SUAVE–Vietnamese in the 13th, C+; TERMINUS NORD–An Old Battle Horse of a Brasserie in the 10th, C-/D+

March 20, 2010

Before I serve up the usual meat and potatoes, I’d like to urge all French speaking foodlovers to read the current issue of the news magazine LE POINT (For those who are unfamiliar with the French press, the country has two major news weeklies, LE POINT, and L’EXPRESS, rather like the good old days in America, when the country had two serious news weeklies in TIME and NEWSWEEK, both sorry shadows of their former selves, which is why I subscribe to the ECONOMIST). In any event, this duo has a dulling tendency to ignore the pressing affairs of France and the world in favor of recurring cover stories that rate the best hospitals in France, tiresomely regular articles on real-estate, freemasons, and other mind numbing subjects, which is why I was so surprised to find a really fascinating and urgent cover story on “les grands surfaces” (supermarkets) in LE POINT. Though not as exhaustive as it could or should have been, this serious collection of well-reported stories at least began to examine the catastrophic effect that supermarket style retailing has had on the French diet, the French countryside, French cities, French health, and a variety of other aspects of life in France.

Suffice it to say that supermarkets, especially the really big ones, have choked the life out of hundreds of French villages, towns and cities by making it impossible for small merchants to compete, have ringed many of these same places with soul-strickeningly ugly collars of sprawl that are only accessible by automobile, and have privileged heavily processed industrial foods with high mark-ups over fresh healthy reasonably priced seasonal food people cook into good meals at home.

Confronted with this reality, I am swearing off supermarkets–places I almost never shop for anything but clearning products anyway–as much as I possibly can. Instead, I’ll continue to take the time necessary to buy my vegetables at the market or one of the very good green grocers in the rue des Martyrs, avidly frequent my very good butcher in the rue Blanche, etc., etc. The only way to free our food chain from the mad petroleum driven machine that profits huge oil companies, huge car companies, huge retailers, etc., is to just plain stop shopping in these places.

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Returning to Paris after a week spent in Normandy, I was hungry for Asian food, and so decided to act on a Post-It note that’s been stuck to my computer for some months. Knowing of my love for Vietnamese cooking, Kim Ta, the charming manager of Indochine, in the rue Mont Thabor, generously suggested that I might also try Suave in the 13th arrondissement.

Driving across Paris on a rainy night, Bruno and I reminisced about the first time we went to Vietnam and the astonishingly good dinner we ate at The Temple Club in Saigon–Vietnamese ravioli and then Bo Bun for both of us, so flavorful, delicious, and pretty to look at that we ate the same meal three other times while we were there. What fascinated me, too, was how vivid ‘real’ Vietnamese cooking tasted in comparison to most of what’s served in Paris. To be sure, it’s still tough to find certain fresh Asian herbs in Paris; French meat, fish and fowl are different; and they’re other alimentary constraints on producing authentic Vietnamese food in a European country. But this didn’t stop us from hoping that we might be headed towards a place that serves really terrific Viet cooking and which would become a new favorite.

Occupying an attractively decorated corner shopfront on the edge of the Butte des Cailles, or some remove from the antic high-rise action of Paris’s ‘real’ Asian village, Suave–its name oblige, immediately seemed to be setting itself up in opposition to the cheap, popular Asian places with steamy windows a few streets over. Instead, this place had a corner banquette with pillows, a beautifully worked framed embroidery of multi-colored birds on the wall, and gentle lighting.

It was very busy on a Friday night, too, which seemed auspicious, although Bruno rightly pointed out that “il n’y a pas beaucoup des sourires ici” (The service is unsmiling and almost military in its desire to spin as many diners as possible through the money-producing wicket). A starter salade de boeuf was excellent, though, with fine rings of lemon grass; rare and tender beef; and crunchy vegetables, while a mixed assortment appetizers–two spring rolls, two deep-fried shrimp beignet, two taro-root flower fritters stuffed with chopped shrimp, etc. was decent enough but brought Trader Vick’s to mind (Trader Vick’s was a chain of “polynesian” style restaurants, often in Hilton hotels, in the U.S. that reached its hey day in the late sixties, early seventies, and offered a Sears Roebuck take on ‘exotic’ eating).

Bruno’s bo bun–deep-fried nems (spring rolls) and grilled beef on a bowl of noodles was okay, as was my bun cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork on rice-flour vermicelli noodles with bean sprouts, sliced carrots, shredded lettuce, chopped cucumber. What was missing? Generosity, for starters–these portions were modest, and also the, um, er, well, suave taste that both of these dishes have in Vietnam.

I’ve had worse versions of both in Paris, but if the basic quality of the food at Suave is respectable, it’s certainly not a place that’s worth crossing Paris for and real connoisseurs of Vietnamese cooking are likely to be a bit let down by this place.

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Like many people who’ve lived in Paris for a longtime, I inevitably find myself having a meal at Terminus Nord every couple of months for the simple reason that it has one of the most enviably strategic locations in the city just across the street from the bustling Gare du Nord. And with a similar inevitability, I come away from every meal at this place crestfallen by the stunning mediocrity of the food and the bored and distant service.

Aside from good company, the only consolations at a really poor lunch today were some excellent Norman oysters to start and the pleasure of whiling away several hours in this visually enchanting dining room, with its odd hybrid of art-deco and art-nouveau, floral-pattern mosaic floor, and wonderfully witty mural populated with caricatures of Belle Epoque Parisian types by turn-of-the-century Russian artist Nicholas Nifontoff. Otherwise, the meal was a train wreck.

I have a very strong suspicion that my ‘gratinee,’ or onion soup had been pre-prepared–right down to its melted cheese topped croutons–in a commissary somewhere, since it came to the table within minutes of being order and was lukewarm, or under-microwaved. A “tartare” of unripe avocado with shredded crab was watery and almost tasteless, and the blinis accompanying some unidentified smoked salmon–no provenance here whatsoever despite that fact that it cost 18 Euros, were cold, coarse and stale.

My two English friends were terribly letdown by the plat du jour–overcooked filets of sea bass, at once leathery and mushy, with an unseasoned puree of fennel, and my choucroute was lukewarm and served with the perfectly round golf-ball shaped potatoes that are alas but just one of the alarming products of industrial-scale catering in France and the charcuterie was flabby and tasteless. The only one who managed a half decent meal was Bruno, who had a decent steak that he wisely didn’t dress with the ramekin of sludgy looking industrial bearnaise sauce that came with it.

Dessert was out of the question after such a letdown, and over coffee my London pals wondered aloud at how it could be that the very simple standard-issue classics of traditional brasserie cooking could be so poorly done. I really hated to make matters worse, but I did tell them that the menus at most Parisian brasseries have been repeatedly pushed through the eye of a needle by teams of accountants to make them as profitable as possible and that they soldier on as money-spinners–adding injury to insult, Terminus Nord is not cheap–for people in a hurry and others besotted by the beauty of their Parisian decors. Guidebooks never delete them and most food writers indulgently turn a blind eye to their failings.

So where should you eat in the environs of the Gare du Nord? Well, you can always just order some oysters and a glass of white wine at La Terminus Nord, but wanting a real meal, I’d suggest Chez Casimir, the annex of the excellent Chez Michel, which is open daily, or La Vigne Saint Laurent, a very pleasant bistro a vins about a ten-minute walk away.

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Chez Casimir, 6 rue de Belzunce, 10th, Tel.  01-48-78-28-80. Metro: Gare du Nord. Open daily noon-2.30pm, 7-10.30pm. Prix-fixe menu 29 Euros, Sunday brunch menu 25 Euros.

Terminus Nord, 23 rue de Dunkerque, 10th, Tel. 01-42-85-05-15. Metro: Gare du Nord. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 29 Euros, average a la carte 40-45 Euros.

Suave, 20 rue de la Providence, 13th, Tel. 01-45-89-99-27. Metro: Corvisart. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Average 20 Euros.

La Vigne Saint-Laurent, 2 rue Saint Laurent, 10th, Tel. 01-42-05-98-20. Metro: Gare-de-l’Est or Gare du Nord. Open Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Average 30 Euros.

  • John Mihalec

    Very funny, Alec, patiently explaining what Trader’s Vic’s was. Although I suppose you are right: Who under 35 would know? With our losing Fess Parker, Peter Graves and Robert Culp this week,I’m moving toward the front of the line. And sorry about Terminus Nord, but you are right. Chez Casimir (or its prettier sister,Chez Michel of course) is the right door to knock on that neighborhood, from my experience.

  • Megan King

    Alec,

    We just came back from Paris, and I wanted to thank you for your superb recommendations. We especially loved La Gazzetta.

    What we ended up wondering is why Parisian brasseries are so awful. Do you have an explanation? It’d be interesting to know.

    Regards, Megan

  • Alec Lobrano

    Megan,

    The brasserie problem originates with the fact that most of the legendary Paris brasseries were bought up by either Groupe Flo or the Freres Blanc during the 80s and 90s, with the idea of turning them into money-spinners.

    To be sure, brasseries were never places one went for a gastronomic feed, but rather good, simple French food. As the brasseries in the two groups I mentioned stopped doing much real cooking on site, the quality of what they served declined drastically and continues to do so.

    I used to love Paris brasseries, but mostly avoid them like the plague these days.

    Best, Alec

  • Unfortunately, you are so on target about both the megamarkets and the brasseries. There have been such changes in the quality of food in the shopping bag and on the plate, none of which bode at all well for France’s future.

    Living in the countryside, I’m struck by how unlikely it is that while traveling you can just drop into a provincial cafe or restaurant and find anything much more than reheated "industriel".

    Remember the stories of Elizabeth David?