Monday, April 27, 2009
When it comes time to compile the list of famous Parisian brasseries, Bofinger makes the cut. As suggested elsewhere, the city’s oldest brasserie, dating back to 1864, offers elegance without pretension, a combination that many aspire to, but few achieve. Located on a side street within striking distance of the center of Bastille and the original opera house, Bofinger, which specializes in Alsatian dishes, harkens back to France’s Belle Epoque period. Once through the doors, you recognize immediately that you are not in Kansas anymore. Just past the anteroom you can glimpse the boisterous surroundings in the expansive main room under the dome – waiters maintaining a frenetic pace, carrying their enormous multi-tiered platters of fruit-de-mer or choucroutes amidst the ornate décor and furnishings that now are protected as national heritage. Whoa, sorry . . . I’m starting to sound like an airline magazine.
Back in the day, Co. and I used to visit Bofinger from time to time, primarily to indulge in the meat (Co.) and fish (your’s truly) choucroutes (sauerkraut platters, for the uninitiated). Never an easy place to reserve, we’ve always found it next to impossible to get a table under the dome. Big deal. We find the second floor rooms
cozier, less formal, and more intimate – a great place to bring visiting friends who may commit some sort of embarrassing faux pas. You know it’s best to restrict one’s audience when there is a chance one of your dinner companions may opt to drink the little finger bowl of lemon water and exclaim, ‘garçon, the soup was delicious!’ These days, it seems, the only time we revisit Bonfinger is when we have guests visiting from outside France. On this occasion, that was the case – our friends from Valencia, Spain, whose identities will heretofore remain veiled, but consisted of husband, wife, and 17-year-old precocious daughter, the latter of whom could speak fluent Spanish, Valencian, English, passable German, and has begun to learn Russian. At that age, I could barely speak one language, English, and my parents never took me to Belle Epoque Parisian brasseries, and likely wouldn’t have even if they were closer than 3000+ miles away. Some kids have all the luck.
Our dinner turned out to be an enjoyable dining experience from start to finish, no major faux pas, no arrogant waiter, no overcharging for the wine. I don’t know if our guests were merely being polite or were taking a conservative no-sense-agitating-our-stomachs-during-our-trip stance, but they limited their choices, opting out of a couple entrees and desserts, and passing on the post-meal coffee, resulting in a reasonable bill for five of 190 euros, including an inexpensive (22€) bottle of Languedoc.
Co. and I went the tried-and-true route and selected the aforementioned choucroutes. Mine and the teen’s
wife consisted of haddock, salmon, lotte, and quenelles (50€ for two). Her’s, which was shared with the precocious teen’s father, consisted of a medieval-looking array of sausages, pork, and andouillettes, and was kept warm with the aid of a kerosene-generated flame (42€ for two). The multilingual teen chose the Royale St. Jacques plate (12.50€) and quickly learned that she liked scallops a lot, and could now ask for them in at least three languages. Her mother praised her entrée of blanquette de saumon (19.50€). A couple of us shared a platter of a dozen oysters Fine de Claire as an entrée (27€), and despite their relatively small size, these really excelled. Raised on Utah Beach in Normandy, these were the tastiest oysters I’ve had the pleasure to slide down my throat in a long, long time. A couple more oyster platters and I would have been a happy camper, even without the choucroute. I indulged in a café gourmand, happily donating my little crème brulee to Co. to accompany her moelleux caraibes option.
If you’re not comfortable with these options, don’t despair, chef Georges Belondrade’s carte is pretty expansive, including some Bofinger specialties (foie gras, tartares, bouillabaisse, onion soup, lobster salad) and pretty much anything you would expect to find in an Alsatian brasserie. Service was impeccable and our waiters projected that Parisian air of having seen it all before, which I am sure they had, at least at Bofinger. In short, if you are visiting Paris and need that Belle Epoque, ornate décor, bow-tied waiters, and hair-raising edifices of seafood experience, Bofinger is your kind of brasserie. And as the title of this post proclaims, it’s not just for tourists.
7 rue de la Bastille, Paris
Tel 33 1 42 72 87 82
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Seen any good movies lately? Just kidding. Just that I’m not sure how much of the lunch at La Mare Au Diable from a few weekends back I can remember. You know, long ride with Co. at the wheel, lazy Sunday afternoon with a belly full of wine and traditional French cooking, what more to do than conk out for a few hours when you should be typing away at the computer?
No this isn’t a review of the famous George Sand pastoral novel (The Devil’s Pool) written in 1846 – there, who said you don’t learn anything cultural here—but the pastoral restaurant in the French countryside in Reau (just next door to Melun), which was named after George’s novel. If you have a look at the image of the restaurant and its adjoining pool if begins to make sense, and once you look at the prices on the menu—but only the man can do that, remember this is French tradition
(in this case, at its worst)—you understand the Devil part. Poor George, that forward thinking, cross-dressing, cigar-smoking novelist, wouldn’t have a clue what the price of her deer plate was had she eaten at La Mare, which she probably could have done because the restaurant has been there since before forever. We were seated in the 15th C. room. I know that because there was a plaque on the wall that displayed the large Roman numerals XVeme. One of our server’s conjectured that maybe it’s the thought that counts, after we cynically inquired, ‘15th C? Come on, you can tell us.’ Anyway, getting back to the idea of not putting the prices on the girl’s menu, I must admit, I always liked that sexist strategy when I went on dates. You know, when the girl would coo something like, ‘Ohmygod, that filet de bœuf aux échalotes confites et romarin [34€ at La Mare] sounds absolutely yummy,’ you could always delicately imply how some recent cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease had been detected in the very region of the restaurant, and then casually mention how La Mare’s chef is internationally famous for the rarely-on-any-menu feuilleté d’encornets sauce homardine [a mere 14€ at La Mare]. Or if you wanted to be a bit more diplomatic, you could always compromise and steer her towards the pavé du cerf-biche, chutney de poires à la vanille, figue rôtie, jus à l’armagnac dish [at 23€ at La Mare], which really sounds good, plus you get the armagnac, which is always a good thing, and you still save 11€ compared to her yummy first choice. I think I digress, so let’s get to the actual dishes we did order.
For starters, after a tasty jump start provided by a crème brule with foie gras mis en bouche, I had chef Laurent Asset’s terrine de haddock (15€) and Co. had the raviolis de langoustines (18€), both of which got the lunch off to an even nicer start. I feared some sort of jellied concoction with the terrine, but instead was happy to receive a multi-layered dish with large chunks of haddock. Very good. You’ll never guess what Co. took for her plate. If you guessed the pavé du cerf-biche, I commend you for your finely honed acumen, but it’s not what you are thinking. First, Co. really likes deer, and second, she ripped the menu with the prices out of my hands before we ordered because she too is a forward-looking girl who doesn’t like to be kept in the dark about things like prices, even if I am paying. Third, it was a special occasion, so I told her from the start, money is no object. I took the assiette de poissons, which consisted of three lightly grilled fish—daurade grise, groudin, and viveneux (18€). We both enjoyed this stage even if our socks weren’t knocked off in the process. For dessert, we both ordered the assiette de dessert (25€), a combination plate of various concoctions that I can’t remember at all, and by that point, I had stopped taking notes. Capped off by coffee (4€ each), the bill totaled 131€, not nearly as outrageous as I suggested at the outset, just a little pricy for a lunch. This included a bottle of Chateau Maine-Bonnet (25€) and a ½ bottle of San Pelegrino (4€).
Eating at La Mare is an experience that goes beyond the food. The restaurant is very secluded (good luck finding it, by the way), the setting is, you guessed right again, pastoral (and idyllic, I might add), and with the little 15th-17th century inspired rooms, you get the impression you are eating in a little chateau. Our waitress/hostess was rather chatty and seemed stimulated by our questions about George Sand, the rumored hotel complex to come in the area, and assorted other topics.
Before reserving, I counsel you to check La Mare’s website to have a look at the various rooms – you can then request the ambiance that suits your desire, including a nice terrace during warm weather months.
Don’t be waylaid by the online reviews that mark the food as disappointing, and don’t let your expectations soar after reading the extremely positive online reviews that are also out there. If you want to get out of the city (about 30 km southeast of Paris) to a decent countryside restaurant with plenty of parking outside, La Mare au Diable is a good choice. My guess is that once the hotel complex is completed, this will be the ideal conference dinner site. And don’t be afraid, I didn’t see any traces of Satan—no doubt he was kicking up his heels 20 minutes down the road at Disneyland Paris.
LA MARE AU DIABLE
Parc du Plessis Picard Reau, D306
tel: 01 64 10 20 90
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Recently, there seemed to be an interesting program on Creole restaurants on France 24 (otherwise known as ‘France vingt-quatre’), but I’m not positive because I just happened to stumble upon the broadcast twice only in time to see the last five minutes. Anyway, it turns out that during those five minutes, they were interviewing someone associated with the Left Bank restaurant La Table d’Erica – it could have been the illustrious Madame Erica herself, but I wasn’t paying too much attention, as usual the sound was off (French TV is bad enough without having to hear it), and I didn’t get to meet Mme Erica in the flesh until last night.
As soon as I heard the name, I checked out La Table and couldn’t find much beyond the restaurant’s decent web site (with the carte prominently displayed), but I threw caution to the wind and hotfooted it over for dinner with my Canadian friend, The Moose (sometimes referred to simply as ‘Moose’). Moose and I had a couple drinks beforehand at the Café Charbon, one of my favorite watering holes in the capital—and also one of the oldest cafés in Paris—to ease the rather longish trek by metro from Parmentier to rue Mabillon in the St. Germain neighborhood. A large cardboard cutout of Erica stood outside the entrance of the restaurant next to a glass-enclosed menu – check, same as the one online. I love when they do that.
I must admit, during my early days in Paris, I sampled several African/Creole restaurants with a Reunion Island, Seychelles, or Antilles slant. The novelty wore off pretty quickly—cheap but for the most part disappointing. Though I’ll never forget being at a table when a waiter brusquely put down a plate and an olive rolled off onto the table – the waiter grabbed it and virtually threw it back on the plate (tres chic!). So I can’t say my expectations were very high for La Table, but if they talked about it on TV, I figured it couldn’t be that bad, even it was only France 24.
As it turned out, I was right, it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t that great either, but overall, I’d have to say that each dish was well prepared, if not extraordinarily exotic. I opted for the salad marine (7.50€), slices of raw fish marinated in lime. This is a dish I like a lot, but so many times I’ve seen this prepared so unimaginatively that I almost ordered something else. La Table’s preparation was good, the marinated fish surrounding some iceberg lettuce pieces and a slice of lime, but not great. Moose was tempted by the crab farci but opted for the salad mango crab with avocado (7.50€), a dish that seemed to have made ample use of the food shredder. The crab farci (9€) probably would have been the better choice. As for our plates, I went with the pimentade de poisson des iles (16€), a healthy piece of fish (vivaneux) accompanied by some apparently boiled slices of potatoes and other root vegetables. If I hadn’t been talking so much—I hadn’t seen Moose for a while—I could have given the fish more attention and avoided the ample bones. Moose had the calou Creole (16€) , a stew consisting of shrimp, spinach, okra, slices of chicken pork, and a crab leg. This looked to be the better choice, and when I asked Moose how it was, he eloquently pontificated, “It’s pretty good.” Moose, a man of many words. Stuck in-between two other tables as we were, I observed some other noteworthy alternatives – the fried balls of morue (cod) looked well-prepared, better than I’ve seen in other restaurants, not greasy at all (see the accompanying image). The guy to my right, no vegetarian, I can assure you, had a large slab of meat (Colombo de Cabri, young goat?), and the spicy gambas in coconut milk seemed to be a big hit. The dessert menu, perhaps as expected in a Creole restaurant, was limited to fruit, a couple cake selections, and sorbet, in other words, pretty lame. I had the mango and lime scoops to clear the palate, which is exactly what it did (6.50€ for two scoops, not the three they promise at their website).
The best part of the meal by far was the jar of spicy sauce (a kind of crushed pimente that reminded me somewhat of harissa) – especially spicy without being overbearing – such a novelty to have something so perky at a table in Paris, where usually the spiciest condiment offered to accompany the meal is table pepper, and usually you have to ask for that. I should add, we washed down the meal with an inexpensive Bordeaux (16€), which proved perfectly adequate for the task at hand.
The restaurant itself consists of a relatively small room and accompanying half-terrace (where we sat), but it’s a funny place, decked out as if we were there to celebrate somebody’s birthday party. The tables are close together, but the atmosphere is a pretty comfortable and friendly one. In my best French, I tried to strike up a conversation with Erica at the end of the meal, (a) asking if she was Erica (she was) and (b) mentioning the TV show. Erica, a woman apparently of fewer words than Moose, didn’t go for the bait and before I knew it we were paying our reasonable bill of 71.50€. Maybe she was suspicious that I was some sort of famous Paris restaurant blogger and was afraid to misspeak, who knows. Despite that disappointing finish to the meal, I’d say if you’re up for a casual alternative to French cuisine in a lively neighborhood in the Left Bank, put this one on your list.
Just to add, a few steps down the facing street off Mabillon (15, rue Clement) is Coolin, an Irish pub that on the Friday night in question had spilled out onto the street and seemed to be one of the places to be on the relatively early April balmy evening. Inside, the place was packed, hot, and reeking of beautiful young things, out for some innocent (but I’m sure) Left Bank dancing, partying, but especially, SMS messaging. Why did I have the impression I was back at a college mixer (without the cellphones) circa 1975?: ZZ-Top and the Doobie Brothers blasting at eardrum-shattering levels, somebody’s daughter dancing on a table, and me gulping my pint of Guinness as quickly as possible so as to bolt back to a place where there was air to breathe. Alas, maybe I’m getting too old for that scene, but hey, it never hurts to try (except in the knees).
LA TABLE D'ERICA
6, rue Mabillon
tel: 01 43 54 87 61
15, RUE CLÉMENT
tel: 01 44 07 00 92