Le Bistrot de la Galette, Paris | Montmartre Gets a Delightful New Restaurant, B+

September 20, 2016

Le Bistrot de la Galette - dining room @Alexander Lobrano

It’s some of the best news of la rentrée (the Fall/Autumn season) in Paris this year: With the opening of Le Bistrot de la Galette, there’s finally a charming restaurant in Montmartre that actually serves good reasonably priced French food. This beautiful bistro looks like it’s been there forever, but it’s actually the very recent creation of the very talented pastry chef Gilles Marchal, who has worked at the Hotel de Crillon, the Hotel Bristol and many other places, and who has also just opened biscuiterie (cookie shop) not far from his excellent patisserie in the nearby rue Ravignan, both in Montmartre.

Bistrot de la Galette - Dining room

So just steps from the sorry tourist-trap tables of the Place du Terte, where wide-eyed people come from round the world to track down the long vanished traces of the bohemian community that made Montmartre one of the world’s greatest artist colonies between 1880 and 1914, at long last there’s a pleasant, uncomplicated, fairly priced and profoundly French place to have a meal.

Walking up the rue Lepic to meet Bruno here for dinner on an Indian summer night, I arrived feeling gently melancholic and a little wistful, since I once had a very close friend who lived on the rue Lepic, and I still don’t understand how that friendship just sort of went missing after a very large distance separated us. Though I’m now happily married (who’d have ever believed that I could pen that sentence! Not me, but what huge happiness it’s brought to a loving couple that’s nearly twenty years old), friendship will always be for me the ballast of a life well-lived and an honestly sacred troth. In fact I think of my friendships like gardens, or rich fertile places that need to be loved, respected and regularly cared for to thrive. This doesn’t mean, of course, that one has to hover over a friendship, or be too exigent about what defines it, since one of my very dearest friends in the world is a man who lives in Sydney and whom I see only a couple of times a decade, if we’re lucky, as we were this past summer, when we met up by the seaside in Spain.

But I couldn’t help but sort of idly musing on what social media has done to my admittedly very old-fashioned idea of friendship as a miraculously created web of intimacy spun on a frame of respect and nourished by humour, honesty and a joyous conscientiousness. The little blue ‘like’ button on Facebook has become a sort of unfathomable shorthand for some form of intimacy born of affinity, which can of course be wonderful, but on the other hand, I have hundreds of ‘friends’ I’ve never met, and whom I’m usually connected to out of possibly reciprocally self-interested need or desire to show the world that we’re ‘friends.’ Ultimately, however, real friends are those people who will forgive your occasional bouts of madness or seriously bad behavior, because they know and love you and so understand from whence this ugliness issues and also that it will pass. Such people are very rare and very precious.

Le Bistrot de la Galette - Oeufs Mimosa @Alexander Lobrano

Oh well, maybe the friendship gone oddly asunder lacked the rudder I always believed it had, but one way or another, this particular sweep of Parisian cobblestones will always have tender resonances, and between doing this very personal psychological fine-stitching  and the steep slope I climbed, I reached the table honestly hungry for something as delicious as the oeufs Mimosa (a superior French version of deviled eggs) pictured above.

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La Tour d’Argent, Paris | A Delicious Evolution, A-/B+

August 31, 2016
Tourdargent a salle 2016 - jour

A room with a view

 

Reinventing a restaurant as famous as La Tour d’Argent was always going to be fraught with problems. Why? Well, if some clients might welcome the changes, perhaps even muttering under their breath, ‘Thank goodness, it’s about time!,’ others would denounce even the most reverent tinkering with the experience of a meal here as heresy. “They’ve absolutely ruined the place!” these sanctimonious self-appointed guardians of tradition would fume.

Unfortunately, in Paris, in 2016, the culture of the city is generally more in sympathy with a static status quo than innovation. In almost every realm, the past is reflexively judged to be more perfect than the present, which leads to the city’s bizarre officially sanctioned cantankerous determination to become a sort of genteel open-air museum. It also explains the existence of certain restaurants that are fussy, fretful gastronomic mausoleums that commemorate culinary traditions and a stuffy service style few people enjoy anymore, if they ever did.

But change had to come at La Tour d’Argent, which has been rather rudderless for a longtime. Since the death in 2006 of Claude Terrail, the natty gravely voiced boulevardier whose charm was the axis on which this perched table turned for over sixty years, this restaurant has been on an earnest but occasionally fumbling quest to renew its raison d’etre. The old formula of gallantly pandering to a self-satisfied international beau-monde that kept its reservation book full just wasn’t working anymore. In fact, the framed photos and autographs of the socialites, royals, and other celebrities who adored this place in its post-war hay day from 1950 to 1975 are decidedly momento mori now, and in any event, the general public is less impressed by such pedigrees in the age of the selfie and—woe is me– the Kardashians.

La Tour d'Argent - Langouste @Alec Lobrano

Langouste, soupe froide, cucumber

 

So leaving the visual possibility of an alarming overly ambitious facelift happily to one side, the kitchen had to be the place for any serious relaunch of this legend, and happily, that’s exactly where it’s happened. But first, for anyone who prefers a short-take, here it is: Now run by Andre Terrail, son of Claude, the Tour d’Argent has a brilliant new chef who has made the restaurant a serious gastronomic contender in Paris again.

With the arrival of the superbly talented Philippe Labbé, it looks like this grande dame of Gallic gastronomy has finally been granted a deeply delicious new lease on life. This means it’s a place you not only can go to again but one you should prioritize if you want an impeccably cooked meal of exquisite classical French cooking in a romantic setting with magnificent views.

I knew nothing about this, of course, when I somewhat ruefully headed here for lunch the other day, having received an invitation from Penelope, aka “Penny,” a second cousin from Philadelphia whom I hadn’t seen in at least a good twenty, maybe twenty-five, years. This is why my first response to her note—the invitation came on a heavy cream-colored monogrammed notecard, was a phone call to try to delicately suggest that maybe we might eat at another classic Parisian table of her choice, one where the food was likely to be better. But she stuck to her guns, saying she wanted to see the view again after so many years, and that she was sure the food would be “just fine.”

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Daroco, Paris | Honest Italian Cooking and a Good Time – B-

July 17, 2016
Daroco - Swordfish carpaccio @Alexander Lobrano

Swordfish carpaccio with zucchini, raspberries and dill

 

Almost no adjective in a restaurant review makes me warier than the word ‘fun,’ because overtly ‘good-times’ type places often don’t take their food very seriously and attempt to hide this culinary weakness with loud music, low lighting and amped up cocktail menus. That said, I’ll cock a snook at myself and come right out with it: Daroco is probably more fun than any other new restaurant in Paris this summer. Why?

Daroco - Paris - dining room

It occupies a beautiful space with a locally legendary fashion pedigree, i.e., the former Jean-Paul Gaultier boutique in the rue Vivienne. It also has an eye-catching off-beat vaguely tongue-in-cheek Miami-moves-to-Soho decor of high-backed royal blue velvet booths, white terrazzo floors (someday, somewhere, I’d love to live in a place with terrazzo floors, partly because it’s pretty and feels so good barefoot and partly so that I can channel the weekend invitation I foolishly turned down to Gore Vidal’s villa on the Amalfi coast a good twenty-five years ago when people were still trying to get me out of my Fruit of the Looms), and exposed brick walls. The most important part of the decor, however, are the good looking clearly carefully cast servers in striped Saint James sailor’s pullovers, a Gaultier signature, and the crowd itself, because this place has so quickly become the nexus the Parisian tribes that work in businesses which are mostly visual–photographers, fashion designers, web designers, advertising and PR types, plus a few lumbering folks from the ever diminished world of words and a gaggle of retailers, buyers and other professional trend spotters.

Daroco - Paris - Burrata @AlexanderLobrano

This restaurant is the latest creation of savvy restauranteurs Alexandre Giesbert and Julien Ross (Roco, Roca and Rococo), and it scores a bull’s eye in terms of what Parisians want to eat this summer, which is uncomplicated good quality Italian cooking. Think a short produce-driven menu that debuts with simple well-sourced, crowd-pleasing Instagram ready starters like swordfish carpaccio with zucchini, raspberries and dill or bosomy lactic burrata topped with toasted pine nuts and dribbled with pesto oil. The only starter that disappoints is their rendition of vitello tonnato, overcooked slices of veal with a nearly tasteless tuna cream sauce under a thatch of arugula with no capers.

Daroco - Pizza with broccoli rabe and sausage @AlexanderLobrano

In terms of main courses, there’s a veal chop and sea bream, three pastas–rigatoni alla Norma (tomato, ricotta and aubergine sauce), spaghetti with clams and shavings of rather extraneous bottarga, and a spaghetti carbonara, and then a long list of nicely made pizzas that are baked in a wood-burning oven. The classic Margharita is good, because of its tangy tomato sauce and the way that the heat of the oven melts the good quality mozzarella without causing it to lose all of its milkiness, but my favorite is the one topped with mozzarella, marinated broccoli rabe, and crumbled sausage; I could, in fact, eat one of these for lunch everyday.

Daroco - Dining room with waiter @AlexanderLobrano

Dining here with a wonderfully ravenous fashion PR friend from New York City, we shared the best starters and a pizza–hey, this woman really is my kind of a gal, before we both had a pasta. While sipping our excellent Sardinian white (the only one on the excellent wine list), we chatted, and Brett nailed the other thing that makes this restaurant so likeable. “Last night I had dinner at the Hotel Costes, and even though I still love the look of the dining room, the service is so up itself that it almost ruined the evening,” she said. “What’s fun here is that the waiters and waiters are really hot but friendly and attitude-free. Don’t you think that service with attitude, which has always been part of the boilerplate in the Costes restaurants, is just so nineties, so over?” Yup, I do, and I’d noticed exactly the same thing at Daroco. The staff is nice and alert without ever being in your face, and even when two older American men came through door wearing the kind of pastel stripped polo shirts and ventilated caps more appropriate to a Florida golf course (I suspect the came via a hotel concierge), the hostess was warm, welcoming and didn’t give into any possible temptation to raise an eyebrow or shoot a bemused and perhaps fleetingly snide look at a passing waiter.

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Fulgurances, Paris |A Consistently Delicious Showcase for New Gastronomic Talent, A-/B+

July 7, 2016

Fulgurances - facade with flowers on balcony

The superb modern Franco-Israeli cooking currently being served (until November 2016) by Israeli born chef Tamir  Nahmias at the restaurant Fulgurances in eastern Paris proves that the most important recent gastronomic development in the city is its emergence as the world’s premier culinary talent cluster. To wit, in the same way that ambitious young computer engineers and software developers head for the Silicon Valley in California, Paris has emerged as the quintessential venue for talented upcoming chefs from all over the world.

The ever accelerating internationalization of the city’s culinary talent pool has not only renewed the gastronomic  pre-eminence of the French capital in the 21st century, but the trend has also made Paris an edgy and profoundly original place to eat. And perhaps the best news of all is that this fresh talent is adding a new layer to a gastronomic landscape that may never have been as rich with possibilities, since the spectrum of choices in Paris, from proudly traditional bistros to intriguingly avant-garde pop-ups is unique for a major European city.

Fulgurances - Tamir Nahmias

Tamir Nahmias

Tamir Nahmias is a perfect example of the young talent migrating to Paris. He worked for three years as second to Gregory Marchand at Frenchie, and also cooked with Adeline Grattard at Yam’Tcha and Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance. And now he’s in Paris to stay, because, he explains, “It’s the most exciting place to cook in the whole world, both in terms of the sophistication of the restaurant-going public and their openess to innovation, but also the quality of the produce, the gastronomic culture of France, and the spectacular community of chefs in the city.”

With this background, Fulgurances, which was opened last October by Hugo Hivernat, Sophie Coribert and Rebecca Asthalter, the same team that publish the gastronomic review of the same name, is the ideal transitional setting for Nahmias as he prepares to open a restaurant of his own sometime later this year (in French, a fulgurance is like a lightning bolt, or a revelation). Nahmias’s stint running the kitchen here–Fulgurances works on the basis of a six-month showcase, allows him to refine his impending menu and also build a clientele before he hangs out his own shingle.

Fulgurances grilled octopus 2

On the basis of the 44 Euro prix-fixe dinner I enjoyed at this charming restaurant the other night, the inhabitants of the 11th Arrondissement–Nahmias plans to stay in the neighborhood, are going to be very lucky indeed, because his very personal metissage of the Israeli and French kitchens is stunningly good and perfectly calibrated. Since I love the big bold flavors of all the kitchens of the eastern Mediterranean–Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli and Egyptian, I worried they might be toned down too much here in deference to the perceived timidity of the French palate. Happily, almost every dish we tried preserved the integrity and authenticity of Israeli food at the same time it endowed it with a winsome refinement and casual elegance.

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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 Rathgeber 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 Benoit, 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.

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