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.

Anyplace that pours Cote Rotie by the glass sounded pretty good to me, so I went to dinner the other night with another Yankee food scribe to see what the fuss was all about. Well, the fuss began as soon as we got there, since the laudatory coverage of this place means that its packed to the rafters and the kitchen and staff seem to be having some trouble keeping up. We sat in the new upstairs dining room–there two large table d’hotes on the main floor, a bar and a table or two–and scrutinized the menu over very good glasses of Vouvray, a lovely Spring wine for its gentle floral notes.

It was hard to decide what to have, because when I go out, I want to eat things that I am both unlikely to cook or buy. This is why I’d always pass up a plate of smoked salmon, for example, for something more complex. The problem in chosing a first course was that almost none of them involved any real cooking. Finally I decided on the terrine de campagne and my fellow scribe the smoked tuna from l’Ile d’Yeu (off the coast of La Vendee). I found the tuna, which came with a small mesclun salad, quite bland, but the terrine was very good and generously served.

Main courses presented a similar conundrum:

Grilled pork breast with pommes de terre grenailles (baby potatoes)

Grilled Morteau sausage slices with blonde lentils

A hamburger of Salers beef with pommes de terre grenailles

Organic salmon in sesame seeds and baby spinach

Wild shrimp from Madagascar with vegetables and sweet-potato puree

Now I like pommes de terre grenailles, but it’s easy to see why they’d appeal to a restauranteur. Compared to frites or puree, they’re extremely easy to do–you just rinse the potatoes, drizzle them with some oil, season them and bake them until done. And for me they tell the entire story of Glou. If the grilled Morteau and prawns were decent enough, they left us both feeling deflated. Why go to a restaurant to eat things like this?

To be sure, we very much enjoyed our Lapierre Morgon, reasonably priced at 33 Euros, and it would have done nicely with any of the four good cheeses (bleu d’Auvergne, Comte de 24 mois, camembert au lait cru or Salers) had we not already guzzled it all down during dinner. So we finished up with a delicious caramel and walnut tart bought in from the spectacularly good boutique of Jacques Genin around the corner.

This meal cost 125 Euros, which is a lot of money for a feed where so little cooking had occurred. Yes, the produce was excellent, but cooking is a question of transformation, not plating. Walking home, I went by Le Pamphlet around the corner, and found myself wishing we’d gone there instead. Chef Alain Carrere is a passionate chef who cooks his heart out day in and day out, and in these straightened times, these are the restaurants that I not only most enjoy but which warrant the support of all passionate foodlovers, places where the cook still cooks.

Glou, 101 r ue Vieille du Temple, 3rd, Tel. 01-42-74-44-32

Le Pamphlet, 38 rue Debelleyme, 3rd, Tel. 01-42-72-39-24

  • Interesting… I think Chez Panisse has been getting similar criticisms for years. I guess it’s a matter of how willing people are to do their own shopping and sourcing quality products. Many people are probably more than willing to let the restaurant to the legwork. I’m not one of them, though. I’m with you.

  • I agree that this is a trend I hope won’t overtake the Paris restaurant scene, but I do believe there is value in selecting and serving excellent but minimally processed ingredients: as Camille mentioned above, not everyone has the time, inclination and/or information necessary to procure them for himself.

    And I personally prefer a restaurant that does simple things right (oven-roasted grenaille potatoes) to one that tries and botches trickier things (limp greasy fries, anyone?).

    There are always going to be restaurants that don’t have the ambition or the resources to produce elaborate cuisine, and if that is the case, I will take this type of cuisine d’assemblage over the one that involves pouches of ready-to-reheat sauces and plats du jour purchased from Métro (ugh).

    I completely understand that such a resto as Glou (or Les Fines Gueules, or Le Verre Volé, etc.) might not appeal to everyone, but it’s certainly a matter of audience and, as you mentioned, what you look for when you eat out.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post!

  • I have just enjoyed your last post. It drives me nuts, being in the travel business besides, to see the same old places hyped and now the new ones for reasons other than good old-fashioned cooking and like you I don’t need to go out and have a meal I can cook myself or buy from Picard (Thank God for Picard!) or the local market/supplier.