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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Though I’ve always been intrigued by Gilles Choukroun’s cooking, I haven’t always understood it–if some of his daring mixes of spices and textures were spectacular, others seemed like culinary mannerism. I loved what he did way back when he was at the Cafe des Delices in the 6th arrondissement, but then he seem to become rather over-wrought when he moved to Angl’Opera on the Avenue de l’Opera. The drab setting of a hotel dining room certainly didn’t suit such a lively and inventive chef either, and the staff at this address, now closed, were singularly lacking in the enthusiasm necessary to serve such original food. Now Choukroun is back with MBC (menthe, basilique, coriandre) a wonderful new contemporary bistro that’s offers a perfect and very pretty setting for his vividly imagined modern French cooking. Meeting a friend for lunch the other day, I was immediately impressed by the relaxed lounge-bar decor of Choukroun’s new place and his 19 Euro lunch menu. After we’d perused the menu over excellent aubergine caviar with bread sticks, I started with a giant mushroom ravioli, which came to the table in a black-matte Japanese bowl. The ravioli was made from pot-sticker pasta, generously filled with girolles, and nestled into a miso-soy broth with fresh mint and Thai basil, and it was delicious. The elegant Monsieur R loved his mackerel tartare–a very popular dish in Paris these days because mackerel is healthy, cheap and one of the rare fish that isn’t threatened with imminent extinction, with Moroccan spices. Next, I couldn’t resist Choukroun’s “hamburger prefere,” which turned out to be a sublime sandwich of roast lamb seasoned with marinated mustard seeds and a luscious North African sauce on toasted whole-wheat bread. Desserts were excellent, too, including a sublime lemon tart and chocolate-olive ravioli with fermented milk ice cream. Though the Porte Maillot is not a part of Paris that often attracts me, I’m very much looking forward to my next meal at MBC.

MBC, 4 rue du Débarcadère, 17th, Tel. 01-45-72-22-55. Mo Porte Maillot. Closed Sat. noon and Sunday. Lunch menus 19 Euros, 29 Euros. A la carte 45 Euros.

  • I had a memorably mediocre meal at La Cagouille a few years ago, courtesy of Patricia Wells and her list of favorites. Since we’re only in Paris once every year or two, wasting a dinner in my favorite city is rather frustrating.

  • John Mihalec

    Alex, the best part of your book is not the new restaurants you find (which are always more numerous than anyone can cover) but your fearless identification of the name places that don’t measure up any more, as you have done here again with La Cagouille. Thank you. A true public service. But that mackerel tartare sure sounds good at MCB. Next visit.

  • Alec Lobrano

    John, I’m very glad to have you on the site, and hope it leads you to some good new meals. Re the idea of new restaurants in Paris, however, my goal is to specify those new places that are actually worth a meal for anyone who’s visiting Paris for a week or less.

    If hundreds of new restaurants open in Paris every year, what I think most readers are yearning for is short-list of the best new places to go.

    Cheers, Alec

  • John Mihalec

    Alec, I agree, and I’m not trying to steer you away from identifying great new places, of which Gaigne was a terrific example, among others. But for residents of Paris, at least, you can get some of that from Figaroscope too. All I’m saying is that what’s really rare, and I haven’t found anywhere else but in your book, is someone who has the balls to stand up to the places already in many guidebooks that don’t deserve to be there anymore. It’s a true service, because that’s where Americans and Brits are likely to find themselves if they don’t have help from you.

  • I’ve just come across your site and I love it. I agree with the other posters that it’s great to have such honesty in reviews. I’ve been reading plenty of reviews and guidebooks, trying to find a spot for an upcoming birthday dinner, and I’m struck by how the same 12-15 restaurants come up again and again. Really? That’s it? It makes me wonder how much reviewers just feed off of each other, rather than really seeking our new places. So thanks, and keep it coming.