Drat! Doubly Duped; and Le Percolateur, B- and Chez Grenouille, B-

February 5, 2010

Like you, everytime I have a trip scheduled, I immediately set out to make sure that I’ll eat as well as possible in whatever destination I’m visiting. So it was that I did a fair amount of research prior to a trip to Antwerp, a city I’ve known and liked for over twenty years. My first reflex was to visit a large number of travel websites in the hopes of finding a good new restaurant or two there, and when this didn’t turn up much of interest, I fell back on a basic Google search and ended up reading reviews on Trip Advisor. Several of them persuasively vaunted a newish Italian place, Il Sardo, just outside of the city’s main train station, which was where I’d be arriving. Though I’ve had indifferent to poor experiences with Trip Advisor in the past, I was taken in by the reader’s comments on this Italian place–these unknown folks insisted that it was an Italian head-and-shoulders above the other restaurants in this downmarket neck of the woods, and so I found myself at table in this place for lunch the other day. And had an amazingly mediocre meal. To be sure, I only ordered a salad and a pizza, but a salad and a pizza can be quite wonderful when they’re well made. Suffice it to say that I was terribly letdown by the advice of a bevy of anonymous correspondents, which set me to thinking about how treacherous the web can be when you’re looking for good restaurants. My salad was a dead ordinary business—unripe tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, fatty bits of sauteed bacon, grated carrots, bits and pieces of chopped green and red pepper, a dreary business indeed.

And this on the heels of one of the worst meals I’ve had in a longtime last weekend at the recently renovated La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech. The hotel had shopped two two-star European chefs for its “French” and “Italian” restaurants, Jean-Pierre Vigato and Alfonso Iaccarino (Don Alfonso) respectively. Since I live in Paris, the “French” restaurant was of no interest–nor was their “Moroccan” table, since I know where to get great Moroccan food in Marrakech, so I settled on the “Italian,” and it was a disaster.

After a long wait, my spaghetti Don Alfonso arrived, and it turned out to be a tangle of miserably undercooked linguine with a dull sauce of cherry tomatoes. I sent it back, of course, but then had to endure a round of conversations with people who insisted that it had been cooked ‘al dente,’ and did I know what ‘al dente’ meant? Well, yes, indeed I do, which is why this almost $40 plate of pasta added injury to insult. Main courses were little better, and we ended up with a whooping big bill at the end of a meal that was a real ordeal.

So why am I telling you all of this? Out of humility–I can be duped, too–and also to encourage you to a great vigilance when it comes to A) advice gleaned from the internet, and B) star-chefs in hotel settings outside of their home countries. The internationalization of the world’s restaurant scene means that upmarket hotels shop brand-name chefs, who fly in and out as consultants and so can’t be depended upon to deliver anything like what you might eat in the tables that made their reputations.

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In Paris, the quandry I encountered this week revolved around the importance of restaurant decor. I went to lunch at the locally well-reviewed Le Percolateur with a good friend and very knowing food-lover, and the amiable service in this sunny, comfortable, attractive room made me more forgiving than I would normally be of the kitchen’s shortcomings.

My pal ordered a starter salad of spinach with grilled shrimp, which was, as the French would say, “correct,” while I was letdown by my vonnaisiennes, mushy blinis of potato puree with small slices of ham and a salad similar to his. Next, he had beef filet with tapenade wrapped in brik pastry with ratatouille and I chose the Cajun chicken with homemade fries as part of the 28 Euro three-course prix-fixe menu. The chicken, a breast that had been rolled in a Cajun spice mix and grilled, came with a beurre blanc sauce and good homemade frites, nothing remarkable but a perfectly pleasant dish. We drank an excellent and very well priced vin du Pays d’Oc La Violette by brilliant winemaker Jean-Colombo at 18 Euros and finished up with small tarts of runny salted caramel, tasty but imperfect, since the exterior was soggy instead of crisp (microwave?).

Still the pleasant atmosphere and good service in this nice looking dining room meant that this uneven meal was an agreeable event. Would I cross town to eat here again? No, but were I to find myself in the quartier de l’Europe again for any reason, this place would be a perfectly reasonable option for a simple and well-priced if gastronomically unremarkable meal. So the moral of the story is that atmosphere, or that curious mix of decor and service, really does make a huge difference to the way that one perceives of a meal.

Generally, I insist that truly memorable food is requisite for me to be happy a table in Paris, whatever the price of my meal, but to my own surprise, I’d willingly let Le Percolateur slip under the radar another time if I had a good reason.

Conversely, Chez Grenouille, just up the street from where I live in the rue Blanche has received a spate of glowing local reviews and so I trotted off for dinner with four friends on Thursday night. They were already seated when I arrived, and stepping inside, I immediately apologized for having chosen this restaurant. Why? It was a small drab dining room with harsh lighting, bare stucco walls and no charm whatsoever.

To be sure, the main reason I go to any Paris restaurant is to eat well, but even if the kitchen here acquitted itself well, nothing could overcome the dramatic dreariness of this tiny room, which has had me wondering about the weight that any food writer should place on a restaurant’s decor and setting. If wonderful company and pretty good food couldn’t quite save our meal at La Grenouille, then obviously atmosphere is a more important factor than I am in the habit of acknowledging, a reality I intend to weigh more heavily in future reviews.

We ate perfectly scrambled eggs with some species of black truffle and a disconcerting dose of “truffle” oil, one of the great cheats of modern gastronomy, since this oil has nothing to do with real truffles but is instead perfumed with an artificial flavoring that decomposes when heated, ravioles de Royan, or tiny cheese stuffed ravioli that were tasty but overcooked, a breaded pave of pig’s foot that would have been excellent with a ravigote sauce instead of more of that evil truffle oil, an excellent parmentier de boeuf (the French version of shepherd’s pie), and a perfectly cooked AAAAA andouillette.

Though the quality of the meal was much better-than-average overall, I spent much of it musing on the fact that none of my French colleagues had bothered to mention that this is a very sad spot in which to have a meal.

Ultimately, even though the food at La Grenouille is more interesting and gastronomic than what’s on offer at Le Percolateur, it’s the latter rather than the former that I’d be most inclined to visit again, and with this judgement, I plan to be more more explicitly attentive to ambience in the reviews I post here in the future than ever before.

Le Percolateur, 20 rue de Turin, 8th, Tel. 01-43-87-97-59. Metro: Place de Clichy. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Average 30 Euros.

Chez Grenouille, 52 rue Blanche, 9th, Tel. 01-42-81-34-07. Metro: Liege or La Trinitee. Open daily. Average 40 Euros.

  • Your opening line definitely made me chuckle with self-recognition. Whenever I travel, you can be sure to find me on the train with a stack of guidebooks, cross-referencing the recommendations and keeping charts of what’s open when (since I usually travel on weekends, this is of utmost importance). I rarely look at the TripAdvisor dining reviews, although I almost always use it for hotels. I’m not nearly as picky about the hotel, though – as long as it’s clean and well-situated, I’m happy.

    Regarding the atmosphere question, I generally agree with you – I am much more likely to return to a place that felt inviting. There is an exception, and it seems to be Asian restaurants. My favorite dumpling place in Belleville has pretty much zero atmosphere, except that you can watch as your dumplings and noodles are made by hand. Delicious, cheap, open late, and a 5-minute walk from home: I barely notice the depressing décor anymore.

  • Alec Lobrano

    Hi Camille,

    Please share your favorite Asian in Belleville with us!

    Best, Alec

  • It has a Chinese name that I can never remember, but the sign most prominently says, "Restaurant Raviolis." It’s between the Belleville and Pyrénées Métro stops on rue de Belleville at #47. (Which, incidentally, has always been a lucky number of mine.) My favorite dumplings are ciboulette au porc and poisson, but all are good – though I was less fond of the boeuf au celeri. All the noodle soups are great, but the vermicelli seem to be just spaghetti, which seems like a waste when you can get handmade nouilles or pâte de riz.

    I also really like the pho at Dong Huong, at the corner of rue Louis Bonnet and rue de la Présentation.

    And I just discovered le New Nioullaville, on rue de l’Orillon. They have dim sum carts as well as a full menu. I’ve only been once, but liked it enough to be sure I’ll return soon, hopefully with a big group so I can try more dishes!

  • Alec Lobrano

    Many thanks, Camille! Can’t wait to dig into those ravioli, and also to try the pho at Dong Huong. Best, Alec