Restaurant Passerini, Paris | The Best New Italian Restaurant in Europe, A-

June 27, 2016

Restaurant Passerini - veal sweetbreads with spring vegetables

Restaurant Passerini, which occupies a spare but handsomely renovated former cafe in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris near the Marche d’Aligre, one of my very favorite Paris markets, is not only the best new Italian restaurant in Paris but Europe. Now that’s a tall statement, Alec, you might think, but I know it’s true. Giovanni Passerini, the Rome born former chef of Rino, the delightful little bistro in the rue Trousseau where he first won his name and which is now closed, is so solidly talented that he would be a rising star in Italy if he still lived there. And though it’s not my subject here, Paris is on the brink of becoming a city that ranks on par with Rome and Milan as an ultimate destination for outstanding Italian cooking.

Why? Well, briefly, Parisians love Italy perhaps more than other European country with the possible exception of Spain, and the current mode among young chefs in Paris for highest quality produce simply prepared to express its essential goodness is every bit as Italian as it is French. In fact, this is approach to cooking is probably even more Italian than it is French, because depending on the region of Italy, the Italians exalt a gastronomic simplicity that’s typified by dishes like a really good insalata Caprese (you know, of course–tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, basil, salt), an excellent pizza, or a great risotto.

Restaurant Passerini,

Well, this is how Paris wants to eat right now–simply, with the alluring sideways twist that Italian cooking is also usually as full of flavor as it is low-fat. For me, this explains everything about the new gastronomic Italianophilia in Paris right now. And even though I rarely recommend foreign restaurants in Paris, because I believe most travelers come to the city bent on eating as much French food as possible, Restaurant Passerini is such a good restaurant that it completely warrants a meal on the carefully plotted dining schedule of even the most discerning Paris bound diner.

Giovanni Passerini

Chef Giovanni Passerini

“It’s a lot of pressure for me to represent Italian cooking in Paris,” Passerini said when we crossed paths when I went to his new digs for dinner the other night. But on the basis of the meal I shared with an asutely gastronomic friend  from LA who also lives in Paris, he has nothing to worry about. His food is superb, and the restaurant itself, which channels Gio Ponti and Olivetti, or the great days of Italian design in the Sixties, is a very pleasant space in which to have a meal, especially with its gray terrazzo floors. The only thing that could use some fine tuning is the service, which was regrettably impatient shading to aggressive and even impolite to us, people whose credentials for politeness are beyond all doubt. I worked in restaurants at another time in my life and my scales always bang down hard on the side of the one who’s standing not the one who’s seated, because I know how hard this work is. So was it really too much to expect that our bottle of wine be served before our first courses reached the table?

Restaurant Passerini - Suppli @Alexander Lobrano

Happily, a more amenable waiter came to the rescue, and when an order of suppli–breaded deep-fried rice beignets stuffed with roast pork, cheese and tomato sauce arrived at the table, all was suddenly hugely right in the world, especially since we also loved our excellent natural wine from the Alto-Adige region. I’d never seen this ur Roman snack in Paris before, and it was not only thrilling to find it on home turf, but in a version that would be spectacularly good even by Roman standards. Continue reading…

L’Assiette, Paris | A Superb Bistro in Montparnasse, A-

June 6, 2016
L'Assiette @ Stephane Riss

L’Assiette @ Stephane Riss

 

Chef David Rathgeber’s restaurant L’Assiette is not only the best bistro in Montparnasse, but one of the best bistros in Paris. Why? I’ll let the chef himself explain why it’s so good. “I don’t like la cuisine d’assemblage (the modern mode for plates of food that are layered compositions of flavors). I like melded flavors that wouldn’t exist without real cooking, and this is what I do at L’Assiette. Some of my dishes are traditional, like cassoulet, and others are my inventions, like pork belly with octopus, but follow the same logic of building new flavors by tempering and intensifying the natural tastes of produce you’re actually working with,” says the chef, 44, an amiable Auvergnat from Clermont-Ferrand. So Rathegeber is a disciple of Escoffier and his cooking adheres to the the great dictums of Curnonsky, the famed 19th century French food critic: “In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection;” “Make food simple and let things taste of what they are;” and “Sauces comprise the honour and glory of French cookery.”

L'Assiette @ Stephane Riss

L’Assiette @ Stephane Riss

 

To be sure, Rathgeber worked for Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV in Monaco and then the Plaza Athénée in Paris for fourteen years, but today his style is purely his own, although a certain love of and respect for vegetables continues to echo Ducasse’s kitchens. Rathgeber also worked at Aux Lyonnais and Beonoit, two Ducasse bistros, and he won a Michelin star while working at the former, which is  where I first discovered his cooking. Then, after opening branches of Benoit in New York City and Tokyo, he returned to Paris in 2008 and decided to take over this legendary beau-monde bistro, where everyone from the late French president Francois Mitterand to Yves Saint Laurent president Pierre Bergé once dined regularly, from the beret-wearing, wise-cracking Lucette Rousseau (aka Lulu), when she decided to retire.

“This was a perfect move for me, because the food Lulu was serving was so close to the way that I like to cook and eat, and she’d built up a solid clientele of people who love solidly traditional French food,” says the chef. “Of course cooking is not static, it evolves and changes, which is why I love tinkering with old recipes to reinterpret them without causing them to lose their essential character.”

Suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no danger of that happening in Rathgeber’s kitchen, since his cooking is exquisitely ground in Gallic gastronomic history at the same time that it’s fresh, unexpectedly light and sometimes surprisingly bold.

L'Assiette- Ballotine @Alexander Lobrano

On yet another recent woefully rainy night, we were hungry when we arrived in these beautiful dining rooms with painted glass ceilings, a marble counter, lacquered bistro tables and creaking parquet floors, and the little saucer of ham that was served with our glasses of white wine was the perfectly tuned signal that we’d arrived in a place that cared deeply about good food and which would take good care of us at the end of our long days. Potently porcine, this hand-sliced highest quality Burgundian ham was a repudiating reminder that industrial charcuterie should be avoided both for reasons of health and its tragic lack of flavor and texture.

L'Assiette shrimp tartare @Alexander Lobrano

Rathgeber’s menu offered so many things that both of us wanted to try that it took us some time to come to reciprocally acceptable choices. Since a real ballotine de volaille fermiere is something you rarely see on Paris anymore, because this luscious dish rolled breast of chicken stuffed with a forcemeat of its legs and thighs mixed with spinach, herbs and vegetables takes too much time to make, I wasn’t going to miss it, and Rathgeber’s version delivered brilliantly, since it was earthy and richly flavored and sauced with a chicken jus that merged deliciously with the Xeres brightened vinaigrette of the mesclun salad upon which it was served. Recognising that not everyone is as fiercely fanatic about old-fashioned barnyard cooking as I am, Rathgeber also proposed the unexpectedly toothsome tartare of New Caledonian blue shrimp that caught Bruno’s eye. Garnished with salad leaves, beet slices and a scribble of preserved lemon vinaigrette, the crunchy shrimp were seasoned with chopped pignoli nuts, lime zest, and remote traces of lemongrass and ginger to create a dish that was brilliantly vivid and original.

Continue reading…

Champeaux, Paris | A Fine Feint at Gastronomic Democracy in Les Halles, B-

May 29, 2016

Champeaux - Paris @Alexander Lobrano

Champeaux is gastronaut Alain Ducasse’s new brasserie in the revamped Forum des Halles in Paris. I’ve been several times, and I rather like it. It is, of course, still a work in progress, but it’s also an attempt to make good food available to all comers again–even if the prices are a little too high, witness all of the kids sitting on  the stone stairs that lead into the exorbitantly renovated shopping center and transit hub (they spent $1 billion here but it sure doesn’t show) eating fast food from grease-strained white paper bags. Observing how people will adapt any venue to their own needs and uses despite the head-strong high-faluting intentions of the architect, the fledgling renovation of Les Halles is also an invitation to muse on how gentrified good eating has become in most major Western cities. And in the heart of the neighborhood that was the site of the main food market in Paris eight centuries before it was so brutally relocated to suburban Rungis in 1969, this takes on a particular poignancy.

Champeaux - interior - Les halles - Paris @Alexander Lobrano

To wit, when I first moved to New York City and took a punitively underpaid job in book publishing, there were dozens of places I could find a good meal within my paltry means both in midtown where I worked and on the Upper West Side where I lived. For a couple of dollars, I could get a slice of smoked fish on a bagel, a big combo plate of Cuban-Chinese food, a couple of slices of good pizza, a big juicy burger, and, if I was willing to hoof a dozen blocks further north, a big spicy plate of goulash with fried potatoes. The incredibly delicious variety of food available to me on my modest means was one of the major reasons I fell in love with New York City, and after I spent almost ten years sating, sort of, an insatiably compulsive and intertwined hunger for new night clubs and sex with strangers I hoped I’d never see again, this gift of food was the passion that survived as the pithe of my love for NYC after I moved first to London and then to Paris.

So even though I could have fathered most of the kids sitting on those steps leading down into the transit center bowels of the Forum des Halles that connect it to distant suburbs most Parisians alternately don’t know or fear, I still couldn’t help but being moved by their palpable glow of excitement, or the adrenalin-boosted elation tinged with fear that any kid feels when he or she steps off the train in the heart of the big city. I mean, hey, when I was an adolescent with a shoulder-length parted-in-the-middle Prince Lancelot haircut who lived in suburban Connecticut, there was nothing I liked more than a Saturday of hanging out in the Child’s or Howard Johnson’s restaurants in Times Square smoking cigarettes (Newports), drinking too much coffee and hoping against hope that I might be accosted in this funky, rough, sex-riddled neighborhood (Never happened, alas, probably because it’s no fun to shoot pigeons sitting on a phone wire, or to come on to a kid who is so patently  eager to be disabused of his hopeless naivete when it’s badge of privilege visible to everyone but the wearer).

Champeaux - sea bream carpaccio @ Pierre Moletta

Sea bream carpaccio with citrus @Pierre Monetta

 

So when we went to Champeaux the first time, I liked the fact that there were some interesting looking kids from the burbs in the room who’d decided to dare Ducasse. I mean, these kids probably knew about him from various shows about the reboot of Les Halles on television rather than anything particularly gastronomic, and most of them probably hadn’t had the experience of any restaurant that would end up in the egregiously elitist Michelin guide. They also likely wouldn’t know a bistronomie restaurant if they stepped on one. Why?

Though it’s been blessedly gentler than what’s gone on in New York or London during the last couple of decades, the sociological parsing out of central Paris means that these kids and their families have since been threshed out of the mix, which is why, shock horror, the Paris press was so befuddled by the huge success of the first Burger King to return to France after a long absence when it opened in the Gare Saint Lazare, another major venue for suburbanites arriving in the city. The socialists may run City Hall, but what’s left of the middle class in Paris is hanging on by a thread, to say nothing of working class Paris, which is basically gone, along with the frequently smoke-filled cafes where they could get lunch for 30-40 francs. Rising rents also explain the explosion of franchise places, often of American origin, along the city’s main avenues, here a Subway, there a Pizza Hut and across the street a KFC.

Champeaux - pate en croute @Pierre Monetta

Pate en croute @Pierre Monetta

 

New York City, God love it, keeps the cheap hot meal within reach of almost everyone with its astonishing culture of food carts. Nothing similar exists in Paris, and to my knowledge, very little thought has been given to the way that gentrification has completely changed the city’s restaurant landscape. With the redesign of the Forum des Halles, however, there was no way of ignoring the fact that the busy rail station deep below spills thousands of suburbanites of modest to middling means into the heart of the city everyday. Champeaux at least makes a fluttering attempt to be accessible to these people, since you can get a cheese soufflé for 14 Euros and the plat du jour is 22 Euros.

The diversity in the dining room the other night was refreshingly different from most Paris restaurants, too. The room itself is huge and has been criticised for feeling like its in an airport or train station, but first of all, it is is part of a train station, and second of all, I like its post industrial look and vaguely tongue-in-cheek references to recently gone ‘retro’ 1970s French design in public spaces. The lighting in a difficult space is good, too, and the terrazzo table tops are both practical and good looking. The single shoulder strap on the aprons the waiters wear is the only design detail I’d hasten to correct, because it’s dippy looking and impractical.

Champeaux - onion soup @Alexander Lobrano

The menu is modern and modish, with only the plat du jours and a peculiar post-modern riff on the onion soup that was one of the neighbourhood’s great dishes for centuries playing the card of tradition. I prefer the version a few doors down at Au Pied de Cochon, where a crouton floats a cap of melted cheese.

Champeaux - vegetable salad @Pierre Monetta

Salad of raw and cooked vegetables @ Pierre Monetta

Champeaux - croaker with quinoa @Alexander Lobrano

Otherwise, there’s a sextet of beautifully made souffles–three savoury, three sweet, which are the signature dish here, and a couple of nods at healthy eating with dishes like a starter of cooked and raw vegetables with herb pesto and croaker with toasted quinoa and a lemon-olive condiment. If you go for the hand-chopped steak tartare, ask for it without the exasperating shower of Jerusalem artichoke chips that adds nothing to the taste of the good quality well-seasoned meat.

My best meal here so far was a slice of excellent pâté en croûte, followed by the quenelles de brochet, Friday’s plat du jour, in a beautifully made sauce Nantua, and finally a pistachio souffle that hid a pool of salted caramel sauce and was accompanied by caramel ice cream. For these three dishes, I would definitely return, and all things be equal, it’s heartening that the brasserie revival pioneered by chef Eric Frechon when he opened Le Mini-Palais and Lazare, is continuing to gain momentum, with chef Thierry Marx’s new brasserie at the Gare du Nord in the wings for this year’s rentrée. On these terms, Chapeaux is a useful new address for the same reason any brasserie is, to wit they remain walk-in restaurants where you can usually get a table at the last minute and have a decent feed while enjoying some good people watching.

And after all, the real measure of any really great food city is how well it feeds everyone who lives there.

La Canopée, Forum des Halles, 1st Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-53-45-84-50. Metro: Les Halles, Chatelet , Louvre-Rivoli, Etienne Marcel. Open daily. Average 30-35 Euros. www.restaurant-champeaux.com

Fish Club, Paris | A Good Catch in Les Halles, B

May 19, 2016

Fish Club - diningroom with girl @ Alexander Lobrano

When the Fish Club, the seafood oriented cousin of the Beef Club next door, first set sail several months ago with a vaguely Peruvian themed menu that spun on carpaccio and ceviche, it never really caught on. Now this address in a former butcher’s shop on the edge of Les Halles with a stylish decor by the parent Experimental Cocktail Club group’s favorite interior designer, Dorothée Meilichzon, has been rebooted with a really appealing menu by chef Julien Burlap. What makes it so attractive is that it’s unpretentious in a city where brand-name food–bread by, carrots grown by, chickens hatched by, etc.–is becoming an alarming new gourmet meme.

What irks me is the accelerating brand-naming of gastronomy, since the wheels of big money have now spotted it as another perfect target for ‘affordable everyday luxury,’ the new motor of consumption in major western cities. So whether it’s deliberate or not, the menu at the Fish Club sort of ignores these rules in favor of a time-tested fail-safe old-fashioned marketing method: quality, which never needs a bold-faced name dangling from it.

Fish Club - Diningroom @ Alexander Lobrano

Here, names are named when they’re useful, rather than to diddle you with aspirant gastronomic shorthand, i.e, butter by Bordier, meat by Hugo Desnoyer (such a shame about what’s going on with him since he was bought by Alain Mikli, the eye-wear designer, etc.). Oh to be sure, a half Saint Marcellin cheese is ID’d on the menu as coming from La Mere Richard, a formerly famous Lyon cheesemonger that was also scooped up not long ago by a big industrial dairy, but at least the staff here–almost unnervingly charming, helpful and informative–remain on the side of the diner; when I asked if the Saint Marcellin, one of my favorite cheeses, was ‘coulant‘ (runny, the way I like it, the way it should be), the waiter said, “No, if that’s the way you like–and you should!–what we have won’t make you happy.”

Instead, the idea of this place, as the well-briefed waitress explained before we ordered is “to offer good quality seafood at a price point that’s in between the insane prices of haute cuisine and the quality compromised ones of brasseries and chain restaurants.”

This sounded promising, so we decided to splurge on absurdly expensive flutes of Champagne and an order of croquettes des crevettes grise, a Belgian comfort food that makes me ecstatically happy. These amber-colored crispy beignets came to the table with deep-fried parsley, as they should, and lemon halves, and they were so good it didn’t even occur to me to photograph them, such was my haste for this pleasure of crunchy cartridges filled with runny pink gently marine tasting béchamel filled with tiny gray shrimp caught off the Belgian coastline. What explained their presence here is the fact that consulting chef Julien Burlat, who’s from the north of France, has worked in Antwerp for several years at an excellent seafood brasserie there called Le Dôme sur Mer.

Fish Club - Baby Squid with arugula @ Alexander Lobrano

Fish Club - Shrimp carpaccio @ Alexander Lobrano

Though there was a nice selection of oysters and other shellfish on offer, we decided to order slightly more elaborate starters out of a desire to understand this place. So I went for the grilled baby squid with arugula and Bruno chose the red shrimp carpaccio with citrus segments and lamb’s ear lettuce.

I liked the quiet fire of piment d’Espelette that enlivened my generous tangle of tender milky squid, and Bruno’s shrimp was impeccably fresh, iodine bright, and very pretty on the plate. So we became hopeful, because more and more what we really love eating these days is good seafood, and as we know, our ardor is projected upon the screen of the harrowing reality that wild seafood becomes scarcer by the day, which is what explains its eye-watering prices in Paris. Continue reading…

Les Arlots, Paris | A Stunningly Good New Bistro A-/B+

May 1, 2016

Les Arlots, Paris @Alexander Lobrano

 

So there are two things you need to know right away about Les Arlots, an excellent new bistro near the Gare du Nord in Paris. The first is that this tiny place is going to become very popular, so if you want to go, please pause now, pick-up the phone and make a reservation. And the second is that despite its diminutive size, it signals a major change in the gastronomic landscape of Paris. To wit, La Bistronomie, or the modern bistro movement that was born in 1994 when chef Yves Camdeborde (along with other Christian Constant alumni) opened the original La Regalade in a remote corner of the 14th Arrondissement, has now run its course to the extent that many of its memes are becoming embarrassing, even a little irritating.

What made me finally certain about something I’ve been sensing for a while was the avidity with which the four of us savaged every course we ate Les Arlots the other night. To be sure, there were a few dishes on the chalkboard menu that nodded at the better ideas of La Bistronomie, notably beets with goat cheese and a deconstructed fraisier (a strawberries-and-cream dessert usually made with sponge cake but here concocted with crumbled shortbread and dollops of pleasantly acidulated raw milk creme fraiche instead). The fact of the matter, however, is that beyond the catchy (or not so catchy) name, La Bistronomie was always essentially just about applying the basic principles of La Nouvelle Cuisine to bistro cooking, i.e. shorter cooking times; a preference for jus (reductions) over elaborated sauces; the eager use of fresh herbs, citrus and other ingredients that convey bright notes of taste; a respect for vegetables and also the aesthetics of the plate. La Bistronomie also prefers layering or contrasting tastes to those that meld together and would not exist without the skills of the cook. This is why Bistronomique menus can be interesting and refreshing but often lack the gastronomic draft of traditional bistro cooking, which, it would seem, Paris is suddenly craving all over again.

Les Arlots - Langoustines @Alexander Lobrano

What we yearned for the other night was real food, or mostly traditional dishes that here were beautifully cooked from superb produce and also generously served. I didn’t come to dinner in search of gastronomic revelation, but rather in the hopes of being well-fed in the best French traditions of culinary simplicity by people who honestly love working in a restaurant, whether in the dining room as servers or bar tenders, or the kitchen as chef and assistants.

But what was it exactly that clued me in to the fact that we’d be eating a really really good meal? The reflexive unselfconscious friendliness of the dining room staff and the small saucer of excellent slightly warmed Corsican sausage that the kitchen sent out for us to nibble with our Saint Andre Sauvignon, one of the really good natural and/or organic wines from the open-shelf wine list here. Message: We love what we do, and we want you to have a great meal and a good time.

We stared at the chalkboard menu for a longtime before we were able to commit to our respective meals, because there were so many things that all of us wanted. Since pâté en croûte is such a great dish upon which to judge the quality of a bistro, I wavered, but in the end I couldn’t stay away from the langoustines with homemade mayonnaise, partly because I adore them, but also because they’re rarely seen in such settings and these were so reasonably priced at 15 €. What I did not expect was the lavishness of the portion that eventually came my way, or their perfect cuisson, or mayonnaise so good I ended up finishing it up with torn pieces of excellent baguette.

Continue reading…

Canard & Champagne, Paris | A Delicious New French Couple, B

April 15, 2016
Canard & Champagne @Stephane Adam

@Stephane Adam

 

Canard & Champagne, a new restaurant in the Passage des Panoramas in Paris, has a very clever concept. Occupying the magnificent landmarked former premises of an 18th century stationery shop with black-and-white marble floors and a magnificent carved wooden shop in the moody Passage des Panoramas, this casual convivial place specializes in two of the most quintessentially French products imaginable, duck and Champagne. It’s the brainchild of shrewd young restauranteurs Jean Valfort, who previously launched Blend, Paris’s first gourmet burger chain, and Pierre Dutaret, who comes from a famous foie-gras producing family in southwestern France.

C&C-bar_01-@stephane-Adam

Bar at Canard & Champagne @ Stephane Adam

 

“Our concept is unabashedly cocorico (this is how the French hear the crowing of the cock that is their national symbol, and the word is also slang for patriotism),” says the amiable Valfort. “We also wanted to promote Champagne as a table wine, or a wine that pairs well with food. Too many people think of it only in terms of being a party drink or a special-occasion quaff, but it goes so well with a variety of different foods, including duck and foie gras, the staples of our menu,” he added.

foie gras - canard et champagne @alec lobrano

canard et champagne - magret @alec lobrano

canard et champagne - confit de canard @alec lobrano

Indeed, it’s easy to order here since you have a choice of two starters—excellent foie gras that comes with an intriguing chutney of fruit and nuts or a green salad, three main courses—magret de canard (grilled duck breast), confit de canard (duck preserved in its own fat) or a steak. Desserts come from the Boulangerie BO in eastern Paris, and they’re superb, especially the Madagascar vanilla and chocolate tarts. And to add to the fun of a meal here, the sommelier is happy to suggest a different Champagne for each course.

Continue reading…