THUMBS UP AND DOWN: L’EPIGRAMME AND COMMERC 7

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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An American Road Trip – CT, MA and Long Island

January 1, 2009

A trip to Connecticut proves that one of the more puzzling mysteries of my increasingly distant childhood in Fairfield County remains unsolved. To wit, with a handful of exceptions, how is it possible that a constellation of some of the richest suburbs in the United States is still unable to generate a restaurant culture that’s on par with that of nearby New York City? Instead, the standard-issue offer in these gilded precincts runs to mediocre Italian places, third-string ethnic restaurants, and fly-in-amber steakhouses like Bennett’s in Stamford.

Until recently, Bennett’s was such an old-fashioned place that I actually sort of enjoyed the occasional meal here as a form of gastronomic time travel. It reminded me of the two Manero’s steakhouses in Westport and Greenwich where my maternal grandmother would take us for a birthday dinner of shrimp cocktail, steak, onion rings and cheesecake. Bennett’s had actually improved on this boilerplate, however, by offering Niman Ranch (organic) meat, a much-better-than-average wine list and a terrific standing-order good-buy on boiled lobsters. A recent meal, alas, revealed that an ownership change had ruined this anthropological relic of a place. Stuffed mushroom caps were a stodgy mess, clams on the half-shell were the size of my thumb nail, and all of the side orders (onion rings, hash-browns, creamed spinach and sauteed mushrooms) that came with our steaks had a decidedly industrial taste. Further, the Niman ranch meat had disappeared, service was terrible (our appetizers arrived before our wine, our main courses were tepid, and then there was an interminable wait before the table was cleared), and the food exhibited sorry signs of food-service-industry short-cuts. 

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Manhattan Musings

December 24, 2008

One of the most consistently important and interesting parts of my work as someone who avidly loves good food as much as I love writing about it is keeping track of what’s up in the world’s other major food cities. This is why I always look forward to a trip to New York, a city where I lived for nine years and a place I deeply love and enjoy. Having been here a week, however, I have to say that a scattershot sampling of various new and old New York restaurants has made me profoundly grateful to live in Paris. Why? For $35 or so, you still eat vastly better in Paris than you do in New York. 

My first meal in Manhattan was with Steven, a dear book-editor friend, at Grano on Greenwich Avenue. Though the Latin American waiter pretending to be Italian was a nice guy, the only memorable aspect of this meal were Steven’s carciofi alla Romana, or Roman style artichokes. Leaving to one side the fact that artichokes are completely out of season and that alla Romana in Rome means griddled between two heavy plaques of metal, this was a tasty little saute. My mozzarella with red peppers and cherry tomatoes came as a mingy serving, and my “macaroni” with tiny meatballs and cherry tomatoes was desperately disappointing for the fact that the pasta had so obviously been par-boiled or otherwise pre-cooked. With a single cheap bottle of mediocre Italian red wine, we both left the table here with a $60 hole in our pockets, which is absurd.

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SPOON: Great Modern French

December 16, 2008

The 10th anniversary of Spoon, Alain Ducasse’s world food restaurant just off the Champs Elysees, offers an intriguing year-end opportunity to muse on how much eating in Paris has changed over the course of a decade.

  When Spoon first opened, it was an almost seditious challenge to Parisians to wake up to the rest of the world’s cooking, and discover some of the foreign flavors and dishes that had seduced the globe-trotting Monsieur Ducasse. It was pretty bold gambit at the time, too, since you never saw food served in bamboo steamers in Paris restaurants in those days, and the wine list was–shock, horror–almost entirely Californian. 

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JADIS: A Superb New Bistro, B+

December 12, 2008

  As anyone who lives in or regularly visits Paris now knows, the best food in the city is most often now found in outlying neighborhoods that are long Metro ride away. Happily, the Paris Metro system is fast, inexpensive and safe, which means that there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to miss Jadis, which is one of the best new bistros to have opened in a very longtime.

  Occupying an attractively renovated corner-cafe space in a quiet residential neighborhoood near the Porte de Versailles convention center–this explains the odd crowd of food-loving local hipsters mixing it up with the execs in suits, this burgundy-and-gunmetal gray spot is the new perch of young chef Guillaume Delage, a major new talent with a very impressive resume. Delage was mostly recently at Pierre Gagnaire’s Gaya fish house on the Left Bank, and has also cooked at Michel Bras and Le Pré Catalan.

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