THE BEEF CLUB–A Mis-Steak in Les Halles, C-

April 20, 2012

Beef-Club-front-window   For the last year or so in Paris, there’s been a sudden curious flowering of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (the French often benightedly insist on using this medieval term when referring to almost any English speaking country, even Nigeria) restaurant concepts that run from burger trucks and joints to Upper East Side style dating restaurants (La Maison Mere) to some happily very decent Mexican places, with a couple of tedious mini-pastry trendlets (cupcakes, whoopie pies) thrown in for good measure. Since I love a good burger, I’ve been delighted by the arrival of La Camion qui Fume and Blend, and generally bemused by the profusion of Caesar salads and cheesecake all over Paris, since in the main, this is a harmless set of trends that mostly bespeak the fact that Parisian Bobos really love New York City.

After dinner at the new The Beef Club the other night, however, I’m starting to have some serious doubts about what this trend means for Paris. If the food scene in every major city is in constant evolution, Paris isn’t every major city. It’s much smaller than London and New York, and without the same jumped-up financial sectors as those two cities, there’s less money to spin the wheels of the local restaurant industry, which is already struggling for a variety of distinctly local factors like the moronic 35 hour work week (whoever France’s next president may be, I hope they’ll renounce this daft Ruby Goldberg feint at economics once and for all).

What this means is that a big trend here has a lot more impact that it would in a larger city with a more lavish expense-account dining culture. A perfect–and rather sorry–example is the fact that almost everytime a neighborhood cafe or brasserie is remodeled these days, it turns up with a faux Costes brothers restaurant style decor. Though they’re definite signs Parisians are finally becoming bored by the Costes restaurants, the ripple effect of their success is still being copied everywhere. They were the ones who pioneered the local idea of well-sourced brand-name products instead of real cooking, and they also launched a whole sad battery of recipes that are more about assembling things on plates–salmon tartare, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, etc., or just plain applying some heat here and there than are about the transformational art of cooking. And the new wave of Paris burger restaurants and steakhouses are basically just taking a leaf from the same playbook, since they’re all about prestige sourcing, too–meat from star butchers like Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec or Hugo Desnoyer, plus a smattering of tantalizing culinary snobberies like moutarde de Meaux or Ogleshield cheese, and the smart art of grilling.

Beef-Club-salle-seen-through-front-door

So the menu at The Beef Club offers a rather wilting and warning boilerplate of things that are likely to become ubiquitous in Paris, and what bothers me most about this is that they’re not French. I’m very far from being a gastronomic protectionist, but I honestly don’t understand why the beef served at The Beef Club comes from farmer Tim Wilson’s farm in Yorkshire (yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s grass-fed and the breeds are different from what you find in France, but so what–give me Bazas beef or Charolais or Blonde d’Aquitaine any day), but most of all I just don’t get this completely misbegotten and off-kilter version of a New York City steakhouse cross-bred with some wispy English version of same  and then lightly extruded through a French sensibility. Paris already has several superb steak restaurants, like Le Severo, so why do we need the Peter Luger modeled, super market-researched The Beef Club when what we’re really short of in the City of Light these days are good French bistros?

Beef-Club-neighboring-table

On the basis of the crowd there the other night–lots of younger affluent but fashionably bedraggled Parisians who checked their iPhones and Blackberries constantly through dinners with which they mostly drank Coca-Cola Light, I am light years away from being part of the target demographic. Still, I might have liked this place if the food had been better than average and the service half-decent. Since starters were expensive and neither original nor very appealing–Caesar salad, Scotch Egg with salad, and grilled rabbit livers, among others, we went directly to the main courses.

Beef-Club-cheeseburger   I had a very sorry 23 Euro “Beef Burger” (as the Brits call hamburgers, a puzzling but precious little beat of verbal snobbery), a tasteless and rather overcooked burger on a stale roll that exhibited almost none of the promised garnishes of “bacon, grilled onions, lettuce, pickles, red leicester, ogleshield and sauce maison au whisky” and a side of ho-hum frites cooked in duck fat. The others had steaks, which were good, but in no way memorable, and we drank the cheapest red on the wine list, a Gigondas at 29 Euros.

To be fair, service was doubtless off its game because the restaurant had been reconfigured to accomodate two large tables of French food bloggers, but the amateurish and absent-minded behavior of everyone who waited on us drove Michael and Dorie right up the wall. We glanced at the menu for dessert–cheesecake, bien sur; chocolate mousse with crushed pecans and salted caramel sauce; or a fruit salad on a bed of passionfruit mousse, and decided to pass.

“I hate this restaurant,” the normally sugar-sprinkled Dorie exclaimed while we were waiting for the bill, which a waitress finally deposited on the table with an, “Et voila!”

With an an average meal running at least 60 Euros a head at The Beef Club, I couldn’t help but comparing this place to La Rotonde, where I’d had dinner a few nights before with Bruno. There, in a grand old dining room with a decor recalling the first-class dining carriages of another era–brass coat rails and fringed silk-shaded lamps, it was a pleasure to sink into an atmosphere so profoundly Parisian. To be sure, tourists fill the glassed in terrace of this historic Montparnasse brasserie, but the low-lit booths in back are still the haunt of a cross-section of Gallic captains of industry and Left Bank power brokers, and the impeccably calibrated service–polite, alert, vaguely deferential and exquisitely wry, couldn’t possibly be more old school French, which meant that I just lapped it up.

Rotonde-Salle-2-bald-man

I’d hadn’t been to La Rotonde in at least twenty years, and so had almost no memory of the food whatsoever. And truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much, because I never expect much from Paris brasseries anymore. So what were we doing here? Bruno was craving oysters, I was hungry for meat, it was late, and we’d just been to a gallery show of a friend’s photographs around the corner. So Bruno went with the 39 Euro menu, which brought him six Quiberon oysters, sea bass in preserved-lemon sauce on a bed of wild rice and one of the best millefeuilles I’ve had in Paris for a very longtime.

Rotonde-oysters

Rotonde-sea-bass

I went with some oysters, too, and then had an outstanding steak tartare made with beef from butcher Hugo Desnoyer and so generously served I almost couldn’t finish it. The tartare came with beautiful little mesclun salad and freshly made frites, and even though the ever dieting Bruno wasn’t drinking that night in penance for a lot of Sagrantino recently consumed in Umbria, I was able to make myself happy with a little 25 cl carafe of white Macon to start, and then the same measure of a good inky Colombo cotes du Rhone before I forced Bruno to share his millefeuille with me.

Rotonde-tartare

You won’t get to eyeball the millefeuille, because our pretty blonde waitress knowingly and neatly divided it in half before she served us, and it looked so good that I immediately devoured my half before thinking to record it for posterity. If the menu at La Rotonde name dropped a bit–the Saint Marcellin was from the cranky La Mere Richard in Lyon, sorbets from Berthillon, veal chop and a few other tasty morsels from Hugo Desnoyer, what I quickly understood was that the quality of this restaurant is so supervailing you really don’t even need these hang tags. I can’t remember the last time the little playing-card squares of rye bread served with an order of oysters were actually good–they’re invariably stale and taste like baked dust, but here the bread was delicious. So the next time I’m hankering after a meaty comfort-food feed, I’ll give a definite miss to all of the new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ restaurants in Paris, and head for La Rotonde, where I’ll order the 39 Euro menu, and have the following meal.

1) Terrine du moment de Gilles Vérot

2) Gigot d’Agneau de Lozère (Hugo Desnoyer) rôti aux herbes, jus et garniture

3) Baba au vieux rhum ambré

I’m really looking forward to it, too.

The Beef Club, 58 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1st, Tel. 09-52-52-89-34. Metro: Les Halles, Louvre-Rivoli. Dinner only, Tuesday to Saturday. Average 60 Euros.

La Rotonde, 105 boulevard Montparnasse, 6th, Tel. 01-43-26-48-26. Metro: Vavin. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 39 Euros. Average a la carte 50 Euros.

  • Christopher Hardy

    'Beefburger' is not verbal snobbery. 1) The English have never understood why something made of beef pretends to be made of ham. 2) The English didn't get the memo about the burger being the direct descendant of the Hamburg steak. 3) The English actually have great respect for 'hamburgers', which are serious and delicious, and distinguish them from 'beefburgers' which come from the freezer and are made from cardboard.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Christopher, you make several good points in your comment, most of which would seem to support my befuddlement with why the hamburger at The Beef Club in called a 'Beef Burger." Having lived in London twice for long periods of time, I know that beef burgers are pretty ghastly–just order one at any Little Chef if you're in doubt, and this is why I don't get the idea of calling them by this name in Paris. Seems to me that the only possible reason is as a misconstrued Gallic feint at Anglo poshness. And in the U.S. no one actually ever thinks that hamburgers are made of ham, or at least as far as I know and hope, but rather understand that this preparation of chopped beef arrived in the U.S. with German immigrants. Best, Alec

  • Brad Wilson

    Alex, one of the best food essays I've seen in a long while. I save my pennies to come to Paris every other year to experience just the kind of FRENCH cooking you are such a fan of, and places like Beef Club depress me in the same way when I see soulless chain Italian restaurants prospering in my hometown of Philadelphia where fine local Italian joints are everywhere … sigh. But the fact that you and John Talbott both had lamb to rave about in Paris in the last week means all is not lost.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Many thanks, Brad, and yes indeed, Paris is more than worth filling your piggy bank for, especially since so many excellent new places have opened here recently. Your comment on mediocre Italian chain restaurants in wonderful Philadelphia struck a nerve, too since every time I return to visit the small town in Connecticut where I grew up, I am again forced into wonderment about why all of the old-fashioned New England farm stands that once existed there were forced out of business to be replaced by fake Disney-esque versions of same. I guess some people actually prefer plastic to wood. Best, Alec

  • Hello Alec,

    I was one of the French bloggers, sorry if our large table bothered other people. We were initially split into two tables, and asked for a re-union when we arrived.
    The tile-covered walls make the place quite noisy.
    Service was not fast (already mentioned by Adrian Moore), but we found them quite patient, and nice, as it is rare in fashionable and newly opened places in Paris to find such friendly staff.
    I have not tried the burger, but my côte de boeuf was very good. Sure, it is not cheap, but this could be explained by the sourcing of the meat+ Le Bourdonnec price premium.
    It is true that there are other places in Paris with very good (but different) meat and steaks (Severo, Griffonnier, Gourmet des Ternes, Charbon Rouge), but this Beef Club is very central.
    The wine list needs to be improved: choice is average and coefficients are not acceptable (4-6x)

  • No worries, Chrisos–your table didn't ruffle any feathers, it's just that this dining room is small and oddly configured. I agree that the beef at The Beef Club is good, but still don't like the concept, the prices–starters are much too expensive, the wine list, and the desserts. And I am apprehensive about the impact of 'Anglo-Saxon' burger and steakhouse culture on the Paris restaurant scene. Cheers, Alec

  • potaufeu

    "the beef served at The Beef Club comes from farmer Tim Wilson's farm in Yorkshire (yeah, yeah, yeah, it's grass-fed and the breeds are different from what you find in France, but so what–give me Bazas beef or Charolais or Blonde d'Aquitaine any day)"

    1) Are you sure all the beef served in le severo comes from France?
    2) Reading the article, I've asked myself why did you even go (ok, it's your job….but it seemed to me that no matter what, your opinion about the place was't going to be good)

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Dear Pot au Feu,

    1) I don't actually know if all of the beef served at Le Severo comes from France, but most of it does come from Hugo Desnoyer, and since I shop there often, I know his beef is French.

    2) I'm puzzled by your conclusion that I went to this restaurant with an a priori. Since I was looking forward to seeing my friends Dorie, Michael and Christian, and it turned out to be an expensive meal, I'd have much preferred that the food, atmosphere and service be good at the Beef Club. Aside from a life-long passion for really good food, I also love going to restaurants for the people-watching, atmosphere, and what they reveal about the chef and the city and country in which he or she is cooking.

    Best, Alec

  • Joseph

    Alec, So much for the Beef Club! On the other hand La Rotonde is one of my favorite places while in Paris on frequent business trips. I stay at a hotel nearby and La Rotonde has become my neighborhood go to place for early morning breakfast and late night dinners. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to convince my Parisian colleagues and friends that the food is very good and the dining experience above average. La Rotonde, and places like it (are there any others left with good food?) are (happily existing) at the opposite end of the "fooding" snobbery that is polluting the Parisian landscape. My hope is that La Rotonde remains independent and does not come under the gaze of the house of Costes, the Flo people or other similar influences. Finally, what might be found in a Terrine du moment de Gilles Vérot? Best, Joseph

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Joseph, So glad we share an affection for La Rotonde, which is a precious place for the very reasons that it remains independent and hasn't been saddled up with a major marketing saddle on its back. Gilles Verot is one of the best charcutier in Paris right now–you can also find his wares at Yannick Alleno's great new Terroir Parisien. What the Terrine du Moment might be when you order is hard to say, since the rough translation here is 'Terrine of the Day.' One way or another, Verot's terrines–pork, veal, chicken, etc., are all superb, so you can order them fearlessly. All best, Alec

  • Donald Edwards

    Now I read this with some curiosity as I know the Hawksmoor restaurants very well, with whom I believe the ECC folk have partnered somewhat. The Ginger Pig beef is very excellent, though I take your point about it not necessarily being better than something French.
    What confuses me is the beef burger, as opposed to hamburger, both usages are found in the UK, but more often than not beef is used as it's prefaced by something to do with provenance.