Clover Grill, Paris | Les Halles Gets a Great New Grill, B+

December 5, 2016

Clover Grill - Aged Beef @ Alexander Lobrano

As Jean-Francois Piège has proven once again at the Clover Grill, his casually chic and wonderfully convivial new grill restaurant in an ancient side street in Les Halles, he’s not only a superb chef but a brilliant restauranteur. If this convergence of talents might seem logical, even natural, the truth is that many gifted chefs are actually pretty hopeless when it comes to doing the social, aesthetic and financial engineering necessary to create a successful restaurant.

Clover Grill - Dining room @Alexander Lobrano

Piège created the Clover Grill, a handsome space with a jet-engine strength ventilation system, which means you’re spared the curse of most Paris grill and meat restaurants–your coat smells like the meal you just ate for a week afterwards, with his wife Elodie, and the décor here is an expression of their assured and winningly witty good taste. The Pièges play with some tongue-in-check retro references to the decors once commonly found in French bistros and hotels with cabbage-rose wallpaper (Everyone old enough to have done a Eurail trip around Europe with a backpack or, in my case, ghastly tweed-sided American Tourister suitcase, will doubtless feel the twinge of a long dormant visual memory stirring when they spot this murky floral wall covering in the cozy second dining room here; for me, it’s an instant ticket to a triangular shaped Lyon hotel room next to the train tracks with those hateful hard round pillows called a traversin rolled up in the top of the bottom sheet and a sink but no toilet in the corner), honeycomb tile floors, wainscoting, globe lamps and other Gallic memes, but have the gift of making it all seem fresh and modern, too. This comes from the excellent lighting, beautifully made modern chairs and tables, and puckish fun of including a once shunned object like a Napoleon III faience plant stand in a decidedly hip décor.

The look of the place is important, too, because it tells you why you’re here, which is to have a good time. This is, in fact, the Piège’s welcome new take on the type of fashionable night-on-the-town Paris restaurant that hasn’t really been seriously updated since the Costes Brothers unleashed their formula of louche decors, snippy service and commissary style disco food on the French capital in the 1980s.

Clover Grill - wallpaper

At the Clover Grill, however, not only do the room and the crowd look great, the service is charming and they serve the kind of good honest uncomplicated food you look for in a grill restaurant. That said, the bonus here is Piège’s consistent and admirably restless culinary creativity, which shows up most legibly in the starters.

Clover Grill - Hors d'Oeuvre @ Alexander Lobrano

Arriving for dinner the other night, we were offered a choice between the two dining rooms—the low-lit one with a Sputnik style ceiling-mounted lighting fixture and that memory-stoking wallpaper, or the bar room. We chose the latter, since it offered good sight-lines of the long great looking marble bar where you can also sit for a meal and a bartender from the Experimental Cocktail Club group mixes up some seriously good drinks, including the pimenton sprinkled Pisco sour I had to take the edge off of a long day, and the open kitchen where meat and fish are grilled over charcoal or cooked on a rotisserie in the back of the room. The cocktail was served with a nice complimentary hors d’oeuvre of spelt wafers, radicchio fronds and citrus crème, which pleasant provoked the appetite without exhausting it.

Clover Grill - Celeriac with Parmesan truffle sauce @Alexander Lobrano

Clover Graill - Marinated mackerel on rice @Alexander Lobrano

Clover Grill - Pizza Souffle @ Alexander Lobrano

Hungry and unable to make up our minds, we settled on three starters, celeriac cooked like a baked potato in the cinders of the grill and then served with a black-truffle-and-Parmesan butter, mackerel marinated in white wine and served on canapés of grilled Koshihikari rice with horseradish, and “Comme une Pizza,” a brittle sphere of pizza dough—an idea Piege perfected when he was chef at the Brasserie Thoumieux, with sliced scallops, onions, truffles and bacon.

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Chez La Vieille, Paris | Daniel Rose Revives the Old Lady’s Bistro, B+

November 8, 2016

Chez la Vieille - dining room

Chez la Vieille has reopened, and this is very good news for anyone who loves the earthy voluptuousness of authentic old-fashioned French bistro cooking as much as I do. We have Chicago born chef Daniel Rose to thank for this welcome and very artful revival, too. Rose is the one who loved this place enough to give it a new life (it’s been closed since 2012), so he staffed it up with talent from his restaurant Spring, just around the corner, including chef Oleg Olexin and Remi Segura, who’s signed the great wine list and runs the two dining rooms.

This has been quite a year for Daniel Rose, too. Hot on the heels of his huge critical and commercial success with Le Coucou, the new French restaurant that I think is the best one in New York City, it looks like he’ll also succeed where so many others have failed by successfully resurrecting one of the most legendary bistros in Paris, Chez la Vieille. Since the original ‘vieille’ (old woman), the famously ornery Adrienne Biasin, hung up her apron and retired over twenty-five years ago, many have tried to keep the fires burning at this snug place once beloved of politicians and show-biz types on a street corner just a couple of blocks the old Les Halles market, which was destroyed in a mad act of municipal vandalism in 1969 when it was transferred to a complex of new buildings tragically out of sight and out of mind of the famously food-loving city in suburban Rungis.

chez-la-vieille-menu

But after Marie-Josee Cervoni, the woman who took over from Biasin when she retired, sold up, everyone who followed in the foot steps of these two ladies failed, including the mercurial chef Michel del Burgo, a flash-in-the-pan eighties wonder boy, and several Japanese chefs, probably because the duplex space is not an easy one to make work, but perhaps most of all because to no one’s surprise without la vieille there was no Chez la Vieille. Several people tried to carry on proposing the lavish hors d’oeuvres course for which this restaurant was famous—herring in cream, celeri remoulade, terrine de campagne, marinated anchovies, grated carrots, potato salad with chunks of cervelas sausage and chopped cornichons, and more, but rather than reading as an offering of maternal abundance as it had in the past, it came off as too much food. It also required too much fussing and fiddling from waiters exasperated by the challenge of circulating these bowls and platters to tables both downstairs and up.

But most of all, the demise of Chez la Vieille signaled that even in Paris life had moved on from the days that anyone could get away with pilfering the whole afternoon necessary to eat and enjoy a meal here. Because when Adrienne Biasin, a.k.a. “la vieille,” was in the kitchen, lunch was a lavish high-cholesterol pageant that ended with the grand finale of a big snifter of Armagnac to celebrate the deliciously anarchic decision to throw all professional responsibilities and personal cares to the winds in favor of a thumpingly good feed that was often followed by a good long nap or maybe some furtive fumbling with someone you weren’t married to in a chilly just-rented hotel room

Chez la Vieille - bouillon @ Alexander Lobrano

For my part, I had no idea what I was getting into when a visiting London newspaper editor I occasionally free-lanced for invited me to lunch and asked me to find us a place that served “old-school Cro-Magnon bistro food” and also had a decent wine list. In November 1986, I’d only lived in a Paris for six weeks, so I did some research and finally settled on Chez la Vieille, calling three days ahead of time to book for lunch. I’d never been and was keen to try it.

A gruff-sounding woman answered the phone. I explained that I wanted to book a table for two at 1pm three days forward.

“Mais vous etes qui?” (Who are you?), she asked.

I was dumbfounded. Maybe I’d dialed the wrong number?

“Why should I give you a table? I don’t think I know you….”

“I hope you’ll give me table, Chere Madame, because I’ve been told your cooking is so good, and I’d be grateful for the opportunity to discover it.”

“Are you a politician? You speak like you’re a politician, a lot of shit coming out of your mouth.”

“No, I’m not a politician, I work as an editor in the Paris offices of an American publishing company, and I’ve just moved here from London.”

“Putain qu’on mange mal a Londres!” she said, and I laughed (Oh Fuck do you eat badly in London!). “You’re not English are you?”

“No, “ I told her.

“Okay then, you can come. What’s your name?”

“Alexandre.”

“Okay, see you Friday. Don’t be late, though, or I’ll give your table to someone else,” she said and hung up.

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Bien Élevé, Paris | Simple Pleasures From a Well-Bred Meal, B+

October 17, 2016

Bien Eleve facade of restaurant @ David Grimbert

Bien Eleve dining room @ David Grimbert

I went to dinner at the Bien Élevé restaurant in Paris the other night, and I was very well fed by both the kitchen’s very good cooking and also the charm of a motivated staff who animate what was once an old café in a gallopingly gentrifying part of the 9th Arrondissement near the Folies Bergère. Sometimes all I really want is a good simple hospitable meal, and that’s exactly what I found here.

If I’ve thought back on this meal with satisfaction several times since, it’s the calm, sincere nature of the experience itself almost as much as the food that has made me muse. What I’ve been mulling over is that we probably want too much from two things which are very much a part of our daily lives—adjectives and restaurants. The former are, of course, the verbal tools we use to express the superlative, and the latter are public places where we can choose to go to be fed. And on both counts, we seem to want and need too much from both of them.

Consider the case of ‘delicious,’ the most common adjective used to describe a powerfully pleasant experience of eating something. It’s a word that’s become so banalized that I systematically avoid using it in my writing. Then there’s the conundrum of contemporary restaurant reviewing culture and conventions. I read a lot of restaurant reviews of a given week across the media of a half-dozen different countries, and I find many of them so arcane and often arch that a restaurant which quietly accomplishes the task of serving a good meal with polite service in pleasant surroundings is often pushed to the sidelines in favor of places that are either very very good or very very bad (as a word, very still seems to have some permanent credibility but according to the prevailing trends in current usage the word should never be used in pairs, because this is very very bad).

Folies Bergere @ Alexander Lobrnao

Why adjectives have become so damaged is a bit of a mystery to me, but I think some part of the blame results from the pervasiveness of non-stop advertising that strains to incite and excite new reasons to consume. Everything has to be bigger, brighter, better, sexier, and more exciting, with the result that almost nothing is. Then there’s also the fact that so many of the English adjectives used to describe food are generally so flat-footed when compared to those in Latin languages.

The reason our expectations of restaurant going may have reached the point that a successful meal is defined as a suite of gastronomic revelations leading to rapture is probably because most English-speaking countries are still building their food cultures. Americans, along with Brits, Canadians, and New Zealanders, only began to take food and cooking seriously somewhere in the late sixties and early seventies. In countries like France or Italy that have very ancient gastronomic cultures, there isn’t the same resistance to simplicity found in the U.S. Sometimes, you see, an oyster should just be an oyster, and the French know that.

Bien Eleve - Jambon de Bigorre @ Alexander Lobrano

For my part, having had the privilege of eating the magnificence of the best cooks in Gaul for thirty years, I now find that I’ve fallen more in love than ever with my inner peasant, or that place that posits true good taste in nature, and this is a blessing. What I enjoy more and more is good simple honest food cooked from great seasonal produce with humility, care, and even a little bit of love. These days, I’d rather tuck into a plate of great ham, maybe some Spanish Iberico, French Noir de Bigorre or Prsut from Croatia or Slovenia than anything  ‘creative.’ I crave everything grilled—fish, meat, vegetables, even fruit and cheese. A beautifully made loaf of bread can move me as much as any elaborate sauce, and cheeses—real ones made from raw milk, are the most reliable constellation of gastronomic pleasure I know.

So off I went to meet Bruno for dinner at the Bien Élevé, because our relationship is gastronomically democratic. To wit, I impose a lot of meals on him, so occasionally, when we’re not cooking at home, which we both love to do, and I’m not intending to review a restaurant, we’ll just plain go out like most people do, and on this particular night his express wish was for some really good meat.

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Ore, Versailles | Ducasse’s Shrewd Take on Democratic Gastronomy, B+

October 4, 2016
Gate at the Chateau de Versailles

Silver and gold: ‘It’s lovely, but where should we go for lunch?’

 

In the rather unlikely event you haven’t noticed, Alain Ducasse is a very shrewd man. With the opening of Ore, the new cafe-restaurant he conceived and staffed at the chateau de Versailles, he’s not only equipped the opulent chateau with a French restaurant that’s worthy of such a prestigious setting, but offered an intriguing solution to what has previously been a mystifying French failure. To wit, given their spectacular Gallic gift for gastronomy, it’s unfathomable the French have most recently been so unsuccessful at creating restaurant concepts that enable large numbers of people to eat good French food at reasonable prices.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Couple in Dining Room @Alexander Lobrano

What makes me say this? Well, examine the gastronomic offer at any French airport, train station or highway rest stop, and you’ll most often come away crestfallen by having found nothing but a gauntlet of international fast-food outlets and franchise restaurants run by big industrial restaurant groups. We’re talking the usual culprits, Burger King and Pizza Hut, etc. If there’s lately been a sort of half-hearted feint at offering healthier options with the appearance here and there of the EKKI chain, or even the proliferation of PAUL, which peddles an industrial but just acceptable French take on the quick eats sold by bakeries—sandwiches, quiches, salads, there’s basically no proper place for a real meal at any airport and very few at train stations save an historical oddity like Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon in Paris (N.B. This particular restaurant is recommended primarily for its spectacular Belle Epoque décor, with the kitchen running a very distant second, so order simply). It’s even more puzzling, too, when you remember that the brasserie, that sexy restaurant idiom that incarnates urban glamour and also traditionally assured a prompt feed at a fair price, was originally a French invention.

Ore, dining room @Pierre Monetta

Ore, Dining room @ Pierre Monetta

Surely there had to be some modern way of conjugating French cooking that would be successful in both commercial and culinary terms. Well, as Ducasse has freshly proven at Ore, it turns out there is, and it’s pretty wonderful. To wit, this restaurant on the first floor of the Pavilion Dufour just inside the gates of Versailles serves very good freshly cooked high-quality relatively affordable Gallic grub. It’s also open non-stop from 8am to 6.30pm, so that you have breakfast before you tackle the chateau, reward yourself with a really good lunch after many fascinating but foot-sore hours ogling the opulence, duck in for tea with sandwiches or stop by for a pastry or a Croque Monsieur later in the afternoon.

The menu has also been designed to cater as broadly as possible to all comers, so they’re good options for vegetarians, children, and people coming from culinary cultures very different from those of France. But the lede idea, of course, is to showcase a certain idea of French gastronomy that references both its glorious history and its thriving and innovative present, and Ore does this very well.

Discovering this table during a recent Saturday lunch with Bruno a few days after it opened in September, I was immediately surprised by the monastic minimalism of the décor by interior architect Dominique Perrault and impressed by how warm, welcoming and well-briefed the dining room staff are. What makes this especially important here is that many people emerging from the elevator exhibited a certain wary shyness, because perhaps they’d heard that Alain Ducasse is a famous chef with an international empire of restaurants, but had never been to any of them and didn’t know what to expect restaurants.

Their two big fears? That they’d be patronized, and it would be too expensive. Instead, everyone is warmly welcomed.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Macaroni with ham, Comte and truffles @ Alexander Lobrano

Over a glass of Champagne served in broad shallow hollow-stemmed antique flutes the waiter told us Ducasse himself had scored at a flea-market left nameless (where does he find the time?!), we warmed to the austere elegance of the space as well. The solid oak floors, bare oak tables and brass wainscoting were doubtless deliberately chosen not to compete with the palace next door. Instead, these dining rooms offer an oasis of visual serenity after a good dose of head-spinning grandeur.

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Lobster and tomato salad

Ore restaurant, Versailles - Pate en croute @Alexander Lobrano

We fenced back and forth about who’d have what, but finally reached a perfect peace as we always do at the table. So we began with three starters, each of which represented a different declension of gastronomic temptation. Ducasse likes to pull people’s legs with an occasional nod at the eternal pleasures of certain childhood favorites, and so it was easy to succumb to the elbow macaroni with cubes of Prince de Paris ham, grated black truffles and soft savory rivers of melted Compte cheese. I mean, it’s just impossible to believe that a dish like this wouldn’t make anyone weak in the knees. Then an indulgent but pleasantly light salad of shelled lobster and heirloom tomatoes with an appropriately gentle vinaigrette that quietly back dropped the succulent natural tastes of these two products, and an impeccably made pate en croute with pickled vegetables. Continue reading…

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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