LE VAUDEVILLE, One of the Last Decent Brasseries in Paris, B; LES ENFANTS DE PARIS, Franco-Brazilian via New York City, C-

August 19, 2010

Obsessively interested in good food, I always have the makings of at least one or two good meals on hand at home so that as someone who travels often, I never end up being forced to call out for a mediocre pizza or Indian food of unknown quality at the last minute. Returning home to Paris after ten wonderful sunny days in Greece on a cool, rainy Monday night, however, I knew I needed something happier than a bowl of spaghetti carbonara, an all-time comfort-food favorite, to revive my wilting spirits. Waiting for our luggage to come up, Bruno and I had talked about going to Hokkaido, a favorite Japanese noodle and dumpling place in the rue Chabanais, but since it took forever for the bags to arrive–why is Charles de Gaulle sooo slow?, I knew we’d never make it. So we were hurtling into town in a cab when he turned to me and voiced the very same thoughts I was having: “How about going to Le Vaudeville for some oysters and a steak tartare?” Yes! Oysters and steak tartare were exactly what I wanted after a gastronomic sojourn dominated by grilled octopus and squid, Greek salad, white wine and ouzo.

On the way to this pretty art-deco brasserie in front of La Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement, I couldn’t help but being a tiny bit anxious about our decision, however. Why? Most Paris brasseries have become caught in a no-go inflection point between their ever rising prices and the mediocrity of their food. I always remember Le Vaudeville as being a rare exception to this sad rule, but would I be disappointed?

After three hours of airplane air, we asked to sit outside on the terrace, and the hostess who promptly set our table and brought our menus was one of the friendliest and most cheerful people I’ve come across in a Paris restaurant in a very long time. So we ordered a dozen Gillardeau oysters with a carafe of Reisling, and then two steak tartares with two glasses of Guigal red Cotes du Rhone, a typical brasserie meal if ever there were one. The waiter brought good rolls and foiled wrapped knobs of salted Isigny butter to the table with our white wine, and breaking bread, and smearing it with good French butter, made us suddenly happy to be home. The oysters, which arrived in a heart beat, were absolutely delicious–fleshy, sweet and brilliantly briny.

The steak tartare was good, too, although an infuriating change in the format of the Heinz Worcestershire sauce bottle–they’ve enlarged the opening to the size of penny in an obvious attempt to get people to use more of the stuff, meant that both of us flooded our otherwise very nicely seasoned chopped steak with too much of this famous brown sauce that’s wonderful in small doses but downright foul in larger ones (at least you’ve been warned). Not having had any red wine for ten days–if I found several Greek roses that were great drinking, their reds are just too potent in hot weather for me, meant that the Guigal Cotes du Rhone drank like velvet, too. To be sure, the accompanying frites were cooked on the premises but definitely not home-made–too bad, but our mesclun salads were impressively fresh and seasoned with a light hand.

At 130 Euros, this was hardly a cheap feed, but at least it delivered exactly what a good Parisian brasserie should, which is good quality food with fast friendly service and the extra fun of the sort of intriguingly odd-ball crowd you’ll always find sitting down to dinner at 10.30pm. Now if Le Vaudeville can do it, and do it well, why are almost all other Parisians brasseries so damned dismal? (I wouldn’t go to La Coupole at gunpoint, for example, to say nothing of Le Boeuf sur le Toit, La Lorraine, Brasserie Flo, well, you get the point.)

Le Vaudeville, 29 Rue Vivienne, 2nd, Tel. 01-40-20-04-26. Metro: Bourse. Open daily, noon-3pm, 7pm-1am.

Prix-fixe menus 24.50 Euros, 31.50 Euros. A la carte 55 Euros.

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DSCN1048Le Cirque d’Hiver  I love the neighborhood in and around the rue Amelot, including the fanciful Cirque d’Hiver, a charming oval polygon of a building that was constructed in 1852 as a sop to restive working-class Parisians. The idea of the building, now mostly used for fashion shows and other special events, was that it would house circuses and other amusements in the pre-cinema middle of the 19th century, and this explains its wonderful Wedgewood style friezes and neo-classical grandeur.

I hadn’t seen the Cirque in a while, but it happens to be next door to the new Les Enfants de Paris, a peculiar new Franco-Brazilian restaurant that unfortunately shows off all the reasons that hybrid bar-restaurant-night-club places just never work, especially in Paris. Arriving for dinner, the sidewalk out front was packed with smoking singles, and if I’m more tolerant of tobacco smoke than most people, the restaurant itself had the sour stink of their fags, not a pleasant detail as one studied the menu. The waitress mentioned that this is the sister restaurant of the popular Les Enfants Terrible in New York City, but it had none of the buzz of its trans-Atlantic cousin and offered far less value for money.

Since I love Brazil and enjoy Brazilian food, I was sort of looking forward to dinner here, but unfortunately, aside from the well-made cocktails from an extensive and expensive list, a lot gets lost in translation. My Bouchées bresiliennes, deep-fried nuggets stuffed with chopped chicken, had a pasty consistency, and the dipping sauce in a shot glass filled with lots of whole coriander seeds was too timid to add much interest. Next, Bobo de camarão, or frozen prawns in a pumpkin colored soup of coconut milk devoid of much flavor and accompanied by dried out Basmati rice and a silly shot glass of coriander-flavored whipped cream.

DSCN1046Bobo de camarão avec son emulsion de coriandre et riz basmati

At 18.50 Euros, I’d have been much happier with a steak tartare at my corner cafe La Rotonde, and the only useful, if rather deflating, idea I took away from this meal is that Paris still lags very much behind such cities as New York and London when it comes to offering seriously interesting ethnic eating. Aside from some fine North African restaurants and a few good Asian places, Indian food in Paris is generally depressingly mediocre, Latin American cooking comes across only in the most Disney-esque of cliches, with local Mexican cooking being downright awful, and the African food in Brussels is times better than Paris. And the only explanation I could hazard for this paucity of good foreign restaurants is that if the Parisian palate is more adventurous today than it was when I moved here almost 25 years ago, the French are still very much less venturesome at the table when it comes to international cooking than Berliners, Amsterdamers, Londoners, New Yorkers and San Franciscans. Thinking back on a brilliant Kurdish meal I recently ate in Stockholm, I can only hope this may change, since an edgy chef like Korean-American David Chang probably still wouldn’t get much of a look in in Paris today.

Les Enfants de Paris, 116 rue Amelot, 11th, Tel. 01-47-00-70-74. Metro: Filles de Calvaire. Open 5.30pm-2am. Average a la carte 40 Euros.

  • €130 for dinner and they're serving frozen French fries? What were (or weren't) they thinking?

  • I'm hesitant to share this, lest it get out, but there is a decent Mexican place near the gare Montparnasse. It's called Casa Palenque, and it's on rue de l'arrivee. I had cochinita pibil, and the only thing that wasn't very good was the rice.

  • John Mihalec

    Alec, we went to Le Vaudeville in…egad….'84 and liked it, but have not been back. You give us reason to return. What about Balzar? You used to like it. Still? For ethnic eating on rue Amelot, there is (or was in 2008) an Usbekistani restaurant that I thought was pretty good. Have you tried that? A Tibetian restaurant on rue Amelot too, but nothing special there.

  • Sandeep

    A possible antidote to the crappy indian food problem

    Saravana Bhavan: http://www.saravanabhavan.com/restaurants.php?cn=France&cy=Paris&rid=54

    Their Paris branch just opened recently. Not checked it out yet but if it is as good as the New York and the Dubai ones, we have found the mecca of South Indian vegetarian dining.

    SSS

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks, Sandeep. Can't wait to check this out. Ditto your suggestion, Camille. Thanks to you both. Alec

  • David Burke

    I agree re Le Vaudeville, always good at a late hour; and you're right about dismal Indian choices in Paris. And forget about the Brazilian churrasco-and-pretty-girl joints! But for pretty authentic Mexican, try Anahuacalli in the 5th [I used to live in Mexico, it's one of the worlds' great cuisines, but almost never found outside Mexico]