Grading NYC: Bar Breton: C-; Pala: D; Aldea: A- (plus a mediocre meal in CT)

June 22, 2009

Having read rave reviews of the new Bar Breton in New York City, I was looking forward to dinner there on my first night in steamy, soggy Manhattan (it’s been raining here for days). I’d always liked chef Cyril Reynaud’s cooking at Fleur de Sel, and since I’m a huge fan of galettes, or buckwheat flour crepes with savory fillings, I was confident of a good feed. Alas, the meal was a major letdown beginning with a cocktail that smelled and tasted like long shoreman’s sweat (rest assured that I’m guessing on this one), followed by a special starter of Virginia oysters that came to the table drowning in a sauce mignonette (shallots and vinegar) that completely obliterated their flavor. Why a restaurant would automatically apply such a heavy-handed garnish rather than serving it as as side dish is beyond me. Next, my galette with a small green salad–hungry as a farmhand, I ordered the version with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, and an egg. What arrived was a correctly crispy galette filled with a flabby slice of tasteless supermarket quality boiled ham–if they’d run out of Black Forest ham, the waitress should have said so–and bits of rubbery cheese which led me to conclude that the cheese was poor quality, pre-grated or both. The smoked trout in my friend Nanette’s galette was completely tasteless, too, and the only saving grace of this meal was a fairly priced bottle of Spanish Rueda, a nice summer wine, and some very good company.

Having read a major shout-out good review of the Greenwich Tavern as one of the best places for brunch in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the metropolitan pages of a certain estimable New York newspaper, I invited Mom to lunch for Father’s Day on Sunday. Despite the patrician sounding name, this rather frumpy little restaurant turned out to be located on U.S. 1, aka the Post Road, which is renamed Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. I was immediately suspicious of this place when I realized it had valet parking, too–I mean after all, what’s the point of living in the suburbs if you can’t park your own car. In any event, the meal was more of an intriguing study in profit-maximizing food-service industry practices than it was a good feed. Though Mom’s wild mushroom and andouille potstickers were pretty good (if boldly overpriced at $12), the shrimp in my cocktail were flaccid and had been hanging around the kitchen for a while. Next, we both ordered the lobster roll, which arrived as two dainty little buns of barely dressed lobster, a smart way of tinkering with the bread to crustacean ratio. And we both had cones of cold fries, and then a large order of garlic Parmesan fries, entirely unnecessary, that the waiter charmed Mom into wanting. A middle-brow California Chardonnay at $12 a glass meant we clearly in hedge-fund territory, too, and the only half-decent moment of this meal was the nicely made pecan tart. Otherwise, yet another expensive and mediocre meal in southwestern Connecticut, a place I must visit regularly to see my family, so if anyone has any suggestions of truly good eats in Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, Bridgeport, etc., I’d be very grateful.

Continue reading…

Low Tide at La Cagouille; Gilles Choukroun in fine form at MBC

June 18, 2009

Sunday night in Paris for fish-lovers is always a challenge, since odds are that whatever you’ll be able to reel in won’t have seen the briney for at least four days. One place I’ve never hesitated to go for a seafood feast on Sunday, however, is La Cagouille, chef Gerard Allemandou’s restaurant in an unlovely modern urban redevelopment near the Gare Montparnasse. I’ve known and liked Allemandou’s minimalist seafood cooking for many years, and have always especially loved his moules bouchot (tiny mussels) cooked on a hot metal plaque. For a longtime, they’ve also offered good-value prix-fixe menus–26 Euros for a starter and a main course, or 42 for starter, main, dessert and wine–that led me to recommend it to visitors, too. But while doing the research for Hungry for Paris, I had two mediocre meals in a row here and it didn’t make the book. On a pretty summer Sunday night, though, a couple of fish-mad friends from “fish deprived” Kansas City wanted to eat outside on a quiet terrace, so I decided to give it another chance. Since the terrace is set back from the street and hidden behind planters of bamboo and rhododendrons, it’s a lovely setting for a meal, so I went off to Montparnasse with my fingers crossed. Things got off to a good start with a complimentary plate of steamed coques, or cockles, and the bread and butter was good, too. Unfortunately, the dishes that were available as part of the good-value prix-fixe appealed to none of us, so emboldened by an excellent bottle of Quincy for 29 Euros, we threw caution to the winds and went a la carte. Three of us started with chipirons (baby squid) with garlic, and the other one made an even worse error with a plate of dreadfully overcooked and overpriced asparagus. The “chipirons” were lukewarm, came as a stingy portion, and had an unpleasantly gummy, rubbery texture. Next, my cod steak with garlic cream sauce was pleasant, but the accompanying side dish of pureed celeri rave had clearly been microwaved. Because we were having a nice time–good company, good wine, a pleasant setting, no one had much to say about the food until we skipped dessert and went directly to the coffee. Then: “the salmon was very disappointing, over-cooked and without much flavor,” “the scallops were massacred by the Balsamic vinegar sauce,” and “one of the rougets was oddly mushy.” Overall grade: C-


Continue reading…

Nice in Nice, and a Redux at Rech in Paris

June 12, 2009

In Nice this summer, there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad is that talented young chef Jouni Tormanen has been mysteriously forced out of his job as head chef at La Reserve. For the moment, no one seems to know where Jouni has done or if he’s planning to open another restaurant locally, which is a shame, because he really is a terrific cook. The good news is that a constellation of small, excellent modern bistros are popping up all over the city. A perfect example is Millesime 82 (which is named for the year the chef was born). Stopping in for lunch on a recent Saturday, I liked this funky little dining room, its relaxed and friendly staff, excellent wine list (including several brilliant Corsican roses), and their smart idea of serving a choice of three main courses and a single dessert at noon. From the little chalkboard menu, we tried a generously served and beautifully dressed salad of tender octopus with chickpeas, tomatoes, fresh coriander, parsley and a light vinaigrette and an equally good artichoke risotto that was topped with slices of delicious steak cooked rare. The apple-banana crumble we shared for dessert was delicious, too, and the next time I’m town, I’ll definitely stop in for dinner, which has a full menu.

In Paris, it’s taken a longtime for Alain Ducasse, Inc., to get Rech, the snobbish seafood brasserie in the 17th right, but to their credit, it’s likely to become one of the best seafood restaurants in the world now that Jacques Maximin has been recruited to oversee the menu. Maximin, the 70s-80s wonder chef of the Riviera, is a hard-working, passionate cook with a deceptively brilliant aptitude for simplicity (his simplicity is the same as that of an Antwerp diamond cutter). What he knows how to do–and does with deep modesty–is extract all of the flavor out of every fin and frond he works with. He’s just getting started in Paris, but I’ve been dreaming about an exquisite salad I ate here the other night for over a week–mesclun, poached egg, radishes, a few Nicois olives, fruity green olive oil, and thin strips (goujonettes, if you will) of steamed sole with the most magnificent aioli (garlic mayonnaise) I’ve ever eaten. Next, perfectly cooked salmon with a sauce vierge (chopped tomato and frizzled basil in olive oil), then a magnificent hunk of camembert, and a drop-dead good pain perdu (‘French toast’ made with brioche) with weepingly perfect salted-caramel ice cream. I didn’t like this restaurant at all when it first became part of the Ducasse stable two years ago, but now, with Maximin, and the brilliant stewardship of maitre d’hotel Eric Mercier, it’s become one of my favorite tables.

Continue reading…

Smart Moves in the Silly Season: La Maison de l’Amerique Latine and La Cour Jardin

June 5, 2009

The allure of being in a secret garden makes many a Parisian less gastronomically exigent as summer arrives. Arriving on the white gravel terrace on the edge of the magnificent gardens that are hidden behind La Maison d’Amerique Latine in the Faubourg Saint Germain (7th arrondissement) the other night reminded me of how I’d first been seduced by Gallic elegance as a thirteen-year-old boy. The lush green lawn was perfectly mown and edged, unfurled like a carpet a few feet from our table, and rolled to the bottom of the garden where stone cherubim coyly peered from banks of rhododendron. On a summer night, the sky was pearled pink and almost irridescent behind a poplar tree that had been pollarded to resemble a vegetal version of one of the giant stone heads of Easter island. The delicious effect of this exquisite mis en scene was to be briefly transported beyond time and care, a wonderful escape that only became better as dusk fell and the garden more and more resembled a Magritte painting.

On the way to this beautiful bower, I mentioned to Devreaux, the friend who was joining me, that she shouldn’t be packing heightened gastronomic expectations. With any luck, the food would be fine, but the reason one craved a meal here was the setting. Our meal began inauspiciously with over-cooked snippets of foie gras as an unnecessary and unwanted amuse bouche, and then debuted with langoustines prepared three different ways for Devreaux and terrine de foie gras de canard for me. While my foie gras was good, the langoustines were sadly tasteless, especially as part of a 79 Euro meal. Next, I had delicious turbans of sole stuffed with a mushroom flecked fish mousse and Devreaux came up short again with a tough and curiously tastely veal filet. A surprisingly awful goat cheese from Quatrehommes followed, and dessert was truly forgettable. Still, we left the garden with dread and melancholy, since it had been a longtime that I’d enjoyed a meal so much.

Continue reading…

A Serious French Failure, and A Swiss Solution: Eating on the Go (or Surprisingly Sated in Slovenia)

May 27, 2009

During the last few months, I’ve been traveling all over France for various stories I’m working on, and so I’ve had a very intense in-the-trenches experience of what it’s like to eat-on-the-go in France today. I’m not talking about leisure travelers who have the time to track down a great bistro off of the autoroute and make time for a good meal, but someone who is doing busy, time-short business travel in the country that has long claimed to have the world’s best food.

I actually think it still does, with the woefully glaring exception of eating-in-transit situations. French food in airports, on trains and in highway rest-stops is just plain awful, and rather than waste billions of Euros vainly promoting the French language around the globe annually through the Alliance Francaise (do that many people in Katmandu really want to learn French, or does it appeal to Caviar Gauche sensiblities to have an AF there), I’d like to suggest that France launch a NASA style initiative to reinvent mass catering, i.e. fast food. The fact that it was recently announced that McDonald’s is soon to pick up another cluster of franchises in French highway rest stops speaks volumes. That said, I agree with chef Thierry Marx, who recently told me, “You can’t kick McDonald’s–they are only answering a need.” Indeed, but let’s have a French response instead.

Continue reading…

Chamarre: Fabulous Fusion in Montmartre, B+

May 22, 2009

Since I always enjoyed Chamarre when it was rather incongruously located in the 7th arrondissement–the warmth and sensuality of the cooking always seemed rather at odds with the uber bourgeois fastness of the Avenue Lowendahl, I was delighted when exceptionally talented chef Antoine Heerah reopened his restaurant in Montmartre in the premises formerly occupied by Beauvilliers. Heerah, a generous, jovial Mauritian of Indian descent, practices one of the most guileless, intelligent and original fusion cuisines currently available in Paris. What he’s basically done is deconstruct all of the disparate elements of the Mauritian kitchen–French, English, Portuguese, Chinese, African and most of all Indian, and then put them back together again using his considerable technical skills as a classically trained French chef.

Though it’s a favorite Indian Ocean getaway destination for the French, Mauritius is little-known to non-Europeans. Originally colonized by the Dutch, the fertile green island was traded back and forth between France and Britain several times before becoming a important coaling station for the British Empire. For much of its history, its most important crop was sugar cane, and the need for field hands explains the country’s ethnic diversity. When slavery was abolished, indentured Indians were brought in to harvest the cane on the large plantations owned by a small elite of mostly French ancestry. The Chinese arrived as shop keepers, enriching a population that was also spiced with a smattering of AWOL sailors from American whaling ships and British naval vessels and later, South Africans and Portuguese fleeing the civil wars of that country’s former African colonies. Tidy, literate and strikingly beautiful, Mauritius today is prosperous, pleasant, French-speaking place that lives off of tourism since the sugar plantations became economically no longer viable. (Should you go, by the way, don’t miss the spectacular Bauhaus tea-processing factory that was designed by a Berlin architect who was among a shipload of Jewish exiles that Mauritius accepted over British objections and housed and fed during World War II).

Continue reading…