Le Passage 53, Paris: C+/B- ; Le Jardin, Reims: B+

July 14, 2009

Sometimes when I have mixed feelings about a restaurant, I like to submit it to a time test. To wit, will I remember what I ate a week later? Over a week after my meal there, the much lauded Le Passage 53 in the hip Passage des Panoramas didn’t stand up very well. To be sure, I have a huge admiration for Hugo Desnoyers, the superb butcher who is one of the main backers and who furnishes the restaurant’s sublime meat, but overall, I found the service mannered and the cooking pleasant but timid and rather self-conscious. A perfect example was an amuse bouche of broccoli creame garnished with a crunchy hail of raw broccoli buds. Tasty enough and not a bad idea, but if the point of an amuse bouche is to tantalize you for what’s to come, this little cameo was underwhelming.

To be fair, I was more than distracted by my friend La Mime’s enchanting conversation and also from the fact that my long legs couldn’t find a comfort zone on the low, metallic chairs in this over-lit, under-decorated and very badly ventilated space (the “side walk” smokers from Le Passage 53 and several other restaurants stepped outside as required by law, but the draughts in the passage meant that their second hand smoke was sucked right back in the door). The first half-memorable dish of the evening was a tartare of cameo pink veal tartare with chopped razor shell clams and Granny Smith apples, a sensual but deja vu meeting between mer and terre, with the veal struggling to be anything more than a sweet mineral-rich foil to the potent iodine of the clams. A twiddly portion of turbot was good enough, and a thin strip of guineau hen was beautifully cooked and full of flavor, but overall our six or seven course tasting menu lacked real passion and was way overpriced at 65 Euros. So would I go again? Probably not.

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“Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes” by Adam Ried; Au Boeuf Couronne, Paris , B+

July 7, 2009

Cover-Throughly-Modern-Milkshakes

If you work at home like I do, going downstairs to get the mail is a highlight of the day–what welcome distractions from my keyboard will I find when I open the mailbox? Yesterday there was a bubble-wrap mailer from W.H. Norton in New York, and I ripped the package open in the cobbled hallway of my building in eagerness to see what it contained.

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Summertime Follies: Mama Shelter’s roof-top BBQ and Cru

July 1, 2009

Having lived in Boston, New York, London, and Paris, along with having spent huge amounts of time in Barcelona and Prague, I’ve always been fascinated to observe the different ways in which various villes approach summer. Summer heat turns over-achieving Manhattan into a sexy slacker, or a place where people expose a lot of skin, stay up late, and party, while Barcelona lives at night, and Praguers head off to one of the lakes in the surrounding countryside to strip off and go for an icy swim (cold beer figures big in Prague, too).

The first summer I lived in Paris, my apartment on the elegant  rue Monsieur in the 7th arrondissement overlooked a beautiful interior garden with several magnificent ancient chestnut trees. One stiffling Saturday afternoon, I decided to set up camp here in a spot of shade with a good book. Instinctively knowing the French capital isn’t a bare-chested kind of place, I wore a short sleeve shirt and shorts and carried a folding canvas chair into the shade, along with a thermos of iced tea. Engrossed in my reading for an hour, I was startled when I heard a rapping on a distant window. When I looked up, however, I saw no one at any of the windows on the back of the building. A few minutes later, there was another frantic bit of rapping, but again no face at the window. Fifteen minutes later, however, the concierge, a gentle Spanish woman, came to speak with me. “Bonjour,” she said with the wistful smile of an unwilling messenger, and then, in her beautifully accented French, “I’m sorry, but one of the neighbors has complained about your being in the garden.” Why?, I wondered, and then she continued, “What you did makes perfect sense to me, but they say that the garden is meant to be looked at rather than inhabited.” She sighed and gently shook her head, clearly not enjoying being the messenger of this message.

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Grading NYC: Bar Breton: C-; Pala: D; Aldea: A- (plus a mediocre meal in CT)

June 22, 2009

Having read rave reviews of the new Bar Breton in New York City, I was looking forward to dinner there on my first night in steamy, soggy Manhattan (it’s been raining here for days). I’d always liked chef Cyril Reynaud’s cooking at Fleur de Sel, and since I’m a huge fan of galettes, or buckwheat flour crepes with savory fillings, I was confident of a good feed. Alas, the meal was a major letdown beginning with a cocktail that smelled and tasted like long shoreman’s sweat (rest assured that I’m guessing on this one), followed by a special starter of Virginia oysters that came to the table drowning in a sauce mignonette (shallots and vinegar) that completely obliterated their flavor. Why a restaurant would automatically apply such a heavy-handed garnish rather than serving it as as side dish is beyond me. Next, my galette with a small green salad–hungry as a farmhand, I ordered the version with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, and an egg. What arrived was a correctly crispy galette filled with a flabby slice of tasteless supermarket quality boiled ham–if they’d run out of Black Forest ham, the waitress should have said so–and bits of rubbery cheese which led me to conclude that the cheese was poor quality, pre-grated or both. The smoked trout in my friend Nanette’s galette was completely tasteless, too, and the only saving grace of this meal was a fairly priced bottle of Spanish Rueda, a nice summer wine, and some very good company.

Having read a major shout-out good review of the Greenwich Tavern as one of the best places for brunch in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the metropolitan pages of a certain estimable New York newspaper, I invited Mom to lunch for Father’s Day on Sunday. Despite the patrician sounding name, this rather frumpy little restaurant turned out to be located on U.S. 1, aka the Post Road, which is renamed Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. I was immediately suspicious of this place when I realized it had valet parking, too–I mean after all, what’s the point of living in the suburbs if you can’t park your own car. In any event, the meal was more of an intriguing study in profit-maximizing food-service industry practices than it was a good feed. Though Mom’s wild mushroom and andouille potstickers were pretty good (if boldly overpriced at $12), the shrimp in my cocktail were flaccid and had been hanging around the kitchen for a while. Next, we both ordered the lobster roll, which arrived as two dainty little buns of barely dressed lobster, a smart way of tinkering with the bread to crustacean ratio. And we both had cones of cold fries, and then a large order of garlic Parmesan fries, entirely unnecessary, that the waiter charmed Mom into wanting. A middle-brow California Chardonnay at $12 a glass meant we clearly in hedge-fund territory, too, and the only half-decent moment of this meal was the nicely made pecan tart. Otherwise, yet another expensive and mediocre meal in southwestern Connecticut, a place I must visit regularly to see my family, so if anyone has any suggestions of truly good eats in Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, Bridgeport, etc., I’d be very grateful.

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Low Tide at La Cagouille; Gilles Choukroun in fine form at MBC

June 18, 2009

Sunday night in Paris for fish-lovers is always a challenge, since odds are that whatever you’ll be able to reel in won’t have seen the briney for at least four days. One place I’ve never hesitated to go for a seafood feast on Sunday, however, is La Cagouille, chef Gerard Allemandou’s restaurant in an unlovely modern urban redevelopment near the Gare Montparnasse. I’ve known and liked Allemandou’s minimalist seafood cooking for many years, and have always especially loved his moules bouchot (tiny mussels) cooked on a hot metal plaque. For a longtime, they’ve also offered good-value prix-fixe menus–26 Euros for a starter and a main course, or 42 for starter, main, dessert and wine–that led me to recommend it to visitors, too. But while doing the research for Hungry for Paris, I had two mediocre meals in a row here and it didn’t make the book. On a pretty summer Sunday night, though, a couple of fish-mad friends from “fish deprived” Kansas City wanted to eat outside on a quiet terrace, so I decided to give it another chance. Since the terrace is set back from the street and hidden behind planters of bamboo and rhododendrons, it’s a lovely setting for a meal, so I went off to Montparnasse with my fingers crossed. Things got off to a good start with a complimentary plate of steamed coques, or cockles, and the bread and butter was good, too. Unfortunately, the dishes that were available as part of the good-value prix-fixe appealed to none of us, so emboldened by an excellent bottle of Quincy for 29 Euros, we threw caution to the winds and went a la carte. Three of us started with chipirons (baby squid) with garlic, and the other one made an even worse error with a plate of dreadfully overcooked and overpriced asparagus. The “chipirons” were lukewarm, came as a stingy portion, and had an unpleasantly gummy, rubbery texture. Next, my cod steak with garlic cream sauce was pleasant, but the accompanying side dish of pureed celeri rave had clearly been microwaved. Because we were having a nice time–good company, good wine, a pleasant setting, no one had much to say about the food until we skipped dessert and went directly to the coffee. Then: “the salmon was very disappointing, over-cooked and without much flavor,” “the scallops were massacred by the Balsamic vinegar sauce,” and “one of the rougets was oddly mushy.” Overall grade: C-

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Nice in Nice, and a Redux at Rech in Paris

June 12, 2009

In Nice this summer, there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad is that talented young chef Jouni Tormanen has been mysteriously forced out of his job as head chef at La Reserve. For the moment, no one seems to know where Jouni has done or if he’s planning to open another restaurant locally, which is a shame, because he really is a terrific cook. The good news is that a constellation of small, excellent modern bistros are popping up all over the city. A perfect example is Millesime 82 (which is named for the year the chef was born). Stopping in for lunch on a recent Saturday, I liked this funky little dining room, its relaxed and friendly staff, excellent wine list (including several brilliant Corsican roses), and their smart idea of serving a choice of three main courses and a single dessert at noon. From the little chalkboard menu, we tried a generously served and beautifully dressed salad of tender octopus with chickpeas, tomatoes, fresh coriander, parsley and a light vinaigrette and an equally good artichoke risotto that was topped with slices of delicious steak cooked rare. The apple-banana crumble we shared for dessert was delicious, too, and the next time I’m town, I’ll definitely stop in for dinner, which has a full menu.

In Paris, it’s taken a longtime for Alain Ducasse, Inc., to get Rech, the snobbish seafood brasserie in the 17th right, but to their credit, it’s likely to become one of the best seafood restaurants in the world now that Jacques Maximin has been recruited to oversee the menu. Maximin, the 70s-80s wonder chef of the Riviera, is a hard-working, passionate cook with a deceptively brilliant aptitude for simplicity (his simplicity is the same as that of an Antwerp diamond cutter). What he knows how to do–and does with deep modesty–is extract all of the flavor out of every fin and frond he works with. He’s just getting started in Paris, but I’ve been dreaming about an exquisite salad I ate here the other night for over a week–mesclun, poached egg, radishes, a few Nicois olives, fruity green olive oil, and thin strips (goujonettes, if you will) of steamed sole with the most magnificent aioli (garlic mayonnaise) I’ve ever eaten. Next, perfectly cooked salmon with a sauce vierge (chopped tomato and frizzled basil in olive oil), then a magnificent hunk of camembert, and a drop-dead good pain perdu (‘French toast’ made with brioche) with weepingly perfect salted-caramel ice cream. I didn’t like this restaurant at all when it first became part of the Ducasse stable two years ago, but now, with Maximin, and the brilliant stewardship of maitre d’hotel Eric Mercier, it’s become one of my favorite tables.

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