Arnaud Nicolas, Paris | Exquisite Charcuterie and More, A-/B+

June 8, 2017
Arnaud Nicolas @Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

Arnaud Nicolas @ Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

 

Arnaud Nicolas displays his charcuterie @Alexander Lobrano

In Paris, Arnaud Nicolas, 34, has launched a spectacularly succulent revolution at the new restaurant and boutique that bears his name on the leafy Avenue de la Bourdonnais in the ever so discreetly chic 7th Arrondissement.

Arnaud Nicolas - exterior of shop and restaurant

Arnaud Nicolas @Betil-Balkan

 

Stopping by this elegant pair of rooms with oak parquet floors, exposed stone walls and beams, and battle-ship gray paintwork for dinner the other night, Nicolas was intently concentrated on cutting a slice of a superb looking pâté en croûte for a older woman with a spun-sugar chignon and a belted calico shirt dress that matched her eyes. I was watching her watching him when she glanced at me and smiled. “This is what I’m having for dinner tonight. A slice of this nice young man’s exquisite pâté en croûte, a green salad and a glass of good wine,” she said with dogmatic satisfaction.

Turned sideways, the poultry pate studded with foie gras resembled a beautiful piece of some rare stone except that it was framed with a delicate envelope of impeccable egg-washed pastry. “You absolutely must try it, Monsieur–it’s exquisite!” said the charming woman. “You know, it’s rather nice to have a new vice, especially at my age!” she added, and exited the boutique with an eager spring in her step. As if it were necessary, she confirmed for me that vanity is a major life force, and later in the evening, I couldn’t help but wondering what she wore during her wonderful little supper. Did she remain in the shirt dress, or maybe slip into something more comfortable, perhaps a shot silk dressing gown she’d bought in Saigon many years ago? And what perfume was she wearing? I’ll never know, but these new mysteries to gnaw make me love living in a big city.

Arnaud Nicolas - Dining room @Alexander Lobrano

Bruno and I were ushered into the loft-like masculine-feeling dining room and were studying the decidedly alluring menu over a glass of white wine when Nicolas stopped by our table to comment the menu.

“My idea here is to create a showcase for the great French art of charcuterie and to seduce Parisians into wanting to eat it again,” he explained. “Because so many people have only ever tasted industrial charcuterie, this ancient, delicious and very nourishing part of the French diet has experienced a certain disaffection during the last few years, and this is normal when you see what they sell in supermarkets. The absence of real charcuterie in most towns and cities has been accelerated by a drastic decline in the number of professional French charcutiers. Last year, there were only a thousand students learning to become charcutiers in a country of almost sixty million people. So I want to bring la charcuterie back, to make it modern and appealing in the same way that a new generation of patissiers have renewed the art of pastry in Paris,” Nicolas explained.

I told him that we’d been thinking of starting with the quail-and-dried-fruit pate and the poultry-and-foie-gras one, and he suggested we come to the shop next door to inspect them and see the other possibilities (the restaurant is reached through a door from the shop). Frankly, all of the terrines and pâté en croûte were so beautiful looking we’d have been happy with any of them, but Nicolas suggested he create a sampler for us that would include the two we’d already chosen, plus a little couronne du porc, an all-pork terrine in pastry, and some of his luscious looking head cheese.

Arnaud Nicolas - Cod with quinoa and wild arugula jus @Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

Cod with quinoa and wild arugula jus @Anne Emmanuelle Thion

 

Arnaud Nicolas - Roast duckling with onions @Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

Ducking with grilled onions @ Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

 

Bruno likes head cheese so much he was practically yelping by the time we returned to the table to taste the white Pic Saint Loup I’d ordered to accompany our meal. For our mains, we agreed to try two of Nicolas’s other homemade victuals, a lobster boudin and a lamb sausage served with a puree of Agen prunes. There were lots of other appealing dishes on the menu, though, including cod with baby artichokes, yellow pollack with cockles and a shellfish jus, entrecôte, and grilled duckling with baby onions.

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Le Gibolin, Arles | A Terrific Bistrot a Vins, B+

May 29, 2017
Arles Arena @ Alexander Lobrano

The Roman Ampitheater in Arles

 

Beyond Le Gibolin, what I love most about Arles, the ancient port on the Rhone River just north of La Camargue in the south of France, is that it makes you muse. This comes from the constant visual elision between the past and present that’s effortlessly legible in its streets and which also gives it a vast but casual wealth of daily beauty. And for me, the current creative quickening of the city is very much due a certain wry but delicate sensibility that’s fed by this ability to wonder about things that are important beyond the thought-dulling busyness of our daily lives.

Arles - The Rhone @Alexander Lobrano

The Rhone Seen Through a Window at the Musee Reattu

 

Perhaps this is why the hunger that Arles induces in me is for simplicity, which I reliably and deliciously find and feed at Le Gibolin, a small bistrots a vins in the heart of town on the wonderfully named rue des Porcelets (street of the piglets).

This long narrow restaurant is run by Luc Desrousseaux and Brigitte Cazalas, who previously worked at Le Chapeau Melon in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris for many years before they packed it in and moved south almost a decade ago. Now he’s in the open kitchen at the back of this long narrow space where the walls are lined with bottles of the mostly southern French gibolin (wine, in old-fashioned French slang) they serve to accompany their brief changes-daily chalkboard menu.

Le Gibolin - Facade @Alexander Lobrano

Stopping by for dinner here on a warm night when the town was busy on the eve of the inauguration of a big Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Fondation LUMA, the art complex in a former rail yard that is transforming the city into one of the world’s most important showcases of contemporary art, the room was filled with people talking about art and politics in a half dozen different languages. This made great entertainment for me, too, since I was on my own.

Le Gibolin - Artichauts barigoule @Alexander Lobrano

From the brief market menu, I chose one of my favorite provencal dishes, artichauts barigoule, or artichokes braised in white wine with herbs. It’s a delicate dish with a subtle keyboard of vegetal tones, which were amplified here by meaty lardons (chunks of bacon), radishes, carrots and chopped green onions. With a sprinkling of Espelette pepper, it was light, refreshing eating on a very warm night.

Le Gibolin - rack of lamb with spinach @Alexander Lobrano

In so many restaurants, drinking wine by the glass is a disappointment. But not here, since with my artichokes, Brigitte Cazalas poured me a glass of one of my favorite southern French whites, a Cairanne from the Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint Martin. Quite logically she followed this happy quaff paired with the Domaine’s red wine when she brought me a beautifully cooked rack of lamb with a big mound of garlicky baby spinach as my main course. When I asked where the lamb was from, she explained that it came from the plaine de la crau, the flat grassy steppes below Les Alpilles. In a citrus acidulated sauce of its pan drippings, the lamb was succulent and full of flavor.

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Detour, Paris | A Bistro Worth Going of Your Way For, B+

April 27, 2017
Detour - Cod with radishes

Cod with radishes

 

Detour, Paris

Not long after we were seated for dinner at Detour, a delightful vest-pocket bistro just a few minutes from my front door in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris, the thought recurred to me. For the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking that the remarkable number of excellent new restaurants which have recently opened in Paris are making the city a better destination for food-lovers than it has been at any time during the more than thirty years that I’ve live there.

Why? Well, consider Detour. It’s a perfect example of the type of small, charming, reasonably priced restaurant with excellent and very inventive cooking, friendly service, and a short but interesting and affordable wine list that gets harder and harder to find in cities like New York or London. This is because the economics of giving birth to such a small, sincere, personal place have become almost impossible in those cities, along with many others. Mind you, the restaurant business is hardly easy in Paris these days either, what with hefty labor costs and ever rising rents. But that said it’s still possible for a talented young chef like Adrien Cachot to hang out his shingle in a pretty cobbled side street with an intriguing name right in the heart of Paris and just a ten-minute walk from the Opera Garner and the big department stores on the boulevard Haussmann.

Small wonder then that it was packed on a rainy Tuesday night with a large table of young executive women having a night out, a well-advised solo business diner or two and the insatiably curious and gastronomic Parisians couples who assiduously read restaurant reviews and try the city’s latest new addresses with a mixture of exigence, delight and curiosity.

Detour - dining room

Detour - chef Adrien Cachot

Chef Adrien Cachot

 

Even before we looked at the short menu printed on Kraft paper, however, I had a hunch we’d eat well here, because Cachot cooked at La Cantine du Troquet, Petit Pan and Saint James in Bouliac in southwestern France before going out on his own, and these are all excellent tables serving contemporary French cooking that’s inventive but appealingly rustic at the same time. The menu followed the slightly cryptic haiku style preferred by many young French chefs today, though–Bulots, bettetraves, béarnaise (sea snails, beets, béarnaise sauce), which made it rather mysterious, however, and this, I suppose, was the point.

So from the exceptionally good-value 32 Euros menu, we ordered everything, and sat back to enjoy our Domaine Philippe Gilbert Montlouis, one of my favorite Loire Valley whites, while waiting for the meal to begin.

Detour - menu @Alexander Lobrano

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Restaurant Alan Geaam, Paris | The Importance of Being Earnest, A-

April 10, 2017

Restaurant Alan Geeam - Aparagus, morels, Hollandaise sauce

Restaurant Alan Geaam is one of the best new restaurants in Paris in 2017, and one of the reasons it’s so good is that you’ve probably never heard of Geaam before. That’s because this amiable, hard-working chef spends all of his time in the kitchen instead of grooming a big ego with public relations like too many other Paris chefs these days. Instead, Geaam, a gentle, shrewd, self-taught chef who was born forty-two years ago to Lebanese parents living in Liberia, is one of the quiet men (and women) of Paris gastronomy. I’ve loved his cooking ever since an initial discovery at L’Auberge Nicolas Flamel, the first Paris restaurant Geaam owned, and have watched his cooking become more and more inventive and appealing as he’s opened two other popular Paris bistros, AG Saint-Germain and AG Les Halles.

Alan Geaam - portrait @Albon Couturier

“The reason I cook is to make people happy,” says Geaam, who has thus far eschewed becoming a brand-name chef in an age of food-television celebrities and ego-driven gastronomic personnages. To wit, Geaam is not one of those chefs who speak in over-coached talking points but is instead warm and off-the-cuff.

Restaurant Alan Geaam - dining room

His new place occupies the former premises of chef Akrame Benallal’s old restaurant in the quiet rue Lauriston just beyond the Arc de Triomphe in a part of the city where upmarket restaurants are assured of a good trade at noon by business lunches and a reliable clientele in the evening from nearby hotels and locals in an affluent part of Paris. This part of town  has thus far been overlooked by the rising new generation of chefs who have been so dramatically renewing the city’s gastronomic laurels, probably because the rents are so lofty but also because the natives are generally older and have a decided preference for classical French cooking. Now that looks set to change.

But was this location a gamble for Geaam? “I don’t think so,” the chef told me when we chatted before dinner. “I think Parisians in general are adventurous diners, and that the clientele in this quartier will respond my take on relaxed modern French haute cuisine, because these people are worldly and know good food.”

Eye-balling Geaam’s short menu–he offers three tasting menus composed from the two starters, two main courses, a cheese course from the renown cheese-monger Bernard Antony in Alsace, and two desserts, which can be ordered as three, five or seven courses, plus hors d’oeuvres and petit fours,  Everything that night looked good, but I have long since developed a great wariness about tasting menus, which inevitably take too long and either over or under feed you. So Bruno and I decided on the five course menu.

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Fichon, Paris | A Good Catch in Montmartre, B

March 26, 2017

Fiction - Bonito

Fiction - dining room

 

Quality seafood is expensive, and this is why Fichon, a charming restaurant on the back of La Butte, or northern slope of the Montmartre hill crowned by the Sacre Coeur, has become such a hit. It offers an inventive, super-fresh mostly fish-and-shellfish menu for very reasonable prices.

Occupying the former premises of a triangular-shaped hardware store, Fichon is also a perfect example of an accelerating trend that explains why we’re eating better in Paris today than ever before—the renewal of the neighborhood restaurant. To be sure, most Parisian quartiers have a good handful of restaurants, but what’s been changing recently is that these local spots are becoming so much better in terms of quality and also proposing much more interesting and adventurous menus than the bistros of yore. This means that whatever part of the city they live in, most Parisians now have great casual dining at affordable prices right on their doorsteps these days.

 

At Fichon, for example, the starters we chose to begin our meal were some superb wild oysters from Normandy and a portion of succulent pink shrimp with homemade mayonnaise, an uncomplicated but delicious debut to our meal. Matthieu, the proprietor, was formerly in the wine trade, which explains why this place has such an interesting list. I was surprised to see a Croatian white among the seven foreign vintages proposed and asked about it. “It’s a terrific wine for seafood, fresh, just the right amount of acidity, a little iodine in the nose, because the vineyards are near the sea, and pleasant notes of green apple and drying hay,” he explained, quietly accurately, since this 25 Euro bottle of 2013 Krauthaker – Grasevina – Korija was delightful with the shellfish.

There were many other good-value bottles on this interesting list, too, including a 2013 Cour-Cheverny from Domaine des Huards (24 Euros) and a pleasant 2015 Kritt Pinot Blanc, Marc Kreydenweiss (24 Euros). The most original splurge bottle among the whites, though, was the lush biodynamic 2014 Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence from Domaine La Coste, the spectacular wine estate with a world-class collection of contemporary art and a just opened new hotel, which I think is one of the best new places to stay to have come along in France for a longtime, just north of Aix-en-Provence.

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Tavline, Paris | Excellent Israeli Cooking in the Marais, B+

March 15, 2017
Tasting plate @Romain Villot

Tasting Plate @Romain Villot

 

Just in time for spring, Tavline, a new Israeli restaurant, brings cooking with an invigorating herbaceousness to the Marais, the 4th Arrondissement in Paris. In doing so, it resets the culinary offer of an historically Jewish neighborhood in the French capital for the 21st century, too, since Israeli cooking, as popularised by London based chef Yotam Ottolenghi, bespeaks the earthy, vegetable-loving, umami-rich allure of this exceptionally appealing modern kitchen, an immigrant mash of dishes from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Arab countries, plus ancient dishes that issue from the Sephardic diaspora, or the Spanish and Portuguese Jewry expelled all over the world in 1492.

Tavline, which means ‘herb’ in Hebrew, is the brainchild of a delightful and very talented young couple, Keren Benichou and her husband chef Kobi Villot Malka. Both of them have Moroccan-Israeli origins, but Villlot Malka worked for Alain Ducasse for five years after studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which explains the suaveness of his cooking. What he proposes at Tavline is Israeli comfort food, but with a certain finesse in terms of its flavors, technique and plating.

Karen Benichou and Kobi Villot Malka @Romain Villot

Karen Benichou and Kobi Villot Malka @Romain Villot

 

Stepping into this casual dining room on the rue du Roi de Sicile, you leave Paris behind for Haifa or Tel Aviv, since the atmosphere here recalls the casual restaurants and cafes that have made both of these cities seriously good food destinations. The Israeli background of the owners notwithstanding, the crowd on a recent rainy night was decidedly cosmopolitan when Bruno and I arrived for dinner. To my right, four ladies from Denmark, to our left, a French Jewish and Palestinian couple, and at least five languages other than French could be heard in the room. This diversity was immediately bracing in a world that’s so fraught today over issues of identity, religion and ethnicity, too. To wit, we were all happy to share the same space and enjoy some delicious food in a place that is radiant with warm hospitality, a love of good cooking, and a respectful and very deep appreciation of human variety. As Tavline rather guilelessly shows, restaurants can have a big impact on a neighborhood or a city in terms of affirming those humanist values that invariably govern any happy well-run kitchen.

As a longtime Parisian and someone who loves the Marais for its history, architecture and magnificent mixture of different cultures–if the neighborhood’s essential DNA is Jewish, it’s also long been Paris’s gay neighborhood and a place of refuge for those who are unconventional, off-beat, or just plain different, it gladdens the heart to see a new restaurant opening here instead of another cold anonymous luxury boutique. For anyone who’s not in the know, after colonizing and damaging such storied Paris neighborhoods as Saint-Germain-des-Pres, global luxury retailers are now making big eyes at the Marais, a part of the city with the kind of affluent, style-conscious foot traffic they crave. Their arrival has been predictably disruptive, since rents are climbing, which threatens the brilliantly eclectic variety of small businesses in this ancient, loved and very settled part of the city.

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