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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Entrées For The Rentrée


An auspicious rentrée for Mortstiff & Co. – ‘rentrée’ as in regeneration, blooming, reemergence from the cocoon, the great awakening from the somnabulance of summer, I am so French - this year came not with a whimper or a bang, but more of a ‘splat.’ As is our wont, I accompanied Co. to the rooftop one starry, early September night, and led her in our annual dance to the end of summer, a tango. My spanking new 600€ tango shoes, with their six-inch heels were feeling uncharacteristically snug, which may account for why a couple minutes into our routine, I boleroed when I should have ganchoed, and the next thing I knew Co. had pasodobled right into the Hospital Montfermeil emergency room. So with Co. out of commission, things have been rather slow on the restaurant front, including a requisite cancellation of our much anticipated inaugural visit to La Bigarrade (rescheduled for the end of this month).


Nonetheless, we did manage to squeeze in a couple sure things since my last posting – Le Villaret and Les Magnolias. These are two of our mainstays, and for good reason. There is no way you walk out of these restaurants without a strong desire to return. I’ve already made the point that Le Villaret, which is located not far from the Place de la Republique off of Oberkampf in the 11th, is my favorite Paris bistrot. Small enough to feel intimate, yet roomy enough to offset the all-too-common claustrophobia that makes many small Parisian bistrots seem oppressive, the wood and brick Le Villaret is a perfect spot to settle in from the Autumn chill and enjoy the chef’s latest creations. For our visit, we sampled the salade salsola confit auberge et tarte fin sardines, fricassee chipirons et artichauts, ris de veau, and the canette en deux cuissons. I don’t know how many times I’ve sworn off ordering any sardine dish in a restaurant, but the sardine entrée was excellent. Le Villaret also boasts one of the most impressive cheese trays in Paris – in their case, a four-tiered wooden box. Better than Astier’s – the bistrot a couple blocks away – noteworthy cheese plate. A 22€ tasty 2006 Corbiere efficiently rounded out the meal, and all-told, the bill for two (3 courses + wine + coffee) came to 118€. [Just a question: why not include some menus on the menu?] During this latest visit, I was surprised to learn that the previous owner – as much an institution as the restaurant – had retired, which accounted for the frantic new owner’s hyperactivity and apparent stress. I’d be stressful too if I had to keep rushing into the kitchen to make sure that the two cooks – a husband and wife team who could periodically be heard yelling at each other through the kitchen doors – hadn’t strangled each other.

LE VILLARET - 13 rue Terneaux 75011 Paris
tel: 01 43 57 75 56


As for Les Magnolias, there’s not much to add to my earlier review (see the posting for 11 fev. 2008). Jean Chauvel is a grand artiste – his meals are prepared as works of art. You hesitate before taking knife and fork to them. I really hit the jackpot this time with the raie (ray or skate fish) preparation, described thusly on the menu: ‘ Raie bouclée flottant sur quelques tâches de grenades braise tiède de maïs et panais, noué de poivre du Vietnam.’ It was Co’s turn to opt for the ‘4-21’ dessert, a concoction where the overall gestalt is fundamentally greater than the sum of its parts. The first time I tried this dessert I wondered what I was supposed to do with the little glass of grilled peanuts and the small glass of pastis and rose petals. Ultimately, I understood, and you will, too. Eureka, I’ve got it.

LES MAGNOLIAS – 48, avenue de Bry - 94 Le Perreux-sur-Marne tel : 01 48 72 47 43


Sandwiched in-between Villaret and Magnolias were two pleasantly surprising Asian restaurants, the Restaurant Le Palais de l’Hirondelle and Voyage en Siam. I happened upon Le Palais during the intellectually stimulating, biannual Festival America in Vincennes. All the debates and lectures that had transpired during the afternoon with some of the noted authors of the Americas (N. and S.) had left me with a decent appetite to slake before the evening’s concert with Luke Doucet, Oh! Susanna, and Arlo’s definitely grown up daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie. On my own, and thus with no great desire to over-complicate things given the 90-minutes I had at my disposal, I figured a local Asian restaurant would do the trick. Le Palais specializes in Chinese, Thai, and grilled cuisine. My selections were quite good, especially the appetizer of onoo fish in banana skin. Don’t worry, I never heard of it either, but it was tasty, prepared in a sauce that seemed to incorporate coconut milk and curry. I followed that up with giant shrimp hunan with a side order of riz gluant, all washed down with a carafe of red wine. The damper on the evening came when I complained to the waitress that the wine had the distinct aroma and taste of cork. Her response, to the best of my translation skills, was along the lines of, ‘look, you jerk, it’s only a carafe, what do you expect, Pomerol?’ Well, that’s pretty true, the wine was only something like 7€, but she may as well have given me a coke laced with gasoline. If it’s bad, I ain’t going to drink it. Case closed. After I insisted I received my replacement carafe. At the end of the meal, as I paid my 35€, we exchanged some polite banter and I left with everything hunky dory between me and the waitress who I hope I never, ever see again. Still, if you’re stuck in Vincennes and are up for some very good inexpensive Asian food, Le Palais de l’Hirondelle is recommended.

LE PALAIS DE L’HIRONDELLE - 4, rue du Midi - 94300 Vincennes tel : 01 43 28 20 06


Voyage au Siam is a Thai restaurant in the 11th, just off avenue de la Republique on rue Saint-Maur. This was the choice for a post-meeting rendevous with several of my work colleagues. It’s a nice little spot, very comfortable, with welcoming geisha girls, I mean waitresses, collectively taking a small choreographed bow to welcome each patron. Given there were about twelve of us, we were led to the back of the restaurant to a large table logistically isolated from the rest of the evening’s paying customers. That was great, because you know what happens when a dozen co-workers all start pontificating at the same time in a restaurant – it can get noisy. I can’t speak for any of my colleagues, but they all looked pretty satisfied with their selections, and they spanned the gamut. As for myself, I opted for the Mii-krob entrée : vermicelles de riz croustillants mélanges avec du tofu, de la ciboulette et des feuilles de coriander à la sauce acidulée-sucrée-salée – and, I can add, on a bed of salad. This was an original dish – maybe not in Thailand, but I had never had it before in Paris – light but satisfying. The main plate was a highlight – Pla Pao, an entire sea bass (bar) with Thai spices, wrapped in a grilled banana leaf and served with a coriander and lime sauce. This was a pretty succulent and involving dish and by its end I realized I had hardly touched my bamboo basket of riz gluant. I passed on dessert, but we worked our way through several bottles of a reasonably priced burgundy (18€). Hard to believe, but the two-course menu + coffee was priced at 17€, which just didn’t seem fair to somebody other than me.

VOYAGE AU SIAM - 60, rue Saint-Maur - 75011 Paris tel : 01 47 00 46 87

In sum, four thumbs up to start off the new restaurant season. Two established
restaurants gourmand continuing to satisfy, and two casual, reasonably priced Asian spots to take note of. Off to a good start, true, but as Co. can attest, watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Casa Sud - E = mc2


Latest stop was the new addition to the Casa Sud restaurant chain, a partner of La Criee (reviewed last January). This is in the Paris banlieue-the suburbs-where you find some land and take a couple days to erect another cardboard box restaurant. You know how when you drive down the main strip of anywhere USA nowadays - you could be blind, but if someone told you 'hey, there's a McDonald's,' you could just wait ten seconds and, blind or not, say 'and there's a Burger King,' and ten seconds more, 'there's a KFC,' and ten seconds more, 'there's a Taco Bell,' etc. ad nauseum? Well, it's getting that way around the outskirts of Paris as well. If there's a La Criee, there's probably a Leon's across the street and, now with no. 5, a Casa Sud right next door. Down the street, you've got your Office Depot, and around the corner, probably something, gasp, French! like a Buffalo Grill or Court de Paille.


So much for the French being a nation of gourmands. The formula works - the chains like Casa Sud, La Criee, and Leon's are always packed (at least during the weekends when I check). When I asked Co. to ruminate on this, she replied that it's simple as E=mc2 (actually, simpler) - it's cheap and you don't have to drive into Paris. And I'll add two other important ingredients to the equation - big, free parking lots and consistent (i.e., predictable) food that isn't half bad. During our visit earlier this evening, my goat cheese bricks with salad appetizer tasted pretty much like goat cheese bricks with salad are supposed to taste, and my special plate, La Andolouse, which consisted of couscous and a melange of vegetables and seafood, was really hot (not spicy, I'm talking temperature here), and just a notch above 'pretty tasteless, but does the job.' Even better, the chorizo, which was noted on the menu, but which I do not eat, did not appear at all in the dish. Did the waiter read my mind or did the chef forget to read the menu? Meanwhile, Co. seemed content with her fish croustillants entree and leg of lamb main dish. The fish croustillants tasted like fish croustillants and the leg of lamb tasted like a leg of lamb, and she complains far less than I do anyway.

By the way, I should add that the name Casa Sud references the range of items on the menu, as in Mediterranean. So the menu leans heavily toward Italian dishes and Moroccan. I had heard that the restaurant covered more southern territory than that - I was thinking Latino - but no such luck. I'm still yearning for a decent Latino / Mexican / South American restaurant in Paris.

As with all brand new restaurants - this one has been open only a couple weeks - there were clear signs of some rough edges that probably will be smoothed out as soon as the young servers who can't hack it turn in their yellow Casa Sud t-shirts and shuffle over to the local McDonald's for the next addition to their CVs. We could see the big, muscular cooks, sweat dripping from their brows (hopefully, not into the soup), working like madmen to keep pace with the growing crowd. At the same time, some of the young waitresses seemed to be moving in slow motion, delirious, on the edge of tears. Eventually, a harmony will be struck, I'm sure.


The room itself is well-designed, again, in a rather formulaic way. There's a mezzanine, and a small terrace (or was that La Criee's terrace?) where you can watch the trucks and traffic jams a couple meters away on the motorway (no thanks). I was dutifully positioned under an indoor tree. I felt protected, once I was assured that there were no birds among the branches. Yet there was a persistent, low level drone of noise - muzak that couldn't quite be heard above the din of the diners, which, in formulaic tradition, were accompanied by some otherwise personae non grata in your better Parisian bistros - kids - and the occasional dog under the table (the quietest in the room, I might add). I don't know if it was the din or the tree, or a combination of the two, but the acoustics really seemed screwy. I had the impression that when I talked, my words weren't getting much further than my nose.

In sum, what is there to add? You want cheap (in our case, 64€ for two, including wine and three courses each), free parking, the possibility to avoid the hassles of Paris, and an okay meal in a congenial setting, Casa Sud is for you. If you want gourmand, keep reading this blog.



CASA SUD

Now in five sites in France: Cergy-Eragny, Massy, Saint Brice, Saint Thibault, and Rosny-sous-Bois, all right next to a major motorway, and all next door to a La Criee. For maps, addresses, and contact info, go to this link.

P.S. I am happy to report that this week, the last in August, my local ice cream shop reopened after a one month vacation hiatus! Only in France - the ice cream parlors close for vacation during the summer! Unbelievable.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer in the City


[sub-titled: Mice, Men, and That Little Note on the Door That Says “Closed Until September 1”]

I imagine that anyone reading this blog is likely to be more than aware of the Parisian penchant for abandoning the capital in August. And they do—abandon the capital, that is. If you think that means the city is empty and that there be some air on the trains, think again. The trains are still packed - half people, half luggage - and stifling (no AC). This time of year, it turns out, the number of people in the city remains constant, but the quality of the people severely declines. The tourists make up for the loss of people who could afford to depart for their holy vacation, and the non-tourists are poor and don't bathe.

It’s not only the quality of the people that suffers during the Parisian wasteland known as August (or “aout” – pronounced ‘oot’ – and I don’t know why the French don’t capitalize the months) – the food also goes downhill. That’s because the people who own the decent restaurants also bail the city in August. Now ruminate on that point for a few seconds. You would think that in these difficult economic times, someone would have the acumen to want to stay home and keep the shop open to take advantage of the throngs of tourists who invade Paris looking for some of that famous foreign cuisine that they’ve heard and read about during the many years that they have prepared the big trip to the French capital. Only they arrive just as all the famous chefs begin their exodus. The most work a Parisian restaurant proprietor and staff do around this time of year is tape a little piece of paper on the front window of their restaurant that reads “Hey, dummy, do you really think we’re going to be open during oot? Stupeed tourist! Come back in September! Les vacances – it is not a pleasure, bien sur que non, eet ees an obligation!”

Okay, I digress. And the more I write, the more I shoot myself in the foot. After all, what am I doing in the capital writing about the local restaurant scene this time of year anyway? No comment. Now that’s cleared up, I’m really going to force myself to mention three restaurant visits during July, before ‘le grand depart’. I don’t know, blame it on the summer and its incipient effects, driving me to seek out river views and terraces, blame it on a series of poor choices and misguided advice, blame it on the bossa nova for all I care. July was altogether forgettable, but I’ll remind myself anyway, just to finish this installment. Then you can return in September, like everybody else.

The first in the trifecta of true bummers on the dining out front – La Villa in Lagny-sur-Marne (so, technically, we begin with ‘summer outside the city’). If we go up or down the river Marne (I forget which), you end up at L’Écu de France, the restaurant I wrote about previously. Same river, worse experience. Nice terrace, you see the river, and some little boats. If that’s your thing. The food is promoted as ‘inventive Mediterranean’ and it was far from horrible. “Inventive”? eh. Not exactly a raving review, I realize, but I really don’t have the enthusiasm or energy to go into specific details. I remember reading some reviews beforehand that warned about the icy staff. Well, they definitely fixed that problem. Our server was really, really nice. Really, nice. I would almost have to say ‘too nice.’ You know those smiles where the only part of the face that moves is the mouth? That kind of nice.

Moving on to Vincennes, a hop, skip, and jump away from the Chateau de Vincennes, the next stop was La Cygne, a Vincennes restaurant that has been at the same spot for many years. You can look it up. I’m too tired to. Well, this was definitely a weird experience. Another promising terrace was at the root of the decision to try this local institution for the first time. And it was a nice cosy little terrace, although not cosy enough to screen out the roar of a party next door. Anyway, there’s not really any reason to describe the meal because we were among the last patrons to visit the restaurant in its current incarnation. Our waiter informed us that the restaurant was sold and its new owners were chomping at the bit to do a major renovation before reopening, still as La Cygne. Renovation? Not a bad idea. Following a sudden chill and some raindrops, Co. and I moved inside before the arrival of our main dishes. The décor sort of struck me as early Helsinki. I guess I could have perceived it as quaint 18th century Paris, but what can I say that I haven’t said a million times before? After our waiter informed us about the new owners, he then went on to inform us about virtually everything else, in a really creepy way. I think Igor eventually got the point through my body language. You know where every part of the face moves except the mouth? That kind of body language.

Our last stop proved to be the icing on the proverbial
summer cake. This was the promising L’hôtel de Sers, the restaurant of the luxury hotel by the same name a couple blocks from the Champs Elysees. Prior to the visit, I couldn't find anything online about the restaurant, always a bad sign. Reviews of the hotel, however, touted the restaurant as one with an amazing terrace that will transport the diner. Given that rooms ranged from 230€-2300€ per night at the hotel, I was beginning to have a bad feeling about how I was going to be transported during the meal. To the bank for a loan, perchance?

Well, the price wasn’t as bad as I feared, although when considered in terms of price/quality relationship, I should have just bought a Lear jet. The highlight of the terrace, which allowed its diners virtually no opportunity to see anything outside of the surrounding walls and huge beach umbrellas, was the mouse that was skittering back and forth off to the side of our table. Co. enthusiastically ordered a 'Maryland-style crab cake' appetizer, which I have to admit was the first crab cake I've sampled that tasted absolutely nothing like a crab cake. My guess is the ones they serve at Oriole Park at Camden Yards are tastier, at one-third the price. Of course, labeling the dish ‘Maryland-style’ probably keeps them out of the courts. My main dish with chicken was absolutely appalling - a round mound of cooked zucchini with little strips of cold chicken on top. This ranks up there as one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten in a Parisian restaurant. Priced at 24€, one of the cheaper offerings on the carte, I think maybe I should have stuck with the mouse. He (she?) was looking mighty tasty by dessert. The bill came with an 80€ Pomerol listed, which I'm sure would have tasted a lot better than the 35€ burgundy we actually ordered and drank. Why is it that every time we eat near a tourist area, they somehow manage to mistake the bottle on the check? Do I detect a pattern here? I should add, in all honesty—not that every word here isn’t completely honest—the cheesecake dessert was more than edible. So if you happen to be staying at the hotel, say, on your company’s dime, why not stop by the restaurant and have a 20€ snack of cheesecake and coffee? And should you do so, please say ‘hi’ to Mickey for me.

LE CYGNE - 22 avenue de Paris, 94300 Vincennes tel: 01.43.28.03.96

LA VILLA - 11 quai de la gourdine, 77400 Lagny-sur-Marne tel: 01 64 02 37 18

L’HOTEL DE SERS - 41, avenue Pierre-1er-de-Serbie, Paris 8 tel: 01.53.23.75.75


Note: Summer restaurant terraces can provide a nice atmosphere, true. But be warned if you prefer to eat in a smokeless setting – you can smoke on a terrace. So forget about that new French law banning smoking indoors.

Monday, June 30, 2008

L’Aiguière - Wake Me Up When It's Over




Fresh off the heels of our rustic dinner in the countryside, the choice last weekend was restaurant L’Aiguière which, according to the review posted at their website, offers “low wooden beams, a rustic atmosphere, beautiful, soft music playing in the background,” “like you are out in the French countryside, with picturesque windowsills looking out into a quite Parisian street.” (Give me a break!) Another rustic atmosphere, and this time without having to trek outside Paris. I’m not sure my heart can bear such an onslaught of pastoral charm. This is Paris, after all, where we expect traffic jams, arrogance, spitting in the street, pollution, lousy parking habits, and cigarette smoke blown into our eyes.

First, let me debunk the ‘beautiful, soft music’ that is supposed to seduce couples into marriage proposals – no kidding, it’s there on the website. The music was contemporary pop, far from beautiful, but the volume was low, so I guess it rates as ‘soft.’ I didn’t see anyone down on his knees bellowing ‘marier-moi!,’ so I guess the other patrons were as unenchanted by the music as I was. Now on to the food. If L’Aiguière is known for anything in Parisian gastronomic circles, it is for the 58-euro ‘menu accord mets et vins’ (which bumps up to 68€ if you want it with cheese and porto). This little adventure consists of four courses, each of which is accompanied by a glass of wine specifically selected by the maître sommelier/owner, Patrick Masbatin. Co. & I went down that route a few years ago when we first tried this restaurant and, at least for us, it didn’t work. First, we prefer red wines and only sample whites when under extreme duress. Second, when you really like to sample the wine throughout your eating experience, including the pauses in delivery of the actual grub, this menu arrangement doesn’t do the job. One is left tapping one’s fingers on the table, wondering how long before you get another opportunity to slake your thirst. Okay, no mets et vins menu; instead, we opted for the reasonably-priced (32€) three-course (plus cheese) ‘formule Gustavienne,’ named as such in honor of, ahem, Gustave Trois of Sweden. Do we smell the faint aroma of pretentiousness here? For the budget conscious diner, you’ll have to bring your calculator to assess which menu provides the best value. Unfortunately, you probably will forget to ask for the wine menu until you’ve already ordered the relatively less expensive Gustave 3. Can you say ‘pricey’? We counted a grand total of 3 bottles priced under 40€ on the wine list.

Although you may be detecting a slight tinge of negativity to this review, let me say I do not intend to pan the menu courses themselves. Everything was adequately prepared, but leaning toward the ‘ho-hum’ and ‘damn, given this restaurant’s rustic pretentions, I expected a hell of a lot more gastronomic idyllic charm than this!’ Such was my reaction to the briquettes de chèvre frais glace de chêvre au miel d'acacia appetizer and the ensuing poêlée de rougets de roche en vinaigrette d'huile d'avocat purée de panais. Believe me when I tell you, these are two of my all-time favorite dishes – the chèvre and the rouget. The goat’s cheese was well-prepared, and it was nice to find a little ball of honey sorbet on the plate. But it was no better than the many other preparations of this dish I’ve previously sampled in French restaurants. Same goes for the red mullet, which not only induced pastoral musings, it nearly put me to sleep. Once the remaining morsels started to blend with the vinaigrette and remaining drops of the purée, my taste buds finally awakened with a ‘hey, what’s that?!,’ but unfortunately, the pay-off was too little and far too late. This rouget preparation couldn’t compete with the full-sized entire grilled rouget I was served a couple weeks ago a couple blocks away at Bistrot Paul Bert’s adjoining seafood restaurant, L’Ecaliller du Bistrot. To add insult to injury, the ala carte price of the red mullet dish at L’Aiguière was set at 42€! They must be joking, n'est pas? Co. was similarly disappointed, especially with regard to her main dish, fricassée de rables et cuisses de lapereau à la moutarde de figues. The accompanying sauce was not enough to prevent an ultimately dry experience. Desserts were adequate, nothing more. As for wine, we opted for a 2001 Graves, Chateau Haut Selve, whose initial bitterness wore off by the main dishes. And this time, we avoided the famous disappearing bottle act by informing the waiter that we preferred to have the bottle remain on the table throughout the meal. It worked.

Just to add, there is a mezzanine. Never sat there, but it looks pretty nice.

L’AIGUIÈRE
37 bis, Rue de Montreuil
75011 Paris

tel.+33.01.43.72.42.32

Overall note (out of 10): 5

Food: 6- Ambiance: 7 (rustic wood beams!!, and you can propose marriage even with the bland pop music) Price/Quality: 4 (believe me, we got off way easy at 108€ for two, including wine. But don’t even think about ordering ala carte or finding an inexpensive bottle of wine among the list) Service: 5 Eh. Adequately bland.

In sum: Not a bad meal, but I bet you’ll be disappointed you didn’t go somewhere else in this vibrant neighborhood, midway between Nation and Bastille.

Also mentioned:

L'Ecailler du Bistrot
22, rue Paul Bert
75011 Paris
tel. +33.01.43.72.76.77

Sunday, June 22, 2008

L’Écu de France – Atmosphere! Atmosphere!


That time of the year again, with Co. in the driver’s seat having organized my birthday dinner to points unknown. Mercifully, I wasn’t required to wear a blindfold, but until I saw the Marne river, I had no idea we were headed to L’Écu de France, a veritable French institution in Chennevières sur Marne, the town bordering Champigny, another place you’ve probably never heard of. As we pulled up to the door of L’Écu, an old hunting lodge dating back to 1850--the restaurant itself established in 1920 by the Brousse family-- I had the impression we were pulling up to, well, an old hunting lodge. Replete with pastoral charm and rustic authenticity, we rued the fact that the terrace overlooking the Marne was not yet open for the summer.


Actually, we didn’t really pull up to the restaurant’s door at all, because all patrons are directed to a free parking lot just across the street, managed as it was by an old haggard gentleman sitting under a beach umbrella listening to French talk radio (poor guy). I kind of joked about how comforting it was to see this lame excuse for a security guard keeping tabs on our vehicle during our dinner, as he nodded off to the monotonous AM radio show. In this idyllic setting by la Marne, it seemed highly unlikely that bad things could possibly befall our Peugeot. Little did I know that later that evening, about 60 cars were burned during unrest in the Marne region, not exactly in the neighborhood, but humbling nonetheless, even if the total was only a slight bump up from the usual number of weekend car burnings in the greater Paris metropolitan area.

Getting to the business at hand, after an uneventful welcome, we were guided to our table, unfortunately on the side of the room away from the windows overlooking the river. The meal started off on a high note, with an extremely tasty amuse bouche consisting of a small square of carrot mouse with vinegrette. This gave us ample time to peruse the at-first confusing menu. You can check out a previous version of the current menu at the restaurant's website. Essentially, the left hand page of the menu, titled ‘La carte en portion de degustation’ consists of smaller-plate versions of the same items found on the much pricier right hand page, titled ‘La carte’. By selecting entrees from the left and main plates from the right, you can keep the price down; otherwise, count on spending well over 200€, including a bottle of wine. The left/right approach served us well, especially after treating ourselves to some above average bread (nut or cerealed small rolls), accompanied by two slabs of herbed butter, which effectively reduced our appetite. Our choices:

- foie gras with fig, honey, and fruits (left)

- blue turtle with a cauliflower cream (left)

- truffaud de canard, with foie gras (right)

- St. Pierre fish with small vegetables (left)

Much to my initial chagrin, the turtle dish arrived in a glass, but it was pretty interesting--two layers of heavy creams, followed by fresh turtle meat, with plum tomatoes crushed on the bottom. The preparation of all the dishes was above average, with more than a hint of an imaginative flair emanating from chef Jean-Baptiste Debreux's kitchen. An apparently greater degree of care is taken in the preparation of desserts, which fall on the heavy and somewhat ostentatious side. Some excellent small pastries came along with the bill, and by now you know this is a gesture that ranks high on my list of guilty pleasures. I don't have images of our dishes, but here are a few samples from L'Ecu's web site:



Our humble bottle of Bourgueil ’96 held up well, surrounded as it was by a relatively short but well chosen, impressive wine list. Some excellent bottles are available for the true connoisseur – for example, a Château L'Evangile (Pomerol) 1983 can be had for 190€ - but if you ask me, I’d rather buy a bottle like that for my cave, at 90€ online (http://www.chateauclassic.fr). My advice for the budget conscious diner is to select from the more reasonably priced excellent bottles listed under ‘Divers’ on the wine menu, which is where we spotted our Bourgueil at 23€.

As the wait between courses expanded exponentially from one dish to the next—a copy of War and Peace wouldn’t be a bad idea to bide one’s
time waiting for the dessert to arrive—certain realities began to set in during the meal, best summed up by words like ‘aloof' and 'over-priced.’ Ever one to try to look on the bright side of a dinner out, there are two major gripes that must nonetheless be acknowledged. The most galling aspect of the meal was the wait staff’s practice of keeping diners' wine bottles far away from their table at various rest spots along the room’s perimeter. And although this happened behind my back, Co. assured me that at one point, a waiter filled a glass with our bottle at another table! Sacre bloody bleu! That is not a way to endear one’s customers. My second gripe pertains to menu items that are unavailable. That I don’t mind – it’s inevitable – but better to be informed before one makes a choice, rather than after. I was all psyched for a langoustine entrée, only to be told when giving our order that the crustaceans were now out of season and unavailable. It is no small leap for the psychology of the taste buds to handle a langoustine to tourteau expanse.

My recommendation? If you want to splurge for a nice
lunch along the Marne one sunny summer weekend afternoon,
give some thought to visiting L’Ecu. But be prepared to first
wipe off those plastic chairs on the terrace before sitting.

And don’t forget to tip the parking guy – the next smoldering
Peugeot could be yours.

L’ÉCU DE FRANCE
31, rue de Champigny

94430 Chennevières sur Marne

tel.+33.01.45.76.00.03

Overall note (out of 10): 7- Food: 7- Ambiance: 8.5 outside (but the chairs really are plastic), 6 inside Price/Quality: 5 (too expensive for the quality) Our visit: 133€ for two, including
wine (3 lefts, 1 right, & 1 dessert)
Service: 2.5 (never, ever confuse which wine goes where!
)
This is a restaurant that gets some of the little things right, but not the big picture.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

La Gourmandise - What, Hard Times?


Everybody’s singing the inflation blues, Mortstiff included. Damn, can’t even buy an eggplant without shelling out nearly two euros at the local Super U. Okay, okay, it’s true, those same two euros will still get me a bottle of the Cotes de Ventoux I’m so fond of, but come on, this is France. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, as we all know, means every man, woman, and child has the right to a decent two-euro bottle of red wine.

Hard times notwithstanding, La Gourmandise continues to offer one of the best bargains in Parisian quality dining. Which is not to say that the restaurant hasn’t also been hit by rising food prices. Recently, the owners were compelled to change the price of the 34-euro three-course dinner—aperatif, wine, and coffee included—to—hold your breath – 35 euros! Viola, there you have it, a whole euro increase, for which our favorite maitre-d, whose name still eludes us, was obliged to apologize profusely during Mortstiff & Co’s most recent visit, last weekend.

The outstanding price/quality rapport is one of the main incentives that has led us back to La Gourmandise time and time again, dating back at least ten years. But we’d be willing to pay more for the food, which is very good, with dishes regularly tweaked by the chef, who is adept at both variations on old favorites (like aiguillettes de canard and nougat glacé), as well as new seasonal items (like lobster salad and curried lamb).

Let me share the selections from our most recent visit, and you tell me if this isn’t a great deal for 35 euros each. (Check out the full menu items at the La Gourmandise web site.)

Apératif:

- Kir pétillant au cassis et amuse bouche (paté encroute)

Entreés:

- ½ homard moulé en salade et macédoine de légumes au crabe, sauce crustacé
[salad with half a lobster and mixed vegetables with crab]

- Filet de rouget, gros piment doux d'Espagne farci de ricotta aux
épinards, jus de légumes sauce tomatée, basilic [red mullet filets with
accompanying red pepper stuffed with ricotta and spinach]

Plats:

- Thon rôti au sésame et riz basmati, fond de légumes, saveur soja [lightly roasted tuna with

sesame and basmati rice]

- Aiguillette de canard, poire rôtie et pomme rate persillée, aux doux épices [duck slices with
roasted pear and potatoes]

Desserts:

- Cheese cake sur biscuit cannelle, coulis d'ananas [cheese cake, French-style]

- Nougat glacé au coulis de fruits rouges

Wine:

- Bordeaux 2006 Pavillon Royal (1/2 bottle per person)

Coffee

So? Is this a great deal or what? Okay, before you answer my question, a couple caveats. I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t add that the lobster salad entreé included an 8 euro supplemental charge. And if you read my previous installment, where I railed against the pervasive tendency for restaurants to add substantial ‘supplements’ to the supposedly ‘fixed-price’ menu items, you know how I feel about a 35-euro menu suddenly evolving into a 43-euro menu. But I'm tempted to give a pass to La Gourmandise for their new surcharge policy. What they’ve done in recent weeks is to significantly expand their fixed-price menus to include some items that previously only could be selected à la carte. So you can now choose those items (albeit with a surcharge) as part of the menu and still get the aperatif, coffee, and wine gratuit.

As for the food, no real complaints. Both entreés were interestingly prepared and nicely presented – the lobster salad was well worth the supplement. Yours truly was a bit disappointed with the tuna – normally, I prefer that lightly-cooked tuna be less cooked (nearly raw, in fact) than presented here. However, a guaranteed highlight of any visit to La Gourmandise - be sure not to miss their nougat glacé – freshly prepared in-house and a refreshing culmination to the meal.

You’ll notice at the restaurant’s web site that there are other menus available, including a two-course 26€ meal (for those diners really hurting from inflation) and the big enchilada four-course 55€ splurge (for those diners who crave both surf and turf).

The room is traditional and quasi-formal, with two rooms neatly set off by bar. The narrow, larger room in the back includes a row of booths on the left and some round tables on the right. The gregarious, glib, and amusing maître-d livens things up with his loquacious and exuberant descriptions of menu items and service, while an exceptionally-professional waiter goes about his business, virtually mute.

In short, although the world, with its catastrophes, wars, and rising prices may be rapidly spiraling into the abyss, at least one can still dine well in Paris without breaking the bank.

LA GOURMANDISE

271, avenue Daumesnil
75012 PARIS
tel: 01.43.43.94.41
metro: Porte Doree

Overall note (out of 10): 7

Food: 6.5+

Ambiance: 7 (too much pink for Morstiff's taste, but despite the small rooms, there's plenty of privacy - especially the case with the booths- and it's easy to relax)

Staff: 7.5 (a 2-man show - professional, and the maitre-d is both informative and witty)

Price/Quality: 9.5 (78 euros for two, what more can I say? If Co. didn't like lobster so much, it would have been 70 and we would have felt really guilty.)



Thursday, May 22, 2008

Au Petit Marguery - Tradition Makes A Comeback


Two recent return visits to the venerable Parisian eating establishment – Au Petit Marguery – have restored the restaurant to my ‘definitely recommended’ list. Co. and I periodically dined at Marguery until a couple years ago. My growing disinclination to continue resulted from meals that I found to be progressively less interesting and an incident involving a waiter deceiving a couple of tourists sitting a few tables away from ours. (The offending waiter at the time must have been taking lessons from the crooks at Chez Michel, who regularly rip off tourists and French alike.) But Co., who often has a penchant for traditional turn of the 20th century restaurants and a soft-spot in her heart for Marguery’s famed soufflé au Grand Marnier dessert, succeeded in dragging me back there for a dinner in mid-March. The verdict? Marguery is back and so are we.

During our March visit, we were informed that the restaurant had changed ownership last September, although chef Franck Laratte stayed on. But truth be told, not much appeared to have changed since our last visit. Usually, one well-prepared, epic dish does it for me, and during this visit it was the entrée of raviolis d’escargot in mushroom sauce. The ravioli entrée has become such a mainstay of the Paris restaurant scene – perhaps most famously launched at the over-rated L’Astrance – that when one emerges from the clutter and captures your attention, you take note. I took note. This was followed by a tasty coq au vin ‘Pictavienne’ with tagliatelles main dish. All in all, enough reason to recommend Marguery as the place to meet our friends visiting last week from Texas. When asked their preferences – nice, good French food, not too expensive, with good wine – Marguery emerged as a no brainer.

According to Frommer’s, ‘menu items are based in old-fashioned traditions, especially those from the Poitou region of west-central France, with emphasis on game dishes in autumn and fresh produce in summer’. Our visit coincided with Spring, and the carte reflected a mélange of seasons. The four of us opted for the three-course 35€ menus, accompanied by a couple bottles of a very fine-tasting St. Nicolas Bourgueil (28€ per bottle). Yannick, our waiter (the tall one in the middle) diligently
tended to our needs, alternating between French and English without any hint of patronizing. Among our entrée choices were the following:


- asperges blanches bio des Landes, Sauce mousseline
- mesclun de salade au Ris d’agneau confits et copeaux de Parmesan
- tartare de saumon
- presse de poulet

Yours truly went with the tartare, one of my favorites when it comes to openers, and Marguery’s did not disappoint. Subtle in taste and presentation, it slowly seduced.

By the time we consumed our main dishes, the second bottle of wine was beginning to do a number on my memory cells, but I do recall plates consisting of filet de sole, ris de veau, and grilled dorade, all copious and satisfying. I believe my dish was listed as an aumoniere de canard – a preparation of shredded duck and vegetables wrapped in a kind of phyllo dough pastry, not unlike a North African pastilla. Excellent and surprising, it was probably the least traditional item in this very traditional context.

For dessert, our (transplanted) Texans opted for the aforementioned soufflé au Grand-Marnier, which challenged even their hearty lone-star appetites. As for myself and Co. – despite her usual craving for the soufflé – we were tempted by the evening’s special dessert, a croustillant of strawberries. Multi-layered and rich, it definitely did the job. We capped things off with coffee, which much to my pleasure, arrived with a plate of small cakes.

All the images (with the exception of chef Franck) you see here were kindly borrowed from Marguery’s well-developed web site, and I think it would be redundant to try to describe the various rooms – and there are several. Marguery veritably reeks of Paris –its not a teen hangout, but would be a perfect place to accompany your lover, or visiting friends and family from Texas.

AU PETIT MARGUERY

9, boulevard de Port Royal
75013 Paris
tel. 01.43.31.58.59

Overall note (out of 10): 7+
Food: 7+
Ambiance: 7.5 (vested waiters, chandeliers, ‘historic fin-de-siècle charm’ – Fodor’s)
Staff: 7 (professional)

Price/Quality: 6.5+ (228€ for four, including two bottles
of wine, you can’t do much better at this level, but loses 1.5 points
by taking on two 9€ supplements. In my view, you set a price
for a menu, you don't add a supplement.)

Notes

Watch chef share his recipe for and prepare Rognons de veau poelee, a la graine de moutarde at: http://www.revver.com/video/870065/recette-au-petit-marguery/
(not for the faint of heart)

A 1995 French film, Au Petit Marguery, directed by Laurent Bénégui concerns the last night of a Parisian restaurant. Starring Stéphane Audran and Michel Aumont, it’s one of the few films I’ve never seen, so I can’t tell you anything else about it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mort’s One-Month Hiatus Highlights


More than one month without a blog installment – one would think Mortstiff & Co.
have starved to death. Au contraire, other preoccupations have intervened, such as my day job and a one-week trip to Slovenia, but that hasn’t prevented me from one of my favorite pasttimes--visiting restaurants. A little bit older, a lot fewer memory cells in the brain, but I’ll try to briefly summarize the highlights of my dining experiences during my non-blogospheric period. It may not surprise, but I have absolutely nothing to contribute about the restaurant scene in Slovenia. Stuck out in the countryside, a hop, skip, and jump from the Croatian border, there weren’t many options. Not to say that I didn’t eat well, but it wasn’t exactly fine dining either. A couple novelty dishes, such as soya goulash and massacred potatos, were more interesting for their butchered English translations than taste.

Back in France, the time spent consisted mostly of returns to some past haunts. After the satisfying first trip to L’Ourcine (see January 31), our second trip turned out to reflect a sophomore jinx. Could be my disappointment can be attributed to a limited menu of offerings that just didn’t appeal to my ever demanding palette. With a regularly changing carte, that could be rectified next visit, assuming there is a next visit. Also less impressive than usual was a return trip to La Cave Gourmande, but don’t get me wrong – it was still very good.
The audacious chef Mark Singer came to our table to ask whether we were aware that our wine selection – a 1999 Cotes du Ventoux – was a rather strong choice to accompany our fish entrees. Well, Mortstiff & Co. have been working on a case at home, so you might say we are rapidly becoming Ventoux aficionados. Rather than demure, we insisted, but it was a pretty amusing exchange. Our efficient and pleasant waitress frantically explained that her boss was not insane, just a bit eccentric.

The most satisfying meal during the hiatus had to be a return to Le Villaret, in the 11th, not far from Place de la Republique. To date, Le Villaret is hands down my favorite Paris bistrot. I’ve probably frequented the place between 20-30 times, and I have never had a poor or mediocre meal there. I keep putting it off, but eventually I’ll write a more complete description. Just to say that my visit this time, with a friend visiting from ‘down under’ was terrific on several levels – quality of the food, wine, ambiance, and service. Zagat’s calls it ‘a hidden jewel’ – I would not disagree.

LE VILLARET
13, Rue Ternaux
75011 Paris
tel.
+33 1 43 57 89 76

LA CAVE GOURMANDE
10, Rue Gén Brunet 75019 Paris
tel. +33 1 40 40 03 30


Saturday, April 12, 2008

16 Haussmann - Not Quite Sweet 16


If only I had known how excellent the praline croustillant dessert was going to be, I would have ordered three and called it a night. As it was, Co. & I ran the gamut of 16 Haussmann's three-course fixed price menu (37€ each) and wound up fairly disappointed.

Not to say it wasn’t a pleasant evening. We happened upon one of the two Friday nights per month when a three-piece ‘gypsy jazz’ combo plays the room and the group ran through a couple of tasty sets. The room itself—designed by Philippe Stark—is spacious and handsome, with royal blue walls, ochre drapes, and mahogany furniture. The bright yellow 16 Haussmann logo appears prominently throughout, guaranteeing we would not forget where we were eating. A small intimate bar is located just to the left of the entry, and the restaurant boasts a nicely-appointed terrace for summer dining.

I would have felt perfectly comfortable pulling out and lighting a fat cigar to accompany the free glass of champagne, assuming it was still legal to smoke inside restaurants and assuming I smoked. The restaurant resides inside the 4-star Ambassador Hotel, a hop, skip, and jump from the grands magasins’ and the Opéra Garnier. And therein lies our tale. When Co. summarized the atmosphere as ‘inauthentic,’ her basic complaint was that the restaurant and its staff seemed to be trying a bit too hard to cater to the tourist trade. The first thing we were asked upon entry was whether we preferred a French or English menu, and the amiability of the staff seemed a bit forced. No wonder – the clientele ranged from a middle-aged couple whose sense of fashion consciousness could best be described as ‘cro-Magnon beachwear’ to sophisticated and elegant Parisian connoisseurs like, ahem, Mortstiff & Co.

Chef Michel Hache knows how to add a creative touch to his dishes, which is not to say that it always makes sense. The entrees arrived with great visual promise, but the execution fell flat. The green fruit and salad glass did nothing to enhance the taste of the three tempura shrimp arranged vertically on sticks based in a lime wedge. And the smallest serving of crème brulee ever seen this side of the Seine that accompanied Co’s entrée was purposely chilled, a decision that did not compute. Co’s roasted sea bass with provencal bread crumbs was the far more satisfying main course. My supreme de volaille stuffed with chevre was tasty enough, but about as interesting as the tennis shoes tapping along to the music at the next table. On the bright side, Chef Hache clearly has a flair for desserts.

The wine list is short and sweet, both in terms of selection and price, with wines arranged by price, from high to low. No complaints regarding our 31€ Chinon.

What else can I say? Here we have another Parisian restaurant that appears on many online lists under the heading ‘inventive.’ Spare me. Maybe the Ambassador’s tourist trade will be impressed, but I think Parisians deserve something a bit more cutting edge. On that score, Mortstiff & Co. continue to search.

RESTAURANT 16 HAUSSMANN
16 Boulevard Haussmann
75009 Paris (in the Hotel Ambassador)
tel: 01.48.00.06.28

Overall note: 6+ (with music), 5.5 (without)
Food: 5.5 (without dessert), 6+ (with)
Ambiance: 6 (nicely appointed dining room, but you couldn't help feeling that you were in a hotel)
Staff: 6 (efficient and tourist friendly, to a fault)




Saturday, March 22, 2008

Au Trou Gascon - Of Armagnac, Spidergirl, and 'How much did you say that coffee costs?'


I’ll take a lesson from our waitress and be quick. The effusive reviews led us to the 12th, on the cusp of the 14th, for what we expected to be an outstanding dining experience. Overrated. Major disappointment. Bah, humbug.


As Frommer’s put it, ‘one of Paris's most acclaimed chefs, Alain Dutournier, lures fashionable palates to an unchic area.’ Yes, our fashionable palates were indeed lured, to an unchic area and a restaurant with chic pretensions. I admit, the chef made an effort and I suspect some menus are better than others. Maybe you’ll have better luck. On this occasion, Mortstiff & Co. opted for the 50 euro five-course ‘Diner Gourmand. ' Here it is, direct from Trou's website:




Sounds pretty fantastic doesn’t it? Well, I'm starting to get the impression that any meal sounds good in French. I’d give high ratings only to the pigeon – a disgusting bird that I swore never to consume, especially following that little episode at the house last year when pigeons took over the roof and before you knew it, we needed an umbrella to disembark, particularly on sunny days. But if you’re going to be a restaurant critic, I’ve learned it’s important to forgive and forget. So, my dear pigeon friends, you are now fare game. And I must admit, the slab of pigeon filet was pretty tasty – slightly bloody, and accompanied by two interestingly prepared cannellonis stuffed with vegetables. If only the rest of the meal had been prepared with equal care. The scallops and endives weren’t bad, but the rest was pretty mundane. The ‘gambas’ turned out to be ‘gamba,’ as in ‘une.’ Dish four, the ‘faiseselle pastorale’ sounds tasty, but it was nothing more than a square of yogurt and honey.


The room isn’t bad, with tables nicely spaced apart, and as advertised over

at Frommer’s, there is indeed a ‘fabulous collection of Armagnacs,’ impressively

taking up a full bookcase. I shut the digestif menu pretty quickly, though, after glancing at a 60 euro price tag for a glass. Good thing – I needed the spare euros to afford the two coffees that followed our meal – rounding out to an even 12 euros. The cakes you see to the right were taken from another blog written by a more satisfied Trou diner. These are the cakes we did not receive with our coffees. Instead, accompanying our 12-euro coffee finale was a little bowl of those chocolate-covered coffee beans. Yawn.


To cap off the evening, I contemplated strangling our waitress. Spidergirl was extremely efficient – the second I took my last bite of a dish and placed my fork on the plate, there she was with uncanny speed to take away the woebegone plate, lest the memory of the dish linger any longer than necessary. Dishes were delivered, not a word of explanation spoken, unless I was able to ask quickly enough – alas, only for the pigeon. At one point, a fork flew out of her hand before she could place it next to a plate. Earth to Spidey – calm down!



Overall note (out of 10) : 6-
Food : 6-
Ambiance : 5 (open those curtains and let some life in!)
Service : 3 (Welcome with a smile, efficient but uninformative server must have had a plane to catch)

Note : For restaurants like Trou that aspire to great heights, as in Michelin stars, it's not uncommon to offer the coffee at the end of the meal, a gesture that helps develop a nice relationship with potential loyal customers. To overcharge for a thimble of mediocre java adds insult to injury.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Le Bistrot Paul Bert - Bert's Hat Trick


It’s called Le Bistrot Paul Bert (Paul Bert for short), it’s located on rue Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, and its owner is Bertrand (Bert for short) Auboyneau. Coincidence? I think not. Regular readers of this blog (all two of you?) may recall that Paul Bert appeared on Mortstiff’s ‘best of’ list for 2007. The most recent visit – my third - on March 7th didn’t reach the heights of previous visits, but was good enough to keep this one on the list of ‘go to’ Paris bistrots.


There are three rooms to Paul Bert – to the left of the entrance, one enters the smallest room, a converted butcher shop, and it looks it. The main room has a bar and several tables and is the most lively and boisterous of the three. My preference is the room on the right – nice tablecloths, mustard walls, a bit more relaxed in a bougeouise arty we’re in Paris sort of a way. This is a restaurant that has scrapped the idea of having a menu you can actually hold and fondle – instead, yes, my personal bane, there are freshly scrawled chalk boards positioned in every nook and cranny with the day's offerings. My condolences to the poor workers who have to prepare the chalk boards daily (and modify them throughout the evening, accordingly). What a monumental (and horrifying) task that must be.


Getting to basics – Mortstiff & Co. each opted for the 34 euro menu accompanied by a bottle of Ardeche red, a recommended blackboard wine special for 20 euros. (By the way, there is an actual carte de vins.) Among our selections were a plate of scallops in their shells, a fish tartare, pig shoulder, and squid risotto. I’d say the tartare and risotto were the standouts. The preparation of the risotto was particularly interesting, including a little sliver of sweet tomato that really hit the spot. The highlight of the meal, without question, was the dessert. I’ve learned from experience that Paul Bert’s macaroons are probably among the best in Paris. Rather than duplicate our order, Co. & I struck a deal to go 50/50 on the desserts, an even split. And I’m glad we did, because the combination of dessert 1 (Paul Bert’s tiramisu) with dessert 2 (Paul Bert’s strawberry macaroon, about the size of a Big Mac) made for a whole fundmentally greater than the sum of the parts. You know it’s good when the only word that comes to mind is ‘More!’


If I recall correctly, I discovered Paul Bert via a review I read by Patricia Wells, the noted restaurant critic. I feel about PW the way I feel about Robert Christgau for music and Andrew Sarris for film. We may not share the same tastes and I often disagree with their opinions, but I hold them in high esteem in their respective fields.


Here’s what PW has to say about Paul Bert on her web site:


I could dine at this boisterous, crowded old-time bistro once a week, feasting on steak and fries, ultra-fresh fish and shellfish, always imaginatively prepared and served with a flourish. One of the city’s surest bistro bets, with a great wine list to boot.


Once a week would definitely overdo it for me – once every couple of months should do the job.



LE BISTROT PAUL BERT

18, rue Paul Bert, Paris 11.
Telephone: 01 43 72 24 01.


Overall note (out of 10): 6.5

Food: 7

Ambiance: 6.5-7 (Its got that Paris bistrot ambiance down pat.)

Price: middle bracket reasonable (93€, including wine)

Service: 7 (It was the first night for our waitress, and the staff must have spent a grand total of 5 minutes to train her. After a mighty struggle popping the cork of our wine bottle, I thought she was about to storm out in tears. But she put forth a gallant effort and seemed to ease into the job as the evening wore on. The rest of the staff is amiable, energetic and unobtrusively attentive).


Note: Bert! Do something about the bread. Tossing slices of a skinny baguette in a basket should be beneath you.
 
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