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Sunday, August 29, 2010

L’Écu de France (Reprise) - Form Follows Function

A well-kept secret, assuredly, but now the secret is out - yours truly & Co. have returned twice to L’Écu de France, the 'atmosphere, atmosphere' venue along the Marne that I reviewed back in June '08. If you've read that review, you already know that I was somewhat conflicted, essentially concluding with the impression that the restaurant was aloof and over-priced. Now that I am a full two years older, wiser, and much more mature, I am willing to admit that I stand corrected - I have no reason to conclude aloofness any longer, I confidently can supplant 'over-priced' with 'pricey', and you no longer have to take a copy of War & Peace to bide your time between courses (and even then, I would instead recommend Larsson's Millennium trilogy, now that I am more than halfway through book 3 and well on my way to finishing before the end of the current decade).

All kidding aside ('a dyslexic man walks into a bra . . .'), no I mean it, all kidding aside, this time I intend to make a long story (my first Ecu review) short (this second review). And in short, the chef is doing a great job conjuring up some interesting and imaginative dishes. Even cooler, the chef requests that specific, specially designed plates are ordered for serving those creations, from an independent (and secret except for those, ahem, who know) createur francais, as a means of further embellishing and enhancing the already artistic presentation of the food. Form follows function.

Now, I hope you are sitting down, because this time I took photos!

Here's the Asiatic-leaning mise-en-bouche:

First course - Co. opted for the Millefeuille de Foie gras de Canard et magret fumé,
pain d’épice à la saubressade, jus au caramel (18€) and I selected Filet de Daurade Royale, consommé froid d’algue et Thon séché marinade de légumes au thé vert (15€):

Co. was very pleased with the delicately layered foie gras, although we found little evidence of pain d’épice à la saubressade, unless it was the sprinkly stuff you see on the plate. My dish hit the mark conceptually, but this was definitely not my cup of tea, green or not.

Moving on to the main dishes, here we go, two big hits. Co. was knocked out (in a good way) by her lamb dish, Canon d’Agneau du Limousin en cappuccino d’arabica,
farandole de poires en compotée et confite au Bourgogne (19 €), the plate comprised of two bowled spaces, one for the lamb, the other for the pear, and the great gesture here was the cappuccino sauce - lamb cooked in coffee?, you've got to be kidding, but like I said, a knockout. My dish was up there as well, the Magret de Canard du Pays d’Auge caramélisé au Pondichéry risotto « Arborio » à la betterave, émulsion de réglisse (21€) - a hint of nostalgia with the return to the beet, last year's big thing, and the combo was Technicolor - the beet red and the duck pink bleeding over the risotto, enveloped by the purple plate.

Desserts also were near-perfect on the satisfaction scale. Co. went with the lemon inspired Macaron au Fenouil et citron vert glacé, litchis à la fleur de menthe (15€), whereas I couldn't deny an after dinner cigar, the chocolate variety, Cigare « Partagas » en After Eight,émulsion d’orange sanguine, turbiné au moment (19€), which looks kind of well, phallic, but the chocolate, mint, orange melange with little squares of lime jello was epic.

Not to be denied, my espresso came with a small plate of tasty patisseries, not that they were needed by this point. But if its free, I'll take it. Before I forget, all this grub was washed down with a Givry « Clos Salomon » 2005 (M. du Gardin), a tasty red for 35€.

Total for the evening - two 3-course meals, wine, and one cafe came to 149€. Just a reminder - L'Ecu has a strange concept - you can order the plates in 1/2 portion or full. Once again, we opted for the less expensive 1/2 portion and could not fathom eating anything more by the end of the meal, certainly not twice as much.

Service was diligent and attentive, with a couple of minor glitches subtly evident in the background, and for an end of August Friday night, the large room was well populated. It's off the beaten path and you'll need a car to get there, but the next time you go visit the Marne, check out L'Ecu. Interesting place.

31 Rue Champigny
94430 Chennevieres-sur-Marne
tel: 01 45 76 00 03
Website (with directions): http://www.ecudefrance.com/

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Archaeology of Eating

A bit off the beaten track, but earlier today I received an interesting item from my friend Will Jarvis, world's leading expert on time capsules.

And this emailed analysis from the noted British anthropologist Brian Durrans:

Since experimental archaeology is already widely practiced, excavating a site a mere decade old cannot make ordinary sense but seems to be a further gimmick to keep alive the original gimmick of the trenchside banquet itself. Any activity that takes place beside a purpose-dug trench carries strong associations of evil intent, which I suppose could add to the fascination even if most people can't quite put their finger on it. The French and sumptuary cuisine epitomise Pierre Bourdieu's classic studies of 'distinctions of taste' as social markers, and all those films in the 1960s and 70s by Bunuel and others (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc.) in which patterns of eating were metaphors for social (dis)order; but the only purpose I can think of for the (premature) excavation of what was in any case originally a staged event trenchside is to refocus attention on the ephemerality of bourgeois foodways, which is increasingly fascinating to people - witness the enormous growth of cooking programmes and publishing - by exploiting popular interest using latest forms of communication technology. There would for instance in this case be no point in re-excavating if its only expression were in print media. But it all rehearses the time capsule theme.

Aside from the social science perspective on Spoerri's project, I think it's useful to keep in mind that Spoerri is presumed to be an artist. So his buried repast can be viewed as a performance art work as well as a look into the ancient customs of the 1980s. And in my meanderings through the bars, restaurants, and cafes around the world, I've come across some photographers of food who are doing some amazing work transforming food into permanent art. In Turku, Finland I happened to stumble upon Seilo Ristimäki, one of Finland's leading advertising photographers. Seilo heads the Iloinen Liftari Studios, and is responsible for some breathtaking food photos. You can check out his site here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

La Dinée – Rentrée Reprise

Exactly a year ago I raved about a late August dinner at La Dinée, which sits in the impossible to park except during late August, 15th arrondissement. In an effort to repeat history, Co. and I returned last (Friday) night. Once again, the crowd was sparse - and here I expected that this blog would have had hordes of eager diners lining up at the door. Well, if this blog has had any effect on La Dinée's under the radar success on the Paris restaurant scene, it wasn't apparent during our visit, as only one other table was occupied, unfortunately, by a persistently yapping foursome who seemed unduly obsessed by Montreal. To be fair, these were the first days back from the conges annuel, so the sparse crowd was understandable.

To make a long story short, overall I'd have to say that you still can expect to have an above average meal at Dinée, though perhaps not nearly as transcendent as I suggested a year ago. And it's going to cost you more. Maybe this blog has had an impact after all, though not quite what I had in mind. What once was a rather steep 41€ 3-course menu has risen to an even steeper 47€, with no apparent rise in kitchen creativity, and still no amuse-bouche. Compare than with La Gagne's terrific 5-course menu degustation priced at 42€, or Les Magnolias' far more original 3-course 57€ menu, and you have to wonder what justifies Dinée's pricing policy (there is a less expensive 2-plate alternative at 39€). And to top things off, our 35€ Bourgeuil's (2007) worthiness was only distinguished by its unworthiness. A disappointing, from my standpoint, Brochette de caille aux épices des Indes, taboulé de maïs entree was offset by Co's very good, lemony Poêlée de chipirons aux citrons et tomates confites, salade d'herbettes au parmesan. I accidentally got some of my caille into some of Co's lemon (guilty!), and guess what? It improved.

No complaints regarding the main plates: for me, Suprême de pintade, tombée de chou frisé aux lardons et escargots (nice idea, adding the escargot to the moist poultry); for Co., Daurade royale à la peau croustillante, risotto aux haricts de soja vert (whose success was enhanced by an interesting orange-based sauce). My highlight came at dessert, Tarte fondante au chocolat, sorbet cacao - everything you could ever ask from chocolate and 'more!'; Co's Soupe de fraises, glace au fromage blanc et spéculos - refreshing for a warm summer night, but not much more.
In short, my thumbs are still up for La Dinée, but there are better deals to be had in town.

85, rue Leblanc
75015 Paris
tel: 01 45 54 20 49
website: www.restaurant-ladinee.com

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Le Beurre Noisette - Just In Time

This is a modern world - thank you Paul Weller for that great song - and I like to think of myself as a modern guy, so as I went down my list and through my guides trying to find a last minute place to reserve a Friday night dinner slap-dab in the middle of August and the annual restaurant closing period, I hesitated when I came to Le Beurre Noisette. Hadn't I been there before? After some research, it appeared that in fact, I had not. Something about the name - hazelnut butter - no, maybe not. But the more I read, both hot and cold reviews, the less excited I became about BN. No promises of dramatic, revolutionary, over the top, creations from the kitchen. What is a modern guy to do?

Although the words 'steady,' 'refined,' and 'imaginative' kept popping up in reviews - and there's certainly nothing wrong with that - comments about the 'coldness' and 'slowness' of the staff, 'nothing special about the dishes,' etc. were evident as well. But as a modern man, I prefer to march to the beat of my own drum, and after all, every place else was closed. So Co. and I reserved for the 9:30 pm second serving (the first was slated for 7 pm - hell, I'm just waking up around then), trekked across town to a remote area in the 15th, and bopped in an unfashionably half hour in advance to find a nice little table against the wall available. Obviously, we weren't the only ones with BN in mind this Friday evening - both relatively small rooms were packed ('seats about 40' is becoming a familiar refrain in the capital), and so were the five or six sidewalk tables on a rather chilly Friday evening. Patrons of all ilks - a heady mix of tourists (Japanese to my right, Italians directly in front) and regulars (obvious from the familiar greetings they received at the door). And then we proceeded to have a surprisingly terrific dinner in a convivial atmosphere, waning days of summer evident amidst an atmosphere that conveyed a kind of 'it's now or never' feel about it.

If chef Thierry Blanqui has an imaginative flair in the kitchen (and photos online - here or here, for example - suggest that he does), it wasn't very evident during our evening, which reeked of French tradition and Blanqui's Auvergne origins. Having previously passed through some of the top French kitchens, such as La Tour d'Argent and Pavillon Ledoyen, Blanqui set up shop in the 15th back in 2001. Over that time, BN has apparently accrued a number of faithful regulars, who keep going back to an ever changing menu - scrawled, erased, scrawled, erased ad infinitum on those dastardly portable slate boards that they bring to your table. I yearn for the day when we can just call up the daily menu on a little screen embedded in the table top - probably just around the corner for most of the world, and a few decades away for the French, who appear to have a certain fondness for chalk.

The animated, amiable, hard-working, but largely over-matched waitstaff - all two to be exact, immediately pointed out the dishes that weren't available, only a couple of which either myself or Co. had actually contemplated. Which could only mean one thing - they are emptying out the fridge and about to close shop for the conges annuel. But in this case we were informed that the - indeed - impending respite would last two full months, bearing promise of a renovation of the restaurant. Judging from the decor, which I will politely describe as, uhm, rustic, that renovation is coming none too soon. We definitely got there just in time. So no time to lose, let's get to the food.

Co. started off with a carpaccio de pied de couchon, prepared with lentils, croutons, and a few swirls of extremely sharp cheese. Not one to go any nearer to a pig's foot than possible, I took Co. on her word that this was an excellent entree, elegantly simple, yet nonetheless original. With few options available, I was torn between a gaspacho with melon and shrimps (on the side) dish or an entree of sardines with grilled bread. Not a great fan of sardines, I took my chances and was pretty satisfied - the sardines steeped in marinated onions in one of those mad scientist glass beakers. Along with the basket of thick slices of fresh country bread on the table, and a 50 cl pichet of a recommended wine, a VDP d'Orange 2005 (20 euros), I could not complain and so I did not.

For once, Co. and I were hesitating between the same two main courses, so we ordered both, along with the pre-order nuptual agreement that we would switch plates at the halfway point. The clear winner, and a big hit, was the torte de foie gras de canard, which came with a helping of magret de canard - pretty simple - the foie gras pastry and the slab of duck, with a side dish of green salad. Which is not to deny the success of the other dish - a filet de paigre (a type of dorade fish) with green lentils. The fish was quite tasty, but the tort de foie gras was wow. Not very summery, true, which may explain Co.'s choice of a pineapple dessert, which came in a martini glass, topped with a healthy dollop of mousse de noix de coco. As I contemplated my own dessert choice, I was struck by the three Italian men at the nearby table, about to dig into their own desserts. For some reason, person A couldn't quite bring himself to initiate the festivities by dipping into his strawberry dish - which appeared to be concocted as a two-story tarte. He then passed the tarte to person B, who thought for a while before passing it to person C. As I predicted - you can ask Co. - it wasn't long before the tarte was resting back where this game of musical desserts commenced, whereupon person A who, by the next time I looked, cleaned his plate of any evidence of what had laid there before. Maybe this is some sort of Italian dessert eating ritual I never knew about before, but as I am easily amused, I found this rather amusing. I decided to forego the strawberry dessert nonetheless. Still thirsty after our humble pichet, I was drawn to what is more or less, apparently, a BN standard, their homemade baba au rum. What was particularly conforting about that dish is that the rum was on the side, in the form of a large bottle of Saint James. My eyes are bigger than my brain, or something like that, and before I knew it, my dessert had turned into rum accompanied by a little baba, rather than the other way round. Whoops.

Before the end of meal cafe, we were treated to a small plate consisting of a couple madeleines and a couple homemade marshmallows. With one cafe, the pichet, and the two 3-course 32€ menus the cost of the meal rounded out to 86.50€, yielding one of the best price/quality ratios I've seen in a long time. In two months, you can check out BN for yourself, assuming you haven't already. It will be interesting to see what the remodeling yields and what sorts of dishes Monsieur Blanqui conjures up for the rentree.

68 rue Vasco de Gama
75015 Paris
tel. 01 48 56 82 49
no website, but apparently, word of mouth rocks!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dumbest Restaurant Customer of the Year Award 2010

It's August, so it goes without saying - though I'll say it anyway - that things are pretty, pretty slow on the Paris restaurant front. Anyplace worth eating (and I've tried many favorites, including Les Magnolias, L'Agrume, La Dinee et al.) is closed for vacation (the so-called 'conges annuels'). You've read my harangues about this before. You have to hand it to the French, who put vacation above profits on their life satisfaction scale. The capital is filled with tourists, who are forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel for food - fast food chains, inexpensive Turkish kebab joints, and rundown Parisian cafes. I can hear them now, summing up their culinary vacation adventures to their friends: 'uhm, I don't known, but it seems to me that French cuisine is a bit overrated.'

Given the vacuum, I figure this is as good a time as any to turn a bit whimsical and commence the all-new PRAB Dumbest Restaurant Customer of the Year Award for 2010. I know what you are thinking. There are four months to go and a lot of dumb people out there! Trust me, our initial DRCYA winner cannot be beat! And so, I am proud to name as winner, none other than shabbily dressed, 43-year-old Baltimore, Maryland denizen, Andrew Palmer (in photo). Mr. Palmer, you see, is well known among restaurateurs--not only in Baltimore, but all along the US east coast--as the kind of guy who happily orders, merrily eats and drinks, and at meal's end, falls to the floor feigning a seizure to avoid paying the bill. Pretty neat scam, huh? Well, not for Mr. Palmer, for whom this scam never seems to work. In more cases than not, he is rushed to the hospital emergency room and then to a 90-day free vacation in a jail cell. The authorities have finally noticed a pattern, and his last arrest led to a conviction based on a consolidation of his last six convictions. This time, his sentence is 18 months in jail.

You can read the full story here. Maybe Mr. Palmer will become an Internet folk hero, like the JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater who lost it and abandoned his post (and in so doing, chucked his job) after some passengers got a little unruly, or he started a fight, or whatever the case ultimately proves to be. But I am afraid our DRCYA recipient won't be so lucky. It's okay to be dumb to become an Internet sensation, but not this dumb. You really have to wonder if our charter award winner has more personal problems than just being dumb. One arrest followed a (free) meal of chicken wings and beers at Baltimore's Burke's Cafe. I can tell you, that meal would in no way justify eating prison grub for the following 90 days. I liked Burke's when I was a college student in Baltimore, but when I went back as a grownup, I realized that either my tastes had grown much more sophisticated or Burke's standards had dramatically declined. Probably a combination of the two. But that is neither here nor there. Nothing makes sense about a criminal who continues to perpetrate a non-profitable crime that inevitably lands the perpetrator in the slammer. Unless he really likes prison food. And if that is the case, maybe our dumbest restaurant customer of the year isn't so dumb after all. The prison cafeteria never closes.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Le Gaigne - Another Winner

Le Gaigne, close enough to the French 'gagner' (to win) and 'gagnant' (winner) to project a boastful, winning facade even before one enters, but the name itself is reference to owner and chef with the strong pedigree and substantial CV, Mickael Gaignon.

Am I detecting a pattern here? Small storefront restaurant just off the beaten path of a trendy quarter (I counted a mere 12 tables at Le Gaigne), run by a dynamic and young couple - he of culinary expertise manning the kitchen, she of efficient and amiable hosting and serving in the dining room, evidence of a creative flair in the dishes (sometimes a hit, sometimes a miss, but who's counting?), fresh produce, unique ingredients, modestly priced menus and a decent price/quality rapport. If this reminds you of some of my previous reviews (see Fabrique 4, L'Agrume), then I rest my case.

Co. and I reached Le Gagne, which sits on the edge of the Marais, following a leisurely stroll that commenced at the Forum Les Halles. Three or four blocks along rue Rambuteau, past Beaubourg (Pompidou Center), navigating around the hordes of tourists in the center of Paris on a mild Friday, August evening, past the little cheesecake shop that I fortunately espied for the first time (but certainly not the last), one reaches the tiny rue Pecquay and the now off-white restaurant Le Gaigne. Lucky enough to reserve on their last weekend before the restaurant joins everyone else on vacation until the end of August, I wasn't expecting much of a crowd during our meal, bearing in mind that a 'crowd' in Le Gagne would comprise about 20 patrons. And as it turned out, as we entered around 8:30 pm. we had our choice of all but one table, the one occupied by a sole woman contentedly already having begun her first course, working on an especially difficult New York Times crossword puzzle (I'm still only half done myself). Well, it didn't take long for the restaurant to fill up, until only one tiny, lonely table remained unoccupied, it's intended diners having bailed without notice, much to the chagrin of the couples, sans reservation, who were turned away during the course of the evening.

Le Gaigne's carte changes on the first of each month, but can be consulted online prior to one's visit (September's will appear on August 31). The relatively short August menu, a continuation of July's for obvious reasons (August only equals one week in this case) nonetheless posed more than one difficult choice dilemma, easily leading us to opt for the 5-course menu degustation. I guess I can gripe about the fact that Le Gaigne doesn't offer the standard menu for dinner (lunch offers a 17€ two-plate menu and 23€ three-plater), but the 42€ menu degustation is a great deal, and relatively speaking, the far better alternative to ala carte. For an additional 17€, your dishes come accompanied by three glasses of wine (Sancerre 'Les Grands Champs' blanc, Cotes de Brouilly 'Les Muses', and a Muscat de Rivesaltes 'Chateau les Pins'). Never having understood the point of vin blanc, I went the traditional route and selected a Bourgogne Pinot Noir (29€) and was glad I did.

On to the food. Up first was a millefeuille de legumes aux olives noires de
Kalamata, a delicately prepared entree that was summer refreshing, with (if memory serves me correctly) pieces of cauliflower, green beans, and eggplant (see photo - the one I got without anyone looking). I don't think the payoff warranted the obvious amount of preparation that went into this dish, but it was a more than functional start. As is often the case with menu degustations, portions often are about mid-size what you can expect if you just order the damn dish off the carte, but happily, M. Gaignon didn't scimp here, but instead presented the full-size version. This was followed by a plate consisting of two croquettes de queue et pied de veau au curry, requettes et amandes fraiches, salade de sucrine et lange de veau (try saying that five times in a row as quickly as you can). Not a veal eater myself, I was granted permission to exchange dish 2 with one of the following from the ala carte menu: (a) Filets de sardine farcis d'une creme d'avocat a la brunoise de radis et concombre, artichaut poivrade marine, or (b) Poelee de champignons du moment, marmelade d'oignons de Trebons, omelette aux oeufs bio de la ferme de Champignolles. I was torn, and sans coin in my pocket, drum roll please, I chose (b). Bingo - this was a terrific dish, the taste growing in complexity as I delved deeper, the rectangular slab of omelette with onion marmelade topping providing a nice counterbalance to the mushrooms. A highlight.

Moving on to stage 3, the fish dish, which consisted of a relatively small filet de daurade cuit au plat et brandade, coulis de persil, pommes-de-terre grenaille mitraille aux oignons nouveaus. I really appreciated the complements to the fish with crispy skin intact, a tasty mound of brandade and the accompanying dish of small rounded potatoes with persil and 'new' (whatever that means) tasty onions. Dish four was perhaps the most inventive - Lapin en trois facons, aubergines grillees, poelee de courgettes. None of the three rabbit preparations looked anything like you would imagine a rabbit dish, and without attempting to describe them, please just take my word for it. Another hit. At this point in the festivities, one has the option to take a cheese detour with a nuage de camembert fermier, but it'll cost you an additional 3€ supplement (M. Gaignon, come on, why not just throw it in the deal?). I overheard the crossword woman really raving about this dish to a couple of guys at the next table, and if I had still been hungry, and a little less drunk, I would have sprung for it and been in a position to explain what the fuss was about. To finish up, for dessert we received a plate of peches pochees, parfait glace a la verveine, meringue et noisettes caramelisees. Call me strange, please, but I am not a big fan of peaches. Still, even beyond the half poached peach (try saying that . . ., oh forget it) there was enough about this rather original dish to keep it interesting, especially the minty verveine leaf and the caramelized nuts.

Overall, a very satisfying, relaxing, August meal in the up and coming storefront category of the Parisian gastronomique scene. I'm looking forward to checking out the changing Le Gaigne cartes, once this summer vacation nonsense is over and done with. [Two menu degustation, wine, and one cafe totaled 115.50€]

12, Rue Pecquay
75004 Paris
tel: 01 44 59 86 72
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