“A week in Paris will ease the bite of it”
Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life
What can I add to the rivers of ink that have been spilled in the name of the City of Lights? I pass through Gay Paree from time to time and I always eat well, but it takes work. Good food in France doesn’t always come easily. So I spent a fattening week plowing through markets, bistros, restos and cafés. I avoid the trendy, the chic and the new. If the clientele is over forty, it smells good, and it’s hard to get a table, I march right in. I follow my (ample) nose, use my eyes, and bone up on my French. Here’s what I came up with. Allons-y:
LUNDI: bœuf bourguignon
La Tartine is a nice old café-bistro in Le Marais that everyone needs to know about. The food is serviceable. It’s pretty, homey and always open. The blackboard promised the oldest cliché in the Franco-American greatest hits parade so I ordered it and I was glad I did: textbook rich, red and winey sauce revealed a payload of falling-apart beef, and a side of freshly boiled potatoes was there to soak it up. It was a good start.
24 Rue de Rivoli, 4th arr., Metro St. Paul
MARDI: Les huitres & l’agneau
In France dejeuner starts promptly at 12, in Paris perhaps a bit later. Coming from Latin America where we eat no earlier than 2 p.m., I’m always terrified of missing it. I do have a way of arriving just when all the coffees are being served; maître d’s sigh, check their watches then only reluctantly show us to a table. I’d gone straight to the best covered market in the Ile-de-France, the Marché Beauvau at Place d’Aligre, where I picked up a pungent little artisanal Epoisse at Fromagerie Langlet and a half liter of very expensive olive oil from the Provençal stand. Next to the fish stand I sat at a table for one and ordered a dozen Belon oysters on the half shell, which I downed in five minutes flat. But it was 12:15, lunch hour and I was getting nervous. I exited the market and my eye caught Moisan, my favorite boulangerie. I had to have one of their flutes, which I bought and ate while crossing the street. I headed over to a restaurant I had never noticed, La Table d’Aligre. I marched in and ordered the poêlée de d’agneau, crème d’ail, galette de pommes rapées, a no-brainer choice if you ask me. It was beyond fabulous, an answer to anyone’s ovine prayer, succulent, garlicky, the flavors as balanced as an old market scale. Over a mint tea in front of the Algerian sweet shop on Rue d’Aligre I watched the street market being dismantled. My cheese was stinking, my feet aching. I headed to the rental apartment in Montmartre that we called home.
La Table d’Aligre
11 place d’Aligre, 12 arr., Tèl : 01 43 07 84 88
MERCREDI: Confit de Canard
Chez Gladines, near the non-descript Place d’Italie in the 13th, is the archetypal bistro. It is visually retro, but the atmosphere is contemporary by virtue of its relaxed, youngish, black-turtleneck clad clientele. I fully expect to see a 1960 vintage Jean Paul Belmondo accompanied by Juliette Greco and her hip-length ponytail puffing away at Gauloises over a plate of hearty classic sauce-blanketed fare. But it’s 2010 so we’ll just have to pretend. No J.P., non fumer. As the place accepts no reservations and goes from empty to full in the space of 15 minutes, luck, strategic planning and decent French are the only way to get a table here. But it’s worth the effort. For the Gladines put out consistently good food. They specialize in enormous salads, served in a stainless steel mixing bowl. “Salad!” you’re thinking, “how light and lovely, a respite from heavy French food”.
Wrong. Every salad on the menu contains lardons, ham, gibiers, cheese, croutons, or foie gras. Oh, there are lovely greens as well. One salad can be shared by 3 or 4, as we did. That was so I could get to my main course, the exquisite, heady, profound and profane confit de canard aux champignons. Crispy, meaty duck is not at all overwhelmed by its reduced, mushroomy sauce and served with those perfectly browned potatoes that have so much flavor in France. I accompany it with a pichet of nice Bordeaux and nothing else. That’s why I go to Chez Gladines.
30 rue des Cinq-Diamants, 13th arr., Metro Place d’Italie
JEUDI: A Lyonaisse creamfest
Moissonier is an old-time French restaurant. The staff has attitude. I’d made a reservation in decent French. When we arrived to a full house, the tightly coiffed and purse-lipped hostess was dealing with a bill and didn’t look up as we stood, cold and hungry. A couple of minutes passed. “Je suis Nicolás” I tentatively interjected. “Je sais!” she snapped, barely looking up. I shut up and waited some more. Just like the good old days.
Finally, deciding that we had suffered enough, she led us to our table, the last one available. She seemed to warm up a little when we ordered everything on the menu. In Lyon they use a lot of butter, cream, fat and offal. The Lyonaisse salad I ordered turned out to be a cart loaded down with pretty rustic bowls containing enough calories to sink the Lusitania. Our waitress shoved other diners out of the way to roll the cart to the side of our table, and then simply left it there.
I ate—creamy celerie remoulade, mustardy potato salad, big fat chunks of bacon, lemony sweet beets, ham, herring. How much was I supposed to take? Is there a protocol? When do you stop? Who knows…I just had to stop because next arrived the famous poulet aux morilles. The succulent and densely flavored bird was served basking in – you guessed it – cream, perfumed with a generous helping of woodsy morels. I ate it all and licked the plate, not caring what Mme. might think. I also finished Muriel’s gigantic quenelle (a fluffy soufflé of fish, cream-covered and spiked with nutmeg). Skipping dessert, we waddled home. Julia Child would have been pleased with the amount of butterfat that flowed out of that kitchen. I, however, felt a little nauseous that afternoon and didn’t eat again that day.
VENDREDI: Send in the Clowns
I spent Friday evening at the home of the extraordinary Caroline Simonds and husband Patrick Loughran (http://patrickloughran.com/). American-born dancer/street performer Simonds has lived most of her adult life in France. She founded and heads Le Rire Medecin, (http://www.leriremedecin.asso.fr/) a troop of more than 50 clown-doctors who work to heal sick children through humor. She is a clown and proud of it. Tirelessly promoting her non-profit group, whose existence depends on private donations, traveling to places I’ve never heard of to teach, she doesn’t fail to don a red nose once a week and visit a hospital. I’ve never known anyone who works so hard. Yet she is also a great cook and when work is done she manages to turn out extraordinary dinners for 10 at the drop of a bowler.
Friday was Italian-Franco fusion night at their cheery souvenir and art-filled flat in Montreuil. Caroline is proud to admit that her larder receives a little help from Picard, France’s most popular cryogenic supermarket, whose morgue-like freezers have become quite chic to patronize, “as long as your whole meal isn’t from there” Caroline admonishes. So, our sweet roast pepper slices shmeered with warmed chevre and crowned with a beautiful anchovy was house-made and, surprisingly, not Caroline’s idea at all but Sophia Loren’s (“I LOVE her cookbook!”). But the creamy, light crème de potiron was all Picard – the look of dissaproval on my face dissipated when I tasted it. And the piece de resistance was a pasta puttanesca the likes of which no puta I know has ever whipped up in 15 minutes. (“I mash six anchovies with garlic FIRST, then add the Picard frozen peeled tomatoes”). Served on a combination of sculptor Loughlan’s artsy abstract plates and flowery ‘40’s French grandmother dishes from the brocante, we topped everything off with a bottle of Les Hautes de Smith 2006 and the piquant cheeses I had bought in the market. “My house always stinks when you come over”, Caroline scolded, a clownish gleam in her eye.
SAMEDI: Do-it-yourself bouillabaisse for twelve
I’d been looking forward to shopping and cooking for a long time and had planned a dinner party months in advance. Like everybody else, I’d welcomed Julia Child back into my life and planned to make her bouillabaisse, the classic fish soup from Marseilles. What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that the rental apartment’s kitchen was not equipped to my and Julia’s standards.
Pots were too small and worse, the only knives available were a steak knife and an enormous cleaver, the kind they used to cut someone’s head off in “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte”. Tante pis. I made do, shopping for fish, cheese and bread at the spectacular Marché Biologique Batignolles. I always head straight to the good-looking guy who makes the oniony gallettes de pomme de terre, i.e. the best potato pancakes in the world–you can smell them from half a block away, and they are worth the wait which is usually long. When my turn came up at the best fish vendor, I procured a rascasse, the spiny red fish required for a true Marseillaise fish stew. Rougets, merlou, clams, mussels, crabs, kilos of joie de mer and 120 euros later I was all set. I Made the fumet in several small pots, chopped leek, fennel the white wine, and yes, a bag of frozen, peeled chopped tomatoes from Picard. I think I did OK. The fragrance was maddening. The soup was delicate, perfumy, light. I (the chef) got out of the way and let the ingredients speak for themselves. A dozen happy people showed up, old and new friends and family. A life hurdle: feeding the French. I did it!
DIMANCHE: Chez Josephine
Sunday I let the French feed me. We were invited to the home of Josephine and Luc for a family dejeuner.
How lucky we were. Josephine is the sister of my good friend Elodie and happens to have a great lofty apartment off of the Place d’Aligre (I always seem to end up there). This Sunday’s menu consisted of her version of Argentine empanadas: flaky, buttery mille-feuille tarts filled with delectable meat stuffings. My favorite was the Moroccan chicken augmented by slivers of preserved lemons. Her trois-legume salad was a revelation: peas, green beans and favas lightly sautéed in butter and delicately seasoned with fresh mint was served room temperature. This dish will become a standard chez moi, seeing as we have a seemingly endless supply of these elements in Mexico. A lot of food and drink was put away by four generations, French, English and Spanish was freely intermixed. All with a view of the 12th arrondissmont and beyond. A perfect familiar way to say au revoir to my friends and to Paris. “The last time I saw Paris…my heart was young and gay”. But my pants didn’t fit me anymore.
Not mentioned above but equally merveilleuses are:
Chez Dumonet – A beautiful old-time bistro classic in both décor and menu. Traditional dishes like steak tartar, cassoulet and confit de canard are impeccably prepared. A bit on the pricey side; watch the ‘small things’ like coffee, water, as they are exaggeratedly expensive. But an experience well worth the euros. 117, rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th arrondissement
Wally, Le Saharien
A very cozy, romantic placefor North African specialties
36, rue Rodier, 9th arr.
This hip place serves post-modern takes on classic cuisine. Unfortunately, Mark Bittman wrote it up in the NYTimes the day after I ate there – drat! So, there will be more tourists and fewer tables to be had. But I’ll still go back. The warm custardy chocolate dessert was superb.
12, Ave. Richerand (10th arr.)
21 Blvd. Diderot, (12th arr.)
Right across from the Gare de Lyon, this is a huge, classic brasserie where you can show up any time of day or night for a fabulous, and classic meal. The informality, however is not reflected in the prices which are fairly high.
Le Clown Bar
114 Rue Amelot, (11th arr.)
This gorgeous, ancient little bar is covered floor to ceiling with turn-of-the-century tiles depicting clowns, as well as circus and clown ephemera and posters. Good for a drink or a light meal. Don’t take photos, although you will be tempted – they don’t like it.
First published May 10 2010