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…

CLOWN BAR, Paris–A Delicious Performance With No Need of Red Noses or White Face, B+

June 6, 2014

Clown Bar - Bar

Adjacent to the Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus), a handsome 1852 arena between the Place de la Republique and the Bastille, the Clown Bar has always been one of the most charming places in Paris for a quick bite and a glass of wine. Now under new management–a dream team that includes Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne from the restaurant Saturne, plus Xavier Lacaud, it’s suddenly better than it’s been for many years. They recruited talented Japanese chef Sota Atsumi, who cooked at Vivant, another intimate little place with landmarked Belle Epoque tiles, to run the kitchen, and Atusmi’s short produce focused menu, which changes often, runs to intriguing small plates, which are easily composed into a pleasant and very satisfying meal.

Clown Bar - Couple on Terrace

There’s also a deep terrace on the quiet street out front, and this has instantly made this beloved address even more popular than ever with a diverse but stylish crowd of Parisians. Coming for dinner the other night with Bruno after I’d returned from New York City the same day, we toyed with the idea of the terrace, but sat inside instead to enjoy the beautifully restored little dining room, a real triumph of French Belle Epoque decor with a glass ceiling in the bar area painted with a circus theme and a wall of tiles from Sarreguemines, the northern town that was once one of France’s great ceramics towns, with a frieze of clowning clowns behind the big zinc bar. The last time I came here, the room, which had been closed for a while, still had walls that were amber tinted by years

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Le Servan, Paris–The Importance of Being Earnest, or a Great New Neighborhood Bistro, B

May 25, 2014

Le Servan Clams

For some time now, many French food writers have been exasperated by the metronome of criticism that’s been coming from their American peers ever since journalist Arthur Lubow startled everyone by claiming the best gastronomy in Europe had migrated south of the Pyrenees in a profile of Ferran Adria for the New York Times in 2003. The idea that French food is not as good as it used to be but even often rather mediocre had been bandied about in food circles for a while before the Lubow lightning bolt struck, but by the time New York based journalist Michael Steinberger‘s book “Au Revoir to All: Food, Wine and the End of France” was published in 2009, kicking French food in the shins as a has-been cuisine had become a veritable cottage industry. Smashing idols is sort of thrilling, of course, but in this instance, not particularly accurate, as I concluded in a piece I wrote on Steinberger’s book for the late and still lamented Gourmet in 2009. And yet the beat goes on, with Steinberger recently doubling back to revisit his thesis in a story for the New York Times.

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Les Déserteurs, Paris–A Charmer of a Bistro near the Bastille, B+

May 11, 2014

Deserteurs - Asparagus

Just ten minutes from La Bastille, Les Déserteurs is a perfect example of the new generation of neighborhood bistros that have been renewing Paris’s gastronomic credentials during the last ten years.  Though this culinary renaissance has been happening in broad daylight for a while, the rest of the world has yet to catch on. This is probably all for the best insofar as we Parisians are concerned, however, since a sudden spotlight on one of these newcomers can instantly make it impossible to get reservation within the normal timeframe of being able to predict your appetite for a given type of meal. Then, too, the necessity of booking months ahead of time for a meal in a recently lionized local bistro invariably encourages such heightened expectations that one’s easily set up for a fall. To wit, under these circumstances, being very good just isn’t enough. Instead, a meal is expected to deliver an almost transcendental experience, which is a pretty heavy burden for almost any young chef. And for a diner, too, since sometimes it’s just a nice to go out for a good meal. Period.

Even before I arrived at this new table, the former premises of chef Giovanni Passerini’s restaurant Rino, on a sunny May day, I expected to like it solely on the basis of its puckish name. Before they opened here, you see, Daniel Baratier and Alexandre Céret were second chef and sommelier, respectively at Le Sergent Recruteur, a wiltingly pretentious place on the Ile Saint Louis that assiduously follows the pointless pleasure-slaying old-school drill of what the French refer to as a repas gastronomique (gastronomic meal). These are rather wearisome experiences happily reserved for infrequent ‘special occasions,’ since the point of such a severely orchestrated meal is that you must bow down to the meal meted out by the chef and servers and be politely grateful for it the whole time, too. So even before I’d seen what these guys had gotten up to, I liked them a lot for being deserters. The simple fact of the matter these days is that almost no one likes a long, fussy, formal meal with too much to eat anymore.

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