Bien Élevé, Paris | Simple Pleasures From a Well-Bred Meal, B+

October 17, 2016

Bien Eleve facade of restaurant @ David Grimbert

Bien Eleve dining room @ David Grimbert

I went to dinner at the Bien Élevé restaurant in Paris the other night, and I was very well fed by both the kitchen’s very good cooking and also the charm of a motivated staff who animate what was once an old café in a gallopingly gentrifying part of the 9th Arrondissement near the Folies Bergère. Sometimes all I really want is a good simple hospitable meal, and that’s exactly what I found here.

If I’ve thought back on this meal with satisfaction several times since, it’s the calm, sincere nature of the experience itself almost as much as the food that has made me muse. What I’ve been mulling over is that we probably want too much from two things which are very much a part of our daily lives—adjectives and restaurants. The former are, of course, the verbal tools we use to express the superlative, and the latter are public places where we can chose to go to be fed. And on both counts, we seem to want and need too much from both of them.

Consider the case of ‘delicious,’ the most common adjective used to describe a powerfully pleasant experience of eating something. It’s a word that’s become so banalized that I systematically avoid using it in my writing. Then there’s the conundrum of contemporary restaurant reviewing culture and conventions. I read a lot of restaurant reviews of a given week across the media of a half-dozen different countries, and I find many of them so arcane and often arch that a restaurant which quietly accomplishes the task of serving a good meal with polite service in pleasant surroundings is often pushed to the sidelines in favor of places that are either very very good or very very bad (as a word, very still seems to have some permanent credibility but according to the prevailing trends in current usage the word should never be used in pairs, because this is very very bad).

Folies Bergere @ Alexander Lobrnao

Why adjectives have become so damaged is a bit of a mystery to me, but I think some part of the blame results from the pervasiveness of non-stop advertising that strains to incite and excite new reasons to consume. Everything has to be bigger, brighter, better, sexier, and more exciting, with the result that almost nothing is. Then there’s also the fact that so many of the English adjectives used to describe food are generally so flat-footed when compared to those in Latin languages.

The reason our expectations of restaurant going may have reached the point that a successful meal is defined as a suite of gastronomic revelations leading to rapture is probably because most English-speaking countries are still building their food cultures. Americans, along with Brits, Canadians, and New Zealanders, only began to take food and cooking seriously somewhere in the late sixties and early seventies. In countries like France or Italy that have very ancient gastronomic cultures, there isn’t the same resistance to simplicity found in the U.S. Sometimes, you see, an oyster should just be an oyster, and the French know that.

Bien Eleve - Jambon de Bigorre @ Alexander Lobrano

For my part, having had the privilege of eating the magnificence of the best cooks in Gaul for thirty years, I now find that I’ve fallen more in love than ever with my inner peasant, or that place that posits true good taste in nature, and this is a blessing. What I enjoy more and more is good simple honest food cooked from great seasonal produce with humility, care, and even a little bit of love. These days, I’d rather tuck into a plate of great ham, maybe some Spanish Iberico, French Noir de Bigorre or Prsut from Croatia or Slovenia than anything  ‘creative.’ I crave everything grilled—fish, meat, vegetables, even fruit and cheese. A beautifully made loaf of bread can move me as much as any elaborate sauce, and cheeses—real ones made from raw milk, are the most reliable constellation of gastronomic pleasure I know.

So off I went to meet Bruno for dinner at the Bien Élevé, because our relationship is gastronomically democratic. To wit, I impose a lot of meals on him, so occasionally, when we’re not cooking at home, which we both love to do, and I’m not intending to review a restaurant, we’ll just plain go out like most people do, and on this particular night his express wish was for some really good meat.

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Ore, Versailles | Ducasse’s Shrewd Take on Democratic Gastronomy, B+

October 4, 2016
Gate at the Chateau de Versailles

Silver and gold: ‘It’s lovely, but where should we go for lunch?’


In the rather unlikely event you haven’t noticed, Alain Ducasse is a very shrewd man. With the opening of Ore, the new cafe-restaurant he conceived and staffed at the chateau de Versailles, he’s not only equipped the opulent chateau with a French restaurant that’s worthy of such a prestigious setting, but offered an intriguing solution to what has previously been a mystifying French failure. To wit, given their spectacular Gallic gift for gastronomy, it’s unfathomable the French have most recently been so unsuccessful at creating restaurant concepts that enable large numbers of people to eat good French food at reasonable prices.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Couple in Dining Room @Alexander Lobrano

What makes me say this? Well, examine the gastronomic offer at any French airport, train station or highway rest stop, and you’ll most often come away crestfallen by having found nothing but a gauntlet of international fast-food outlets and franchise restaurants run by big industrial restaurant groups. We’re talking the usual culprits, Burger King and Pizza Hut, etc. If there’s lately been a sort of half-hearted feint at offering healthier options with the appearance here and there of the EKKI chain, or even the proliferation of PAUL, which peddles an industrial but just acceptable French take on the quick eats sold by bakeries—sandwiches, quiches, salads, there’s basically no proper place for a real meal at any airport and very few at train stations save an historical oddity like Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon in Paris (N.B. This particular restaurant is recommended primarily for its spectacular Belle Epoque décor, with the kitchen running a very distant second, so order simply). It’s even more puzzling, too, when you remember that the brasserie, that sexy restaurant idiom that incarnates urban glamour and also traditionally assured a prompt feed at a fair price, was originally a French invention.

Ore, dining room @Pierre Monetta

Ore, Dining room @ Pierre Monetta

Surely there had to be some modern way of conjugating French cooking that would be successful in both commercial and culinary terms. Well, as Ducasse has freshly proven at Ore, it turns out there is, and it’s pretty wonderful. To wit, this restaurant on the first floor of the Pavilion Dufour just inside the gates of Versailles serves very good freshly cooked high-quality relatively affordable Gallic grub. It’s also open non-stop from 8am to 6.30pm, so that you have breakfast before you tackle the chateau, reward yourself with a really good lunch after many fascinating but foot-sore hours ogling the opulence, duck in for tea with sandwiches or stop by for a pastry or a Croque Monsieur later in the afternoon.

The menu has also been designed to cater as broadly as possible to all comers, so they’re good options for vegetarians, children, and people coming from culinary cultures very different from those of France. But the lede idea, of course, is to showcase a certain idea of French gastronomy that references both its glorious history and its thriving and innovative present, and Ore does this very well.

Discovering this table during a recent Saturday lunch with Bruno a few days after it opened in September, I was immediately surprised by the monastic minimalism of the décor by interior architect Dominique Perrault and impressed by how warm, welcoming and well-briefed the dining room staff are. What makes this especially important here is that many people emerging from the elevator exhibited a certain wary shyness, because perhaps they’d heard that Alain Ducasse is a famous chef with an international empire of restaurants, but had never been to any of them and didn’t know what to expect restaurants.

Their two big fears? That they’d be patronized, and it would be too expensive. Instead, everyone is warmly welcomed.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Macaroni with ham, Comte and truffles @ Alexander Lobrano

Over a glass of Champagne served in broad shallow hollow-stemmed antique flutes the waiter told us Ducasse himself had scored at a flea-market left nameless (where does he find the time?!), we warmed to the austere elegance of the space as well. The solid oak floors, bare oak tables and brass wainscoting were doubtless deliberately chosen not to compete with the palace next door. Instead, these dining rooms offer an oasis of visual serenity after a good dose of head-spinning grandeur.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Lobster and tomato salad

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Pate en croute @Alexander Lobrano

We fenced back and forth about who’d have what, but finally reached a perfect peace as we always do at the table. So we began with three starters, each of which represented a different declension of gastronomic temptation. Ducasse likes to pull people’s legs with an occasional nod at the eternal pleasures of certain childhood favorites, and so it was easy to succumb to the elbow macaroni with cubes of Prince de Paris ham, grated black truffles and soft savory rivers of melted Compte cheese. I mean, it’s just impossible to believe that a dish like this wouldn’t make anyone weak in the knees. Then an indulgent but pleasantly light salad of shelled lobster and heirloom tomatoes with an appropriately gentle vinaigrette that quietly back dropped the succulent natural tastes of these two products, and an impeccably made pate en croute with pickled vegetables. Continue reading…

Le Bistrot de la Galette, Paris | Montmartre Gets a Delightful New Restaurant, B+

September 20, 2016

Le Bistrot de la Galette - dining room @Alexander Lobrano

It’s some of the best news of la rentrée (the Fall/Autumn season) in Paris this year: With the opening of Le Bistrot de la Galette, there’s finally a charming restaurant in Montmartre that actually serves good reasonably priced French food. This beautiful bistro looks like it’s been there forever, but it’s actually the very recent creation of the very talented pastry chef Gilles Marchal, who has worked at the Hotel de Crillon, the Hotel Bristol and many other places, and who has also just opened biscuiterie (cookie shop) not far from his excellent patisserie in the nearby rue Ravignan, both in Montmartre.

Bistrot de la Galette - Dining room

So just steps from the sorry tourist-trap tables of the Place du Terte, where wide-eyed people come from round the world to track down the long vanished traces of the bohemian community that made Montmartre one of the world’s greatest artist colonies between 1880 and 1914, at long last there’s a pleasant, uncomplicated, fairly priced and profoundly French place to have a meal.

Walking up the rue Lepic to meet Bruno here for dinner on an Indian summer night, I arrived feeling gently melancholic and a little wistful, since I once had a very close friend who lived on the rue Lepic, and I still don’t understand how that friendship just sort of went missing after a very large distance separated us. Though I’m now happily married (who’d have ever believed that I could pen that sentence! Not me, but what huge happiness it’s brought to a loving couple that’s nearly twenty years old), friendship will always be for me the ballast of a life well-lived and an honestly sacred troth. In fact I think of my friendships like gardens, or rich fertile places that need to be loved, respected and regularly cared for to thrive. This doesn’t mean, of course, that one has to hover over a friendship, or be too exigent about what defines it, since one of my very dearest friends in the world is a man who lives in Sydney and whom I see only a couple of times a decade, if we’re lucky, as we were this past summer, when we met up by the seaside in Spain.

But I couldn’t help but sort of idly musing on what social media has done to my admittedly very old-fashioned idea of friendship as a miraculously created web of intimacy spun on a frame of respect and nourished by humour, honesty and a joyous conscientiousness. The little blue ‘like’ button on Facebook has become a sort of unfathomable shorthand for some form of intimacy born of affinity, which can of course be wonderful, but on the other hand, I have hundreds of ‘friends’ I’ve never met, and whom I’m usually connected to out of possibly reciprocally self-interested need or desire to show the world that we’re ‘friends.’ Ultimately, however, real friends are those people who will forgive your occasional bouts of madness or seriously bad behavior, because they know and love you and so understand from whence this ugliness issues and also that it will pass. Such people are very rare and very precious.

Le Bistrot de la Galette - Oeufs Mimosa @Alexander Lobrano

Oh well, maybe the friendship gone oddly asunder lacked the rudder I always believed it had, but one way or another, this particular sweep of Parisian cobblestones will always have tender resonances, and between doing this very personal psychological fine-stitching  and the steep slope I climbed, I reached the table honestly hungry for something as delicious as the oeufs Mimosa (a superior French version of deviled eggs) pictured above.

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La Tour d’Argent, Paris | A Delicious Evolution, A-/B+

August 31, 2016
Tourdargent a salle 2016 - jour

A room with a view


Reinventing a restaurant as famous as La Tour d’Argent was always going to be fraught with problems. Why? Well, if some clients might welcome the changes, perhaps even muttering under their breath, ‘Thank goodness, it’s about time!,’ others would denounce even the most reverent tinkering with the experience of a meal here as heresy. “They’ve absolutely ruined the place!” these sanctimonious self-appointed guardians of tradition would fume.

Unfortunately, in Paris, in 2016, the culture of the city is generally more in sympathy with a static status quo than innovation. In almost every realm, the past is reflexively judged to be more perfect than the present, which leads to the city’s bizarre officially sanctioned cantankerous determination to become a sort of genteel open-air museum. It also explains the existence of certain restaurants that are fussy, fretful gastronomic mausoleums that commemorate culinary traditions and a stuffy service style few people enjoy anymore, if they ever did.

But change had to come at La Tour d’Argent, which has been rather rudderless for a longtime. Since the death in 2006 of Claude Terrail, the natty gravely voiced boulevardier whose charm was the axis on which this perched table turned for over sixty years, this restaurant has been on an earnest but occasionally fumbling quest to renew its raison d’etre. The old formula of gallantly pandering to a self-satisfied international beau-monde that kept its reservation book full just wasn’t working anymore. In fact, the framed photos and autographs of the socialites, royals, and other celebrities who adored this place in its post-war hay day from 1950 to 1975 are decidedly momento mori now, and in any event, the general public is less impressed by such pedigrees in the age of the selfie and—woe is me– the Kardashians.

La Tour d'Argent - Langouste @Alec Lobrano

Langouste, soupe froide, cucumber


So leaving the visual possibility of an alarming overly ambitious facelift happily to one side, the kitchen had to be the place for any serious relaunch of this legend, and happily, that’s exactly where it’s happened. But first, for anyone who prefers a short-take, here it is: Now run by Andre Terrail, son of Claude, the Tour d’Argent has a brilliant new chef who has made the restaurant a serious gastronomic contender in Paris again.

With the arrival of the superbly talented Philippe Labbé, it looks like this grande dame of Gallic gastronomy has finally been granted a deeply delicious new lease on life. This means it’s a place you not only can go to again but one you should prioritize if you want an impeccably cooked meal of exquisite classical French cooking in a romantic setting with magnificent views.

I knew nothing about this, of course, when I somewhat ruefully headed here for lunch the other day, having received an invitation from Penelope, aka “Penny,” a second cousin from Philadelphia whom I hadn’t seen in at least a good twenty, maybe twenty-five, years. This is why my first response to her note—the invitation came on a heavy cream-colored monogrammed notecard, was a phone call to try to delicately suggest that maybe we might eat at another classic Parisian table of her choice, one where the food was likely to be better. But she stuck to her guns, saying she wanted to see the view again after so many years, and that she was sure the food would be “just fine.”

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Daroco, Paris | Honest Italian Cooking and a Good Time – B-

July 17, 2016
Daroco - Swordfish carpaccio @Alexander Lobrano

Swordfish carpaccio with zucchini, raspberries and dill


Almost no adjective in a restaurant review makes me warier than the word ‘fun,’ because overtly ‘good-times’ type places often don’t take their food very seriously and attempt to hide this culinary weakness with loud music, low lighting and amped up cocktail menus. That said, I’ll cock a snook at myself and come right out with it: Daroco is probably more fun than any other new restaurant in Paris this summer. Why?

Daroco - Paris - dining room

It occupies a beautiful space with a locally legendary fashion pedigree, i.e., the former Jean-Paul Gaultier boutique in the rue Vivienne. It also has an eye-catching off-beat vaguely tongue-in-cheek Miami-moves-to-Soho decor of high-backed royal blue velvet booths, white terrazzo floors (someday, somewhere, I’d love to live in a place with terrazzo floors, partly because it’s pretty and feels so good barefoot and partly so that I can channel the weekend invitation I foolishly turned down to Gore Vidal’s villa on the Amalfi coast a good twenty-five years ago when people were still trying to get me out of my Fruit of the Looms), and exposed brick walls. The most important part of the decor, however, are the good looking clearly carefully cast servers in striped Saint James sailor’s pullovers, a Gaultier signature, and the crowd itself, because this place has so quickly become the nexus the Parisian tribes that work in businesses which are mostly visual–photographers, fashion designers, web designers, advertising and PR types, plus a few lumbering folks from the ever diminished world of words and a gaggle of retailers, buyers and other professional trend spotters.

Daroco - Paris - Burrata @AlexanderLobrano

This restaurant is the latest creation of savvy restauranteurs Alexandre Giesbert and Julien Ross (Roco, Roca and Rococo), and it scores a bull’s eye in terms of what Parisians want to eat this summer, which is uncomplicated good quality Italian cooking. Think a short produce-driven menu that debuts with simple well-sourced, crowd-pleasing Instagram ready starters like swordfish carpaccio with zucchini, raspberries and dill or bosomy lactic burrata topped with toasted pine nuts and dribbled with pesto oil. The only starter that disappoints is their rendition of vitello tonnato, overcooked slices of veal with a nearly tasteless tuna cream sauce under a thatch of arugula with no capers.

Daroco - Pizza with broccoli rabe and sausage @AlexanderLobrano

In terms of main courses, there’s a veal chop and sea bream, three pastas–rigatoni alla Norma (tomato, ricotta and aubergine sauce), spaghetti with clams and shavings of rather extraneous bottarga, and a spaghetti carbonara, and then a long list of nicely made pizzas that are baked in a wood-burning oven. The classic Margharita is good, because of its tangy tomato sauce and the way that the heat of the oven melts the good quality mozzarella without causing it to lose all of its milkiness, but my favorite is the one topped with mozzarella, marinated broccoli rabe, and crumbled sausage; I could, in fact, eat one of these for lunch everyday.

Daroco - Dining room with waiter @AlexanderLobrano

Dining here with a wonderfully ravenous fashion PR friend from New York City, we shared the best starters and a pizza–hey, this woman really is my kind of a gal, before we both had a pasta. While sipping our excellent Sardinian white (the only one on the excellent wine list), we chatted, and Brett nailed the other thing that makes this restaurant so likeable. “Last night I had dinner at the Hotel Costes, and even though I still love the look of the dining room, the service is so up itself that it almost ruined the evening,” she said. “What’s fun here is that the waiters and waiters are really hot but friendly and attitude-free. Don’t you think that service with attitude, which has always been part of the boilerplate in the Costes restaurants, is just so nineties, so over?” Yup, I do, and I’d noticed exactly the same thing at Daroco. The staff is nice and alert without ever being in your face, and even when two older American men came through door wearing the kind of pastel stripped polo shirts and ventilated caps more appropriate to a Florida golf course (I suspect the came via a hotel concierge), the hostess was warm, welcoming and didn’t give into any possible temptation to raise an eyebrow or shoot a bemused and perhaps fleetingly snide look at a passing waiter.

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Fulgurances, Paris |A Consistently Delicious Showcase for New Gastronomic Talent, A-/B+

July 7, 2016

Fulgurances - facade with flowers on balcony

The superb modern Franco-Israeli cooking currently being served (until November 2016) by Israeli born chef Tamir  Nahmias at the restaurant Fulgurances in eastern Paris proves that the most important recent gastronomic development in the city is its emergence as the world’s premier culinary talent cluster. To wit, in the same way that ambitious young computer engineers and software developers head for the Silicon Valley in California, Paris has emerged as the quintessential venue for talented upcoming chefs from all over the world.

The ever accelerating internationalization of the city’s culinary talent pool has not only renewed the gastronomic  pre-eminence of the French capital in the 21st century, but the trend has also made Paris an edgy and profoundly original place to eat. And perhaps the best news of all is that this fresh talent is adding a new layer to a gastronomic landscape that may never have been as rich with possibilities, since the spectrum of choices in Paris, from proudly traditional bistros to intriguingly avant-garde pop-ups is unique for a major European city.

Fulgurances - Tamir Nahmias

Tamir Nahmias

Tamir Nahmias is a perfect example of the young talent migrating to Paris. He worked for three years as second to Gregory Marchand at Frenchie, and also cooked with Adeline Grattard at Yam’Tcha and Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance. And now he’s in Paris to stay, because, he explains, “It’s the most exciting place to cook in the whole world, both in terms of the sophistication of the restaurant-going public and their openess to innovation, but also the quality of the produce, the gastronomic culture of France, and the spectacular community of chefs in the city.”

With this background, Fulgurances, which was opened last October by Hugo Hivernat, Sophie Coribert and Rebecca Asthalter, the same team that publish the gastronomic review of the same name, is the ideal transitional setting for Nahmias as he prepares to open a restaurant of his own sometime later this year (in French, a fulgurance is like a lightning bolt, or a revelation). Nahmias’s stint running the kitchen here–Fulgurances works on the basis of a six-month showcase, allows him to refine his impending menu and also build a clientele before he hangs out his own shingle.

Fulgurances grilled octopus 2

On the basis of the 44 Euro prix-fixe dinner I enjoyed at this charming restaurant the other night, the inhabitants of the 11th Arrondissement–Nahmias plans to stay in the neighborhood, are going to be very lucky indeed, because his very personal metissage of the Israeli and French kitchens is stunningly good and perfectly calibrated. Since I love the big bold flavors of all the kitchens of the eastern Mediterranean–Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli and Egyptian, I worried they might be toned down too much here in deference to the perceived timidity of the French palate. Happily, almost every dish we tried preserved the integrity and authenticity of Israeli food at the same time it endowed it with a winsome refinement and casual elegance.

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