What I Did on My Summer Vacation

August 25, 2008

After two weeks in Bali and Singapore, it was time for a truly French feed tonight. With much of the city still in slow motion as the vacation season winds down, my choices weren’t as rich as they usually are, so summertime oblige, we decided to combine a major grocery run to the Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marche with a casual dinner at the Cafe Nemrod, one of my favorite cafes.

When I lived in the rue du Bac, Le Nemrod was my local canteen. Why? The Auvergnat family that ran it for years was hugely proud of the quality of the food and wine they served, prices are easy, and it pulls a terrific crowd. This is why I was wary when the rosy-cheeked Auvergnats were bought out by a competitor who has made a career in taking Left Bank cafes upmarket (i.e. trendier decor and higher prices, with the sop of brand-name produce on the menu).

On this deliciously cool August night, though (it rained cats and dogs in Singapore yesterday, and the whole city was steaming when our plane took off last night), I was ready for a Gallic feed par excellence, and this is exactly what we got. A generously served plate of jambon de campagne from the Auvergne made for perfect nibbling while we waited for the piece de resistance–the steak tartare. Made with Salers beef and accompanied by REAL (not frozen, but made from scratch) frites, this is one of the most satisfying dishes in Paris. The coarsely chopped beef was perfectly seasoned with capers, cornichons, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and the frites, after two weeks of rice, were heavenly. And after two weeks of middle-brow Australian wine (with the exception of a couple of Californian, Chilean and New Zealand bottles, the Aussies have shrewdly sewn up the booming Asian wine market), a Morgon Vieille Vignes was a sublime relief, since it had the finish and complexity that most brand-name industrial wines so sorely lack.

Before dinner, I’d really been looking forward to going tor broke–and you have to, since it’s so expensive–at the Grand Epicierie, since I love the Big Shop that follows a long trip away and can’t get at my weekly organic market in the Batignolles until Saturday morning. Stepping into this highly praised and highly priced supermarket where I shopped at least once a day for almost ten years, I was let down by the slipping quality, shoddy service, and ever higher prices of this place, which doesn’t hold a candle to any of Whole Foods better stores. In late August, it was a disgrace to be selling tomatoes from Dutch greenhouses, the fish counter has shrunken and become mediocre, and it’s generally obvious that management is trying to wriggle away from as much fresh (or perishable, and hence money-losing, food as possible). If I’d once have rated this store a B+/A-, I’d now generously give it a B-.

Finally, highs and lows of Asia:

*Best meal in Bali: Sarong, Seminyak–hip new pan-Asian place with excellent menu, stylish decor, and intriguing crowd.

*Worst meal in Bali: Mozaic, Ubud–the dainty modern European cooking here is pretty good, but horrendously overpriced and the service is insufferably pretentious. Who needs Michelin attitude in a place as enchanting as Ubud?

*Revelation: Yan Ting, the Chinese restaurant at the St. Regis, Singapore. Quite simply the best dim sum I’ve ever eaten.

And what did you do on your summer vacation?!

Cafe Le Nemrod, 51 rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th, Tel.

  • Shelli

    I love the Nemrod, particularly the great salads, and what a wonderful place for people watching! When did the ownership change? I haven’t been for several months and didn’t noticed anything different last time.

  • Alec Lobrano

    Hi Shelli,

    The Nemrod now belongs to the same owners as the Cafe Varenne. Aside from slightly higher prices, changes are small but subtle, including a recently reprinted menu and the fact that standard sized wine glasses are now used (the previous owners used to serve the Morgon Vieille Vignes, one of their favorites, in large tulip glasses, which lets it open up better). And I agree with you that their salads are superb, although the woman sitting next to me last night was pretty indignant about the quality of their tomatoes–"You’d think they’d be able to better than the usual hard, pale supermarket tomato in late August!" I agree. Best, Alec

  • Shelli

    Sounds like they’ve been buying at le Grand Epicerie.

    And by the way, good for you for recognizing Stonehouse olive oil; I’ve been using it almost exclusively for several years and have brought it as gifts for Parisian friends.

  • I always eat at Le Nemrod when I’m in Paris since I stay at the St. Gregoire hotel around the corner from there. Great neighborhood cafe with friendly service and excellent food.

    I have to agree about La Grande Epicerie which used to be the best place to go food shopping but although the prices have gone up, the quality hasn’t.