Thursday, August 20, 2009
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that the armpit of last summer was disappointing for me and Co. as we traversed the capital during the wasteland of July and August looking for charming terraces and tasty flavors. What we found instead were forgettable restaurants that I’ve long since forgotten. In our search for the perfect summery idyll, and no small feat, a restaurant that wasn’t closed for vacation, we batted something like 0 for 4. This time around, we threw the terrace idea out the window with the bath water and went searching for decent spots, regardless of whether the experience would be in or out. I’m happy to report that our average is up, so far with two hits out of three.
Just prior to my foray into the Nordic hinterlands, we tried Jadis in the 15th, widely heralded as “the best bistrot of the fall” by local critics far and wide. Well, it’s not fall anymore, but we hoped that the magic had lasted into this period of Paris without Parisians. The first thing that comes to mind regarding Jadis is ‘O brother, where the hell art thou?’ Read an online review of this relatively new establishment and inevitably you will come across a comment about its being situated in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure Paris qualifies as nowhere, but you probably get the idea – well off the beaten path. This can be a blessing for some restaurants, but it also requires a very strong motivation to get up and go. We got up and went to this unpretentious corner spot, comprised of a relatively decent-sized, brightly-lit space, gray walls and dark red trim, and under-dressed patrons. Think bohemian grunge, you get the picture. Our meal was quite good, although if this is one of the best bistrots in town, then Houston, we have a problem. Still, traditional French cooking that benefits from the creative nuances of chef Guillaume Delage, who, according to the Gayot guide, “explores his lessons from master chefs Michel Bras, Frederic Anton and Pierre Gagnaire. However, his biggest influence is notably Edouard Nignon, one of the great chefs of the 20th century, who has inspired the presentation, gastronomy and wines at this establishment.” If any of this means something to you, then you are indeed a gentleman and a scholar. On second thought, with those credentials, this had better be one of the best new bistrots in Paris.
To the chase: We both opted for the three-course menu at 32€ each. I started with one of my favorites, chèvre frais, served with pousses de salade and coulis of tomato, spinach, and green pepper. Interesting preparation, with the three pyramids of vegetable purée. Co. went to bat with the gelée de boeuf, served with squid ink, cauliflour and clams. She seemed pleased. For me, the main dish was rouget grondin grille, with black rice and bouillabaisse sauce. How many times do you see black rice on a French menu? This was a great and pleasant surprise. Co. was more or less satisfied with the poulet with leek and ginger. I liked the taste of the chicken, but agreed with Co. that it lacked the promised ginger. Less Asian than the preparation led us to expect. Two satisfying deserts – croustillant de framboise with cream (thumbs way up from Co.) and my cherry clafoutis (cake, eh, not too fantastic). A solid Pinot Noir for 26€, bringing the total to 94.50€. Jadis is an up-and-comer, but does it warrant the trek? I’m not so sure.
Next up, newly trendy L’Acajou in the 16th, soon after the return from the north. L’Acajou easily edges out Jadis for its edgy, inventive, throw tradition out the window, creativity, as the accompanying photos should attest. Unlike Jadis, the typical online gripe about L’Acajou is that the waitstaff are icy cold, and the consistency in this assessment was nearly enough to steer us elsewhere. Nonetheless, I liked the sound of the menu and figured, I’ll opt for service with a sneer when there’s a possibility of dishes like langoustines, crousti basilic tandoori, americain, fenouil sauvage in the offing.
The restaurant itself veritably reeks of modernity, assuming that modernity is capable of reeking. Entering from the brightly sunlit August early evening into the dark, sleek interior of this railroad car centered by a long multi-seat table, the effect is somewhat disconcerting. I wasn’t quite sure whether I had stumbled into a chic Paris bistrot or a mob-run strip joint. Dark, darker, darkest. A long mirror running along one of the walls gives the room a more spacious feel, although with the dark, you still get the urge to ask, ‘can we open a window or something?’ I don’t care, this was such a jolt from the typical Paris restaurant look (‘hey, we’ve been open since the turn of the century – 16th century, that is’) I wasn’t complaining. And I quickly understood where the complaints about the Antarctic servers came from. If I remember correctly, one of two hosts/waiters in the room was wearing sunglasses—or maybe he just looked like the kind of guy who wore sunglasses in a dark black room. But I don’t know if it was that mid-August, we’re only half full, lighten up effect, but at least the sunglass guy became veritably amiable as the evening progressed, explaining the facelift to a more modern slant that the restaurant had undergone in the past year. (Did I really just use ‘veritably’ twice in the same paragraph?) We asked for one of the several small rectangular tables running along the street side (there’s also a small lounge-like room largely hidden in the back), mainly to get a little distance from the parents and two kids occupying the communal mid-seating area. It’s one thing to bring your kids to a restaurant like this, but to add insult to injury, the father was wearing a wool scarf. Don’t get me started, I know this is very French, but it’s a warm August evening and this guy is wearing a scarf? Indoors? N’importe quoi!
As usual, I digress, so let me get to the thoroughly modern food. The young, imaginative chef Jean Imbert also has a fine pedigree; like Delage, he has worked with decorated chefs whose names I will spare you this time. You know me, it was the langoustines entree or bust. Cool presentation, very Zen — six long wood skewers projecting out of a black board, each skewering one encrusted langoustine (17€). A nice sesame or wasabi sauce could have made this an epic starter, but alas, no sauce was had, only some salad with vinegrette. Co. went with the tourteau, classic Acajou (14€), less inventive, but turtle is a rare option on the Paris table. The mound of turtle was served with a hard-boiled egg and a pyramid of vegetables (radish, tomato, carrot, and salad). For my main dish, it was the Omega 3—red tuna, avocat, yuzu, huile de noix (19€). I can not tell you why this is called the Omega 3. These were well-prepared, if less inventive, dishes when compared with the starters. Co. cannot resist a promising soufflé, this one accompanied by salted caramel ice cream (10€), while I sprung for the millefeuille, pain d’èpice, pomme granny, mascarpone, vanille (8€). No, that’s all one thing, and I can’t’ really remember it, so it couldn’t have been that great. A 2007 Corbieres (cuvee Alice, Ollieux Romanis) (19€) brought the total to 104€.
All told, L’Acajou beats Jadis easily. Neither seemed to get me to that euphoric state of summery ecstasy, or something like that, but I get the impression we’ll be giving L’Acajou more opportunities in the future. Don’t get me wrong, Jadis is a contender, but I’m not so sure that will be enough to get me back.
Summer sounds . . . to be continued.
208, rue de la Croix-Nivert
tel: 01 45 57 73 20
35 bis rue Jean de la Fontaine
tel: 01 42 88 04 47
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The suspense must be killing you. In my last installment I mainly provided details of where I didn’t eat in Oslo, so now I complete the picture by detailing where I was successful in mustering up some grub. If you read the previous installment, you are already ahead of the game. I delicately threw in a couple hints, with my salmon! salmon! salmon! served by blonds! blonds! blonds! Speaking of which, does anyone know whatever happened to my favorite blue-eyed blond actress, Lost in Space’s Marta Kristen? No, she’s not the one chomping on the giant frankfurter.
You may recall the Nordic blond, blue-eyed clone who set me off in the direction of
my first dinner in the Norwegian capital. Now I’ll tell you where: to Anne-Karin Sandtner’s Løvebakken restaurant, a modern, spacious establishment around the corner from the Parliament building. This was not quite haute cuisine, but I did partake of a more-than-serviceable introduction to the Norwegian kitchen, starting off with a chevre salad with various chopped vegetables and peppercorns. Of course, I can’t get chevre salad in France, as you know. Okay, that’s not quite true. I can get chevre salad in France, and lots of it. But warmed chevre with salad is in my mind one of life’s little pleasures, wherever it is served—along the Seine or along the Baltic, I don’t care, I’m going to order it. I wasn’t disappointed with Løvebakken’s version, which turned out to be a veritable meal in itself; in other words, three times the size of the same entrée in your typical Parisian establishment. I know what you’re thinking—he took salmon as the main dish. Well, I am a man of many surprises and, nei!, I instead opted for the trout with oranges, potato puree, zucchini slices, and green beans. It wouldn’t win any awards, but the dish was quite tasty and I would recommend it. For the beverage accompaniment, in lieu of ordering a bottle, which would have bankrupt me on my first night in Oslo, I went with glasses of S. African cabernet sauvignon. Løvebakken was big and surprisingly empty, although I think I was dining there at a very late hour for the Norwegians—8:30 p.m. I may have missed the crowd, but my waitress (the cloned one) was more than attentive and affable. Overall, a good start, clocking in at 528 NOK (59 euros) without dessert. By the way, when I asked the waitress/hostess the meaning of Løvebakken, she seemed perplexed. I was thinking maybe she would tell me it stood for ‘love bakery’ or something exotic like that, you know, like if I walk into the back, follow a specific corridor, I’d come upon something a bit more exotic than zucchini and green beans. Unfortunately, the waitress's response was a shrug, which in Norwegian must mean, 'huh'?
Following dinner that first night, I met up with some German acquaintances at the Posthallen bar and restaurant, a huge converted post office building, with front bar and tables, back room restaurant, large open-spaced terrace, and a massive bar in the back room, which also serves as concert/disco space (see images taken from Posthallen’s website). Things were rather quiet in Posthallen at the moment, but I imagine the place gets pretty down and dirty during those periods when Norwegians need to come out of the cold, which is probably anytime other than July and August. Anyway, I had already eaten, so I continued with glasses of wine. My German friends hadn’t already eaten and went with a Nordic specialty—open-faced sandwiches with heaps of fresh shrimps. I must admit, I was tempted. The sandwiches, predictably, seemed to hit the spot. If you are young, thirsty and/or hungry, want to come in from out of the lousy Oslo weather and maybe hear some live music and meet some friendly Scandinavians in the center of Oslo, head over to the Posthallen.
Next up was probably the highlight of my dining experience in Oslo, D/S Louise Restaurant & Bar, at the waterfront on the touristy restaurant stretch along Stranden. This maritime-themed establishment is embellished with nautical antiques and memorabilia from the transatlantic liner shipping era, festooned with ship horns, anchors, those kinds of things. I only noticed this because I had to go to the bathroom. Otherwise, I spent my visit at the outdoor terrace, thankfully devoid of transatlantic memorabilia, watching the tourists go by and envying the lunchtime drinkers on the waterfront boats converted into drinking establishments (and coincidentally, where I ended up spending late evening hours the following night). D/S Louise is one of the more famous restaurants in Oslo, noted primarily for its classical seafood items. My curiosity was piqued not by the standard fish and seafood plates, but by two special offers on the menu (‘meny’ in Norwegian) – one a three-tiered tasting plate, which seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed at the table next to mine, and described thusly on the meny:
‘An elegently presented selection of sumptuous nibbles which include:
Foie gras of duck, Skagen salad, seared scallops, mango chutney, pepper-smoked salmon, caviar, chilli-scampi, chorizo, cured meats, copa di Parma, Brie, marinated olives, pepper with cheese.’
Call me crazy for foregoing that dish, but with fond memories of an epic herring meal I once had in Denmark, tempted by the beetroot, and searching for a very Scandinavian experience, I opted instead for the special herring platter:
"Lightly salted herring fillets, served with beetroot, onion, sour-cream and cooked potatoes. A very Scandinavian experience!" Nothing very mysterious, it turned out to be exactly as described. Accompanied by an Argentinian red, I followed the meny’s recommendation that the herring dish should be followed by an akevitt, a potent schnapps-type amber drink made from potatoes and bearing the distinct taste of caraway. I asked the waitress for one of the best their bartender could recommend and diligently wrote down the name, which I have diligently misplaced. So if you have any suggestions and recognize the brand inside the glass (see photo), maybe I’ll recognize the name when I hear it. Not as potent as advertised, the meny was right—it was a perfect cap for a hearty lunch (317NOK or 36 euros).
For my final evening in Oslo, I chose a spot also near the waterfront, down the street and around the corner from Louise’s, which had been recommended by my Louise waitress. Bølgen & Moi is one of those Nordic-style bar/brasseries that tries very hard to be trendy. A rather modern, post-Zen-industrial motif, with multiple rooms—you rarely see such space in Paris establishments—and spiced up by light bulbs dangling from exposed multi-colored wires and an ultra-attractive waitstaff. As I later learned, the name is not supposed to be some witty wink to the French, but denotes the owners, renowned restaurateurs Toralf Bølgen and Trond Moi. That information and a cup of coffee will get you probably as far as the Kon Tiki museum, but not much further.
Dinner got off to a nice start with a basket of fresh bread accompanied by a dish of aoli. My table was next to a patio/terrace, and through the window I was watching two youthful couples lolling about on sofas, drinking their drinks, and sharing a steamer basketful of dim sum, 10 dumplings with dipping sauce for about 200 kroners. I thought about it, but then figured it probably looked a lot better than eating all 10 dumplings would ultimately prove, so instead I ordered the Trond mois fisk – a creamy seafood hotpot with fish and shellfish for 259NOK. I’m not sure why I didn’t take an entrée, which is very unlike me, but this probably had more to do with a late lunch than anything else. Finally, we get to the salmon – I haven’t told you about some more standard meals, especially at lunch, featuring that fish, and I won't. But the hotpot did consist largely of salmon, along with halibut in a light cream sauce that didn’t overpower, along with your standard shellfish – mussels, some shrimp, crowned by a sumptuous scallop, which you should be able to make out in the blurry photo. I couldn’t resist the “New York-style” cheesecake with strawberries dessert. I’m not so sure a New Yorker would agree with the characterization, and Oslo is a long way from the big Apple, but the dessert came close enough to the real thing to satisfy. All washed down with the standard glasses of red wine (‘07 vina la rosa Cabernet Sauvignon at 85NOK a glass). B&M apparently is a Norwegian chain, and the one on Tjuvholmen allé in Oslo looked to be a recent addition. It was nicely located near the water, but isolated enough to lose the madding crowds flocking to the harbor cafés and TGI Fridays. Total cost: 548NOK
I followed the dinner with an obligatory cafe at the Grand Hotel, as elegant a cafe as they come. Now Ibsen and I have more in common than just being famous authors.
To sum up: Dining in Oslo is interesting, expensive, quiet during August recessions, and pretty laid back. I enjoyed myself, but I only wonder how the experience would have differed had I succeeded in visiting some of those traditional places I mentioned in my previous blog installment. I went modern in Oslo, but the tried-and-true route looked tempting. Next time. Oopda!
Note: 1NOK = .11€
Stortingsgata 2 0158 Oslo
tel: +47 22 42 40 80
0152 Oslo, Norway
tel: +47 22 41 17 30
Tel: +47 22 83 00 60
BØLGEN & MOI TJUVHOLMEN
Tjuvholmen alle 5
tel: +47 22 44 10 20
Just a side note: When in Oslo, I recommend taking a short metro ride just outside the center city to the Munch museum, once a laid back museum where you could just walk in and walk out with Munch's famous 'The Scream' under your arm. Now it is a fortress, so don't try that. And please, don't pose in front of the aforementioned painting with your head in hands and mouth agape as if screaming. You will look like an idiot.