Food & Travel / Words & Photos
In nearly a decade living in Paris, I had never been to the Montparnasse brasserie La Coupole - it’s the Bostonian’s equivalent of never having been to Legal Sea Foods.
Part of the reason for not going was that I snobbishly avoid chains on principle and La Coupole is owned by the Flo group, which owns or bought up more a dozen brasseries in Paris and across Europe including Bofinger, Brasserie Flo and Julien.
I’d also be justified in staying away for nothing more than wanting to boycott those cheap-looking sandwich board that each Flo brasserie has out on the sidewalk advertising something like a 19-euro prix fixe menu. It looks like they pimped them from the semi-ubiquitous French steakhouse chain called Hippopotamus. I imagine the original owner of each brasserie groaning every time they walk past those things.
But the other afternoon, it was cold and we needed a coffee, went inside and I immediately wondered aloud why I had stayed away so long. Like brasserie Wepler, it’s got that great, big-town feeling that envelops you as soon as you walk through the door. Everything from the big, beautiful cupola that floats over the room to the waiters in their black and whites swooping around with big plates of shellfish to the sense of space the mammoth room affords – it all gives a sort of city comfort.
What I’d really like to applaud is the price of La Coupole’s coffee and hot chocolate. Though 4,10€ for cappuccino makes me groan, particularly considering the poor quality of most French coffee, I’d pay a similar price at my neighborhood café. La Coupole’s hot chocolate, made with high-end Valrhona chocolate, costs about the same and it beats the pants off the powdered junk with the pony on the label that most cafes use.
I arrived a few minutes early to lunch the other day at Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes and knew I was in good shape by watching the table of businessmen across the room.
Before the food arrived, everyone was fidgety – they clearly didn’t know each other too well and spent time pulling their cell phones from those goofy belt-holster things to check messages instead of talking with one another.
Their wine showed up and the mood lifted, but the big change came with the first plate. A fortysomething guy with glasses and salt and pepper hair watched a neighbor’s plate arrive and his face sort of melted. Then he switched to a big, childlike grin.
The noise level picked up noticeably as the plates arrived. Everyone was smiling. Suddenly, everyone had something to say. The bridge between business and pleasure had been crossed and one of the men lifted a glass and offered a toast.
“Bon appétit, les amis!”
Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes is not for the slightly peckish – this is the cuisine of la France profonde, complete with hunting lodge décor, and built for that kind of appetite: a standard lunch might be a big lentil salad, a wonderful cassoulet, and a fantastic tarte tatin that comes (as it should) with its own bowl of crème fraiche.
The 30-euro menu is more than you need at lunch (price included), but at dinner, it would just make you feel spoiled and happy.
Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes MAP
106, Rue de la Folie Méricourt
75011 Paris, France
+33 1 43 57 33 78
Thanks to a dinner at a friend’s house in Barcelona and another at one of my new Paris faves, l’Escargot, I’ve recently been lured back into loving confît de canard.
Crunchy on the outside, melting and moist on the inside, these two dinners reminded me why the dish is a classic.
This afternoon, however, at Le Petit Fer à Cheval – a Marais classic in its own right and a place that prides itself on the dish – I remembered why it’s been so long.
Allow me to work through my plate in reverse…
Yes, it’s winter and the selections at the vegetable stands are pretty grim at this time of year, but this was particularly depressing. There was a vague wave in the direction of seasonality with some cabbage, and there was even a bit of variety, but everything either squeaked on my teeth or was mushy.
C’mon guys…live a little and drizzle some olive oil on the steamed broccoli, try finishing the green beans with some butter and shallots or just punt and swap the veggies out for a salad. I love being in the Clean Plate Club, but not today.
The potatoes next to the veggies were hand cut and crunchy on the outside - Hooray! - but more than a few were crunchy on the inside, too. Ick.
Finally, the duck itself reminded me why I hadn’t had this dish in so long – it was crunchy on the outside (though I almost wonder if, considering the laziness of the preparation for the rest of the dish, they just crisped it up by throwing it into the Frialator with my spuds), but inside it was lifeless.
What’s frustrating is that I like this place – the well-dressed waiters, the U-shaped bar that gives the restaurant its name, the big wall clock that goes backward, the good Parisian feeling that you get here – but I think it’ll be a while before I come back.
I lied unconvincingly when my waiter asked me how it was but the kicker, and a good part of the reason why I’m writing this, was the ridiculous price tag: 20 euros (!!!) or the equivalent of 26 bucks. At L’Escargot, where I would eat it again and again, their confît comes with a potato puree with truffle oil and a beautiful salad for 17 euros.
Expensive and good I can deal with. Expensive and bad just makes me angry.
“Really?” I blurted out to the poor bartender.
“The duck is the specialty of the house,” he said.
It has nothing to do with the guy behind the bar, but quit insulting me.
50, rue de la Villette
Le Petit Fer à Cheval MAP
I like to decide quickly what I’m going to eat in a restaurant. I usually have a good instinct for what will be good, and more particularly what won’t, and if I stare at the menu too long, I start feeling like I’m in a video store without knowing what to rent.
Despite a recent, glowing recommendation by you-know-who about Au Bascou’s Lievre à la Royale, (there’s a framed version of his Le Figaro review on the bar), I was curious to try the wild pigeon cooked two ways.
I love this kind of thing; a few years back while shooting pictures for a story about Spring restaurant, chef Daniel Rose served lamb three ways and I still remember the spoonful of tartare he slid under my nose. (Squirm all you want – more for me.)
Here at Au Bascou, the deep, earthy flavor of roast breast of wild pigeon reminded me why I love game, but les cuisses were the showstoppers: black-as-night thighs, legs and claws(!), on either side of the plate that looked like set pieces pinched from “The Dark Crystal.” I wondered aloud if they were to eat or just a gutsy garnish.
Me of little faith.
I took a bite and my hand did that thing where it involuntarily flies up in the faces of my dining companions, quaintly indicating something like ‘Shut up and let me taste this.’ The preparation - en salmi - a sauce made with the bird’s carcass and, as chef Bertrand Gueneron puts it, “lots of time bubbling away in wine,” give it a depth flavor that demands all of your attention.
Deep and primordial, it made me salivate so much, I almost drooled.
The service was a bit spotty – they seemed weirdly short-staffed and flighty for a place this nice – and two of us were crammed into strange theater chairs not made for eating, in but in one bite, a return customer was born.
Au Bascou MAP
38, rue Réaumur,
+33 1 42 72 69 25
To me, this explains it all.
How is it that when the EU bans imports of hormone-treated beef from the US, the US triples the import tariff on French Roquefort…a cheese made with unpasteurized milk that comes from sheep that are fed a chemical-free diet?
Not to gloat, but it’s snack time and I’ve got some really good raw-milk Camembert in the fridge…
Put to the test on where to go in the neighborhood to fulfill a French onion soup quest, the team at La Cave à Jojo floundered.
“That’s tricky around here,” said Jojo, batting ideas around with clients at the bar, before smiling. “I’ve got it.”
We walked back into the night, skirting the base of Montmartre and bringing our bodies down to the right temperature for soupe à l’oignon.
On the way to our table, a man alone ate oysters from a raised platter, following each with brown bread and sweet butter, then luxuriously washing it down with some white wine; we were in the right place.
I’ve known this – the one-man reward in a bistro - and seeing the man made me think of doing the same several years ago, filing a story at some ungodly hour and heading to Au Général Lafayette for pig knuckle, choucroute and beer. Similarly, every year when I get a new carte de séjour, I straight from the prefecture to the Petit Fer à Cheval where I order steak tartare, silently toast my grandma and thank God I don’t have to renew the damn thing for another year.
Back at Wepler, the breeze blowing through an open door shook me from my reverie – Paris city air sweetened with the sea salt it picked up blowing across the oysters kept outside.
Inside, three men who have ordered two coffees look up as the waiter arrives.
Garcon smiled, placing the coffee on the table and slipping a chocolate to the guy who didn’t need any more caffeine.
In this temple of consumption, the thought of it all made the conversation better, made me hungrier.
We ordered soup, my friends agreed to split a chèvre chaud, but they stared at me funny when I ordered a pig knuckle.
I raised a silent toast to grandma and dug in.