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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Clover, Paris–JF Piège’s Great New Bistro in St-Germain-des-Prés, A-/B+

December 29, 2014
Clover Maigre in nasturtium juice

Maigre (croaker fish) in nasturtium sauce with shaved radishes

 

Clover, Jean-François Piège‘s new table in  Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is the bistro this storied Left Bank neighborhood has been wanting for a longtime. Think of this intimate forty-square meter place as sort of a post-modern Brasserie Lipp, or a place that offers a deep experience of the moods and mores of this chic and still intellectually vibrant part of Paris. Happily, however, they part ways entirely when it comes to their menus, since Piège’s witty, delicious and intriguingly wholesome contemporary French cooking couldn’t possibly be more different from the generally tired and over-priced brasserie standards served at Lipp, a handsome but faded local institution that’s stood still as such fashion-alert places like the Emporio Armani Caffé and Ralph’s have succeeded in luring away its clientele of editors and style mavens. What they have in common, though, is the way they present a cameo version of the neighborhood–sepia-toned and contemporary, respectively, and distill its allure into a restaurant experience.

Clover salle good

Piège’s take on Saint-Germain-des-Prés is worldly, stylish, convivial and decidedly gourmand. It’s also very personal. When he told me about the project last summer, he said he wanted to create a place that was “homey, warm and a little bit like a club, a place where people who love good food might make new friends.” This was very much my experience when I went to dinner here with Bruno a few days after it opened the week before Christmas. Piège’s delightful wife Elodie greeted us with a warm smile when we entered this very intimate place with an intriguing decor of walls covered half in white tile, half with diamond-shaped wooden marquetry. The produce the kitchen was using that evening was handsomely displayed as a set of still lives inside of two glass-fronted stainless steel cabinets, and beyond the long row of tables lining the wall, a crew of cooks was busily at work in the kitchen, which is completely open and takes up most of the back of this long narrow space.

Clover quinoa wafers and eggplant 2

No sooner than we were seated, our neighbors to my left, a very friendly couple from Montpellier, struck up a conversation, explaining that they’d come to Paris specifically to eat at the restaurant, because it was Madame’s birthday and Madame has always loved Piège’s cooking. Anyone who knows Paris well knows that this is not a common occurrence in a Paris restaurant, and so I was even more surprised when the young couple on the other side of us engaged us in conversation just as the first course in a menu of seven arrived, puffed roasted quinoa wafers and black-sesame-and-eggplant puree, which were pleasant nibbling with a glass of Champagne. They’d read about the restaurant in Le Figaro, and also fans of Piège’s, they’d booked right away as well.

When we finally resumed our own conversation with the arrival of a second course, a ‘foie gras without the gras,’ or a rich liver pate served on a wooden cutting board with fine slices of homemade cured pork belly, toast, and decorative sprigs of spruce, Bruno spoke to me in English: “Quite a friendly place, isn’t it?” I knew he feared we might be over engaged by our neighbors throughout the meal, but the two couples had astute psychic antennas enough to leave us in piece when we began eating this interesting composition of tastes and textures.

A little silence also allowed me to muse even this early in the meal that Piège had devised an entirely different cooking style for this restaurant from those at his two other tables, Thoumieux, a stylish modern brasserie, and the superb Restaurant Jean-Francois Piège, both in the 7th Arrondissement on the rue Saint Dominique. Demonstrating a keen understanding of the gastronomic preoccupations that make Germano-Pratins (as residents of Saint-Germain-des-Prés are known) tick, this bold modern kitchen is clearly seeking to reinvent the Rabelaisian pleasures of traditional French bistro food for a new era that’s increasingly attuned to environmentalism and good health; this means, of course, a diet that includes much less meat, or perhaps banishes it altogether, and more organic vegetables, whole grains and seafood from sustainable fisheries.

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Gare au Gorille, Paris–A Great New Beast of a Bistro in Les Batignolles, B+

December 14, 2014

Gorille Beef Sea Urchin

Though Gare au Gorille is both a bad pun** and the title of a 1952 song by French musician Georges Brassens, what you really need to know is that it’s also the name of a charming and very good new bistro in the Batignolles district of the 17th Arrondissement in Paris. And that this engaging address comes with an impressive pedigree  which really delivers, since chef Marc Cordonnier was formerly Bertrand Grébaut’s sous-chef at Septime, where his business partner and good-natured maitre d’hotel Louis Langevin was sommelier and picked up the relaxed but gracious serving style created at that restaurant by Théo Pourriat. Finally, if you have any interest in dining here any time soon, it might be a good idea to take a pause and pick up the phone, since it’s very quickly become almost as popular was Septime itself. Be forewarned that they don’t answer during serving hours, which can make it even more of a vexing challenge to snag a table here, too..

Having persisted, I bagged a table and found myself walking up the rue de Rome on a rainy night to meet Bruno for dinner. Despite its grand name, this street parallels the broad, deep, stone-lined train cut that leads into the Gare Saint Lazare, and several times I stopped to watch the wonderful urban spectacle created by an arriving or departing train. Since every lit window in every train car framed a miniature portrait on someone on a journey, there was something winsomely fascinating about these metropolitan film strips, which also brought Eadweard Muybridge to mind. Many people seem to find this scenery a bit drab, but not me. Instead, I found myself envying the people who occupied a high apartment with a large artist’s studio window overlooking the tracks, since the promise of travel, the fact of travel has been such a life long passion of mine. With no train ticket in my pocket that night, I was, however, looking forward to a good meal, but found myself vaguely wondering if this popular new spot would be one of those places where I’d encounter a display of bored and sort of slatternly hauteur from the young staff for being fifteen minutes late.

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