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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.


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:

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:

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.

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