Corneil is for Carnivores, B-, and Good Eats in the Yonne: Les Bons Enfants, B+

August 31, 2009

Just before I went away on vacation, I had an excellent going-away dinner with my friend Judy at Corneil, a pleasant, friendly and unassuming little modern bistro about a ten minute walk from where I live in the 9th arrondissement, a part of Paris that still doesn’t show up often on most visitors gastronomic radar despite its very central location.

The reality, however, is that this a great part of town in which to prospect for good, reasonably priced restaurants because my worldly, affluent neighbors know and love good food and also appreciate a good buy.I found out about Corneil, in fact, from my cobbler, whom I overheard recommending it to a customer. “La viande est extra, et c’est pas cher. Il faut prendre la cote de boeuf pour deux—quel Bonheur!” (The meat’s great and it isn’t expensive. You have to have the cote de boeuf for two—what a treat!) But first I had an excellent cold roast tomato soup and Judy a fine slab of homemade terrine de campagne, which was chunky, flavorful and served with a salt-glazed crock of cornichons as it should be. Next, the rib eye, a massive piece of perfectly cooked meat that came to the table sliced on a wooden carving board with sides of green salad and sautéed potatoes. Though succulent and flavorful, we couldn’t eat more than half of it (Judy later reported making a delicious steak sandwich the following day). We finished our bottle of house cotes du Rhone, an excellent buy at 20 Euros, over homemade plum tart, and I’m eagerly looking forward to going back and trying the rest of the menu, which includes rabbit in mustard sauce and cod with a sauce vierge.

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Firmin Le Barbier–Ideal August Dining, B, and My Latest Vice

August 21, 2009

Since I returned to Paris from vacation, I’ve been stopped at least twice a day by visitors to the city (I loathe the condescending word ‘tourist’) who are often looking for directions and a decent place to eat. I feel a nostalgic sympathy for their quandry, too, because the first time I visited the city, en famille, we came in August, too, and were utterly oblivious to the fact that so much of it shuts down as the lucky and sensible French delect their month-long summer holidays. The August problem, in fact, is the reason that my very first meal in Paris was at a Pizza Pino (it’s still there, on the Champs Elysees)–it was within walking distance of our now long gone hotel in the rue Marignan and the six of us were hungry. Knowing it would infuriate my father, I said nothing, but I was deeply disappointed to be eating a third-rate pizza on my first trip to Paris. I mean, I’d been dreaming for months of all of the moaningly good delicacies we’d feast on the moment we arrived in Paris. Things looked up considerably after the mediocre pizzas–I still dream about the wonderful cheese feasts we ate in that much missed temple to all things lactic, L’Androuet in the rue d’Amsterdam, some amazing boeuf bourguignon, a Roquefort souffle followed by a peach one, etc.

So suffice it to say that I am always happy to help rescue the innocent, and with this in mind, I’m glad to suggest a very good restaurant, Firmin Le Barbier, that not only serves simple delicious vieille France (old-fashioned) but also has a handful of sidewalk tables with absolutely stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. The service at this restaurant is also not only charming but English-speaking for anyone who needs help with the changes-daily chalkboard menu, and the dining room itself is a small, handsome, stylish space with sleek Italian suspension lamps, terra-cotta banquettes, and exposed brick and stone walls. We went as four and all of us well. I love my oeufs mayonnaise, two hard-boiled eggs slicked with homemade mayonnaise and served with a small frisee salad, while Laurent’s sardines with roasted peppers were excellent, and the other two enjoyed their tuna-and-salmon tartare. Next, a remarkably generous serving of pork tenderloin in a light pepper-cream sauce with sauteed potatoes and fresh vegetables for me and Laurent, and cod in a light wine sauce for Carole and Bruno. The portions were so generous, in fact, that the four of us could only nibble at a slice of excellent tarte citron for dessert. Prices here are moderate, and the short wine list is intelligent and fairly priced. Also useful is the fact that this winning restaurant in open for lunch and dinner on Sundays (and closed on Monday and Tuesday). Firmin Le Barbier, 20 rue Monttessuy, 7th, Tel. 01-45-51-21-55.

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Two Charming Meals in Le Lot

August 15, 2009

Just back in Paris on a sweltering August night, I’m slightly stunned to have exchanged the cool, mossy smelling nights of Salviac in the Lot, one of my very favorite regions of France, for the metallic scents of baked Parisian asphalt, but even this heat can’t wilt my high spirits at having eaten so well for two weeks. To be sure, we grilled (fabulous meat from Jean-Pierre Cabanel, the local butcher–homemade sausage, Quercy lamb, incredible veal, etc.) and cooked most of the time–many Mark Bittman salads, at our little honey-colored stone cottage on a hillside, but the few times we went out, we ate wonderfully well in a type of restaurant I’d almost given up as lost in France, which is to say serious, unselfconscious no-nonsense places with a skilled, hard-working cook in the kitchen and a courteous well-drilled staff in the dining room. You could almost call them plain-vanilla restaurants, since they’re not trying to win Michelin stars, be fashionable, or break new gastronomic ground. Instead, they exist to offer a delicious and fairly priced meal of well-sourced and lovingly cooked local produce.

Two meals in particular remain deliciously memorable. The first was dinner at La Recreation, a truly charming restaurant occupying at old school house in Les Arques. It was founded some fifteen years ago by chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noëlle, “with no market research or any of the things that young chefs are doing today. We just jumped in, because after years of working in the Caribbean, the South Pacific and on cruise ships, we wanted to come home.” (They’re from Toulouse). I knew none of this back story when we sat down at an old-fashioned steel table on folding chairs in the skirts of a giant Tilleul (lime) tree and opened the menu, but we despite a fair number of GB (Great Britain) license plates in the parking lot, which led me to fear the place might be sort of flute-y and Surrey in southwestern France, service was warm, prompt and friendly. We ordered an excellent bottle of Cahors, and ate, and ate. Ratier’s five-course meal began with a superb fresh tomato soup, and then I had some sublime foie gras and Bruno a salad of plump white coco beans with a surprising amount of lobster meat, a lovely summer appetizer. Next, Limousin beef in Cahors sauce for me and Quercy lamb for Bruno (correctly served rare and very tender), both garnished with an excellent gratin of potatoes, stuffed zucchini blossoms, haricots vert, and a roasted tomato. I was so surprised by the precision, talent and hard-work in this 32 Euro menu that I finally fell into conversation with Noelle Ratier, who told me the couples’ story. Our meal continued with perfectly aged Rocamadour cheese and salad and dessert, a fondant au chocolat for Bruno and a terrific clafoutis aux abricots for me. At a dinner party in Cahors a few days later, it wasn’t at all surprised when the delightful Ken Hom, who has a house in nearby Catus, told me that La Recreation is one of his favorite local tables.

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A Perfect Lunch in the Loire

August 7, 2009

It’s probably one of the best lessons that a summer in France has to offer: anyone who loves the good food of Gaul should get out of town and travel on les departementales, or little country roads, in the hopes of finding someplace like Le Chat in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.

Determined to avoid the numbing dullness of the autoroute on our way to a little stone cottage in a quiet valley in the Lot, we decided to leave the main road as often as we could. Breaking free of Paris traffic, we sped to the Loire, with the idea of stocking up on some good summer drinking in Sancerre and Menetou-Salon. After visiting a couple of caves in Sancerre, we were hungry and so asked a friendly caviste for an idea for a good, cheap, fast lunch. “Le Chat—it’s about fifteen kilometers from here, but the food’s delicious.” And so we backtracked, and after a series of rond-points, we finally escaped the dreary suburban landscape of shopping centers, muffler franchises, etc. that now sadly surround most French towns of any size and ended up in a sleepy little village that seemed stunned by the heat.

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A Great Seafood Feast on the Ile de Re

July 29, 2009

Chatting with a suave French hotelier over dinner on the Ile de Re, the lovely Atlantic island thirty minutes from the train station in La Rochelle that’s sort of a French version of Nantucket, the other night, we lamented the fact that Blackberries, email, etc., mean that it’s harder and harder to have a real vacation. By this I mean a week or two during which you just plain stop working. Unfortunately technology has so blurred the boundaries between work and leisure that even on vacation most of us are required to keep up with our email, which, depending on your work, involves a constant blizzard of questions, requests and invitations to meetings.

On the eve of leaving for two weeks in a rented farmhouse in the southwestern French region of Le Lot, I found myself musing over vacations of yore, or those intensely anticipated two-week sojourns when we loaded up the Country Squire (later, the Vista Cruiser) and drove through the night to get to the dock in Hyannis to take the earliest ferry to Nantucket, a place that was then all about rusty bicycles, rusty bed stands with lumpy mattresses and soggy but tasty sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. Dad, an executive with a major textile company in New York, never called the office, but instead ratched down for a first few days until he became smiling and playful. Food was never particularly important on these holidays, although the grown-ups would go out once or twice for a lobster feast, leaving the kids at home and happy with barbecued hamburgers, corn on the cob, and Howard Johnson’s mint chocolate chip ice cream.

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Les Paillotes at Les Etangs de Corot: A- ; Laperouse, Paris: C; And Shame on Lactalis!

July 24, 2009

Lunch with my friend Alain on Wednesday, and what a pleasure it was to hop in his car and head for the country just long enough for some bird song and fresh air to unknot a morning’s tensions. Our destination was Les Paillotes, the summer restaurant at Les Etangs de Corot, a charming country hotel that’s recently been renovated by the family who own and run the Caudalie line of spas and skin products, and they’ve done a beautiful job of creating a bower of bliss on the door steps of Paris. Once a getaway for the painter Corot, who loved the bucolic atmosphere of what was then a country village outside of Paris, Ville d’Avray today is one of the rare Parisian suburbs to have retained a palpable sense of its original rural identity, much of which comes from the etangs, or ponds, Corot once made a subject.

What makes this place especially pleasant during the summer is that they have a raised, thatched roof terrace–Les Paillotes–overlooking the pond behind the hotel where they serve during the summer. Having been to the hotel to sample the cooking of their talented chef Benoit Bordier during the winter, I was curious to see how he’d settled in. Though I enjoyed my last meal, I found the service over-groomed and Bordier’s cooking much too cerebral and self-regarding for this new setting.

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