La Table de Breizh Café, Cancale | A Culinary Romance Between Brittany and Japan, A-/B+

August 14, 2015

Cancale coastline

I’ve been in love with Brittany for nearly thirty years, which isn’t surprising, because I grew up in New England. From my very first visit, this friendly delightfully shaggy and craggy green Celtic province of western France that’s lapped on its back and belly by the Atlantic Ocean has always struck me as an even better version of my own much loved home turf. Why? Well, the food, among other things.

If I’ve always loved the tourist Brittany of crepes, oysters, langoustines and homard (lobster) a l’amoricaine, over the course of the decades I’ve lived in France, Brittany has become one of France’s foremost gastronomic regions. Today it rivals, maybe even trumps, parts of Gaul with more established and deeply rooted gastronomic cultures, places like Burgundy and Provence, for example.

Pretty girl at oyster stand in Cancale

These were the thoughts that were bobbing around in my head as we greedily scarfed down a half dozen wild oysters on the edge of the port of Cancale before heading to a superb Sunday lunch at La Table de Breizh Café on a beautiful recent summer day. Since I first dined here a year and a half a go, Japanese chef Raphaël-Fumio Kudaka’s restaurant has become one of my favorite tables, and I was looking forward to having a meal here with Bruno, who loves Breton produce and Japanese cooking as much as I do.

La Table de Breizh Cafe - DIning room

Arriving, we were the first customers of that Sunday lunch service, so we eschewed the Japanese style tables, and opted to sit at the counter where we could watch Kudaka and his team at work and also enjoy the sweeping views and salty breezes of the aquamarine-colored Bay of Mont Saint Michel , which was dotted with exposed oyster parks at low tide.

Since there are only two tasting menus available here on Saturday and Sunday, 75 Euros or 135 Euros, it was easy enough to make a choice. With a train ride back to Paris before us after lunch, and having lavishly well eaten during the previous days, we went with the former, to which we added a tempura course at a supplement. That taken care of, I was able to explain the genesis of this restaurant to Bruno.

After hotel school in Dinard, Breton Bertrand Larcher worked in Switzerland and then moved to Tokyo, where he opened that city’s first Breton crêperie in 1996. Eventually he returned to France and opened crêperies in Cancale, Saint-Malo and Paris that rebooted a genre made stale by tourist induced mediocrity by using seriously good quality produce, much of it organic, and making his crêperies into little showcases for the superb foods of his home province. When Larcher met Raphaël-Fumio Kudaka, who had previously worked with Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, they decided to open a restaurant where Kudaka would cook his own very personal Breton-Japanese cuisine.

Breizh chicken and lobster in bowl

Breizh lobster and chicken

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Frenchie to Go | Summertime, and the Eating is Easy, B

August 1, 2015
Terroirs d'Avenir boutique

Terroirs d’Avenir boutique

 

While we were enjoying a good, casual, off-the-cuff lunch at Frenchie to Go, chef Gregory Marchand’s breakfast-and-lunch eat-in or takeaway place next to his home table, Frenchie, I thought of the note a friend in New York who follows my Instagram feed sent me recently. “Don’t you ever just want to stay home and eat a big messy Reuben sandwich?” she asked, teasing me about the often beautiful and elaborate dishes that I share from the restaurants I go to of a given week in Paris as a food writer. Well, um, yes, in fact, I love a good Reuben sandwich. And sometimes I also like a good Saturday morning lie-in so much that we end up missing our two favorite Saturday morning markets–the organic one in Les Batignolles, which is officially known as the Marché Biologique des Batignolles and is located on the boulevard des Batignolles, and the lavish one on the Avenue du Président Wilson, which is held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

There are few things that make me happier than going to either of these markets, especially because I try to avoid going to restaurants on the weekends in favor of cooking at home, which both Bruno and I love. There are times, however, when Morpheus just pulls you back into bed, and when this happens, we’ll make a run to Terroir d’Avenir, a terrific pair of boutiques in the rue du Nil where you can get your hands on the same superb fruit, vegetables, herbs, cheese, fish, and meat this small select company supplies to many of the best young chefs in Paris. And so on a recent Saturday morning, we decided to make a run to this shop, because it’s tomato season, and I trusted they’d have good heirloom tomatoes (they did, too).

Frenchie to Go - Reuben sandwich

Frenchie to Go - Pulled pork sandwich

After we bought some of the best white peaches I’ve ever eaten, several kinds of tomatoes, herbs, yellow squash, eggplant, fennel, and enough other vegetables to stuff the drawers in both of our small fridges at home, we were hungry. So Bruno suggested we go next door to Frenchie to Go. It’s been open for a couple of years now, but never finding myself in this neighborhood in the middle of the day, I’d never been for lunch, just breakfast, and so this was the perfect occasion. Right from the start, I’ve loved the fact that this place serves non-stop, so that if you tumble out of the Louvre starved at 2.43pm, you can hoof it over here and get a bacon sandwich with egg and cheddar, the best lobster roll in Paris,  a hot dog (homemade, mind you, in a roll from star baker Gontran Cherrier), a pastrami sandwich, fish-and-chips, a Reuben or a pulled pork sandwich.

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Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal, Paris | A Perennially Romantic Restaurant Gets a Great New Chef, B+

July 15, 2015

Restaurant du Palais Royal - Vue extérieure côté Jardin du Palais-Royal

When summer blooms, the urge to dine outdoors sweeps through many major western cities, but perhaps nowhere is the choice of an al fresco dining venue more fraught than it is in Paris. Why? Landing a choice fresh-air table is a great Parisian seasonal game. If anyone can decide to sit down on one of the city’s hundreds of cafe terraces and order one of the worlds best summer meals–a glass of rose, an omelette and a green salad (more often mediocre than not, alas, in the French capital these days, since cafes generally contend with a clientele that’s even more centime-sensitive than any fast-food restaurant. To wit, break an invisible mental price barrier–most recently fifteen Euros, now twenty—and your clientele starts melting; what this means, of course, is constant cost-cutting in the kitchen), not everyone has the well-filled purse and social wiliness required to bag a table at a place like Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal, which occupies a corner of the Palais Royal and possesses a small seasonal terrace which overlooks not only the magnificent arcades and facades of this former royal residence in the heart of Paris, but its the stunningly beautiful gardens as well.

So fiercely in demand are these tables of a given summer day when the weather is good, that Parisians have long ignored this restaurant’s formerly uneven cooking and eye-watering prices. Now, though, with the arrival of a new chef, Philip Chronopoulos, 28, ex L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal not only offers an ethereally charming setting for a meal but some superb contemporary French cooking as well.

Resto du Palais Royal artichoke poivrade

Artichokes poivrade at Le Restaurant du Palais-Royal

 

Just for the back story, Paris’s love of fresh-air dining in beautiful bucolic venues was born of the romantic movement in the 18th century and flowered during the 19th century, when many of the city’s then newly built parks included a restaurant or two. Then as an ancient Gallic fear of draughts–courants d’air, which were thought to be cause colds or that vast category of diseases once known as ‘fevers’ faded with access to better medicine, improved urban hygiene and new ideas about health which held that fresh air and sunshine was good for you, picnicking became a popular past-time and guinguettes, or open-air pleasure barges, came to line stretches of the Seine and the Marne. Cafe terraces long the broad avenues and boulevards that Haussmann drove through the city became a fixture of Parisian life, too.

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Etoile sur Mer, Paris | Guy Savoy’s Very Good New Fish Restaurant, B+

July 1, 2015

Etoile de Mer salle

After chef Guy Savoy moved his eponymous three-star table to La Monnaie de Paris, the magnificent Paris mint building on the banks of the Seine in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés two months ago, his former premises on the rue Troyon have been transformed into a chic little seafood restaurant called Etoile sur Mer. This punning name requires a bit of explanation for English speakers, since etoile de mer is not only the French word for a starfish but a reference to the tentacular circular intersection around the Arc de Triomphe, which the French refer to as l’étoile (the star) and which is just around the corner from Etoile sur Mer.

Be that as it may, chef Clément Leroy, Savoy’s right-hand man, runs the kitchen here, and Savoy’s favorite interior-architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte signed the new decor, which includes bare sea-foam-colored anodised tables and dishes that look like they were inspired by shells and drift wood. The atmosphere in this intimate place is confidential and perhaps a bit too hushed, but ultimately it made me think of the the subtle sultriness so beautifully depicted in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love.” Though I expect it’s busy with a business crowd at noon, in the evening, it becomes the kind of place you’d chose to go with a lover you have a hard time keeping your hands off of, because the lighting is low, the dining rooms are flirtatiously private, service is discreet, and a meal of impeccably fresh beautifully prepared wild seafood is perhaps the greatest gastronomic luxury you can share these days.

Etoile de mer sardine

Having astutely observed the ongoing evolution of the international beau-monde’s culinary predilections from his perch on the rue Troyon for nearly thirty years, I think Savoy knows this, too. To wit, the inflection point between the scarcity that always informs luxury and gastronomic pleasure parsed out according to the principles of healthy eating is seafood, but this doesn’t have to mean monastic minimalist preparations either. Modern French seafood cookery basically banned added fat or dairy when it was first birthed by chefs like Paul Minchelli some forty-five years ago. So this is the idiom in which chef Clément Leroy, 33, came of age, and the one from which he so shrewdly innovates. A perfect preview of Leroy style and that of the meal to come was an amuse bouche of sardine sushi on a bed of chive flecked potato puree–what it told was Leroy’s Asian style restraint with fresh seafood and also his attachment to intensely studied but simple looking Oriental aesthetics on the plate.

Etoile de Mer lobster salad

Etoile de mer octopus and artichokes

 

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Grand Coeur | A Delightful New Brasserie in the Marais, B+

June 20, 2015

Grand Coeur courtyard shot flower dress

Tucked away in a courtyard in the Marais, and occupying the same space as The Studio, a long-running but not regretted Tex-Mex restaurant that claims a flickering wick of memory only by reminding me of how much I miss authentic Mexican cooking in Paris, Grand Coeur is a delightful new brasserie that serves a very good contemporary French menu. It also has one of the city’s loveliest terraces for out door summer dining, which is a Parisian passion. Grand Coeur (The Big Heart) comes with a seriously impressive pedigree, too, since it’s the creation of seasoned Marais restaurateur Julien Fouin (Jaja and Glou, neither of which I much like) and Argentine born chef Mauro Colagreco, whose restaurant Mirazur in Menton is one of my favorite tables in France and who is widely considered to be one the country’s five or six best chefs. Talented acting chef, Brazilian born Rafael Gomes, has cooked everywhere from Eleven Madison in New York City to an Alaskan fishing trawler, and he brings a lot of nonchalantly cosmopolitan finesse and creativity to this restaurant, too.

Grand Coeur courtyard crowd shot

I hadn’t been to this address in many years, so coming for dinner the other night unexpectedly brought-on a little avalanche of fuzzy flashbacks when I stepped into the courtyard. Rather surprisingly–given how much the Marais has gentrified, the dance studio at the head of the courtyard is still in business after all of these years, which explains the constant stream of impressively lean and lithe dancers trailing across the big flat cobblestones. I also couldn’t help but being impressed by the architectural beauty of this 18th century setting, which once housed the Aigle d’Or (The Golden Eagle), a coaching inn that eventually became the premises of The Studio.

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Le Bon Saint Pourçain | A Change for the Better in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, B+

June 5, 2015

saint pourcain long view street

In Paris, the assiduously institutionalised exultation of the city’s past poses the same sort of risk as the sugar water in a bee trap. Like many people who live here, however, I forget how easy it is to succumb to the easy nectar of memory and to gloat over the beauty of a place that has pretty much shunned modernity, or at least inside of Le Peripherique, or the beltway that separates the city from the suburbs it ignores.

Provence 1970 2

So as luck would have it, just before going to dinner at the new version of Le Bon Saint Pourçain, a Saint-Germain-des-Prés bistro I’ve know for years, I’d just read Luke Barr’s fascinating and beautifully written book Provence 1970, which puts the relationships of many legendary American and British food writers under a magnifying glass as they interact during a series of cross-hatching visits to Provence. What especially intrigued me in these pages was that two of my heroes, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, were both so wary of becoming trapped by the past. Both women saw that France was changing, in ways both good and bad, and so they sought in their own ways to re-situate themselves in their relationship to Gaul, not loving it less but perhaps not needing it as much as they once had. And both women also felt a powerful eagerness live in the present and discover new things, which struck a chord with me, because so many people, myself included a lot of the time, don’t want Paris to change.

saint pourcain sidewalk shot

But the city will change, and it does, and often that’s a good thing, especially in the kitchen. And for all of the dozens of very happy meals I’ve had at Le Bon Saint Pourçain through the years, the best dish here was always off-menu, since it was the ineffably charming and rather clubby conviviality of the place. And the food? Depending on who was in the kitchen, it was usually just fine, if rarely better than that, or the type of cuisine ménagère (home cooking)  your French maiden aunt might have served you, where the pleasure was derived more from her good intentions than her skills in the kitchen. To be sure, I always liked the leeks in a vinaigrette sauce and the boeuf aux olives (braised beef with green olives), and sometimes there was a good fruit tart to be had as well.

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