Nancy: Les Pissenlits, a perfect brasserie, B and L’Excelsior, a disaster, D

September 14, 2009

With the recent opening of the TGV Est high-speed train line serving eastern France, Nancy, one of the most charming small cities in France, is a very easy hour and a half train ride from Paris and an ideal Indian summer long weekend. The cooler weather is also the ideal appetite sharpener for discovering some of the city’s specialities, and there’s no better place to do so than the wonderful Les Pissenlits (The Dandelions), a truly excellent and very popular brasserie that gladdens the heart with its brisk, friendly service and obvious commitment to serving good quality regional food.

With lunchtime looming on an overcast Monday in Paris, I’m kicking myself for not asking if I could doggy-bag the rest of the first course I had at dinner here on Friday night–a lavish serving of succulent ham smoked in hay to give it a faintly herbaceous perfume. It came to the table with a superb tomato salad dressed in a creamy shallot vinaigrette and homemade celeri remoulade, and with a basket of good bread and a nice bottle of LaRoppe Pinot Noir, I was in heaven. It had been ages, in fact, since I’d eaten such good ham, and it brought back fond memories of a superb traiteur that once existed across the street from an office I once worked in in the now completely gentrified rue du Cambon in Paris. Served with a small ceramic ramekin of creamy, garlicky mayonnaise, this ham was a triumph of simplicity and it was so generously served, I could easily have made a meal of it. Bruno loved his pissenlit (dandelion) salad with chunky lardons, too. Main courses were outstanding, too. I opted for the bouche de la reine, best-known in the English-speaking world as that old ladies-bridge-game-luncheon stand-by chicken a la king. The real McCoy came in a flakey, buttery tasting pastry cylinder that brimmed with fresh mushrooms, shredded chicken and slices of feather-light chicken quenelles and a side of freshly made noodles. Unctuous and delicately flavored with good bouillon, it’s the type of dish I could eat every other day. Bruno’s baeckoffe, an Alsatian stew of potatoes, beef, lamb and onions simmered in white wine, was delicious, too, and the slice of mirabelle (tiny yellow plums) tart we shared was clearly homemade and truly excellent.

What made our meal at Les Pissenlits particularly joyous is that it offered such happy proof that good simple regional food still abounds in France. And this is why lunch at Nancy’s magnificent L’Excelsior brasserie the following day was such a disgrace. This land-marked brasserie with its beautiful interior of elegant plasterwork moldings inspired by ferns is one of the great art nouveau interiors in France. I hadn’t been in a longtime and was keen to savor this special spot despite the fact that it’s now part of the Brasseries Flo chain. I avoid Brasseries Flo in Paris like the plague–they’re overpriced and shamelessly mediocre–but decided to make an exception for L’Excelsior. Just maybe, I hoped, this one in the provinces would hold to a higher standard that such sorry Parisian addresses as Chez Julien, Flo or La Coupole, all part of the chain and all serving industrial catering at eye-popping prices. Alas, our lunch was dreadful. A serving of quiche Lorraine was soggy and without flavor, and every single oyster I ate was laiteuse, or milky. Next, I foolishly ordered scallops with wild mushrooms in a jus de veau. The scallops were the size of large cookies, which immediately made me suspicious–it’s a well-known fact that factory fishing boats manufacture scallops by punching them out of fish fillets, and then the mushrooms were soggy and likely frozen and the jus de veau tasted like pureed cat food. For 30 Euros, Bruno’s lobster salad was highway robbery–a stingy half of a rather sad-looking lobster served on a bed of overcooked haricots verts with a few ribbons of mango. Even the wine, supposedly a Gustave Lorenz Riesling, tasted sharp and green and quite unlike this very respectable maker’s normal vintages.

Since Flo is an expanding international group–they now have restaurants in Beijing, Lisbonne, and Barcelona, and have tragically laid their hands on the once wonderful Aux Armes de Bruxelles in Brussels, I think it’s very important that they receive the bluntest possible feedback on their product, which I find heart-breakingly sans ame and an affront to real French cooking.

Les Pissenlits, 25bis rue des Ponts, Nancy, Tel. 03-83-37-43-97, Avg 30 Euros

L’Excelsior, 50 rue Henri Poincare, Nancy, Tel. 03-83-35-24-57, Avg 30 Euros