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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L’Etoile du Nord, Paris | Honest Eats on the Run, B-

January 10, 2017

Etoile du Nord, Paris

L’Etoile du Nord, the new brasserie at the Gare du Nord in Paris, one of the world’s busiest train stations, represents an admirable attempt to respond to the perennial challenge of feeding large numbers of people good honest food in a hurry and for a reasonable price. Chef Thierry Marx, who has two Michelin stars at his restaurant Sur Mesure, is the restaurant’s consulting chef, and given his background, he knows something about feeding the average man or woman in the street, to say nothing of the 700,000 people who pass through the Gare du Nord everyday.

This is because Marx grew up in Belleville, the northern Paris district that even in the face of galloping gentrification remains one of the world’s most wonderfully diverse urban neighborhoods. It’s so much of a global tapestry of different ethnicities, in fact, that Marx once told me he didn’t really know much about real ‘French’ food–you know, boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau, until he did his military service. This is because in his family of Polish Jewish origins, “We ate to eat–lots of potatoes and in a hurry. We were working too hard and had too little money to spend time doing anything ambitious in the kitchen. So the only sort of gastronomic experiences I had before the army were the Asian and North African street food I ate with my friends.”

Etoile du Nord - Restaurant and sandwich shop

Perhaps in a poignant recognition of the fact a large number of the people passing through the Gare du Nord of a given day don’t have 20 Euros, much less ten, to spend on a meal, Marx added a takeaway sandwich counter to the brasserie project, Le Fournil (The Oven), which bakes fresh bread all day long and uses it to prepare good sandwiches, including a very good one of smoked salmon, cream cheese and candied lemon for 6.80 Euros.

Etoile du Nord - Dining room with red chairs

The main dining room is a simple, sort of Nordic feeling space with red butterfly chairs, oak-edged white tables, an open kitchen, and a friendly young staff, many of whom are trainees in Marx’s commendable restaurant-work training program to help young unemployed Parisians develop job skills.

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Restaurant Jean, Paris | Edgy French Cooking on My Doorstep, B+

December 17, 2016

Michael Pyault @ Geraldine Martens

 

N.B. This restaurant is currently closed and under renovation.

At Restaurant Jean, just down the street from me in the beautiful but increasingly booshie 9th Arrondissement, a lavishly well-inked young chef has given an exciting new life to a table that had been lost for a little while. If fact, Jean-Frédéric Guidoni, this restaurant’s amiable owner, is grooming a real star in Mickaël Poyault, 26, who came here after working at Fauchon, the Mandarin Oriental Paris, and, most recently, Garance.

Guidoni is an exceptionally experienced restauranteur, too, since he’s been running this place ever since 2002 and worked at Taillevent for many years before that. He also has the trained palate to be a good judge of culinary talent, too, since this address first won a Michelin star in 2006 and then held it through several chef changes until this year.

And finally, he also the long sociological whiskers that a restauranteur needs to stay in business.

Restaurant Jean @Geraldine Martens

“The 9th Arrondissement has changed a lot in fourteen years,” he observed during a chat before dinner here the other night. “It’s younger and more gastronomic, but the Bobos don’t want anything pretentious or stuffy. They like casual restaurants with interesting food made from great produce. In fact, they’re obsessed with produce, and this is why I’m lucky enough to have my very own secret weapon at home in Normandy,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You’ll be tasting it several times tonight, too,” he added, leaving us with the menus and a glass of good Champagne.

“What do you think he meant?” asked Bruno. “He doesn’t look like a hunter.”

“My guess is that it has something to do with some kind of a farm or garden,” I replied.

Pumpkin, endive, scamorza at Restaurant Jean @Alexander Lobrano

“Or maybe he’s a fisherman?” said Bruno, who was nibbling the bait more eagerly than I was. But one way or another, the menu here had changed a lot since the last time I’d been here, which would have to be at least five years ago. For one, the prices were lower, and then it was pointedly modern, both in terms of the dishes offered and the way they were described in what I call menu haiku: ‘Endives, courge (pumpkin), scarmoza,’ the dish I chose as my starter.

Bruno’s choice was the somewhat more baroque, ‘Tourteau, bisque, champignons, marrons and clementines’ (crab, bisque, mushrooms, chestnuts and clementines, or satsumas). And for our mains, ‘pork, celery rave, pear and black-olive sauce’ for me and ‘chicken, cabbage and artichokes’ for my mate. (Or I suppose that at the end of 2016, I should finally try and rewire my brain so that I henceforth reflexively say ‘husband,’ since we married in July, and as Bruno’s lovely father said, “Of all my three children, Bruno’s the one in the happiest and most enduring relationship.” Still, something very ancient and innate leaves me tongue-tied here, because this is a reality I never dreamed I would be lucky enough to inhabit).

As reflected by the most successful restaurants in our part of the 9th around the Place Saint Georges and the rue des Martyrs—I’m thinking about Franck Beranger’s excellent Le Pantruche (https://www.facebook.com/LePantruche/), his good Caillebotte (https://www.facebook.com/RestaurantCaillebotte/?fref=ts) and his new and unfortunately not very good Belle Maison seafood place, and the charming and very popular bistro Le Bon Georges (www.lebongeorges.com), this is how the ‘hood likes to eat right now.

And it’s an especially avidly restaurant-going quartier in an avidly restaurant-going city. This is party because Parisians are passionate about good food, but also because as nightlife has died out, two of the surviving social motors of urban life—sex and shopping, have increasingly moved online. So restaurants increasingly constitute all of the life that’s left in many of the world’s great urban neighborhoods, especially Paris, where the city’s cafes continue their woeful withering.

And at Restaurant Jean, which had once been called Chez Jean, but likely had its name tweaked, because Chez Jean is a SEO disaster of a moniker for a restaurant, there were perceptible signs of life in the room for the first time in a longtime, or a younger crowd joining the business people and theatergoers who’ve long made it one of their canteens. And when our starters arrived, it was obvious why they were here.

Crab, bisque, mushrooms, clementines at Restaurant Jean @Geraldine Martens

The melted smoky scamorza melded together the sweet tastes of the pumpkin and the gentle bitterness of the endive in my starter brilliantly, and Bruno loved the contrast between the gentle iodine bright taste of his shelled crab and the garnishes it came with. So it immediately became clear that Poyault is a seriously good and interesting chef.

When he came to clear our plates, Monsieur Guidoni finally ended Bruno’s suspense when he told us that he’d planted a huge garden at his home in Normandy with the idea that in season it could supply the kitchen at the restaurant with almost all of its vegetables and herbs. Well, you couldn’t find a better secret weapon than that in Paris these days, especially since a terrific new shop has just opened in the rue des Martyrs that sells only seasonal vegetables from the Ile de France, or countryside around Paris.

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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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