call haute cuisine, or the very best cooking, and at this most ambitious and most expensive end of the food chain, very few of the restaurants exalted by famous guidebooks warrant the wound to your wallet.  Mirazur does.

Mirazur - Clam with tiger milk

I hadn’t been here since I came for lunch two years ago when I was researching HUNGRY FOR FRANCE, and as much as I enjoyed that meal, I wasn’t able to really lose myself in the beauty of chef Mauro Colagreco’s cooking, because I was with a photographer who was shooting every dish we’d ordered for the book. So this time was different. For one thing, I was alone, which was fine, since sometimes it’s a pleasure to embark on a long leisurely meal by yourself and especially with a stunningly beautiful view of the Mediterranean as company. So I sipped a flute of rose Champagne and looked forward to the tasting menu that was shortly to unfold. It began with a trio of delicate hors d’oeuvres, including a sampling of fresh tomatoes from the garden that Colagreco has on the hillside just across the street from his restaurant, a beignet of smoked eel, and a seaweed strewn clam on the half-shell with an intriguing garnish of leche de tigre, the Peruvian sauce that’s used to make ceviche and which is a liquefied mixture of fish, lemon, onion and ají.

Mirazur - Oyster with tapioca pearls

Mirazur - Bread, oil, poem

Continue reading…