Smart Moves in the Silly Season: La Maison de l’Amerique Latine and La Cour Jardin

June 5, 2009

The allure of being in a secret garden makes many a Parisian less gastronomically exigent as summer arrives. Arriving on the white gravel terrace on the edge of the magnificent gardens that are hidden behind La Maison d’Amerique Latine in the Faubourg Saint Germain (7th arrondissement) the other night reminded me of how I’d first been seduced by Gallic elegance as a thirteen-year-old boy. The lush green lawn was perfectly mown and edged, unfurled like a carpet a few feet from our table, and rolled to the bottom of the garden where stone cherubim coyly peered from banks of rhododendron. On a summer night, the sky was pearled pink and almost irridescent behind a poplar tree that had been pollarded to resemble a vegetal version of one of the giant stone heads of Easter island. The delicious effect of this exquisite mis en scene was to be briefly transported beyond time and care, a wonderful escape that only became better as dusk fell and the garden more and more resembled a Magritte painting.

On the way to this beautiful bower, I mentioned to Devreaux, the friend who was joining me, that she shouldn’t be packing heightened gastronomic expectations. With any luck, the food would be fine, but the reason one craved a meal here was the setting. Our meal began inauspiciously with over-cooked snippets of foie gras as an unnecessary and unwanted amuse bouche, and then debuted with langoustines prepared three different ways for Devreaux and terrine de foie gras de canard for me. While my foie gras was good, the langoustines were sadly tasteless, especially as part of a 79 Euro meal. Next, I had delicious turbans of sole stuffed with a mushroom flecked fish mousse and Devreaux came up short again with a tough and curiously tastely veal filet. A surprisingly awful goat cheese from Quatrehommes followed, and dessert was truly forgettable. Still, we left the garden with dread and melancholy, since it had been a longtime that I’d enjoyed a meal so much.

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A Serious French Failure, and A Swiss Solution: Eating on the Go (or Surprisingly Sated in Slovenia)

May 27, 2009

During the last few months, I’ve been traveling all over France for various stories I’m working on, and so I’ve had a very intense in-the-trenches experience of what it’s like to eat-on-the-go in France today. I’m not talking about leisure travelers who have the time to track down a great bistro off of the autoroute and make time for a good meal, but someone who is doing busy, time-short business travel in the country that has long claimed to have the world’s best food.

I actually think it still does, with the woefully glaring exception of eating-in-transit situations. French food in airports, on trains and in highway rest-stops is just plain awful, and rather than waste billions of Euros vainly promoting the French language around the globe annually through the Alliance Francaise (do that many people in Katmandu really want to learn French, or does it appeal to Caviar Gauche sensiblities to have an AF there), I’d like to suggest that France launch a NASA style initiative to reinvent mass catering, i.e. fast food. The fact that it was recently announced that McDonald’s is soon to pick up another cluster of franchises in French highway rest stops speaks volumes. That said, I agree with chef Thierry Marx, who recently told me, “You can’t kick McDonald’s–they are only answering a need.” Indeed, but let’s have a French response instead.

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Chamarre: Fabulous Fusion in Montmartre, B+

May 22, 2009

Since I always enjoyed Chamarre when it was rather incongruously located in the 7th arrondissement–the warmth and sensuality of the cooking always seemed rather at odds with the uber bourgeois fastness of the Avenue Lowendahl, I was delighted when exceptionally talented chef Antoine Heerah reopened his restaurant in Montmartre in the premises formerly occupied by Beauvilliers. Heerah, a generous, jovial Mauritian of Indian descent, practices one of the most guileless, intelligent and original fusion cuisines currently available in Paris. What he’s basically done is deconstruct all of the disparate elements of the Mauritian kitchen–French, English, Portuguese, Chinese, African and most of all Indian, and then put them back together again using his considerable technical skills as a classically trained French chef.

Though it’s a favorite Indian Ocean getaway destination for the French, Mauritius is little-known to non-Europeans. Originally colonized by the Dutch, the fertile green island was traded back and forth between France and Britain several times before becoming a important coaling station for the British Empire. For much of its history, its most important crop was sugar cane, and the need for field hands explains the country’s ethnic diversity. When slavery was abolished, indentured Indians were brought in to harvest the cane on the large plantations owned by a small elite of mostly French ancestry. The Chinese arrived as shop keepers, enriching a population that was also spiced with a smattering of AWOL sailors from American whaling ships and British naval vessels and later, South Africans and Portuguese fleeing the civil wars of that country’s former African colonies. Tidy, literate and strikingly beautiful, Mauritius today is prosperous, pleasant, French-speaking place that lives off of tourism since the sugar plantations became economically no longer viable. (Should you go, by the way, don’t miss the spectacular Bauhaus tea-processing factory that was designed by a Berlin architect who was among a shipload of Jewish exiles that Mauritius accepted over British objections and housed and fed during World War II).

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Frenchie: A Terrific Modern Bistro, A-

May 16, 2009

Though the name, Frenchie, is cloying without being cute and also perpetuates some much loved but completely daft idea the French have that English speakers refer to them as Frenchies, this vest-pocket bistro in the Sentier, or old Paris garment district, is a delightful spot with really excellent food. Gregory Marchand, the Nantes born chef-owner, works in a tiny kitchen in the back of a exposed stone and red-brick dining room that could easily be found in Nolita (NYC) or Shoreditch (London), and the vibe is similarly Anglo-American, which makes sense, because Greg mostly recently did a stint at Danny Meyer’s sublime Gramercy Tavern and worked at Jamie Oliver’s 15 before that.

The short market menu offers two starters, two mains, a cheese plate and two desserts, and it changes often, which is a good thing, since this place has already acquired a dedicated crowd of young regulars. Waiting for Nadine to arrive, I drank a glass of very good Bossard Muscadet and studied the wine list, which is impressive, including Pic Saint Loup de Mas Foulaquier, a lovely Spanish Rueda, several outstanding cotes du Rhone.

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Living the Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz; a brilliant Japanese table and a Left Bank letdown

May 9, 2009

sweetlifeinpariscoverAs an American in Paris for almost 23 years, I took a particular pleasure in reading David Lebovitz’s delightful new book LIVING THE SWEET LIFE IN PARIS. Lebovitz, one of America’s most renowned pastry chefs, a hugely successful cookbook author and blogger extraordinaire (www.davidlebovitz.com) recounts his decision to move to Paris and the sweet-and-sour baby steps of learning a new language and culture with wit, grace and trenchant honesty, which makes this book a far cry from the usual extremes of this genre.

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Yam’Tcha–A Sweet New Bistro, A-, plus the best lunch-time buy in Paris: Le Meurice

May 1, 2009

Almost nothing could be more telling of the impact of this year’s steep recession on the Paris restaurant scene than the instant notoriety of Yam’Tcha, a sweet little restaurant that recently opened in an ancient side street in Les Halles. To wit, this 20 seat place run by earnest, amiable young chef Adeline Grattard, former second to Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance, has passed through global gastro cyber space with the intensity and speed of a comet. Because Grattard actually is a serious, talented and original cook, I’d like to think her table, which she runs with her Hong Kong born husband Chiwah Chan, will withstand the blow-back of a culinary media world that’s so desperate for news that it exalts anything that’s even slightly different and half plausible.

So am I being hypocritical in writing about this fragile new flower on this website? No, not really–though I’m flattered that your eyes may be rolling over these words, I wouldn’t pretend to be such an oracle that famished throngs will be pressing their faces to Tam’Tcha’s window on Monday morning. I assume that those of you who find their way to this quiet little patch of the culinary cyber world are people who are very seriously interested not only in eating well, but in thinking about gastronomy in all of its facets, which brings me back to Yam’Tcha. Quite simply, I worry that the relative paucity of restaurant news out of Paris this year means that the city’s substantial core of food writers is going to pick this tasty morsel to the bone before its had a chance to find its groove.

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