Great Food in the Marais

September 19, 2008

The Marais, the 4th arrondissement and part of the 3rd, has always been one of my favorite parts of Paris. I think the Place des Vosges is the perfect urban square a la francaise, I love the neighborhood’s architecture, and, most of all its diversity. The Marais was the original Jewish quarter in Paris, later became the center of Gay life in the city, and today is a deliciously overlapping mix of smart, tolerant, liberal-minded people who love to read (they’re lots of good book stores) and talk (great cafes abound).

Curiously, though, this part of the city has always been sort of a letdown for anyone who loves good food. To be sure, there’s the wonderful L’As du Falafel (world’s best as far as I’m concerned) in the rue de Rosiers, and a few other decent spots, like Chez Omar in the rue de Bretagne, but over-all, it’s never been a great food neighborhood.

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Why Not a New Market in Les Halles?

September 19, 2008

On a beautiful sunny Monday morning in Florence, the San Ambrogio market was humming with hungry Florentines, and what an astonishing array of beautiful things were on display to tempt them–late (very!) season asparagus from Campania, porcini mushrooms the size of saucers, elaborate bouquets of red peppers to cheer a winter kitchen, chicken breasts stuffed with proscuitto, fontina and artichoke hearts (neatly tied with fine white string and garnished with a single sage leaf). I got up early to make a run here before I was heading back to Paris, and bought so much food that I ended up having to jam a lot of it into my computer bag, which created a slightly surreal scene at security at Florence airport (“Aspetta!! You’re flying sausages back to Paris?!?!?” said the security guard who looked at me like I’d totally lost my mind). Yes, I was flying sausages back to Paris, along with Parmesan, olive oil, porcinis, a bouquet of peppers, a big hunk of proscuitto, a bag of tiny puntarelle, and a variety of other treasures. This is one of my favorite markets in all of Europe, and after making my haul, I sat in a nearby park and enjoyed a hot tripe sandwich from a nearby vendor before I headed back to the airport.

This was my second such market run in a week. I’d recently been in Budapest where the center market has been beautifully renovated, and there, too, I bought all sorts of treats to enjoy at home–3 summer truffles for 8 Euros, a long salami, several bottles of Tokai wine, some smoked cheese, etc.

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Good New Bistro, and a Very Bad Idea

September 12, 2008

Browsing through LE FIGARO’s Sunday supplement, LE FIGARO Magazine, France’s pretty miserable excuse for a good Sunday read, I came across a back-and-forth moderated interview with Pierre Gagnaire, chef extraordinaire, and Catherine Dumas, a Paris politican, on the subject of the French application to have the country’s food classed as part of mankind’s patrimony by UNESCO. 

Suffice to say that I think this is an absurd idea from many points of view. How can anything as vital and alive as cooking be classed as part of human heritage? What French cooking does Mme. Dumas have in mind–farmhouse cooking, Escoffier cooking, bistro cooking, Corsican cooking? It’s a ludicrous and chauvinistic feint that needs to be stopped in its tracks before the UNESCO label becomes any more debased–how, for example, could the UNESCO list of world heritage sites equally value Angor Wat and downtown Le Havre!?!?

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A Bona Fide Bistro du Quartier

August 29, 2008

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Ever since I moved to the rue Saint Lazare a year ago, I’ve been happily discovering the wonderful vie de quartier along this narrow, pretty street, which is lined by some very beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings. (N.B. The rue Saint Lazare I’m referring to runs from the rue Notre Dame de Lorette to the Place Estiennes d’Orves, and has nothing to do with the broad, traffic chocked artery of the same name that constitutes the other half of the street). Not only are there several excellent bookstores along this ancient road, along with a couple of superb antique shops and one of the oldest and most distinguished parfumers in Paris, Detaille at No.10, but it also has a wonderful assortment of cheap, low-key neighborhood restaurants, my favorite of which is Aux Sources.

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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

August 25, 2008

After two weeks in Bali and Singapore, it was time for a truly French feed tonight. With much of the city still in slow motion as the vacation season winds down, my choices weren’t as rich as they usually are, so summertime oblige, we decided to combine a major grocery run to the Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marche with a casual dinner at the Cafe Nemrod, one of my favorite cafes.

When I lived in the rue du Bac, Le Nemrod was my local canteen. Why? The Auvergnat family that ran it for years was hugely proud of the quality of the food and wine they served, prices are easy, and it pulls a terrific crowd. This is why I was wary when the rosy-cheeked Auvergnats were bought out by a competitor who has made a career in taking Left Bank cafes upmarket (i.e. trendier decor and higher prices, with the sop of brand-name produce on the menu).

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Summertime Rants and Raves

August 6, 2008

During the salad days of August, I run into a lot of olive oil and a lot of vinegar (at home, I make vinaigrette with fresh lemon juice, but few restaurants do–vinegar is cheaper and faster), and so I’ve been thinking a lot about both. Olive oil is one of my favorite food stuffs and something that I collect during my travels–at any given moment, I have a dozen or so different varieties of oil in the kitchen. The three best oils I’ve found this year are the extra virgin Lagune Malinovo Ulje from Istria in Croatia, Stonehouse California extra virgin house blend, which is almost as good as the French Jean Marie Corneille oil from Mausanne in Les Alpilles, and a wonderful oil from Montpellier, La Violette de Montpellier, which is made by the Domaine de l’Oulivie. For summer salads, I like a slightly fruity, green oil, and unfortunately, this is something that rarely turns up in Paris restaurants or cafes. Cafes are the most problematic, since many of them fill their cruets with pomace, which is an essentially industrial grade olive oil.

Vinegar, of course, is another subject altogether. Ordering a salad in any better Paris restaurant, I always tell them NOT to dress it with balsamic vinegar, which is a food stuff that I wish would return to its original status as a rare condiment. I hate balsamic vinegar on salads, because most of what’s used is medium grade and so strong that it masks the taste of the greens, tomatoes and other ingredients. If I could, in fact, I’d banish it from Paris kitchens altogether. Squirt bottle zebra stripes on any restaurant plate serve as an immediate stop sign to me.

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