The Pizza Problem in Paris

February 20, 2009

Though it’s been a good twenty-five years now, I am still recovering from the shock I experienced during the course of a meal at Pizza Pino on the Champs Elysees. Why, you’re surely wondering, would anyone eat pizza in Paris? Well it was a rainy Sunday night in August, and Mom and Dad, with the four of us in tow, decided to take the low road and head for the pizzeria just around the corner from our hotel in the rue Marignan. We’d eaten in bistros for the previous five nights, and with the rain and the effort of trying to find anything French open on a Sunday in August, the siren sound of the local pizzeria was heard and answered.

What ensued was an experience of communal familial hilarity that was never to be repeated. I mean after all, coming from Connecticut, we know our pizza, and so the menu at Pizza Pino was so utterly demented that we had trouble keeping a straight face when the waiter came to take our order. It was tough, in fact, to decide which was the weirdest pizza on this menu. Maybe the Pizza Hawaiian with PINEAPPLE slices!? Or the one with the fried eggs! Or a topping of salad!!! Clearly, we decided, the French didn’t get pizza at all.

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Le Meating–Say What? A Gallic Steakhouse

February 14, 2009

Le Meating certainly won’t work for everyone, but if you’ know Paris well and are enough of an intrepid gastro-sociologist to sacrifice a slamp-dunk good meal for one that’s oddly interesting, you might enjoy this very popular steakhouse in the 17th not far from La Porte Maillot. Since Americans have been doing their own riffs on various bandwidths of the French restaurant spectrum for years, it’s actually sort of fun to see what the French get up to when they decide to have a crack at one of our emblematic tables, the steakhouse.

Before diving in on an account of my recent dinner here, I’d pause to note that a broad spectrum of Parisians truly love this place. Show biz types, Mohammed Qaddafi’s daughter (seriously, she was sitting at the table next to us), pairs of yuppie ladies on a let’s-splurge night out, and the 17th arrondissement in all of its curious splendor–nouveau riche, ancienne regime riche, etc. packed out this place with a low-lit lounge-bar decor of patterned carpet and flower-motif appliques on the walls.

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The Modern Problem in Paris

February 6, 2009

A suite of disappointing meals during the last few weeks have had me wondering why Paris has such a hard time being modern. To be sure, they’re brilliant contemporary chefs in Paris, including Inaki Aizpitarte at Le Chateaubriand, Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance, William Ledeuil at Ze Kitchen Galerie, and Christophe Pele at La Bigarrade, but these are are restaurants d’artistes, or one-man shows that exhibit a specific (often brilliant) personal culinary sensibility.

What Paris sorely lacks, however, is someone like New York City’s Danny Meyer, a spectacularly gifted restaurant entrepreneur who has an almost Freudian aptitude for understanding what New Yorkers want to eat. From Blue Smoke (barbecue for city slickers) to the Burger Shack (terrific burgers in Madison Square Park) to the Gramercy Tavern and the always popular Union Square Cafe, Meyer always gets it right, and has coined a whole new service idiom of intelligent, informed, enthusiastic servers who function as the managers of your meal. I suppose the closest Paris comes to a serially successful restauranteur are the Costes Brothers, but I find their formula–dumbed down menus, attitude, decor uber cuisine–so wilting that I can’t really even consider them in the same breathe.

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January 23, 2009

As the economic storm clouds continue to gather all around the world, many restaurateurs are battening down the hatches for a very difficult year in 2009 by abbreviating their menus and serving hours and shifting to cheaper ingredients in places where they might be less noticed. Others, however, are rising to the challenge of a newly pecunious public with good-value prix-fixe all-included menus.

An excellent example of this accelerating trend is the 85 Euro menu (65 Euros without drinks) menu now being served at La Grande Cascade, the elegant Napoleon III pavilion in the Bois de Boulogne. Best-known for its lovely terrace during good weather, La Grande Cascade is also a delightful winter destination. Arriving for dinner the other night, a fire crackled on the hearth in the main dining room, an elegant salon with old-fashioned Brussels carpets, crystal chandeliers, and heavy silverware with a pretty Belle Epoque floral motif. Waiters in black waist coats conducted themselves like guests at a ball–formal but galant and charming, and chef Frederic Robert, ex-Lucas-Carton from the days when it was still Lucas Carton, cooks brilliant contemporary French dishes with a ballast of classical haute cuisine.

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January 16, 2009

THUMBS UP: There’s something almost poignant about the number of foreigners who stalk the streets of Saint Germain looking for the type of bistro they first saw in “Funny Face” (Audrey Hepburn as an ingenue in Saint Germain when it was still bohemian). You know, a cosy little spot that smells delicious when you open the front door and where the wry owner seats you at a table with a checked table cloth and pours a complimentary glass of white wine. A place where you then feast on such Gallic dishes of anthology as boeuf bourguignon, blanquette de veau, coq au vin, etc. Unfortunately, however, it’s now easier to find a plate of spaghetti in Saint Germain than it is a good, decent French meal. Why? The locals, professional types who watch their waistlines and their wallets, don’t do restaurants per se during the week. Instead, they’ll stop somewhere for a plate of smoked salmon and a glass of white wine, some pasta and a bit of rouge, etc. High rents and heavy tourist foot traffic further explain this conundrum–what many restaurant owners want is turn over in front and easily assembled dishes in the kitchen. And so many of the neighborhood’s bistros have become clothing stores or Italian places, which is why I treasure L’Epigramme even more.

Just steps from the Odeon, I’ve had one excellent meal after another in this tiny little place with exposed stone walls and an amiable host in Stephane Marcuzzi, who previously worked in several Guy Savoy bistros. After stints at Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse and the Hotel de Crillon, young chef Aymeric Kraml has really come into his own with an excellent and reasonably priced chalkboard menu that runs to clever dishes like potato soup with vieux Comte cheese, pig’s feet croquette on a bed of lentils with red peppers, braised duck with sauerkraut and pollack with a fennel bulb compote. If the kitchen suffers from an occasional imprecision, one is more than forgiving for a prix-fixe menu of 28 Euros, especially when the overall quality of the cooking is so good.

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Goumard–A Good Address for Hard Times

January 8, 2009

After reading The Economist’s terrifying article on the state of the world’s oceans (dire, of course, but even more so than I’d thought), plus following the latest tragedy in the Middle East and experiencing another one when I opened my latest bank statement, I’ve been feeling very humble at the outset of this new year. To wit, with the world so roiled, a preoccupation with good food might be interpreted as escapist at best, delusional at worst.

On the other hand, lunch with a delightful couple from Baltimore on this icy winter day in Paris reminded me that even in the darkest of times, we still need not only sustenance but the pleasure of good wine, great food and nourishing conversation. And this I found in abundance at Gourmard, a venerable fish house in the rue Duphot in the heart of Paris. I’ve known this place almost ever since I arrived in Paris,  as I was often invited to lunch here by fashion designers during my improbable stint as an editor at a fashion-driven American press group Fairchild, then located around the corner in the rue Cambon. I think it may have even been Patrick Lavoix, a very elegant man who was the men’s wear designer for Lanvin, who very patiently and non-chalantly showed me how to deal with a whole fish (sole meuniere, if memory serves) at the table in a quiet corner of the now radically transformed (into an oyster bar/eat-on-the-go space) ground floor dining room (the main one is upstairs).

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