L’Amarante | Chef Christophe Philippe’s Superb New Bistro, B+

March 26, 2015

Amaranthe - facade

It was a nice surprise when I learned that L’Amarante, chef Christophe Philippe’s new bistro in a quiet street not from from the Bastille, is open on Sunday nights. Why? If Monday and Saturday are my least favorite nights of the week to go out to dinner in Paris, because Monday always feels forlorn and there’s rarely much fresh fish available, and Saturday is too amped up and noisy, my two favorite nights are Thursday and Sunday. On Thursdays, the average Parisian restaurant kitchen is well limbered up and provisioned and the crowd in the city’s dining rooms is still mostly Parisian and in a good mood with just a day left before the weekend. Having a good dinner out on Sunday usually succeeds in dispelling the wistfulness the day can induce by occasionally being being stitched with intimations of mortality conveyed by religion and the fact of an imminent return to work. Sunday nights out feel sort of confidential, too, since most people tend to stay home and get to bed early in preparation for the week to come. Me, I’ve always liked swimming upstream and throwing such sensible cares to the winds, especially if it means I’ll have a good meal.

Amaranthe - bottles on bar

So Bruno and I met our friends Carole and Laurent for dinner at this L-shaped thirties vintage bistro with a big service bar at the joint between its two small dining rooms with bare wooden tables and red banquettes, and I was intrigued to find it busy with an intriguingly diverse-looking crowd of epicures who clearly hadn’t come here by chance. For ever so many reasons, the four of us make a good quartet at the table. Carole and Bruno have known each other since they were children in Valenciennes, a pleasant hard-working little city on France’s border with Belgium, and Laurent and I always have fun talking about our increasingly distant pasts as reckless feckless creatures of the night in our twenties and thirties, love good wine, are interested in politics, love good food, and enjoy affectionately teasing Bruno and Carole about being from Valenciennes (Laurent is a native Parisian, and I am a child of that part of New England that has been ingested by greater New York, Fairfield County, CT). And we all have different appetites. Bruno loves organ meats, Laurent’s wild for game, Carole will only eat fish, and I’m the omnivore sticking my fork into everyone else’s plates.

I was keen to come here, because I’ve loved Christophe Philippe’s cooking ever since I first discovered him in a tiny plain dining room in the 5th Arrondissement over ten years ago. This is why I included him in HUNGRY FOR PARIS and why this address has long been one of my permanent recommendations in this part of the city. Now, though, he’s crossed the river and set up shop in this new place with a very different menu from the one he served in the Latin Quarter. And he’s cooking better than ever.

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Auberge Bressane, Paris–A Living Archive of the Great Tastes of Gaul, B+

March 4, 2015

Auberge Bressane - Busy lunchtime salle

After a morning of musing on the question of where to go to lunch with a friend from London who loves old-fashioned French bistro cooking, the Auberge Bressane suddenly bobbed up in my mind as a possible solution. True, I hadn’t been to this Gaullist gastronomic redoubt in a very longtime, but a quick glance at their menu online left me with a pulse-quickening desire to eat there again. And besides, I’d already allowed the work of choosing a restaurant for us, complicated by the fact that many places are closed on Monday, to take more time than I really had.

The problem, you see, is that I’ve always taken the business of choosing a restaurant very seriously. Not only is there something both sad and vexing about a bad meal eaten anywhere but at one’s own kitchen table (happily, I can’t remember the last time that happened either, although if he were around this afternoon, Bruno would doubtless chime in to reprimand my free-handed tendency with the garlic and the chile peppers when I make marinades), but the remote possibility of a disappointing meal with a friend who loves good food as much as I do is something I’d work to avoid at almost all costs.  It’s complicated, though, since beyond the necessity of great food, they’re many other inputs to be considered as well–the price, bien sur; the atmosphere, which is a unique-to-every-restaurant mixture of the decor, service and clientele; the time allotted for the meal; accessibility; and the personalities and tastes of the other diners. Going to a restaurant is like casting yourself into a play, so it’s generally a good idea to make sure that there’s a role that appeals to you and suits you before you show up.

Auberge Bressane  - Salade Pissenlit

Of course counter casting can be fun, too, and that’s the sociological posture I chose in deciding to ignore the fact that the Auberge Bressane is so profoundly vieille France, or a bastion of the bourgeoisie, an address favored by penny-pinching aristocrats, and a place popular with conservative blowhard politicians. My friend and I didn’t tick any of these boxes, but we do like a good show and since we’re polite, our shaggier bohemian traits and attitudes can occasionally be concealed behind a scrim of manners. So we settled at a table in the very back of this restaurant with its oak-paneled walls, vaguely Violet-le-Duc mock medieval style woodwork and chandeliers, and all of the coats of arms and signage in typefaces that evoke France in the Fifties and Sixties and got to work with the menu, which looked like a mimeographed page like the ones I dealt with in grade school, minus, that is, the smell of the toner, which I’m certain was potent enough to make any receptive second-grader a tiny bit high.

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Le Duc, Paris–A Deliciously Noble Catch-of-the-Day in Montparnasse, A-/B+

February 16, 2015

Le Duc - Salle best

After I stepped into the vestibule at Le Duc, a long-running seafood house in Montparnasse, a delightfully nostalgia-freighted evening pushed out from the dock the moment I was seated at a corner table in the wood-paneled dining room. With its jaunty nautical decor–the late great French restaurant designer Slavik was surely inspired by one of Gianni Agnelli’s Riva speed boats when he set to work here–and conditionally lordly service, this place is rather like the catch-of-the-day oriented little sister of Le Voltaire, another vintage beau-monde monument of a restaurant on the Left Bank. And like Le Voltaire, it’s a place that not everyone will “get” or like, because it could be accused of being clubby, expensive and old-fashioned.

Indeed it’s all of those things, but l still liked it enormously, and after a superb meal here, I’d rank it right up there with Rech and Dessirier as one of the best seafood restaurants in Paris. But first, back to Slavik and the question of restaurant decor. Before a knock-off version of Jacques Garcia’s Napoleon III bordello style dining room for the Hotel Costes became the new boilerplate for Paris restaurant decors, it was Slavik who ruled the roost of Paris restaurant design, especially in the seventies when he did Chez Georges near the Porte Maillot and L’Européen across the street from the Gare de Lyon. If there was always something a little corny and larger-than-life about Slavik decors, many of them have aged to real charm. Unfortunately, this is also often the very same moment that restaurant owners who dread being called ‘old-fashioned’ dream of gutting their Slavik decor and replacing it with yet another bad version of Garcia’s now also dating look for the Hotel Costes.

Le Duc - butter

Hopefully Le Duc will be spared, because it has a bona-fide retro glamour, and the same might also be said of its clientele, a veritable gratin de Paris that included Alain Minc, Philippe Labro and the Contessa Brandolini the night I was somewhat improbably cast into their midst by the generous dinner invitation of a friend. Recognizing a few famous faces–a political advisor, a writer, and an Italian aristocrat, respectively, momentarily propelled me back to the days when I’d just arrived in Paris and was working as an editor for the American fashion-publishing company that pioneered the modern-day people press. Part of our job while attending fashion shows and other events was to cull as many famous names as possible for later use as seasoning for our reviews. I hated intruding on total strangers to beg a quote, and I hated the fact that these mumblings were awarded so much importance, but against the backdrop of today’s high-velocity celebrity-driven marketing, all of this looks rather quaint in retrospect. The people we stalked in those days had beauty, talent or breeding, or all of the above.

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Why French Cooking Still Matters Mightily

February 6, 2015
Clover Maigre in nasturtium juice

Steamed croacker (fish) in nasturtium juice at Clover

 

Released this week, The Michelin 2015 Guide to France attests to the good health of gastronomy in Gaul as a talented new generation of chefs are slowly acknowledged by the august institution. Among the stand-out awards were three stars to chef Yannick Alleno at Ledoyen and a star to chef David Toutain for his eponymous restaurant, both in Paris, and a star to chef Albert Riera at Le Jardins des Plumes in Giverny. So it seemed an opportune time for a little musing on the state of French cooking right now.

SEMILLA blanquette de veau

Blanquette de veau at Semilla

 

Ever since gastronomy, which is what cooking and eating are called when they’re done as much for pleasure as for nourishment, stopped being a uniquely aristocratic pleasure and went mainstream during the 19th century, cooking in the western world has spun on a Gallic axis. This is because the epicurean culture of France, a country with one of the world’s most prodigiously blessed larders, was lavishly codified in terms of those calibrated instructions we call recipes long before the same precisely scored orchestration of culinary techniques occurred in most other European countries.

And well beyond the refined dishes that were originally concocted in chateaux kitchens, a profound love of great food and wine has always permeated French society and the country’s self-identity. The French phrase, ‘Les arts de vivre’ (the arts of living), among which is good cooking, conveys the deep seriousness with which the French shop for food, cook and consume it, and talk and think about it, which they do constantly and with real erudition.

This passionate devotion to gastronomy doesn’t look set to be changing anytime soon, and as an American who’s lived in France for almost thirty years, I have no doubt France will continue to be the ultimate culinary reference for the West and, sometimes beyond, since no country in the world has a deeper respect for French produce, technique and culinary prowess than Japan, for a longtime to come.

Why? Aided and abetted by a quiet revolution in Gallic gastronomic media in all forms—newspaper columns, guidebooks, television shows, websites, and magazines, French cooking has been the object of a typically subtle but ever accelerating renaissance which began well before I arrived in 1986 with that unjustly maligned sequence of brilliant experiments and culinary innovations known as “La Nouvelle Cuisine.”

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Bouillon, Paris–A Simmering New Bistro in the 9th Arrondissement, B-/C+

January 29, 2015

Bouillon salle best

Chef Marc Favier’s new restaurant Bouillon in the 9th Arrondissement in Paris has been getting very good reviews, but while I liked it, I’m not sure I’d go back. Why? It’s expensive for what it serves, and I found a perceptible lack of generosity in the restaurant’s DNA. To wit, there was no amuse bouche, or little madeleines served with the coffee. Instead, the waitress offered a jar of cheap brightly colored hard candies that were of no interest whatsoever, and when we didn’t finish our 50 Euro roast duck, the leftovers were spirited off to the kitchen while I was outside taking an urgent phone call and Bruno was in the WC; they might have made for a nice parmentier du canard the following day and should have been offered.

Bouillon salle w:view of kitchen

So am I right and the others who liked it more eagerly wrong? No, since there’s broadly no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to having an opinion of a restaurant. What brought this to mind was an interview I did the other day, when one of the journalists told me that she’d had lunch with a French food critic who “really didn’t like Hexagone,” a place I’ve recently reviewed on this site and like very much. Pause. Longer pause. I wasn’t sure what she was after, so I finally said “Chacun a son gout,” and left it at that.

Of course everyone has a right to their own opinion, and that’s what makes reading restaurant reviews both useful and interesting, since you can usually tease out some sort of reliable truth from the considered judgments of a group of experienced food writers and critics. The thing is, the sacking of critical expertise brought on by the internet and crowd-sourced reviews is still having a huge impact on the way we think about food and judge restaurants for the simple reason that most of the English speaking world has always disdained arts de vivre experts as being pretentious and bit too fancy for their own good. The internet has put this suspicion of pointy-headed experts on steroids, with all sorts of attempts to extrude the truth about food and eating out of the general public through means that are occasionally statistical but more often just everyman (or woman)-gets-a-turn-at-the-mike. So that’s where we are today, and the complicated and finely tuned balance between the subjective and the objective that’s at the heart of all professional reviewing, whether the object being reviewed is a play, a film, an automobile or a meal, goes missing. And this is not a good thing, either for anyone who loves great food or for the chefs who produce it.

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Hexagone, Paris–The New Shape of French Gastronomy, A-/B+

January 19, 2015
Dining room at Hexagone @Jérôme Galland

Dining room at Hexagone @Jérôme Galland

 

There are many things to like about chef Mathieu Pacaud‘s new restaurant Hexagone in Paris. Not only does it serve some exquisitely refined contemporary French cooking that tips its hat at the great traditions of Escoffier, it also has one of the best wine lists of any recent restaurant in Paris. This lavish list, which also includes a spectacular selection of grand cru wines by the glass, is run by Benjamin Roffet, one of the city’s most talented and charming sommeliers, too. There’s also a serious bar at this address with a major mixologist in the person of  Thomas Girard.

What I find interesting about Pacaud’s new place, though, is that it represents what a talented and ambitious young chef with a serious culinary pedigree–his father Bernard Pacaud cooked at L’Ambroisie for many years before turning the kitchen over to his son–thinks French gastronomy should be about in the 21st century. Oh, and there’s also the wild card of its address in the 16th Arrondissement, a silk-stocking part of Paris which never previously attracted young chefs setting up shop. Now, though, it’s starting to simmer with the arrival of Pacaud and other terrific new tables like Restaurant Pages.

“Many of the old style three star restaurants in Paris are struggling right now,” Pacaud said during a chat I had with him when I went to Hexagone for dinner with Bruno the other night. “They’re too expensive and too formal. The meals they serve take too long, and the whole drill isn’t appealing to a younger generation of Parisians or foreigners visiting the city. So my idea here was to create a place that my friends would want to come–a place that’s relaxed and where you have a good time,” said the chef, adding, “And I chose the 16th Arrondissement, because it delivers a good clientele of business diners at noon and an interesting and international mixture of people at night. Eventually, I’ll open a real restaurant gastronomique on the same premises (Hexagone occupies a duplex space space in the former Hotel K),” says Pacaud, who also plans a new seafood restaurant sometime this year. “I think it’s a really exciting time in Paris, because the old guard is changing and the future is emerging,” says the chef, a who insists that despite coming off as a very amiable and easygoing guy, he’s actually intensely demanding. “I dine in my own restaurant regularly and we’re still fine tooth combing everything,” he said.

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