“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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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

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CAILLEBOTTE–Artful Modern French Bistro Cooking in the Heart of Paris, B

July 9, 2014
Caillebotte Fennel Cream, crab, hazelnuts

Fennel cream soup with shaved fennel, crabmeat and hazelnuts

 

It was good news last winter when I heard chef Franck Baranger had opened Caillebotte, his second restaurant in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris where I live. Why? I love Le Pantruche, Baranger’s first bistro, and as a Parisian for almost 30 years, I find the work of the 19th century painter Gustave Gaillebotte, who’s well-known in the U.S. for canvases like “Paris Street, Rainy Weather” (1877) in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, more astutely and sentiently summarizes the city I live in than almost any other. This is because Caillebotte was working in the ‘new’ Paris that had just been created by Baron Haussmann, an elegant city of new bourgeois rigor, the carefully constructed good bones of which survive to this day.

So I wondered if Baranger’s food might be as ur Parisian as Caillebotte’s paintings, and after nearly a year of frequenting this restaurant, I’ve decided this modern bistro cooking actually does say a lot about Paris today, since Bobo poses–a recherché gastronomic connoisseurship among them, are basically just a re-coining of the codes of the French bourgeoisie for a new century, the 21st one.  My slowness in deciding about this restaurant actually answers a variety of questions I’m often asked about how I work, too. To wit, how do I go about judging a restaurant?

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Le Bon Georges, Paris–My Pretty Much Perfect Neighborhood Bistro in the 9th Arrondissement, B+

June 25, 2014

Le Bon Georges - Facade 2Le Bon Georges, a recently opened bistro just five minutes from my front door in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, offers a delicious lesson in how to judge the city’s food right now. Let me explain. As someone who travels often, I’ve long since learned that the best way to evaluate the quality of the food in any given city isn’t by going to the trendy new openings crowed about in style supplements, much less any place that has been anointed with a Michelin  star or one that’s popular with business diners, who have the luxury of an expense account.

No, the better way to see how well a city eats is to go into its neighborhoods and sample the places the locals go to all of the time, or a place like Le Bon Georges, for example. No surprise in this strategy, bien sur. For lots of reasons, the most obvious being that I’m constantly sampling new places or checking up on tables I recommend in HUNGRY FOR PARIS, I’m not really a regular, as such, at any Paris restaurant. And yet in deference to the indefatigable Bruno, who dutifully accompanies me to remote corners of the city on tasting missions night after night when he’d much rather be eating at home, I’ve somewhat improbably become something of a regular at Le Bon Georges, a place I’ve now been over a dozen times since it opened this past winter. Understandably, he loves the idea of going someplace he knows and likes with good, solid, simple food. And so when I recently returned from a fascinating but challenging-in-the-last-act trip to Fez to report on a new restaurant there (the bus from Beauvais airport to Paris is a circle of hell that Dante missed, since it has some of the rudest and most inefficient service of any public transport I’ve ever used in my life), Bruno blessedly collected me from the Porte Maillot, and told me he’d booked at Le Bon Georges. Continue reading…