Paris a la Mode: Relais Plaza and Le Cristal Room

March 26, 2009

For me, one of the most endearing qualities of the French is their willingness to be contrarian. This same trait has infuriated successive American governments, and is often used by crack-pot Stateside radio commentators to whip up anti-French feeling, but I think it’s very useful. France is often the only country that doesn’t bleatingly go along with American wishes, and this tendency to ride the brake is useful, because it allows for some reflection. Further, the only way to be sure that you’re right is to listen carefully and seriously to an opposing point of view.

Sometimes this contrarian pose is just cantankerousness for pleasure of being contrary, however, which is what I’ve witnessed in Paris during the last week or so as several usually very reliable French food critics have not only rallied to the defense of the new Costes brothers restaurant La Societe in Saint Germain des Pres, but claim they actually like it. Maybe they do, but from the perch of someone who not only passionately loves good food but also has a huge respect for the back-breaking work of running a small independent restaurant, I’d only say that it couldn’t be for the food. Let’s be clear. The Costes brothers run a chain of some two dozen fashion driven restaurants with identikit menus that have made it acceptable to go to a restaurant for reasons that have nothing to do with eating good food. Instead you go to Costes restaurants because Paris nightlife is so wilted and because you like to eat in pretty surroundings served by pretty people. You also go to Costes restaurants as an act of conspicuous consumption, because they’re expensive relative to the quality and effort involved in creating what they serve. You go to Costes restaurants because you’re more interested in “fashion” than you are in food. But you don’t go to to them to have a good or interesting meal.

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Two Hits and a Miss: Cafe Cartouche, Shan Gout and La Societe

March 20, 2009

Allow me to get La Societe out of the way so that I can get on to two new places that are really worth your reading time. As anyone who has read HUNGRY FOR PARIS will know, I take a very dim view of the impact that the two dozen or so restaurants of the Freres Costes have had on the Paris dining landscape. To wit, they serve an almost identical menu of easily assembled dishes that require very little actual cooking, and unfortunately they’ve succeeded in seducing a big tranche of affluent young and older Parisians (who regret that they’re no longer young by aping the tastes and habits of youth) who care more about decor and seeing and being scene than they do good food. To each their own, you might say, except that the success of the Costes has spawned a wilting number of imitators, and this mass of restaurants where you don’t really go to eat competes with restaurants where the chef cooks his or her heart out everyday.

I went to La Societe, the new Costes place on the Place Saint Germain, out of a certain morbid curiosity, but also because I admire the talent of interior designer Christian Liagre, who created a wonderfully louche Asia-in-the-thirties look for this place, and, rather wistfully, because I was quietly attending yet another memorial service for the Left Bank as I once knew it. Suffice to say that with the exception of the Eglise de Saint Germain des Pres and the Cafe Bonaparte, this whole vital crossroads of what was once one of the world’s great brain trusts has now been given over to conspicuous consumption. Armani got the ball rolling when he bought out Le Drugstore, a giant Ralph Lauren boutique is looming, and now with La Societe, food as conspicuous consumption arrives on the scene. I personally don’t see any reason to pay 14 Euros for an avocado vinaigrette, but perhaps you do?

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Endangered in Paris Restaurants: Cooking

March 14, 2009

I’ve been watching an alarming trend gain momentum in Paris for some years now: there’s less and less real cooking going on in Paris restaurants. Too many of them do what I call “cuisine d’assemblage,” or dishes that are a question of a little slicing (charcuterie) and washing (salad), than real cooking. If was of course the Costes brothers who pioneered this technique–same menu in two dozen restaurants, with things like a glass of carrot-ginger juice as an appetizer, salade d’haricots verts, etc. It’s easy to see the appeal of this approach–it keeps costs down, but what it amounts to is a hollowing out of the real and wonderful work of actually cooking.

A more recent take on this phenomenon are a raft of a new restaurants that serve pedigreed produce–Gillardeau oysters, Basque and Spanish charcuterie, etc., most of which is either organic and/or comes from sustainable sources. A good example is the much lauded new Glou, a good looking storefront space in the northern Marais just across the street from the Musee Picasso. It was opened a few months ago by Julien Fouin, the founding editor of the  French food magazine Regal. Fouin, a nice guy, is at the epicenter of the young French food world, so his place has been the object of his praise in a variety of different Paris magazines and papers. What most of them have been focusing on, however, isn’t the food, but an Italian machine that allows them to pour great wine by the glass while preserving the rest of the bottle.

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L’Entetee and Georges: A Tale of Two Cities

March 7, 2009

This week I’m blogging on Paris restaurants for the NY Times “T Style” section. My first post was on how I find mid-range dining to be vastly better in Paris than in New York. Dinner in Paris last night and tonight underlined, however, that the Paris scene is still pre- and post-recession. Let me explain.

Last night I went to dinner at Georges, the Costes brothers restaurant on top of the Centre Pompidou with a good friend. I hadn’t been in ages, since it’s not the type of Paris restaurant I enjoy. To wit, my priority is always good food, and charming service and a cosy setting help, too. Anyway, up the escalators to Georges we road, and while I was impressed all over again by the stunning view from the top of the museum, and also noted that the service was more attentive and friendlier than it had been in a longtime, I was stunned by the menu and the prices. Good grief! The menu had hardly changed a jot since the last time I was here, maybe four years ago, but the prices remain stratospheric. Decent though it was, my “Terrine luxe de confit de canard” wasn’t worth 20 Euros by a long stretch–the luxe being two tiny bits of foie gras in a middling portion of duck terrine. Judy’s Nems (deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls) were decent enough, but again, not for 16 Euros! Next, I had a Costes classic, an “Aller-Retour,” chopped steak with a log-cabin of fries and a small salad of herbs. To be fair, it was good–perfectly cooked, delicious meat, excellent fries, but for 28 Euros?!? More egregious was Judy’s “Paillard de Poulet Dore Minute, Sauce Curry et Chutney”–a slender piece of chicken with two ink pots of sauce for a whopping 26 Euros. Much as we enjoyed the view, and a very good Saint Joseph, there’s absolutely no way either of us would set fooot in this place again unless we won the lottery.

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Chez Georgette–My Local Canteen, B-

February 28, 2009

Not surprisingly, people often ask where I go for a good, quick, affordable last minute meal in my own neighborhood, which is the 9th arrondissement in the heart of Paris. I have many local favorites, but the one place that never lets me down is Chez Georgette, a brightly lit little bistro in the rue Saint Georges. Consider that during the last couple of months, I’ve probably eaten here a dozen times, and under quite different circumstances. Last night, I went as part of a band of six–Bruno, two friends visiting from New York and the French couple they’re staying with.

The gang gathered chez nous first for Champagne and nibbles (Auvergnat sausage, caperberries, and a Spanish mixture of deep fried corn kernels and lima beans combined with raisins, peanuts, almonds and hazelnuts). On a Friday night, the gang arrived late, derailing a reservation I’d made elsewhere, so I quickly plucked up the phone and booked us at Chez Georgette at 9.30pm.

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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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