Lucas Carton | The Rejuvenation of a Mythic Parisian Table, A-

May 24, 2015

Lucas-Carton art nouveau detail

They’re few dining rooms in Paris that are so deeply invested with a long and mostly very happy album of memories for me than Lucas Carton, the magnificent landmarked restaurant with a spectacular art-nouveau decor by Louis Majorelle just across the street from the Église de la Madeleine in the heart of the city.

So I was a little anxious when I went to dinner here the other night for the first time in a very long time–my purse doesn’t allow me to be a regular, and ultimately relieved but not surprised to rediscover that young chef Julien Dumas’s cooking makes him a brilliantly worthy successor to Alain Senderens, who had billing as head chef here for almost thirty years, despite the fact that it was his lieutenant Jerome Bactel who’d actually been running the kitchen on a daily basis for a while.

LUCAS CARTON INTERIEUR bis 2

In fact Bruno said that our meal reminded him of his initial experience of Yannick Alleno’s cooking, or a dazzling first encounter with a startlingly talented and rapidly rising young chef, and I quite happily agreed. Dumas is exactly what Lucas Carton needs to remain a relevant and desirable restaurant in Paris in 2015. So ultimately I was able to add another gastronomic sketch to the brief but privileged album I carry around in my head of occasions spent on these premises.

To be perfectly honest, the one that really sticks out in this slender volume of memory is deeply tinted to this day by trauma. When I arrived in Paris from London to work as an editor in the rue Cambon offices of Fairchild Publications, this restaurant was the setting for one of the most excruciating meals I’ve ever had in my entire life. Sifting through the still tender shards of remembrance attached to that evening, I don’t find the name of my host or hostess, but I know it was a Paris fashion designer and that the chic little supper was intended to size me up and ‘welcome’ me to Paris, in that order of importance.

To say that things did not go well that night is a massive understatement. My eight years of French failed me miserably within minutes of being seated between the attache de presse who’d organized the evening and a druggy middle-aged Countess who immediately told that she thought les Americains were “des sauvages” (savages) and who regularly left the table for five minutes or longer to then return with white-powder-rimed nostrils. In retrospect, the least she could have done in those days before I became sensible and settled was to offer to share her loot. In any event, the meal was a horror, and the worst of it was a starter salad, a tumble of pretty little leaves, that looked innocent enough until I noticed a tiny gnarled bird’s leg sticking out of the greenery. This leg was so tiny I couldn’t imagine anyone would actually want to eat it, and I found myself wondering if it might have found its way into my plate by dint of some horrific accident in the kitchen, or maybe it was a practical joke, or maybe….

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Benoit |The Definition of a Paris Bistro

May 10, 2015
Restaurant Benoit - Devanture(c)Pierre Monetta

@ Pierre Monetta

Paris without Benoit, a wonderful old bistro on the edge of the Marais that’s been in business since 1912, would be almost as unimaginable to me as Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Why? Though I’ve occasionally had a bone or two to pick with Benoit through the years, it remains an august monument to the eternal goodness of Parisian bistro cooking. And that’s why today I’m grateful to Alain Ducasse for taking it over in 2005. I was a bit skeptical at the time–after all, what could Ducasse bring to a bistro register as brilliant as the one perpetuated by the Petit family for 93 years? Not much, as it turned out, but in his quiet role as a restaurant curator and collector, he saved this place.

Without Ducasse, Benoit might have suffered the same ignominious fate as Le Grizzli, a once charming old-fashioned Auvergnat bistro across the street where I used to love the fricot de veau (veal stew with wild mushrooms) that’s now become an insipid could-be-just-about-anywhere  type of table–I mean, does anyone really come to Paris to eat skewered chicken with sate sauce?

@ C. Sarramon

My most recent meal at Benoit was born of a heart-felt desire to lift the spirits of a much-loved friend, a longtime American resident of Paris like me, who’s going through a very hard time. Aside from daily phone calls, I was trying to think of what I could do to cheer her up, to distract her, and then it occurred to me that a really good meal with some great wines would be perfect. So I invited her to join me at Benoit.

On the way to dinner, it was a soft Paris night in May when the air was scented by chestnut flowers, a distinct but soft and fleetingly floral moment in the city’s annual calendar that never lasts more than a few days, and I thought of the first time I went to dinner at Benoit, with Ken, a handsome guy from the corn-belt in Ohio who used to work for the same company I did. He liked to eat as much as I do, and we drank a what-the-hell expensive bottle of Cote Rotie with our meal, which wasn’t a long-planned event, but rather an off-the-cuff let’s-go-out-to-dinner feast before obligatory reservations strangled such spontaneous pleasures. Yes, there really was a time in Paris where you could walk in the door of a very good restaurant in Paris and get a table. What a shame it is that meal planning has become as strategic, intricate and carefully plotted as D-Day.

Benoit - Asparagus

What was racketing around in my head on the way to dinner was my recurring exasperation with several of the most exhausted cliches of contemporary food writing, to wit, women love salad and fish, while men want meat and more meat, and younger people don’t want traditional French bistro food like older ones do but would rather have pizza, sushi and cheeseburgers. None of these ideas are true, actually, but their persistent existence throws any discussion about good food in Paris way off course. Many of the women I know and love are even more enthusiastic eaters of offal and big bloody steaks than I am, and a good number of my youngest friends crave blanquette de veau and coq au vin even more than I do.  So do you care to guess which one of us ordered the asparagus with a truffled mousseline sauce?

Well, we both did, but that was after we’d shared an order of Langue de Lucullus, a speciality of Valenciennes in northern France comprised of fine layers of smoked tongue interleaved with pork-liver pate; it’s a dish I never eat without thinking of Bruno’s lovely mother, who now insists I call her “Maman,” because I’m her ‘American son,’ since she was the one who introduced it to me. It’s sturdy old-fashioned French food, and as much as I love it it always induces an apprehension that I might soon be a worthy model for Rodin, the sculptor of large solid people, if he were still alive.

Benoit - Boeuf Wellington

There were ever so many tempting things on the menu at Benoit the other night, but what caught my eye, oddly, was Boeuf Wellington, that ur American suburban dinner-party show-off recipe from the Seventies, which consists of a filet of beef anointed with a sauce Perigueux (foie gras and truffles) wrapped in pastry. I hadn’t eaten Beef Wellington in beyond the nets of recent memory, but since it’s served here for two (until the end of May 2015, as part of a tiny collection of wonderfully retro recipes) I had to be sure my friend was onboard as well.

She was, so we did, and it was wonderful, because the beef wasn’t the insipid filet most often found in the same preparation in North America, where tenderness is the ultimate and rather sorry measure of good meat, but juicy mineral-rich French beef with a pleasantly chewy grain. And as I ate it, I thought of the long butterfly-print culotte halter dress that my mother wore with tangerine sandals when she wanted to buck back against a world of make-up-free suburban women in wrap skirts with the same bob haircuts they’d had since they were twelve. Mind you, my mother was all scorn (and still is) when it comes to anything that might be construed as feminine wiles, but she still occasionally felt the need or desire for a little bit of glamour, a timeout from the spaded femininity of American suburbs in the Northeast in the sixties and seventies, and it’s true I’ve never ever known a man who looked at a metal duck-head belt buckle, one of the embarrassing emblems of female preppy privilege, and gone wild with desire

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East Mamma | Good Casual Italian Dining in Paris, B

April 28, 2015

EAST_MAMMA  Veg and salad

“Before, there were just a few really good Italian tables in Paris, but they were also really expensive, or the usual neighborhood Italian places, which were generally pretty mediocre,” says Tigrane Seydoux, co-owner with business partner Victor Lugger of the hugely successful new East Mamma restaurant just across the street from the Square Trousseau in the 11th Arrondissement. “So our idea was to open a ‘casual-dining’ sort of restaurant inspired by the trattorias of Italy that offered good food made with really great Italian produce, which we import ourselves, at reasonable prices,” says Seydoux, who adds that his love of Italian food came from growing up in Monaco, “where you probably eat Italian more often than you do French.”

EAST_MAMMA-1 @Renaud Cambuzat Salle

@Renaud Cambuzat

 

“Everything chef Ciro Cristiano works with is imported directly from Italy, including our prosciutto, which comes from Bagatto in the San Daniele region, and the wood-burning pizza oven, which was built by Salvatore Acunto in Naples,” says Seydoux proudly. Not surprisingly, this handsome restaurant designed by London interior architect Martin Brudnizki, who’s Jamie Oliver’s preferred designer, has been packed ever since it opened a few weeks ago, with the no-reservations policy leading to a big hungry crowd waiting on the sidewalk outside.

Despite the excellent word-of-mouth on this table, I still couldn’t help but being reflexively skeptical when I came for dinner the other night with Bruno. Why? Though hope may spring eternal, my passion for great Italian food has been so consistently disappointed during the twenty-five years I’ve lived in Paris that I make it a point to avoid Italian restaurants here, since what I can cook at home is always so much better. I dislike the fussy, stuffy overpriced Italian places in the 8th and 16th Arrondissements as a general rule–the only exception being Penatti al Baretto, where the food is excellent even if the service is, well, let’s just say over-groomed, and know better than wasting a meal in any of the dozens of neighborhood joints where they sprinkle industrially made pizza dough with grated Emmental–yes, Emmental–on top of a swirl of pre-seasoned tomato sauce that’s bought in huge cans at Metro, the restaurant wholesale supply store that has a lot to answer for.

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La Marée Jeanne | A Good Catch for Seafood Lovers in Les Halles, B+

April 7, 2015

Dining room at La Maree Jeanne restaurant in Paris

Seafood in Paris is so popular that I was more amused than taken aback when my butcher recently confided that he increasingly prefers fish to meat. It’s no surprise then that innovative and charming Paris restaurateur Frédéric Hubig-Schall’s new restaurant La Marée Jeanne has been packed ever since it opened in early March. Since I love seafood, and the accomplished Hubig-Schall also owns Astier, Jeanne A, Jeanne B and Sassotondo, I was especially eager to discover his newest table when I went to dinner there with Bruno the other night.

Fried whitebait at La Maree Jeanne

What we discovered tucked away in a side street off of the pedestrians-only rue Montorgueil is a lively restaurant that offers a winning French take on the casual good-value sea-shack style seafood restaurants that make any summer vacation in New England such a pleasure. Since La Marée Jeanne is in the heart of Paris and not overlooking Narragansett Bay or Boston harbor, however, a very different decorative idiom was necessary, in this case a sort of jaunty cross between a classroom in a Danish elementary school and an artist’s loft with the requisite industrial fittings of dangling Edison bulbs and gray cement walls and floors, and metal railings.

Studying the menu over an order of deep-fried whitebait cleverly brightened by garnishes of flash-fried ginger, parsley and other vegetables, I couldn’t help but thinking about how shrewd it was. Not only did it offer the opportunity for a light bite, a large meal and everything in-between, because so many dishes are offered in ‘small’ and ‘large’ portions, but the fact that so many of the alluring Gallic comfort-food preparations were prepared in advance means the small open kitchen won’t become too strained by the constant turnover here. The limited amount of on-the-spot cooking during any service precludes the possibility that you’ll end up scented of your supper for the rest of the week, too.

The menu happily navigates between tradition, as in mousseline soufflée, sauce homardine  (pike-perch dumplings, in creamy lobster sauce) and more modern French favorites, including marinated monkfish with Kalamata olives and citrus vinaigrette. And it also implicitly favors the admirable recent local restaurant trend towards privileging fish from sustainable fisheries; to wit, there’s whiting on the menu but not turbot and grilled croaker instead of sole.

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L’Amarante | Chef Christophe Philippe’s Superb New Bistro, B+

March 26, 2015

Amaranthe - facade

It was a nice surprise when I learned that L’Amarante, chef Christophe Philippe’s new bistro in a quiet street not from from the Bastille, is open on Sunday nights. Why? If Monday and Saturday are my least favorite nights of the week to go out to dinner in Paris, because Monday always feels forlorn and there’s rarely much fresh fish available, and Saturday is too amped up and noisy, my two favorite nights are Thursday and Sunday. On Thursdays, the average Parisian restaurant kitchen is well limbered up and provisioned and the crowd in the city’s dining rooms is still mostly Parisian and in a good mood with just a day left before the weekend. Having a good dinner out on Sunday usually succeeds in dispelling the wistfulness the day can induce by occasionally being being stitched with intimations of mortality conveyed by religion and the fact of an imminent return to work. Sunday nights out feel sort of confidential, too, since most people tend to stay home and get to bed early in preparation for the week to come. Me, I’ve always liked swimming upstream and throwing such sensible cares to the winds, especially if it means I’ll have a good meal.

Amaranthe - bottles on bar

So Bruno and I met our friends Carole and Laurent for dinner at this L-shaped thirties vintage bistro with a big service bar at the joint between its two small dining rooms with bare wooden tables and red banquettes, and I was intrigued to find it busy with an intriguingly diverse-looking crowd of epicures who clearly hadn’t come here by chance. For ever so many reasons, the four of us make a good quartet at the table. Carole and Bruno have known each other since they were children in Valenciennes, a pleasant hard-working little city on France’s border with Belgium, and Laurent and I always have fun talking about our increasingly distant pasts as reckless feckless creatures of the night in our twenties and thirties, love good wine, are interested in politics, love good food, and enjoy affectionately teasing Bruno and Carole about being from Valenciennes (Laurent is a native Parisian, and I am a child of that part of New England that has been ingested by greater New York, Fairfield County, CT). And we all have different appetites. Bruno loves organ meats, Laurent’s wild for game, Carole will only eat fish, and I’m the omnivore sticking my fork into everyone else’s plates.

I was keen to come here, because I’ve loved Christophe Philippe’s cooking ever since I first discovered him in a tiny plain dining room in the 5th Arrondissement over ten years ago. This is why I included him in HUNGRY FOR PARIS and why this address has long been one of my permanent recommendations in this part of the city. Now, though, he’s crossed the river and set up shop in this new place with a very different menu from the one he served in the Latin Quarter. And he’s cooking better than ever.

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Auberge Bressane, Paris–A Living Archive of the Great Tastes of Gaul, B+

March 4, 2015

Auberge Bressane - Busy lunchtime salle

After a morning of musing on the question of where to go to lunch with a friend from London who loves old-fashioned French bistro cooking, the Auberge Bressane suddenly bobbed up in my mind as a possible solution. True, I hadn’t been to this Gaullist gastronomic redoubt in a very longtime, but a quick glance at their menu online left me with a pulse-quickening desire to eat there again. And besides, I’d already allowed the work of choosing a restaurant for us, complicated by the fact that many places are closed on Monday, to take more time than I really had.

The problem, you see, is that I’ve always taken the business of choosing a restaurant very seriously. Not only is there something both sad and vexing about a bad meal eaten anywhere but at one’s own kitchen table (happily, I can’t remember the last time that happened either, although if he were around this afternoon, Bruno would doubtless chime in to reprimand my free-handed tendency with the garlic and the chile peppers when I make marinades), but the remote possibility of a disappointing meal with a friend who loves good food as much as I do is something I’d work to avoid at almost all costs.  It’s complicated, though, since beyond the necessity of great food, they’re many other inputs to be considered as well–the price, bien sur; the atmosphere, which is a unique-to-every-restaurant mixture of the decor, service and clientele; the time allotted for the meal; accessibility; and the personalities and tastes of the other diners. Going to a restaurant is like casting yourself into a play, so it’s generally a good idea to make sure that there’s a role that appeals to you and suits you before you show up.

Auberge Bressane  - Salade Pissenlit

Of course counter casting can be fun, too, and that’s the sociological posture I chose in deciding to ignore the fact that the Auberge Bressane is so profoundly vieille France, or a bastion of the bourgeoisie, an address favored by penny-pinching aristocrats, and a place popular with conservative blowhard politicians. My friend and I didn’t tick any of these boxes, but we do like a good show and since we’re polite, our shaggier bohemian traits and attitudes can occasionally be concealed behind a scrim of manners. So we settled at a table in the very back of this restaurant with its oak-paneled walls, vaguely Violet-le-Duc mock medieval style woodwork and chandeliers, and all of the coats of arms and signage in typefaces that evoke France in the Fifties and Sixties and got to work with the menu, which looked like a mimeographed page like the ones I dealt with in grade school, minus, that is, the smell of the toner, which I’m certain was potent enough to make any receptive second-grader a tiny bit high.

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