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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.

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