“Jamin,” an Eighties flashback: C+; and L’Avant Comptoir, A-

November 15, 2009

Grilled-cepes-2Grilled cepe at L’Avant ComptoirSo “Jamin” is back, sort of. Or actually it’s not. Instead, restaurateur Alain Pras has chosen to revive the name of the restaurant that propelled Joel Robuchon to international renown when he won his third Michelin star in 1984 and which went dormant when a short-lived Caribbean restaurant (La Table de Babette) occupied the space for a few years, but relaunch it in the ilk of the Guy Savoy bistros where he worked for many years (La Butte Chaillot, etc.).

Though the new Jamin occupies the same space at the same address in the 16th arrondissement as Robuchon’s place, this maneuver struck me as a rather cynical and manipulative before I went off to dine here the other night. It’s just such as obvious attempt to glean some of the lingering magic of a restaurant brand name that still elicits a glimmer of recognition everywhere from Tokyo to Topeka.

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L’Huitrerie Regis: Calling all Oyster Lovers, B+

November 8, 2009

After morning of tedious errands and weekend traffic on Saturday, Bruno and I were hungry and in the mood for a treat, so we entertained a variety of different possibilities for lunch–a steak tartare and a glass of Morgon vieille vignes at the cafe Le Nemrod in the rue Saint Placide, maybe a bowl of Pho with Nems (deep-fried Spring rolls) at Noodle No. 1 in the rue Saint Anne in the 2nd, perhaps a pizza…but nothing really hit the spot until we happened to get stuck parking in the garage under the tragic Marche Saint Germain in Saint Germain des Pres (I say tragic, because this soulless shopping mall a la americaine could and should have been renovated into one of the greatest food markets in Paris; as it is, they’re just a couple of food shops in one corner of the place, but they hardly compensate for the color, animation and good times available at a really great city market like the Mercat Santa Catarina in Barcelona). On the way into the market, we passed L’Huitrerie Regis, and I suggested oysters.

Five minutes later, we were happily settled in this vest pocket dining room with white-washed walls, a small serving bar, and seven tables set with white table cloths and pretty blue serving plates drinking an excellent Sancerre and nibbling a saucer of saucisson sec while waiting for the amiable oyster shucker to prepare our feast, two dozen Speciales de Claire Garnier No. 3 from the Marennes d’Oleron on France’s Atlantic coast. Served with good bread and Echire butter, these plump bivalves had a sublime taste of the sea and lightly roasted hazelnuts. I wondered if a dozen apiece might be a bit too gourmand, but we scarfed them down in a haze of pleasure–the elegant older man with the beautiful camel’s hair coat at the table next to us felt compelled to tell us that it had been a longtime since he’d watching other people eat as much as he had while observing us, punctuated only by sips of that excellent Sancerre, the ideal recipe for a perfect Saturday lunch.

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A Bona Fide Bistro and A Promising Newcomer: La Cave Beauvau, A-; La Fouchette du Printemps, B+

November 1, 2009

Staring out at the fog shrouding the runways in Zurich airport, I just realized that I’d been daydreaming about the dinner that I had last night at La Cave Beavau for the last twenty minutes. Why? It was a meal that nourished me in all senses of the word, and it also touched the pithe of what I most love about not only Paris, but also French food.

And to think I’d probably walked by this place in the rue des Saussies just across the street from Chez Sarko, or the Elysees Palace, dozens of times during the twenty years I’ve lived in Paris without giving it a second thought. On the other hand, Stephane Delleré, one of the greatest bistro keepers in the city, has only been the owner for a few months. Delleré, whom I admire to no end, previously ran Le Gavroche, which he still owns, and Le Duc de Richelieu near the Gare de Lyon, which he’s sold, and originally from La Sarthe, he’s worked in almost every type of restaurant job you can imagine, which is one major reason why his places are always so heart-warmingly good. The other, of course, is that he insists on serving only the very best of everything—his beef comes from La Bourcherie Premiere, he buys his wines from flock of independent vigneron friends, and everything else aside from the cheese is homemade. As crucial as Delleré experience and commitment to quality maybe, however, the real reason his restaurants are so remarkable is that he has a real vocation for making other people happy.

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HAND–Another Mediocre American Place in Paris, C

October 22, 2009

Get ready to wince–the latest dispiriting French take on American eating in Paris is called HAND, as in Have A Nice Day. Oh help! During the twenty plus years I’ve lived in Paris, the city’s popular idea of American food hasn’t evolved one wit. It’s still burgers, and burgers, and burgers, and Caesar salads, and brownies, and bagels, and Tex-Mex, and enough already! This stereotypical fat-fest is not only indigestible but just so totally wrong, as anyone who has eaten around America recently can tell you. From truly wonderful and very original little restaurants like Aldea in New York City to the terrific new wave of oyster houses in the South End of Boston, to say nothing of the gastro Renaissance of New Orleans and the endlessly appetizing food scenes of Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami and a dozen other major U.S. cities, America has never eaten so well.

So why the stodge fest in this great-looking little place with cobalt blue walls, industrial lighting, and the scuffed up wooden floors that are meant to recall, um, er, Soho? I went for Saturday lunch with one of many French friends who claim to love American food. She wanted a Caesar salad, a dish I could never imagine ordering in a restaurant, and what came to the table was something that might have been created by a drunk at a motel salad bar–chopped iceberg lettuce, oddly uniform chunks of lukewarm chicken breast, and a hair-pomade consistency dressing that had no taste at all.

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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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