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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paris Restaurants Hall of Shame - Part 1

Despite my best intentions to keep this site upbeat and focused on celebrating the glory of good food and the restaurant experience, I believe it is my duty to impart a downside to dining out in Paris - an aspect that you will not read about in any of the 7.5 million tour guides that have been published about my fine city. To wit, you will be ripped off. More and more, I am finding even in the best establishments in the city, there will be a surcharge on your bill that is not mentioned anywhere - the carte, the slate blackboard on the wall, the restaurant's Internet site, the French constitution, nowhere except one place - here. During my last two dinners in the city, I have been overcharged 10 (Les Bouquinistes) and 6 euros (Voyage au Siam). Now, I grant you these are not significant amounts, but they add up, which I guess is the point of the overcharging in the first place. And I wouldn't be writing about these two recent incidents if the same efforts at skimming haven't been observed on many other occasions in Parisian restaurants. Thus, I begin what I hope doesn't turn out to be a regular feature, but if it must, so be it - the Paris Restaurant Hall of Shame, noting restaurants where I have been overcharged - either intentionally or not - and when pointed out, the proprietor’s explanation has been dubious, at best:

1. Chez Michel: Equal opportunity ripoff artists. They will cheat Paris residents, tourists, ex-pats, children, dogs, the homeless, you name it, with impunity. Too bad, because the food is often quite good. To add insult to injury, we called proprieter/chef Thierry Breton to our table during a dinner a couple years ago when Co. felt that her unaccompanied main dish would have been enhanced by a small dish of mashed potatoes. M. Breton responded that he would be more than happy to bring her that small dish of mashed potatoes from the kitchen, in a way that anyone on the planet would have interpreted as a nice gesture (i.e, gratis) - until, that is, we noticed an additional charge of 4.50 euros on the bill. What a guy. Beware, Chez Michel's specialty is charging incorrectly for the wine.

2. Les Bouquinistes: Can't discern the difference between a bottle of red Jura and white Jura, but when in doubt they will charge you for the white, which is 10 euros more expensive.

3. Voyage au Siam - If you order an entree, plate, and dessert, you are automatically conforming to their 24 euro menu. Essentially, it is understood that you are taking the menu - it is their main selling point. Yet, if you don't utter the word 'menu' when the owner takes your order, he will charge you 'a la carte,' which of course is more expensive.

4. L'Hotel de Sers: Order a 35 euros Bourgogne and it miraculously becomes an 85 euros Pomerol - on the bill, that is.

5. Au Petit Marguery: As the 7.5 million tourist guides on Paris will inform you, you are not obliged to tip in Paris restaurants, because a TVA charge is included in the bill. Yet I overhead a tourist ask a waiter in Marguery if this was indeed the case, whereupon said waiter replied, 'oh no, no, no monsieur.' Then I saw the tourist leave a 20 euro note before leaving. To be fair, this incident occurred a few years ago, prior to new ownership, and probably reflects more the unscrupulous character of the waiter than the establishment itself.

6. Anahuacalli: Overcharges tourists for the wine. Again, in this case, the incident is a few years old, but for a halfway decent Mexican restaurant in Paris, another local shame. Let's hope they have seen the error of their ways.

I invite all visitors to this site to nominate their own candidates for a follow-up
'Hall of Shame' installment.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Les Bouquinistes - How to Save 700 Euros

I admit it, even a famous restaurant blogger like myself is not quite ready to shell out 1000€ for a dinner for two in Paris, or anywhere else for that matter. Just how good can food be? Well, until I’m ready to splurge, the answer to that question will have to wait, but I’m pretty sure it’s along the lines of ‘pretty damn good.’ Or, as Larry David would put it, ‘pretty, pretty, good.’ Or, according to Alexandro Lobrano, it is equivalent to 'an experience of gastronomic luxury that's as solidly engineered as a Mercedes and as consensually tasteful as a string of good pearls.' That good. This by way of introduction to a Friday night dinner at Guy Savoy’s ‘baby bistro,’ Les Bouquinistes, Guy Savoy’s affordable alternative, ideally located in the heart of the Latin Quarter. If you opt for the bottom of the barrel at Restaurant Guy Savoy, i.e., the 275€ menu, forget about the espresso at the end of the meal, and carefully select a bottle of wine under a couple hundred euros, a couple can probably get away with a final tally suitably under the century mark. An alternative is to splurge at Les Bouquinistes and still end up at around one-fourth what an outing at the more famous eating establishment would run. But all this talk about money – this blog is about food, so let’s get to it.

When I say Les Bouquinistes is ideally located, I'm not exaggerating. Parking garage a couple short blocks away, the Seine right across the street. To your right, Notre Dame; to your left, the Pont Neuf. And two doors up the street, Ze Kitchen Galerie, my clear favorite of the two competing restaurants. In fact, this is a mecca for gastronomic restaurants - there are several worthy of attention in the immediate area. We opted for a corner table on the far side in the back, which seemed to perplex our host, who suggested that I was sitting in the 'girl's seat' against the wall. How could he know that I am an avid proponent of flipping gender conventions on their head. Co. was immediately taken by the 75€ menu dégustation 'Les Bouquinistes' and who was I to argue? Here's how it unrolled, following an obligatory mis-en-bouche, which consisted of a tasty cold fish soup with a dollop of cream on top.

First course: Ballottine de foie gras au sel de Guérande. I'm probably one of the few people on the planet who isn't gaga over foie gras and this dish didn't change my mind. To wit, three round two-euro-sized pieces of foie gras, two dark purple cherries, and some greens, served with a plate of toast strips. Co. was a bit disappointed with the foie gras per se, but I had to agree with her assessment that the cherries provided a perfect counterpoint to the dish. Smashing a piece of cherry on the toast and then laying on top a slab of foie gras almost had me convinced that it is time to reassess my attitude towards the French delicacy. Almost.

Second course: Homard et tourteau en fine raviole de betterave. On paper, this promised to be the killer dish. In reality, major disappointment. If you intend to imbibe in the menu degustation, remember to bring your microscope. I could have used one to locate the miniscule piece of lobster and artichoke. The minced crab was sweet and succulent, but not much easier to locate than the aforementioned components. Even the betterave - year of the beet! - was so thinly sliced, I could barely taste it. Move on.

Third course: Dorade royale en écailles de courgettes. This was probably my favorite course. The dorade fish was cooked croustillant and enveloped by a layer of small slices of zucchini.

Fourth course: Crème de céleri, royale de foie gras et asperges. Our waiter informed us that this dish is the one that typically earns the most accolades, and I get it. This was a silky and luscious soup, served with slices of asparagus, foie gras as smooth as mashed potatoes. This was very tasty, but I still give the edge to the dorade.

Fifth course: Filet de veau rôti, légumes au thym. I don't eat veal, but the staff was flexible enough to swap that dish for me with fish, this time noisettes de cabillaud à la coriandre fraîche et légumes. The veal turned out to be a peak experience for Co., perfectly cooked in a red wine sauce with large slices of onion, peas and carrots, and lemon confit. For my part, there was nothing special about the cabillaud. Diligently eaten, quickly forgotten.

Sixth course: Dessert. Chocolate - menthe. This looked unexceptional - a sizable piece of thinly sliced chocolate with some cream and dollops of mint. Both of us concurred that this was pretty, pretty nice. Definitely a highlight.

There you have it - six courses, one meal, 150 euros accompanied by a very good 40€ bottle of red Jura - Arbois 2002 Domaine de Pinte, bringing the total, with one coffee to 194€. As with these sorts of menu degustations, the dishes can be small, or in the case of the lobster, veritably subliminal, but with six courses and some bread thrown in, you're not going to go home hungry. Instead, I went home pissed (American style, not Brit style). Let me elaborate.

Despite online comments, we found the waitstaff, a contingent of young, personable guys, rather, well, personable. One waiter took pride in guessing our perfumes. Right on the money, always important to have a skill to fall back on. But when the bill came, there it was - again - the incorrect charge for the wine. Ten euros in their favor. I've already commented on this tendency in nicely located Parisian restaurants when the waiter catches some of our English conversation. Clearly, a restaurant with Les Bouquinistes' reputation doesn't have to rip off their patrons by overcharging 10€ for the wine. That would be just out and out stupid. When I pointed out the error, there was a frantic escape to retrieve a wine list and then the resulting excuse - the white Jura is 50€, a simple mistake. I'm so sure. Whether this little miscue was intentional or not, it has no place in a Guy Savoy restaurant, baby bistro or big Daddy. So I could have titled this installment, 'How to Save 700 Euros + 10 Euros if you are vigilant enough. Outside on the doorstep, I pulled out a 10€ note and tore it up into tiny little pieces - if they want to find them all, they'll need that microscope.

53, Quai des Grands Augustins
75006 Paris
Tel: 01 43 25 45 94
Website: www.guysavoy.com

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nuxis - Sexus, Nexus, Plexus in Montparnasse

Fresh on the heels of an excellent meal at La Dinee, Co. and I chose to start off the famous French rentrée with a Saturday night visit to Nuxis, a few blocks south from the heart of Montparnasse. Reserved easily on the Thursday night before our Saturday visit, it’s probably the case that many Parisians are either suffering the effects of the recession or else are still in the process of waking up from their days lulling on the beach. Let’s face it, our tans are fading—live with it. Me, I’ve never let anything as consequential as a global recession stand in the way of a good meal. And so off to Nuxis we went, with great anticipation based on my online research.

To say that our dinner at Nuxis got off to an ominous start would be an understatement. Arriving around 8:15 p.m., we were the first customers of the evening and chose a corner table next to the street-side window. We were quickly served a mise en bouche consisting of cappuccino de betrave avec huile de noisette (a beet cappuccino with peanut oil (see photo). I’ve said it a million times – 2009: year of the beet. This was an excellent ‘how do you do’. But as I implied, things were touch and go from the start, as in as soon as the mise en bouche touched our lips, the owner/chef Thierry Curiale (see photo) was gone, darting by the window on his way to somewhere, but definitely not the Nuxis kitchen (later we learned it was a visit to the pharmacy).

Next, while perusing the single-page carte (also displayed on those ever-present chalkboard slates that Parisian restaurateurs are so fond of) and pondering the three-course menu—set at the recession-proof price of 28€—an elderly woman entered and was seated at the table at the end of our row, her motorcycle parked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. From the start, it was obvious that something was askew with this woman—her sanity, her sobriety, her Frenchness—whatever, her presence quickly disconcerted everyone in the room: me, Co. and our waitress (‘nexus’?). The waitress seemed pleasant enough, albeit sporting the air of someone who was pulled off the street five minutes before opening hour and told, ‘voila, now you’re a waitress.’ And for all we knew, this was her first day on the job. At any rate, she really seemed discombobulated by the woman, who kept drawing her attention with questions and incoherent mutterings. We were up for a red wine from the south, so I chose a Languedoc-Roussillon variety. By the time our entrees arrived, our wine still had not. Our waitress explained that as the owner was still not back, she could not locate the wine. I selected another Languedoc, which again went searched and missing. Just about the time that the situation started to get rather uncomfortable, Monsieur Curiale frantically arrived at our table and informed us of the ‘rupture’ (one of my least favorite French words, right up there with ‘greve’)—the two wines had not been delivered and were currently unavailable. We opted for a south-western Mas Karolina 2007 (29 euros)and were off and running with the entrées.

I’m sorry to say I can’t remember Co’s entrée, which suggests that it wasn’t that memorable; nonetheless, let’s just leave it at our mutual agreement that my preparation of avocado, tomato, and apple (fraicheur d’avocat et de pink lady a l’huile de colza grillèe, gomasio Bio) won round one. For the main dishes, my choice was Dos de cabillaud au four, gambas thym/citronelle, risotto fondant, émulsion de beurre blanc (grilled cod with an accompanying large shrimp enveloped in thyme and citronella in a risotto and white butter foam – ‘plexus’?). This struck me as both a simple and complex dish, if that makes any sense. One of those dishes that grew tastier with each bite. Co. selected the magret de canard rôti, sauce a la orange et cointreau, compote de patates douces aux herbes de garrigue, which sounds a lot better than it turned out. Not to say that it wasn’t a well-prepared dish – several thin slices of slightly cooked duck with potatoes, a dish that was dependable, but without much originality. For desserts, I went chocolate (ganache au chocoat en robe de tuiles craquantes, marmelade d’ananas aux fruits de la passion), Co. went crème onctueuse (à la fève tonka, streusel nature, granite dórange et tuile carambar) and these were as good as they sound. We both ended up pretty satisfied – ‘sexus’? To cap off the evening, a nice gesture from Monsieur Curiale who offered us a café on the house with a little patisserie to make up for the wine snafu. As Co. put it, “It’s not a lot, but it means a lot.” By the time our check arrived—and you certainly can’t beat the price /quality formula here (85 euros for two 3-course meals and wine, are you kidding me?)—everybody seemed pretty happy: us; the waitress, whose demeanor and service clearly improved as the evening progressed; an amiable group of young friends of the owner. Even the elderly mumbler (sporting a Freeman 1999 coat and, according to our waitress, a heavily besotted breath) had eased calmly into her dinner.

So, to sum up. I was somewhat disappointed with the Nuxis experience, but not discouraged. Although the restaurant lacked some originality, the dishes were carefully prepared and personal, and there were enough hints along the way to suggest that further visits are definitely warranted. Already, I notice from the Nuxis website that the menu has changed since our visit last weekend. An interesting array of dishes despite the limited choices (three options per course). Whether or not Nuxis would have been Henry Miller’s cup of tea, I have no idea. But I’m sure he would have been impressed by Monsieur Curiale's decision to forego his career as Orange marketing director to pursue his childhood dream of owning his own (orange-colored) restaurant. We'll be back.

129, rue du château
75014 Paris
tel: 33 1 43 27 32 56

Note: All images except the betrave mise en bouche from
the HPRG website.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

La Dînée and Bistro de Breteuil - Summer Seasonings, Part 2

A funny thing happened since my last posting: I woke up and summer was gone – a veritable chill is in the Paris air, my calendar says September—4th already!—the city is rubbing its weary sun-drenched eyes and waking up, the restaurants are opening, all is good with the world. I know, I must sound insane, but when it comes to summer, I say ‘good riddance!’ Paris is like deadsville, daddy-o, during the summer. All this is just a reminder that I better hurry up and finish my summer meanderings before they become irrelevant – I promised a “summer seasonings” part 2, and you’re going to get it.

Here I’ve got two more August restaurant visits for you, one good, one bad. The good one, I’m pleased to report, was very good. I promised Co. I’d try to go easy on the bad, so let me just say that the bad one was, well, bad.

First, the good news: La Dînée is one terrific restaurant. Not that this is new news for me and Co. If you check my ‘best of 2007’ installment, you indeed will find La Dînée listed. This is a restaurant we had visited 3 or 4 times in the past, always a good experience, but I had so much subsequent difficulty reserving—poor timing (holiday closings, renovations, etc.)—that I just sort of gave up. So it was with great surprise when I took a chance and telephoned a little past the mid-point of August and found the restaurant had just re-opened from its annual summer closing. Check out the accompanying photos, pirated from La Fourchette.com, and you’ll observe that this is a finely-appointed, but rather understated venue, just recently redecorated and rearranged. Not surprisingly, given the time of year, ours was one of only three occupied tables during the evening, so there was plenty of elbow room.

We went with the 35€ three-course menu. I enjoyed my appetizer of dorade salade with a Russian dressing and vinegrette sauce, but the clear highlight was Co.’s soupe de melon au gingembre with vegetables and gambas tempura. This was an inventive and impeccable dish – perfectly balanced, with the mutually reinforcing tastes of the melon, ginger, and shrimp tempura resulting in Co.’s curt but informative one-word review: ‘excellent.’ We both opted for fish as our main dishes – Co. had the salmon with potatoes, snails, and tapenade, the fish grilled to a crusty topping; I went with the espadon (swordfish) with vegetables, served cold ala marinèe. On paper (or should I say, computer screen), these dishes must sound pretty ho-hum, but trust me, they both were excellent. Desserts consisted of peche caramelise with a waffle and tea ice cream – that was one. The other was nougat glace with strawberries. I’m a sucker for nougat glace, but I had to agree with Co. that her caramel peach waffle tea ice cream concoction had the edge for inventiveness. An odd choice for red wine – a S. African bottle, Pepper Pot 2007 (27€). I was a little horrified when the waiter unscrewed the top, but it led to an interesting discussion about the trend, especially for imported wines, to forego the cork. To our surprise, our server (probably one of the owners) was strongly in favor of this trend, suggesting that it held the taste better. A topic for another installment, perhaps, but by the time our bottle was about 7/8s empty, we began to overhear a conversation that had started up between the patrons at the two tables across the room. Short story, they were sharing their favorable impressions of their dishes, so what the hell, I chimed in and talked up the melon soup. It was at that point when one of the two guys at the far table started to wax eloquently about the capaccino de morelles he had enjoyed during a previous visit, imploring our server to put it back on the next menu. I mean, this guy was in near ecstasy as he closed his eyes and pondered that dish. Maybe it was the time of year, the sparse clientele, whatever, but I ask you, when was the last time you visited a restaurant and a spontaneous conversation broke out among the customers about how great the food was? Case closed.

Now for the downer, the Bistro de Breteuil in the 7th. Located in a rather animated square (the place de Breteuil, which is actually round, making this a round square) strikes me as something of a Paris institution—packed terrace deep in the heart of summer and boasting one of the best deals in town: 38€ for everything. Everything, including three courses, a half bottle of wine per person, water, bread, coffee. I cannot deny that this is a good deal, but given the quality of the food, I’m reminded of that Woody Allen joke about a restaurant that one patron proclaims as having bad food and her companion pipes in, ‘and such small portions.’ My appetizer of tartar de bar would have been fine if it wasn’t accompanied by raw bean sprouts. Don’t get me wrong, I love tartare de bar and I love bean sprouts, but a suggestion to the chef: not together! True, I already was in a foul mood having been curtly rejected by the waiter when I asked for a table on the terrace (‘plein!’) and then, resting my menu against a lineup of a small vase with flower, salt and pepper shakers, and whatnot, aforesaid list of items proceeded to tumble off the table onto the floor like dominos. The small splash from the vase seemed to have reached the ankle of the woman at the table to my right. Did you ever go to a restaurant where your first impulse was to leave? Now you know how I felt.

For my main dish, I had a plateful of steamed gambas with a sort of hosein sauce for dipping. Overall, the gambas weren’t bad, but the accompanying vegetables –thin, long strips of carrot and zucchini –tasted as foul as my mood. Two bites was all I could fathom. Co. wasn’t nearly as critical as I was about the food, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what she ordered. I do know that she liked her dessert, and if Co. enjoys her dessert that tends to bias her experience of what preceded it. In science they call this a ‘recency effect.’ Co. also was lucky enough to be seated so that she faced the terrace, with its relatively young and finely appointed clientele happily pontificating as relatively young and finely appointed Parisians are oft apt to do. Me, I was facing the dimly-lit, 18th century dining room, where the clientele coincidentally also had that 18th century look. The patrons looked like regulars, as in regularly eating at Breteuil for the past 70 years. For some reason, I kept thinking of a geriatric all-you-can-eat Las Vegas hotel restaurant. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, Breteuil, I am sure, will continue to pack them in, young and old, long after the memory of that splashing vase has been purged from my memory. As it says on their card, ‘Les Bistros qui ont Tout Compris.’ And with a deal like that, who cares how big the portions are?

85, rue Leblanc
75015 Paris
tel: 01 45 54 20 49
web: www.restaurant-ladinee.com
Total (2 menus + wine): 101 euros

3, place de Breteuil
75007 Paris
tel: 01 45 67 07 27
web: www.bistrocie.fr
Total (2 everythings): 76 euros
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