Food & Travel / Words & Photos
After days of weather misery, a break in the clouds at lunchtime created a rule dictated by deprivation: sit in the sun.
I got lucky.
In the lonely, hilly heart of the 20th, the locals-only set at Le Jardin includes artists, teachers, funky clothing designers and old friends playing hooky and catchup over a bottle of wine, all sitting on the warm side of the giant windows.
They’ve got the right idea. The plat du jour is nine euros on this day and couscous runs from nine to fifteen - the vegetable stew served with theirs is made pungent with cabbage and a meaty broth. I’d have been completely happy with this alone.
Downside? The pocket-sized kitchen gets overwhelmed by a table of six. Everyone waits, but if no one cares, is it a downside? We’re sitting in the sun.
This isn’t the stuff you cross town for, but it’s worth an uphill walk if you’re nearby. Count on 9-15 euros.
Le Jardin MAP
52, Rue de la Bidassoa
+33 1 46 36 27 99
Locals hate when a place like this gets on the map.
Despite being lost in the far reaches of the 15th arrondissement, there should be a Sparkler marking Jadis’ spot on the map instead of a thumbtack. On the night we’re there, it’s 50% out of towners, easy.
They’re no dummies. There’s a great, clean, modern menu with a prix-fixe dinner at a fantastic 32 euros and a quality that makes me want to savor each dish.
Everything goes the way it should: a cauliflower mousseline and smoked herring ‘mimosa’ entree is a layer of creamy cauliflower under a layer of shiny black gel (This is where the herring is and I’d love to know how they transform a fish from the Atlantic into something black as ink and terribly tasty) under florets, bits of egg yolk, black fish eggs and chervil. The dish plays with color, contrast, texture and even definitions.
Later, there’s a house version of a blanquette de veau, this one forsaking cream, and allowing the diner to spoon their own melting-soft hunks of veal from a silver serving pot onto a dish of winter vegetables. I try a pheasant ‘chartreuse’ - a like a dreamy disc hot pâté, wrapped in a pinwheel of root vegetables - pungent within, beautiful without.
Dessert includes a pistachio riz au lait with a grapefruit and honey ‘salad.’ I think the idea is to combine the two, but they’re beautiful on their own.
There are tasting menus for more money, but I’d rather come back and spend more time with each dish than try smaller portions in one sitting.
There are two seatings with a grey area between them at turnover time when service gets a little harried, but it always remains friendly. Reserve ahead - that Sparkler’s burning bright.
Count on just shy of 50 euros.
208, r. de la Croix-Nivert - MAP
+331 45 57 73 20
m° Convention / Porte de Versailles
I imagine people like Wylie Dufresne or Ferran Adrià sitting around conceiving dishes - thinking of flavor combinations, what goes with what and how to make it work. Three-star chefs also tend to try to dazzle – they work hard to blow your mind.
Jean-Marie Amat is like The Oracle – the little old lady from “The Matrix” who bakes cookies and knows the future – his conception process comes naturally. He just knows.
How else do you come up with a forkful of roasted squab coated with cinnamon, soy, cumin and powdered sugar? And how do you know that if you put a little bit of raw fennel tips from the garden on that same fork, your feet start doing the uncontrollable happy dance? He doesn’t need to set out to wow, it just happens.
It’s the last step in cooking - to know and execute as a matter of instinct and reflex. What else do you need after that?
There’s a customer who eats at Amat’s restaurant in the Chateau de la Prince Noir (love that name) once a month, all by himself. If Amat makes the rounds, they have a conversation that lasts about 30 seconds, max.
Eating by yourself is a skill that makes you call on your inner M.F.K. and half the time, you’re either self-conscious or bored out of your mind, plowing through a book and shoveling your food, alternately praying that the host will keep you company or leave you alone.
Here, by myself, I just wanted to learn by eating.
Lunch prix fixe 30€
Dinner prix fixe 50€
A la carte, count on 100€ without wine
Full disclosure: I ate at Amat’s while working on a story for The Boston Globe and spent the first half of the dinner service in the kitchen shooting some of the photos. I paid my bill. I saw versions of what I ate go out to other customers and the only difference between my experience and theirs was that I knew what my meal would look like when I ordered it.
I was a bit sad when Chateaubriand changed hands a few years back - I loved the feel of the place, the beautiful anglophone woman who owned and ran it, her polka dot dresses and 50s-era swoopy hair. Most of all, I loved that the house specialty was beef cheeks - it takes guts to stake your reputation on a dish like that - but they were right in doing so; it was fantastic.
That said, chef Iñaki Aizpitarte, became a media darling when he took over and it was well-deserved.
It still is. I was here almost a year ago and have no trouble remembering what I had for lunch: blood sausage on a bed of squash puree with little bits of almond and pear to add flavor and texture. Recently, we visited again again - my first Aizpitarte dinner - and it was even more memorable.
Aizpitarte does a 45 euro, four-course tasting meal that changes frequently and places him squarely in front of the modern edge of the gastro-bistro movement, trying bold and inventive pairings that will keeps the meal at the center of conversation.
The star of the meal was a smoked herring broth with fall vegetables and cubes of foie gras. Inside, slightly-cooked chestnuts, charred button mushrooms and black radish shared space with triangles of pickled onion that lent elements of surprise and fun to the dish. The foie gras - something I rarely rave about - melted slightly, giving depth and texture to the broth and made everyone at the table wide-eyed and happy; every dish afterward was watched very closely.
A big, luscious block of cod followed, served on a sauce with sweet onions and flanked by king oyster mushrooms. The fish held form until it reached my mouth; I could have stopped there and gone home happy.
A meat course - veal covered with a black radish ‘paper’ served with a cod-liver sauce, and a little dollop of onions macerated in fish sauce - didn’t quite work; mixing fish and meat is the chef’s equivalent of big game hunting (I once sat in on late-night telephone lessons between an aspiring chef and a three-star chef on how to cook beef heart and cuttlefish in a Dutch oven), but it signals Aizpitarte’s larger intentions - where his heart is.
After one bite, I spent ten minutes trying to explain my thought - a double on a home run swing - to the French diners at our table.
Besides, he followed up with a crowd-pleasing triple, mixing beets and pears at dessert.
Dinner is 45 euros, plus wine. Smiles are free and plentiful.
Le Chateaubriand - MAP
129 Avenue Parmentier
+33 1 43 57 45 95
After lunch at Jeu de Quilles, I really wanted not to like dinner at Au Bon Coin when it was set in front of me. (So much so, I seem to have accidentally erased all photo evidence of the meal.)
Came out too fast. Skimpy portion of string beans, I thought as my main course arrived. Then I dabbed a spud in the sauce next to my steak and reconsidered.
Au Bon Coin is packed with locals on the wonderful north side of Montmartre for a reason. The quality/price ratio is where it should be. ‘Comfort’ should be on the menu.
“I was here a week ago and the didn’t have the stuffed cabbage. They only have it in the darkest part of winter,” said my friend and dining companion who lives three blocks away. On this night, it’s on the menu and it arrives, dark, pungent and delicious a moment or two after my pièce de Charolais.
Is it me, or are the days getting longer?
Count on about 20€ with a drink or two.
Au Bon Coin MAP
49 Rue des Cloÿs
+33 1 46 06 91 36
P.S. - If you’re going to make a night out of it, start with an apéro at the nearby La Renaissance - 112 Rue Championnet - where Tarantino shot a scene from “Inglorious Basterds.” With any luck, there will be an impeccably-dressed woman delivering your drink. “Wearing jeans in public,” she once told me, “is despicable.”
“You’re not going to write about this place, right?” asked Pierre.
I smiled, but truth be told, I didn’t answer.
I’m a bit of a pho fanatic. Years ago, I worked in chef Didi Emmons’ restaurant Pho Republique in Cambridge, MA. As a birthday present to my sister, I made up a gift certificate for the place before it opened. Once we went, I liked Didi’s version of Vietnam’s signature soup so much, I got a part-time job in the kitchen. I had to know.
Knowing in Paris may require a compass. Or a Pierre with Vietnamese heritage. This place - a pagoda-lined pedestrian street lined with residential high-rises - looks more like Mars than Paris. Just before you open the door, however, you can smell that you’re in the right place.
It’s all in the broth. Good pho broth bubbles away all night, pulling flavor from a giant pot of goodness that usually includes beef, bones, ginger, charred onion, star anise and lemongrass. There are scores of variations including vegetarian, chicken and seafood versions. I could have imagined a version of this one - clear, clean and complex as any wine - as part of a recent meal at El Bulli. (!)
In Paris, I’m a regular at Belleville’s Dong Huong, where they make a very respectable bowl, but until today, I’d forgotten the magic that made me fall in love with pho in the first place.
While the star is the soup, the whole meal is fantastic. Consistently good plates like a Vietnamese crepe with mushrooms and marinated pork, fresh nem, pork ribs and marinated, grilled pork strips, all play with flavor and texture - even at dessert. Nothing misses the mark.
At less than 20€ for a royal feast and a drink, this is one of the best-priced meals in Paris.
Restaurant Quan Ngon MAP
63 rue Javelot
+33 1 44 24 35 59