La Fontaine de Mars (B+), a Very Good Bistro

October 17, 2009

 

Sunday lunch in Paris is always a challenge because so few really good places are open. I’m not a big fan of brunch in restaurants–I can do a much better one at home and don’t have to change out of my home gear uniform of an over-sized T shirt and sweat pants to eat it, and most of the cities brasseries, the weakest link in the Parisian food chain, are at their worst at Sunday noon. The main reason is that the Sunday lunch crowd usually orders the cheap prix fixe menu, but service is likely to be slow and the kitchen sloppy, since no one really wants to be working in the middle of the day.

So I gave it some thought when Frances, a new friend from California, suggested we meet for lunch. Knowing that she loves old-fashioned Paris, I booked at La Fontaine de Mars, the 1908 vintage bistro that was selected for a very public private dinner by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle when they were here recently. I hadn’t been to this old-timer for a while, but knew the atmosphere would make Frances happy–red-and-white checked table cloths and a pretty setting overlooking a fountain on the rue Saint Dominique and also that owners Jacques and Christiane Boudon are consummate pros.

Suffice it to say, we had a very, very good meal, and that this place has vaulted to the top of my Sunday lunch list. The elegant Frances didn’t want a starter, but I couldn’t resist the oeufs au Madiran “facon meurette,” which are as good a reason as I can imagine to get out of bed on a Sunday before noon—two perfectly poached eggs in a sauce of reduced Madiran wine with onions and lardons (bacon chunks). A charming Dutch woman at the table next to us had the foie gras de maison mi-cuit and probably because I couldn’t take my eyes off it, very kindly offered me a taste on a toast point, and it was excellent.

Frances ordered the steak bearnaise with homemade frites because “the beef in France has so much more flavor that it does in the U.S.,” and I had free-range chicken in a cream sauce that was generously loaded with morilles. My chicken was juicy, tender and wonderfully infused with the taste of the morilles, and after Frances put a serious dent in her beautiful pile of golden frites, I finished them off. Her bearnaise was homemade, too, a sad rarity in Paris these days, with a lovely bite of tarragon preserved in vinegar.

Finishing up over first-rate mousse au chocolat and baba au rhum, I concluded that the presidential minders had made an excellent choice for the first family, whom, I gather really like their food. Putting politics to one side, I’m all for a president who loves the superb Mexican cooking at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago as much as I do.

 

La Fontaine de Mars, 129 rue Saint Dominique, 7th, Mo Ecole Militaire or Pont-de-l’Alma. Avg 40 Euros.

The Two Hottest New Openings in Paris This Fall: KGB (A-) and 114 Faubourg (B+)

October 9, 2009

Occupying an ancient Saint Germain des Pres space that most recently housed chef Jacques Cagna’s seafood bistro, William Ledeuil’s new KGB, or Kitchen Galerie Bis, is more than just an annex to his wildly popular Ze Kitchen Galerie a few doors down. For starters, the prices are lower and the service is brisker, but most importantly, he offers a different declension of the Asian influenced contemporary French bistro cooking that has made him one of the most influential chefs in Paris. Here the menu begins with hors d’oeuvres, served as two, four or six snap shots of his vivid, graphic and absolutely delicious cuisine. I loved his crispy panko-coated shrimp-and chicken croquette with piquillo ketchup, shot of white bean soup with galangal, Wagyu beef tartare with carrot-ginger jus, and mushroom-stuffed macaroni in a chlorophyll bright broth. Next, a Cubist style presentation—Ledeuil’s cooking is intentionally graphic, of capeletti, little pasta caps that look like fiddle head ferns, with a fried quail’s egg, fine slices of Mimolette cheese, green-olive tapenade and an Asian pesto sauce, then a white china casserole of slow-braised pork ribs and griddled potatoes in a hoisin-shoyu marinade.

The grand finale: apple cappuccino with ginger ice cream and a gelee of mostarda di Cremona, the best dessert I’ve eaten all year, and a perfect example of Ledeuil’s imagination. “The mating of different culinary traditions is a very ancient story,” Ledeuil told me after dinner. “Olive oil was once exotic anywhere in France outside of Provence, but today it’s an essential part of the modern French pantry. I see my cooking as part of this same tradition—I exhilirate French dishes with Asian herbs and seasonings.” True, but the main reason Ledeuil’s food is so good is that his finely honed culinary technique doesn’t “fuse” these foreign ingredients into French bistro cooking, it sublimates them.

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Good Contemporary French Cooking: Le Jardin d’Ampere, B+; Cafe Moderne, A-

October 3, 2009

If terrific little bistros like Jadis, Frenchie and Yam’Tcha have recently provided delicious evidence of the fact the Paris restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse and inventive than it has been for several years, the real proof of how well you eat in the city these days is sometimes found at under the radar places that don’t receive quite as much media attention.

These were my thoughts as I sipped an excellent Sauvignon Blanc from the Languedoc while waiting for friends at Au Coin des Gourmets, the wonderful Indochinese restaurant on the rue Dante in the 5th arrondissement that’s one of my favorite casual restaurants. This week I had two excellent meals at restaurants that haven’t caused a media furor, and so are available to anyone who wants to reserve at the last minute instead of calling weeks ahead of time.

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Shu–brilliant Japanese food in St. Germain des Pres: A-; and the future of Paris Markets

September 27, 2009

Paris falls narcissistically in love with Japan every couple of generations for obvious reasons. Parisians love the importance that the Japanese attach to the aesthetics of daily life, their love of ritual, and their extremely good manners. Sometimes these recurring crushes focus on art, like the Japanese screens and ceramics that inspired many Impressionist painters, but this time round, its Japanese food that’s the object of Parisian affections. Seriously good Japanese restaurants are opening all over the city, and many of the city’s best young bistro chefs freely avail themselves of the Japanese pantry (wasabi, yuzu, miso, soy, etc.) and cooking techniques like tempura and steaming.

When I first moved to the city in 1986, there was a good sushi bar in the rue des Ciseaux in the 6th, and a couple of Japanese places in and around the rue Saint Anne, plus a scattering of mediocre and possibly dangerous sushi-and-tempura joints in the Latin Quarter. Now almost every Paris neighborhood has at least one serious Japanese restaurant and sushi has become a common takeout item. The Parisian love of Japanese good is galloping this Fall, too, with a bunch of new openings. My favorite, however, is Shu, which opened a year ago in a tiny backstreet in Saint Germain and has quickly developed an almost cult-like following for the exquisite tasting menus of very talented and charming young chef Osamu Ukai.

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Nancy: Les Pissenlits, a perfect brasserie, B and L’Excelsior, a disaster, D

September 14, 2009

With the recent opening of the TGV Est high-speed train line serving eastern France, Nancy, one of the most charming small cities in France, is a very easy hour and a half train ride from Paris and an ideal Indian summer long weekend. The cooler weather is also the ideal appetite sharpener for discovering some of the city’s specialities, and there’s no better place to do so than the wonderful Les Pissenlits (The Dandelions), a truly excellent and very popular brasserie that gladdens the heart with its brisk, friendly service and obvious commitment to serving good quality regional food.

With lunchtime looming on an overcast Monday in Paris, I’m kicking myself for not asking if I could doggy-bag the rest of the first course I had at dinner here on Friday night–a lavish serving of succulent ham smoked in hay to give it a faintly herbaceous perfume. It came to the table with a superb tomato salad dressed in a creamy shallot vinaigrette and homemade celeri remoulade, and with a basket of good bread and a nice bottle of LaRoppe Pinot Noir, I was in heaven. It had been ages, in fact, since I’d eaten such good ham, and it brought back fond memories of a superb traiteur that once existed across the street from an office I once worked in in the now completely gentrified rue du Cambon in Paris. Served with a small ceramic ramekin of creamy, garlicky mayonnaise, this ham was a triumph of simplicity and it was so generously served, I could easily have made a meal of it. Bruno loved his pissenlit (dandelion) salad with chunky lardons, too. Main courses were outstanding, too. I opted for the bouche de la reine, best-known in the English-speaking world as that old ladies-bridge-game-luncheon stand-by chicken a la king. The real McCoy came in a flakey, buttery tasting pastry cylinder that brimmed with fresh mushrooms, shredded chicken and slices of feather-light chicken quenelles and a side of freshly made noodles. Unctuous and delicately flavored with good bouillon, it’s the type of dish I could eat every other day. Bruno’s baeckoffe, an Alsatian stew of potatoes, beef, lamb and onions simmered in white wine, was delicious, too, and the slice of mirabelle (tiny yellow plums) tart we shared was clearly homemade and truly excellent.

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Le Tourbillon, A Nice Modern Bistro in the Latin Quarter, and the Service Problem in France

September 7, 2009

Reading a pocket restaurant review in the New Yorker the other day, I was struck by the main motor of the writer’s little critique, which is that anyone who lives in a big city, any big city, needs a dozen or so restaurants that you can decide to go to at the last minute without a reservation for a good and reasonably priced meal. Such places are becoming scarcer and scarcer, which is why I really like Le Tourbillon, a very sweet modern bistro in the deep Latin Quarter.

Young chef Cedric Tessier trained with Michel Rostang and Alain Dutournier before setting out on his own, but the influences of these maestros are minor in a brief menu that’s generous–24 Euros for three courses!–well-conceived and self-effacingly creative. Before you dash off to pick up the phone, though, please understand what this place is all about. It’s a simple, low-to-the-ground, first-time-at-bat young chef’s table in a former cafe in a quiet corner of the 5th arrondissement. Tessier’s charming wife Rebecca waits table and is a master-class eve’s dropper (when my friend Judy and I were talking about how we mutually loathe truffle oil, one of the biggest fakes of contemporary cooking, it curiously vanished from an otherwise excellent starter salad of crunchy vegetables and Parmesan shavings).

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