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.

Continue reading…

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).

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…