WILL Restaurant, Paris–A Delightful Modern Bistro, B

April 14, 2014
Will - salt marinated salmon

Salt-marinated salmon with citrus cream and favas at Will

 

Recently I’ve been thinking something’s gone very wrong with the whole process of going out to a restaurant for a meal. Consider this Tweet from Jay Rayner, the Guardian‘s excellent food critic, this morning: “25 minutes of hold music that crackles and breaks up. an online booking system that claims to have no tables. credit card numbers mandatory.” Needless to say, all the poor man was trying to do was make a reservation.

When I first started going to restaurants with any regularity, the only ones that required reservations were the fancy French places on the East Side of New York where I booked lunch for the editor for whom I was working as an earnest but hopelessly incompetent assistant. With the hind sight of years, I’m very grateful to this brilliant gentleman, the late Joe Fox, too, since he might have fired me on the spot for being such a stunningly incompetent typist. Instead, he just shook his head in disbelief at the completed letters I brought in for him to sign. “Good God, Alec! How did manage this? This line drops down, jumps back  up, drops down again, and then flies off the page!” White-Out, a correction fluid in a little bottle with a brush, had recently been invented, and I availed myself of it with such regularity that Mr. Fox used to refer to my letters as my “canvases.” As he grumbled once or twice, the only reason he kept me on was that he liked my reader’s reports. These were the summary outlines that I’d do when I finished reading a manuscript from the huge pile of submissions under my desk, and they ended with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ recommendation. Needless to say, this reading was the most interesting part of my editorial assistant’s job.

My luck was in working for such a brilliant and ruthlessly demanding editor–I learned as much about writing during the year and a half that I was his assistant as I had in four years at a small liberal arts college in New England with a vaunted reputation, and also the fact that every once in a very blue moon–maybe because it was my birthday or his lunch date had cancelled and he liked good food much too much to let that keep him away from Le Veau d’Or or any of the other places he went regularly to let this be an obstacle, I’d be invited out to lunch. These infrequent but much yearned for meals were the beginning of my more serious education in French cooking, too.

In my own life, though, I wasn’t going to fancy French places, but fashionable restaurants frequented by Manhattan’s night-life crowd–Ruskay’s on the Upper West Side where I lived, Raoul’s in Soho, the long-gone Cafe Geiger on East 86th Street for delicious German home cooking,  a couple of cheap Italian joints in Greenwich Village, Cuban-Chinese places on Broadway, and delicatessens. We almost never made reservations in those days, but always found a table when we came in, which meant we ate where we felt like eating that night and what we felt like eating that night. To be sure, there were places like Lutece, the brilliant little French place on the East Side or, later, Chanterelle in Soho, that you had to book weeks ahead of time, but they were high-brow exceptions.

Now in New York, London and Paris, a reservation is essential, and depending on the city, obtaining and maintaining one requires a varying but usually large and often irritating amount of effort.  I’m very sympathetic to the problem of no-shows, those ne’er do wells who can punch a painful hole in a restaurant’s fragile bottom-line, but on the other hand, why do I have to call back to confirm the reservation? In London recently, I found a message on my silenced cellphone–I’d turned it off during a meeting and the lunch that followed–briskly informing me that my reservation had been cancelled, because I hadn’t returned the confirmation request within a two-hour window. Enough said on this subject, but if only the entire restaurant world would shift over the winningly efficient services of Open Table, La Fourchette and other online booking engines.

Will - Sidewalk tables

So what happens if it’s a pretty spring night in Paris on a Friday, and you suddenly decide you want to go out for a good meal? Well, you’re not going to Le Chateaubriand, Septime, Spring or Verjus at the last minute, but with a little luck, you might snag a table at Will, a good looking new bistro that recently opened near the Bastille. “Oui, bien sur, une table pour deux sans problemes,” said the pleasant-sounding man who answered the phone, and two hours later, I guessed that the restaurant down the road with the bright green chairs out front was Will, and I was right.

Will -Salle

“Sit wherever you like,” said the same charming man I’d spoken to earlier, a warm invitation that immediately made a nice change from the strategized seating plans in so many restaurants these days. The spare but attractive dining room, which not unpleasantly reminded me of what restaurants once looked like in East Germany, was already half full, and was evenly divided between couples on what appeared to be on dates and middle-aged ones who’d been together for a longtime, which is what I guess we were. The crowd matched the arty look of the room, with its Fifties wooden chairs and tables and lighting fixture that might once have been in East German president Erich Honecker’s office, and the single waitress was as pleasant as the maitre d’hotel when she came with two glasses of Jacky and Pascal Preys’s very good Silex Touraine we’d ordered as an aperitif.

Will - Maigre carpaccio

Although the 45 Euro prix-fixe menu (you can also order a la carte) was brief, neither of us had any trouble deciding on a meal that pleased us. My salt-marinated salmon was succulent, generously served and nicely garnished with a citrus coulis and a few fava beans, and Bruno liked his maitre (croaker) carpaccio with shaved radishes, mustard cress, avocado, poppy seeds and a light soy based dressing. Both dishes were made with excellent product, suavely seasoned and displayed good culinary logic. The accompanying bread was excellent, too.

Will - pork belly with artichokes

I’d been curious about chef William Pradeleix’s cooking for a while, too. Most recently, he cooked at the nearby Manger, and before that he’d had a Marco Polo career that included stints at the St. Regis in Bora-Bora with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Mamounia in Marrakech, and the Connaught in London with Hélène Darroze. Though Pradeleix has a style of his own, it was probably Vongeritchten’s limpid, produce-centered approach to cooking that had marked him the most, or at least on the basis of my main course, a square of pork belly with a crust of golden crackling and a garnish of grilled baby artichokes, the delicately acidulous vegetable creating a perfect foil for the rich meat. Bruno’s duck breast had a scored crust of flavorful fat, was cooked rare and came with a side dish of romanesco, that vegetable that looks like it was born of furtive coupling between broccoli and cauliflower, and a light sauce of pan drippings.

Will - dessert

Well-fed, for dessert, we split a cardamom-flavored panna cotta with mango ice cream and roasted pineapple that brought Mom’s pineapple-upside-down cakes of yore to mind–nicely candied and lightly caramelized fruit, which came to the table under a flirtatious but extraneous pane of carmelized sugar. With friendly and alert service, this was a very good meal, and my only reservations about this place are the short wine list, which will hopefully grow longer and more interesting, and a wish for a more extensive selection of cheeses for anyone ordering cheese instead of dessert. Otherwise, I’m shopping an excuse to find myself in this neighborhood again sometime soon so that I can enjoy the same great cooking as part of the good-value lunch menu.

Will, 75 rue Crozatier, 12th Arrondissement, Tel. 01-53-17-02-44. Metro: Ledru-Rollin or Faidherbe-Chaligny. Closed Sunday and Monday dinner.  Lunch menu 19 Euros, prix-fixe dinner menu 45 Euros, average a la carte 45 Euros.  

HUNGRY FOR FRANCE, My New Book

April 12, 2014

HungryForFrance_cover

Many thanks to the many people who’ve written with questions about my recently released book Hungry for France: Adventures for the Cook and Food Lover. I’d very much like to be able to answer your messages individually, but since this would take a long time, I think you’ll find answers to most of your questions in the trailer for the book that was produced by my publisher, Rizzoli USA.

Please click on this link to learn more: Hungry for France: Adventures for the Cook and Food Lover

I hope you enjoy listening to this narration, and if you have more questions about the book afterwards, please be in touch.

All best regards,

Alec

AUX ENFANTS GATES, Paris–A Bistro that Sincerely Spoils You in Montparnasse, B+

April 2, 2014

Aux Enfants Gates - Salle best

On my way to meet Bruno and some friends for dinner the other night, I was in sort of a bad mood. An old college friend had called for a chat just before I went out, and it had been terrific to catch up with him until the talk turned to our work. He’s a very successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., and I, well, I’m a food and travel writer who lives in Paris, bien sur. He mentioned having seen something that I’d written in the Wall Street Journal and said that he’d liked it. I’m so glad, I told him, and then there was an ominous pause. “Alec, one thing I’ve always wondered–I’ve always enjoyed your writing, but why did you decide to write about food when you could be writing about so many other things?” Oh, dear. Where to start? Some day, I’ll answer this question in much greater length and detail, but my brief reply was that my love of food was born as an expedient way for a shy boy to indulge his curiosity about the world and access a dimly perceived sensuality that was, I instinctively knew at the time, inappropriate for someone of my age. Also, there just isn’t a faster way, of course, to know where you are or learn something personal about someone than there is by eating that country or that person’s food. And besides, I’ve always loved to eat, and as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to eat almost anything, or at least once. So my love of food, and writing about, is just as essential to my seeing the world clearly as putting on my glasses every morning after the alarm clock goes off.

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CORETTA, Paris–A Very Good Contemporary French Restaurant in an Up-and-Coming Part of Town, B+

March 20, 2014

Coretta - Bar area

A handsome new park is emerging on the northern edge of Paris in the 17th arrondissement, and it’s named for the American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. Only a few acres of the new green space built on former rail yards are now open, but the park is beautifully landscaped and will be the centerpiece for a whole new quartier when it’s completed in 2015. For the moment, just a few of the new buildings surrounding the park have been finished, but one particularly good-looking HLM (subsidized housing units) houses not only a bunch of Parisians who must be delighted by their new lodgings, but one of the best modern bistros to have opened in the city recently. It’s called Coretta, after Martin Luther King’s wife, and it’s run by the very talented chef Mexican born chef Beatriz Gomez and her husband Matthieu Marcant, and since they’re already very busy with their excellent restaurant Neva Cuisine in the 8th arrondissement behind the Gare Saint Lazare, they’ve hired chef Jean-François Pantaleon, formerly of L’Affable in the 7th arrondissement, to chef their new table.

Curiously, I first heard about this restaurant from my friend Pascale, an architect who lives in the neighborhood and who praised the design of the duplex space as one of the best she’d recently seen in Paris–most of the time friends recommend their latest discoveries to me because they loved the food. So I did some research, and when I realized that it was a new address from Gomez and Marcant, I booked immediately, since Neva Cuisine is one of my favorite modern bistros in Paris, not the least of the reasons being that it has one of the best young pastry chefs in Paris, Yannick Tranchant , with whom Gomez worked when both of them were in the kitchens of La Grande Cascade.

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LA COUPOLE, Paris–In Remembrance of Things Long Past, C

March 6, 2014

La Coupole - Exterior

Some strange and generally wonderful things have happened to me because of Facebook. A few days ago, I had a message from a woman I’ll call Amanda, a friend I hadn’t seen since high-school graduation. She wrote from Tampa, Florida, where she is living as a recently divorced real-estate agent and said that she’d decided to treat herself to a trip to Paris, a city she hadn’t visited since a college trip many years ago. “I made out with a boy who followed me for twenty minutes in the Tuileries gardens. It was the craziest thing I’d done up to that point in my life–many more since then!–and he was so incredibly handsome I still think of him sometimes. Who knows? Maybe I need a good dose of Paris, and it would be great to see you again if you’re around.”

I loved the idea that Amanda, who’d been so pretty and prim and smart, had done something as reckless as kissing a stranger in a public park, and her confession made me wonder how well I’d ever really known her. Oh, to be sure, we were friends, as, it would seem, two of the rare kids in the fast-track college program who were even a tiny bit wild, even in those days. What this meant was smoking joints and going to all-night diners in the down-at-the-heels industrial town next to our wiltingly pretty New England suburb in the orbit of New York City, harmless stuff really, but when she went on to study classics at a very respectable women’s college near Boston, I assumed that those rare errant nights in the diner were behind her.

So I said ‘Yes’ to dinner, and she wrote back right away and told me to meet her for a drink first at Le Select, the cafe in Montparnasse, and then we’d go to dinner. “Oh I know you’re a connoisseur, Alec, but let me chose where we go to dinner.” How very sweet–if slightly strange–that our reunion was so natural. The person I found was a strong, handsome woman with a charmingly self-effacing self of humor, a quick wit, and an omnivorous interest in the world. She was physically very little changed, too–lean, tan, blonde as always, and well-seasoned by the many years gone by. So we drank white wine and laughed at ourselves and the past and started catching up. Still, me being me, I wondered where we were going to dinner, and when she saw me glance at my watch, she said, “Oh, you! We’re just going across the street, and I don’t want to hear a word about what you think of the place. I’ve never been, and I’ve always wanted to go.”

So I went to dinner at La Coupole for the first time in many years, and in the interest of a happy night with an old friend, I didn’t get my back up over her assumption that just because I write about food, I’m fussy or fancy or something. In any event, everyone assumes this, and everyone’s wrong. And recently I’d also been thinking about something that’s wrong with this blog, and most other food publications in any format, which is that we’re all so preoccupied with the new that we never go back and see what the old places are like. The fact that Amanda wanted to eat at La Coupole on her first night in Paris more than thirty years sort of underlined this for me, too.

La Coupole - Floral centerpiece

Amanda had thoughtfully booked dinner online and gave her name to the bored man at the reservations lectern when we came in. Wordlessly, he escorted us to a rather distant quadrant of this vast room, and I said nothing, because this was her evening, and I sensed anything I might have said wouldn’t have mattered, since as far as he was concerned we were just another pair of American tourists, those lemmings he contends with by the dozens everyday. Happy though I was in the present, I couldn’t help but hear the rustling of many shed skins as we sat and read the menu, since at another point in my Paris life of almost thirty years, I ate here rather often. To be sure, it was never for reasons gastronomic, but rather because La Coupole was once one of the anointed restaurants of the fashion tribe in the days when I was an editor for a glamorous fashion publishing company, an incarnation that today strikes me as a rather mystifying bit of bad casting and acting.

“I imagine you know this place quite well,” said Amanda. Indeed I do, or did, I told her, yarning about my days on the style circuit and also reminiscing about the Sunday night dinners I used to have here with a bunch of single friends, none of whom live in Paris anymore. I explained that we once shared a collective brasserie reflex, since Sundays could be melancholic, and so we’d often round ourselves up for a dinner round robin style, which was also the unstated occasion to take a shower and get dressed after a day spent in pyjamas. Brasseries were lively and fun in those days, and so a perfect antidote to the morbid flutterings on the wall of a winter’s evening.

La Coupole - Salle

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BLUE VALENTINE–A Love Letter of a Bistro in the 11th Arrondissement, B+

February 26, 2014

Blue Valentine - Card One of the happier nascent trends in Paris is the growing number of new restaurants that are open on Sunday night, which is good  news not only because they offer deliverance from the usual Sunday night options of the city’s ethnic restaurants and woefully overpriced and mediocre brasseries, but because it’s a good night to go out in Paris. Bruno and I have recently developed the habit of going out of a Sunday night, too, since it means a night off from the kitchen and a calm moment to enjoy each other’s company before the usual busy week ahead. Since we’re not at home, we ditch domesticity–talking about getting a plumber in to fix the kitchen faucet or where we’ll go for summer vacation or our work, or, our least favorite subject, the bills–and just enjoy each other’s company instead. And since I’d been away in Barcelona working for a week, I suggested we go out the other night and hopefully have a good meal at Blue Valentine, a new bistro near the Place de la Republique and not far from the Canal Saint Martin that friends had been telling me about.

Blue Valentine - SalleI liked this place from the moment I stepped in the door, too, since the welcome was friendly, and the dining room had a funky easygoing charm created by a sixties retro bar, flea-market furniture and some curious psychedelic posters on the walls. We sat next to a couple who were obviously on a date–they were both conspicuously well-dressed for a Sunday night and had that flush of awkwardness that radiates from a tentatively minted couple, and even though it’s not generally a good idea when we’re going to order a bottle of wine, we threw caution to the winds and decided to have a cocktail from the list that was provided as soon as we were seated. As Bruno noted, the bartender seemed really serious with his shaker, and was also carefully bruising fresh herbs and carving curls of citrus, so we expected the drinks would be good, and they were. He ordered a Margarita, which made me smile, because it seemed such an unlikely prelude to dinner on a winter night, but an affectionate bemusement at one another’s gastronomic habits is something to be expected between two people who’ve been at the table together so often over the course of many years. I said nothing about the Magarita–it was his choice, but when I ordered a tasty little number that was Bourbon based, he said, “I think Bourbon is in your D.N.A.,” and I took it affectionately, especially because it’s true. Both of my very different grandmothers were enthusiastic Bourbon drinkers, and if my usually abstemious mother goes for a drink in a restaurant, it’s always a Bourbon on the rocks.  Continue reading…