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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Copenhague, Paris | Suave New Nordic Cooking on the Champs-Elysées, B+

February 13, 2017

Copenhague - Dining room

Ever since it opened in 1955, Copenhague in the Maison du Danemark, has been a showcase for Danish gastronomy and one of the lamentably rare good restaurants on the Champs-Elysées. Now this serene dining room on the first floor overlooking the famous avenue has been updated to reflect the remarkable evolution of Danish cuisine during the last fifteen years.

Copenhague - smoked brill

Smoked brill with celery rave, apple and kale oil

 

Young Danish chef Andreas Møller, who worked with Erwin Lauterbach, one of the founders of the New Nordic Cuisine (explained by this manifesto) and at Danish gastro czar Claus Meyer’s The Standard, helms the kitchen at Copenhague, which is Paris’s first New Nordic restaurant. With an emphasis on angelic aesthetics, a purity of flavors, short cooking times and seasonal produce, the menu here shakes up a stale local perception of Danish cooking as being all about Smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches), herring and salmon. In fact for many years, the signature dish of Copenhague was saumon a la l’unilatéral, or salmon slow-cooked skin side down to give it a soft consistency just fractionally beyond raw. It was delicious, but it did little to refute an ingrained French idea that Scandinavian cooking is more about austere sustenance, a la the film “Babette’s Feast,” than ‘real’ gastronomy.

What many people who’ve never been to a cutting edge Copenhagen restaurant like Noma or Geranium will quickly notice is how much of an impact New Nordic cooking has had on Parisian bistronomie, or modern French bistro cooking, in terms of aesthetics and a deep commitment to locavore sourcing. This is explained by the fact that Copenhagen has become the de rigueur destination for young European chefs, with chef Rene Redzepi’s MAD symposium also disseminating these Scandinavian ideas across Europe and the rest of the world.

Scrubbing the former a la carte menu here, along with the oil painting of Queen Margrethe II that dominated the dining room for years, Copenhague now proposes tasting menus, four courses and five course for 55 Euros and 70 Euros at lunch, five and eight courses at 85 Euros and 115 Euros at dinner, instead.

Settling into the sleek graphite colored dining room designed by Danish design team Stine Gam and Enrico Fratesi, the honky-tonk atmosphere of the avenue below immediately receded in a first visual encounter with a space that emitted a quiet chic and serenity, and the outstanding sommelier set us up with excellent Champagne while another waiter explained the menu.

Copenhague - menu @ Alexander Lobrano

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Divellec, Paris | High Tide at Les Invalides, or a Brilliant New Fish House, A-

January 29, 2017

@Romain Laprade

 

The Divellec is one of the most beautiful new restaurants to open in Paris for a very longtime. As wonderfully louche as Studio K.O.’s Miami-meets-1940s Casablanca-in-Paris decor may be, however, what always matters most to me at a restaurant is the food, which is superb. Still, even though the seafood cooking at this venerable old-school  fish house overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides on the Left Bank has been brilliantly rebooted by young chef Matthieu Pacaud, the son of Bernard Pacaud of the three star L’Ambroise on the Place des Vosges, this reopening has gone oddly under-remarked in a city as food-loving and mad for fish as Paris.

Divellec - Sea Bass Carpaccio @ Jacques Savard

Sea bass carpaccio with citrus zest@Jacques Gavard

 

There are several reasons for this. First, the public relations firm charged with the relaunch emphasized the revived restaurant’s decor over its kitchen. This is doubtless because the chic Paris based Studio K.O. firm, which did the interiors of madly popular Chiltern Firehouse hotel and restaurant in London, also signed the new look for Divellec, too. But unless you’re enough of an interior-design nut to know who Studio K.O. is, it’s hard to see why any restaurant would emphasise its decor–gorgeous though it may be, over its food.

Then the restaurant had also been closed for three years after founder Jacques Le Divellec retired in 2013, so it fell off of a lot of people’s radars, and then those who remembered it, probably had an idea of a place that was slightly stuffy, somnolent and very expensive. Finally, Divellec is located in a very quiet, wealthy, well-guarded, older part of Paris, so it was unlikely to immediately gain much traction with the city’s best young food writers, those types who’d rather go belly to the bar at Clamato.

@Yann Deret

So with all of this in mind on a cold misty Sunday night as Bruno and I walked to dinner here for the first time since the reboot in a companionable silence, my expectations were vague. The truth, you see, is that I’d never actually had a meal at the former Le Divellec, a fusty bastion of politicians and captains of industry at noon, and the same in the evening with their mistresses, that I’d actually enjoyed. To be sure, I had once eaten a sublime grilled lobster a l’Amoricaine here with a stunning bottle of Mersault as the guest of an Irish banker whose freckled cherubic face existed as the perfect foil to his psycho-sexual perversion. But my last meal here, oh at least a good ten years before the lights went out in 2013, was my most memorable, since I had been invited to lunch by one of the most powerful and un-repentently honest food critics in France.

What I remember was the soft stale fishy smell of the dining room, the witheringly haughty service, and an awful lot of bland white sauce lashed all over everything. “How would you describe this meal, Alec?” the esteemed critic asked me. “Hotel du Lac,” I replied. He looked blank. “That’s the title of the British novelist Anita Brookner’s novel about a lonely middle-aged single woman who goes on holiday to a sad, sedate, anonymous, expensive hotel on a Swiss lake. She takes all of her meals in the hotel, and even though few of them are described, I imagine that they’d have been like this, soulless under-seasoned over-cooked luxury cooking,” I explained.

No one recognised the critic until after our very disappointing main courses were being cleared away. Then a silent thunder bolt shoot through the room, and a frantic Commedia dell’Arte like performance began when we were served an insanely generous portion of Beluga caviar with shocking speed.

Divellec - Paris @Romain Laprade

@Romain Laprade

“Oh Mon Dieu,” the critic sighed when the glistening black fish eggs were brought to the table with blinis. “Please….,” he said, waving his hands. “We’ve finished our meal already.” The face of the older waiter who’d just served us was a rigid mask of fear. “I think this might be the best dessert ever invented,” he said, a great line delivered with a poignantly plaintive smile–he was, after all, the solider on the front lines. The half beat of silence encouraged him. “It would be a shame to waste it now,” he said, his body locked in a half-bow. Silence. More silence. A short negative head shake. Several hundred Euros of caviar departed to an uncertain fate, and the scene stirred a ripple in the dining room, a place I always thought of as a theater of unwanted kisses, since the people who paid the bills here were usually avaricious, physically or psychologically, with their guests. You know, the lupine old man with his mistress, the curmudgeonly grandmother making menacing remarks to her grandchildren about the uncertainty of their inheritances, the broken middle-aged couples on the edge of a divorce caused by an infidelity they didn’t have the spleen left to discuss.

This is how restaurants get a reputation in our collective consciousness, with some being tagged as warm and happy, others cold and melancholy. So even if Le Divellec of yore was a storied table that once had a Michelin star, maybe two, and served reliably fresh classically prepared seafood, I think I’d be hard put to find very many Parisians who remember actually having had a good time here. So as we reached the front door, I found myself hoping this curse might have been lifted.

Fair’s fair. Sunday night is not an optimum time to judge any restaurant more ambitious than a brasserie, so as we were seated in a pretty grass-cloth upholstered room with low lighting and lots of plants, I thought, well, what I’m hoping for is just a good meal, not a revelation.

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