Food & Travel / Words & Photos
That’s the question French food critic Francois Simon posed to a little panel: Nick Lander, Carlo Petrini, Ken Hom, Anissa Helou, Yumiko Inukai and…yours truly. For a recent article in Le Figaro’s magazine, Figaroscope.
Here’s my response in Version Originale…
World capital? That’s loaded question.
Twenty years – even 10 – ago, the question was bandied about for fun but we already knew the answer, but now, just using the places I know well, it’s a legitimate debate. Barcelona combines an unquenchable curiosity and solid base to keep themselves on cuisine’s front edge. Sicily combines incredible raw ingredients with solid value and New York could win on sheer numbers yet it is Paris’ equal in quality and exponentially more diverse. India is a time machine whose cuisine never ages.
Plus, in Paris, coffee is awful and the beer second rate. It’s also pricey. That said, you forget all problems instantly when the former butcher who can hold four bottles of wine in one hand and owns Le Severo puts a côte de boeuf aged 40 days under your nose. You forget it when Pierre Gagnaire boils down a great vat of red wine to make a tiny component of a sauce. You forget it when Laetitia at Le Bistro Paul Bert greets you with a smile, seats you at your favorite table and gifts you with a glass of wine and when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine doesn’t foist something you can’t afford on you. You forget it when three bottles, two glasses of Calvados and one conversation into a meal, you realize with a start that it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve been at the table for nine hours.
Undeniable world champ? Not anymore. However, the French exception still reigns. Let’s call Paris first among equals.
I’ll begin with the closer; sometimes I talk about a meal having ‘momentum,’ something that gets better and better with every bite making you want more. Le Severo served a meal’s worth.
I’d wanted to come here since I first walked by years ago when I lived on place Denfert-Rochereau. The chalkboard wall full of good wines and the short menu had a wonderful ‘serious food’ air that tripped my radar.
The hard-working waiter speeds around the floor by himself. He also happens to be the owner, a former butcher and a man who knows how to age meat, which he does for 40 days in the space beneath the dining room.
Did I mention he can carry three wine bottles in one hand and though very busy, is unfailingly polite and patient with my table of nine?
On this night, we order appetizers, passing them around to share. When cep mushrooms, seared in generous quantities of butter make it to Mom, she takes one bite and commands, “Order another plate.”
There’s also a meatier-than-most blood sausage served without casing and cooked crispy on the outside, melting within. Mom immediately declares one of the best she’s ever eaten.
I mention this to the owner and he blushes.
After this, we pass to the serious meat. Just before taking our order, the owner declares that all meat will be cooked rare, fanning his arms out over the table. I mention that Mom prefers her meat on the done side and he blushes again, then caves to her wishes.
Dad and Jim get a côte de boeuf with intense marbling served blissfully rare and accompanied by fries that would make a Belgian proud. Jim gnaws on the bone, smiling the whole time and Dad’s got that “ooh, baby, baby” look on his face.
At the end of the night, the owner’s got time to come by and talk about his food – he’s wonderfully proud of it, rightfully so.
Count on 40-50€.
Le Severo – MAP
8 rue des Plantes
This is a public service writeup for what we call the “run away” column on the Simon Says site.
I’ve spent the last few weeks on the road, working on a Frommer’s guide update in Burgundy and the Rhône. Meeting an out-of-town colleague and his wife for brunch right after my return to Paris, I was happy to have someone else choose the location.
Les Editeurs sits across the street from Yves Camdeborde’s wonderful Le Comptoir and a stone’s throw from the Odeon metro. Walls of books and red-leather chairs make Les Editeurs look like a nice place to while away an afternoon, perhaps that’s best done with a beer or something else that they didn’t create on site.
Yesterday morning, 25 euros bought Sunday brunch at Les Editeurs. Brunch is a Parisian trend I’ve never understood in ten years here - a bad translation from the beautiful, bountiful American original. The French version is often overpriced and boring. Les Editeurs version included watery OJ, bad coffee, a basket of croissants and soggy toast and a plate with small ramekins of unremarkable scrambled eggs, a fruit cup, yogurt and something else that my mind has blocked out.
My colleague’s wife ordered a fifteen-euro club sandwich which she asked for without bacon. She was informed the sandwich was pre-made, but she could remove the bacon.
Really? Why do you need to pre-make a club sandwich in a restaurant? There are other time-saving/corner-cutting measures to take in a kitchen that don’t make bread soggy.
She did her best to push the sandwich around on her plate, but couldn’t bring herself to eat it. The waitress asked her about it and she couldn’t lie. To their credit, they comped it.
I’ve just come off of three days of incredible food in Lyon - fantastic three-course meals for under 20 euros. Yes, you can argue you pay for a prime location, but today’s brunch made me want to walk to the train station and have a few more meals in the Rhône before returning to Paris and pretend like I just got back.
4 Carrefour de l’Odéon
The pre-meal e-mail back-and-forth went like this:
Me: For dinner, I want to start with cured herring on potatoes with a beer, followed by andouillette (tripe sausage) with some good wine.
These are the friends you hang on to.
Dinner at Les Routiers had been pushed back several times, but was worth the wait. It’s the kind of place favored by Le Guide du Routard: a substantial meal, gentle prices, a little rough around the edges. There’s a giant zinc, assorted kitsch on the wall including a giant Georges Brassens head shot and a surly waitress.
Appetizers are a bargain and could be a meal in themselves. My herring and beer are just as they should be and Anne’s ‘figs stuffed with foie gras’ turns out to be a salad ringed with the figs - dried and fantastic - the salad is generously crowned with charcuterie not even listed on the menu.
The mains, on the other hand, are exactly what it says on the menu: my andouillette sits alone on the plate, reminding me of an infamous French dessert called rêve de jeune fille. Anne’s roast lamb is just that - no thought given to the presentation, but with a crust this crispy and interior this juicy, it doesn’t matter.
Dinner with wine, whether or not you get the prix fixe menu, will run 40-50 euros per person.
Restaurant Les Routiers – MAP
50 Rue Marx Dormoy
+33 1 46 07 93 80
My colleague who works in the 8th arrondissement felt a bit challenged when he saw I was disappointed with our last lunch near the Champs Elysées.
For this meeting, he pulled the Aoki card. Not the Japanese pastry chef with outlets around town, but the one with a tiny restaurant a block away from the ‘most beautiful avenue in the world’ (pff!) who’s busy outdoing the chef up the street. At his own game. At half the price.
When I arrive, I give the name of my dining partner who’s made the reservation. The Japanese waiter then reads back the name from the reservation notebook, where it’s written in Japanese. This must be wildly perplexing to the French.
A cod and creamy smashed cauliflower main is cooked just right, but the star is a lentil salad appetizer with petals of cured ham and a gently poached egg. The lentils are more of a soup made bright by vinegar and luxurious by the egg floating on top. There’s a fun, almost light, spin on the baba au rhum for dessert.
Aoki trained under Alain Senderens and the result isn’t fusion cuisine or even French with an Asian flair, as the other Aoki does. Instead, it’s good, clean and modern French.
In Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, I visited foreign winemakers who used their skill to squeeze the most from the local grapes. Here, it’s a warped version - the Japanese chef in Paris showing his neighbors how it’s done.
Lunch formule (appetizer and main or main and dessert) for 21.50€. Great value. Makes me want to go back for dinner.
Restaurant Makoto Aoki
19 rue Jean Mermoz
+33 1 43 59 29 24
Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday
It’s a shame I ate my way through this neighborhood for two years and never once stopped at Melac.
Walk in the door of this 1938 bistrot à vins and underneath the sign that reads “water is for the plants” you’ll find the monstrously mustachioed owner greeting those who he wants with a big smile and a handshake. Sylvie, my cheesemonger friend and longtime regular, gets bisous. Behind him, giant wheels of beautiful cheese take up a counter and the walls in the shade are filled with shelves and shelves of wine.
We move from the first dining room to the second - a movie-like sequence that takes us through tables of jovial long-time customers, a corner of the kitchen complete with sizzling pans and the rack of cloth napkins and customized napkin rings given to preferred customers. The second dining room is every bit as nice as the first.
For wine, Sylvie - who has a napkin ring - has only to ask the waiter for something “big, round and that I haven’t tried before” and he nods and comes back with a bottle of Marcillac which we drink à la ficelle - you pay for as much as you drink. Get in as much trouble as you want.
The chef is new as of this summer and I’d guess he’ll be around for a bit. There will be no reinventing of the wheel and we’ll be very happy that way. A chicken liver appetizer comes bathing in a beautiful sauce, rich in wine and onions and crowned with two broiled eggs. A bread-dipper’s delight.
Lunch is simple and solid bistro fare: good sausage on a bed of aligot - mashed potatoes with Cantal curd and garlic that nod to the restaurant’s roots in the Auvergne, and a flank steak that’s a little tough but full of flavor. Dessert is riz au lait that would send Mom over the moon.
This is very much a place that’s the sum of the parts - a troika made up of food, wine and ambience that makes you want to eat with friends. I’ll take visitors here. I’ll take friends here. It’s a bit of the real thing.
Count on about 20€ per person, plus wine.
Melac - MAP
42 rue Leon Frot
+33 1 43 70 59 27 (reserve ahead for dinner)
Closed Sunday & Monday
Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.
Get there while you can.
We got a walk-in seat for dinner at Spring last night.
As in Spring, where you usually have to wait months for a table. We just sat at the downstairs bar and ordered à la carte.
We had walked by after being shut out at Chez Denise, which, we learned, is either closed on Saturdays or still enjoying summer vacation. Wandering aimlessly, I went in to say hello to chef Daniel Rose who opened Spring in its new location a few months back.
“Come check out the bar!” he said.
And while, at 9:30 at night, there were still people upstairs still kicking around from the lobster roll lunch he does every Saturday (no Saturday dinner), downstairs, the beautiful ‘cave’ is essentially functioning as a little restaurant with a bar.
“Spring Buvette!” he declared.
“When did you open?”
As Rose tells it, he just didn’t tell anyone about it. At this point, he really doesn’t need to.
No reservations, tiny, very reasonably-priced menu, order à la carte (as opposed to the prix fixe upstairs) beautiful space, killer wines.
Last night, we had little canned sardines with perfect bread and butter, wonderful Spanish charcuterie (including a chorizo, which, on that bread with a thin layer of that butter may have been my favorite bite of the meal), a veal and foie gras ‘tourte’ topped with little, ruby-colored radish sprouts and a lamb and cèpe stew with white beans.
Our meal was destined for a bunch of catch-up with an old friend, but we kept getting interrupted by the food that would make my friend moan.
“Some of this is better than bad sex,” I joke.
“Some of this is better than good sex,” she replies.
You’ve got about three days to get there before the word’s out and the line’s out the door.
Count on about 30 euros per person. Without wine. Most bottles start at 30 euros and go up from there.
Spring Buvette - MAP
6 Rue Bailleul
Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.
I’m late for my plane.
I’ve been simultaneously packing to leave for summer in the USA, packing up to move apartments and file my taxes for the last few days and, shutting the door behind me, realize I probably won’t be able take the metro and make it on time.
I also can’t find a taxi and have to stop in to pick up my sister’s request of fresh, salty butter. That’s all she ever wants me to bring from France and I can’t blame her. It’s sublime.
But I’m late.
En route for the taxi stand where there are always taxis but never any drivers, I run past Belleville’s Fromagerie Beaufils.
It’s early and Beaufils is one of the only shops on rue de Belleville that’s open, Monsieur Beaufils (?) still arranging cheeses.
“Hi, I’d like some butter for my sister,” I say, leaning my suitcase up against the display case.
He smiles, pulls down some fresh butter from the Ile de Ré and asks where I’m heading.
I explain the Oregon/Seattle/New Hampshire itinerary, noting the family connections along the way. Ready to leap out the door if a taxi rolls by.
“Does your family like cheese?” he asks.
“Bien sur!” I reply, wondering how the hell the guy knows I have “god bless cheese” written on my business card.
He turns around, picks up a two-pound hunk of Comté laced with those good-news crystals of amino acids, holds it up for me to see and says, “for your family.”
I’ve never met the man before and, as far as he knows, I’m never to be seen again, and he sticks what I’d guess to be a 20-euro ($26) hunk of cheese in my hands, charging me three bucks for the butter and waiving the fee to put everything in a vac-pac bag.
We eat it on a vineyard in Oregon. They like the cheese.
Fromagerie Beaufils - MAP
118 rue de Belleville
+33 (0)1 46 36 61 71
Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.
PARIS – The waitress at Willi’s Wine Bar poured a bit in my glass to taste and waited next to me for a verdict.
Nothing good happened in my mouth. Nothing bad either. “Nothing to signal” to borrow a local phrase.
“Should it be like this?” I venture, trying to play it semi-diplomatically.
As the words leave my mouth, the wine - a Gigondas - begins to unwind. It’s good, but a bit too late now.
The waitress takes it in stride as I begin to backpedal. Later, the wine steward drops by to offer to exchange the bottle anyway. Perhaps he smiled when he noticed it was almost gone.
“Willi’s?” a friend would later ask. “That place still full of Americans?”
“Smart ones,” I reply.
Count on 30-40 euros for a good, seasonal lunch, tasty wine and classy service.
Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.
PARIS - I’d been back in town for 48 hours, my mental Rolodex a little rusty and trying to think of a good place to meet a friend for lunch. My brain falls on a well-worn card.
Taxi Jaune is a perfect ‘welcome back’ - serving, on this day, radishes with good, sweet, creamy butter and salt flakes - the dish might as well have a little French flag on the top.
Later, Ari and I share mains. A bavette (flank steak) is crunchy on the outside, juicy within - a bite full of flavor, good technique and strong sourcing.
The trout, skin crisp and peeled back like the page of a good book reveals something sensual, a kind of ‘pages turned slowly’ read. There’s a fettucine next to it that’s so good, it causes me to go home and try to make my own pasta.
Outside, the sun is bright. The city shines like a diamond.
Count on about 20€ with a drink at lunch.
Le Taxi Jaune - MAP
13, rue Chapon
+33 1 42 76 00 40