Warnings from Paris, and Some Good News, Too

July 7, 2008

Following the huge success of the Velib bicycle rental program in Paris, the streets of the city have become filled with cyclists. The predictable problem is that many of these peddlers haven’t been on a bicycle in years, and so occasionally make risky moves in busy city streets. To keep everyone safer, the city of Paris is going to require all cyclists to wear a bright yellow reflective jacket by the end of the summer. This explains why the street peddlers are selling these flourescent vests and why you’ll see so many of them in shop windows.

In a similar spirit of warning, I report on one of the most disappointing meals that I’ve had in Paris in a longtime. The culprit table is one of the longest running bistros on the Left Bank, Aux Fins Gourmets. I’d heard that this pricey bistro had new Alain Ducasse trained owners, and so I went in the hopes that they’d be able to revive the doddering menu of Basque and southwestern dishes that has remained unchanged for so many years.

Arriving, it was a pleasure to see that the dining room had remained unchanged–the walls are still tinted vanilla by the smoke of now banned Gitanes and the original ancient menus survive, too. In fact, almost nothing had changed since I was last here eight years or so ago, and this was the problem. I found 7.50 Euros for most of the hors d’oeuvres to be highway robbery, and the terrine de campagne came to the table as a sort of shirt-cardboard gray mush. A serving of  jambon de Bayonne was decent enough, but the bread was stale, and our waiter was clearly bored by his work.

I ordered gigot d’agneau, or roast leg of lamb, a vieille France favorite that seemed to be making the man at the table next to ours very happy, and my friend Judy settled on the roast chicken with great eagerness (her oven isn’t working very well these days). Fifteen minutes later, the waiter returned to say that they’d run out of chicken (?!), and she shifted to an entrecote. If my lamb was decent enough, the accompanying haricots blanc were submerged in an inch of yellow oil when they came to the table and were completely tasteless. Judy’s steak was tough as nails, and the only thing that prevented the meal from becoming a complete disaster was a very decent bottle of Chinon for 28 Euros, more than I like to spend on wine in a restaurant unless it’s a notably good bottle or a special occasion.

When I politely expressed my disappointment with the meal to the waiter, he didn’t seem surprised. Instead, he mumbled that this place remains popular with "les etrangers," (foreigners), which isn’t surprising, since they’re a lot of hotels nearby, and I suspect this old war-horse is probably a permanent fixture on the go-to list of many a concierge. Ultimately, for similar vieille France cooking, I’d much rather go to Au Pied de Fouet in the rue de Babylone, 7th or the rue Bonaparte, 6th. Note, too, that Au Pied de Fouet has recently opened a third branch in the 11th arrondissement. And if you’re staying in this neighborhood and don’t want French food, try Lao Tseu, a very well-mannered Chinese restaurant just a few doors down from Aux Fins Gourmets. It pulls a beau monde crowd–philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and his wife Arielle Dombasle are regulars, the service is charming, prices reasonable, and the kitchen reliable (for an Asian restaurant in an expensive Paris neighborhood). The best bet there is the menu vapeur, a quartet of different dim sum, and the house rose is cheap and easy summer drinking.

  • Mark Lieberman

    Hello Alexander,

    Beat after a day of museums, we went to Lao Tseu last night and loved the 17 Euro "menu vapeur." It was just the ticket, and their rose at 14 Euros is nice drinking, too. Thanks for the tip!


  • jean claude angelo

    to be honest, for six months, i go quite often in paris, and each time i go alone, or with my friends in Aux Fins Gourmets ; and I can assure you that the quality changes, it s one of my three favorites restos in Europe. Now they are doing a great job !!!!! Go their…Ask for the owners Jean Christophe or Emmanuel or their young manager Teddy. I know as well, that they will have a new chef from the Palace "Le Meurice" for next summer. Enjoy…………

  • seymour angela

    According to my husband and our friends, it’s the best bistrot parisien in Paris. The cook is amaizing, the waiters are just surprising(because so differents from each other), one of the owners is so sexy(do not know the second), the atmosphere is old fashion with some Titi parisian, many 7th locals, actors, and at lunch time people from the ministery.You can eat for 30 euros, but usually for 45 euros. House wine is good and cheap but they have a large french wine list. If you go their once, you ‘ll go back !!!!