Food & Travel / Words & Photos
Cue the rock music, throw on a cool T-shirt and hop in the L train to Williamsburg – Roberta’s cures what ails you. While the possibility of a lamb dish worthy of a spot in Daniel next to a pizza might sound a bit schizophrenic, here it works just fine.
With its woodsy feel and merry, multicolored light garlands on the walls, Roberta’s, est. 2008, has a feeling of a saloon that sits not too far from the 49th parallel – one that hits full swing by 7 and stays that way till the last tippler is pushed into the Brooklyn night at closing time. I was invited by my sweetheart, Elisabeth, who’d picked up on some very strong hints on where I’d like to celebrate my birthday and we were not let down.
These guys, particularly chef Carlo Mirachi, have some serous friends in the food sourcing business. ‘Beef Carpaccio’ shows up with the marbling of something noteworthy and turns out to be Wagyu from a farm on a big, flat state out west. A drizzle of stellar olive oil creates a dreamy, one-two-three-four adagio progression between vegetal freshness, slick vegetable fat, beefy meatiness and Wagyu fat. I got as much pleasure nibbling away at it as watching Elisabeth enjoy it – something she readily encouraged.
One plate over, tiny bay scallops with crispy bits of trout skin, Meyer lemon and poppies snuggled in a bowl, reminding me of not one but two childhood favorites – Mom’s broiled scallops, and, thanks to the poppies and the almost bread-y flavor to the broth they waded in, the frozen Pepperidge Farm rolls she’d make in the oven when I was little.
The big gun, however, was the lamb breast main course, cooked sous-vide for a long time then sizzled for a short time to create a crispy/melting combination that recalls the textures of a savory crème brulée. Nearby, a comma of yogurt, dollops of a light mint aspic and gently-braised leaves of, I believe, radicchio and Swiss chard provided punctuation marks of acidity, bitterness and a faint sweetness. Any three-star restaurant would be proud to serve the dish at three times the price.
Next to the lamb, we’d ordered a pizza – this is a pizzeria, after all – and maybe because it was next to something so spectacular, our pie was the evening’s only relative whiff. The ‘Tracy Patty’ pie features tasty mozzarella, ricotta, lip-smacking boquerones (vinegar-drenched anchovies), garlic and savoy cabbage, but it lacked some juicy agent like tomatoes or more of that amazing olive oil to shuttle each slice it to its final home.
No matter. Next time we go, we’ll likely try another pie. Perhaps the ‘Voltron’ – it’s got sopressata.
While some crow that the bar-like atmosphere is an odd or uncomfortable place for food this sophisticated, we could have cared less. This is the kind of spot where you want to grab good friend or three on your birthday and have one of the best nights of the year, fussiness be damned. Mirachi’s created an American doppelganger of Sicilian chef Francesco Cassarino’s wonderful Pizzeria Caravanserraglio.
On the subway and once nibbling some of Elisabeth’s fantastic birthday cake at home, we got talking about the best dishes we’d ever had. Rare are the meals that engender that sort of conversation.
“What were the tens?” Elisabeth asked, a question that brought us around the world and back to the meal still in our bellies.
Our lamb, we agreed, was a 9 ½, the scallops a scarce point and a half behind.
“What about the Wagyu carpaccio?” I asked. “A solid eight?”
She responded without hesitation.
“That was a ten.”
261 Moore St.
(Editor’s note: No reservations at Roberta’s - go early or wait in line.)
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’ve just made a mad dash inside the walls of Saint-Malo, trying to find a restaurant for my party five and left glassy-eyed. I’m sure some are fine, but most look like they’re made to accomodate the hordes that descend on the city in the warmer months.
“Bof!” the nonplussed French would say.
Crestfallen, I meet the gang.
“There was a good-looking place back by the hotel,” suggests Dad.
The place near the hotel, are you kidding!?!? I think. I’m the food guy - I should be able to find something better…Except I had noticed that place and it’s getting late…
“Perfect! Let’s go!”
La Brasserie du Sillon, a 10-minute walk down the beach from the center of Saint-Malo is bustling when just about everything else out this way is quiet. The food will be good and after a week of translating menus for my folks and their friends, the service is blessedly, impressively bilingual. While there are several à la carte options and shellfish platters a gogo, there are good values in the 25 to 40 euro prix fixe menus. My favorite is the whopping raie à la Grenobloise, skate served in brown butter, capers, lemon and walnuts. Roasted, it makes the tip of the skate wing flip up like Tintin’s hair. Mom gets an Italian-themed salad with a great slab of cured ham and the best mozzarella I’ve had in France.
Good call, Dad.
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 idea was to do a Belgian blog a day until it’s over (it’s almost over), but one or two of you may have noticed that ‘404 Not Found’ notice on these pages 24 hours ago. As my good friend Jerry Romano likes to say: “I turned and there he was…gone!”
Without further ado, it’s time for dinner in Bruges.
There’s a bit of sticker shock when you get here - your eyes go wide when they gaze up the beauty of the architecture and stay wide when they look down at the prices on the menu. The price of UNESCO status, I suppose.
On a tip and without much time to choose - they’re early eaters up this way - we head to De Wijngaart, just outside of where most visitors stray. The restaurant stays smart and honest in a town catering to so many out of towners that you have to watch your step.
It’s a treat to watch the guy at the grill which is cleverly placed at the center of the tiny dining room; his heat tolerance must be legendary in these parts. With stubby red fingers, he uses a long-handled cinder rake to move coals under the grill, giving him great heat control. It’s a very clever system.
What I also like is that while you’re eating your entrée, the grill man’s got your cut coming to room temperature, instead of going from the fridge to the flames.
One tic: the waiter asks if I want my steak medium rare, I say ‘rare’ and it comes out medium, but it’s still good enough that it doesn’t matter. We also have a salad using bacon that’s grilled right next to my steak that’s worth it just for the salty goodness of the meat.
Dessert? Too sweet. We eat it with a smile.
How much? We did some creative ordering, had a few beers and got out of there for 20 euros a head. Hungry eaters should count on about 30.
I love this kind of place: old, out of the way and authentic. La Bonne Humeur is a spiritual cousin to the American diner, right down the splotch of Formica worn white by the thousands of Dutch ovens and plates set in front of every seat.
What’s cooking? Millions of mussels, a google of frites, too many Jupiler drafts to remember!
Here in the house of moules et frites, the offerings do not disappoint. The mussels are magnificent. What appears to be important is not which sauce (marinière? Green peppercorn?) but that you pause to spoon some of the buttery, fennel-y goodness up from the bottom and pour it over the top.
The fries, part of my five consecutive meal fry extravaganza, cause the group buffoon to shout “McDonalds!” when he first tastes them - which made me want to hit the dirt in case knives came flying from the kitchen … even if there’s a grain of truth to it. ‘McDonald’s in heaven’ is much more appropriate.
The clever can save money by ordering smaller numbers of bigger portions. Three larger portions - they are ordered by the kilo or kilo and half - are plenty for the five of us, buffoon included.
Count on about 30 euros and, as it’s in a funny neighborhood and not too close to a Metro stop, take a cab.
La Bonne Humeur - MAP
Chaussée de Louvain 244
+32 02 230 71 69
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
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
Unless you’re willing to plunk down the cash, eating around the Champs Elysées is an expensive and often unsatisfying proposition.
“There’s a great Chinese, good sushi…” my dining partner said, citing his local favorites but after years of working in the neighborhood, but he still hadn’t found a favorite French place that’s a good value.
Luckily, he was prepared to plunk down the cash.
In front of Citrus Etoile, Audis and Porsches fight for the space in the crosswalk by the valet and inside, it’s businessmen and a bit of Botox. A little too showbiz for me. The waiter will take your order using an oversized Palm Pilot. That tap, tap, tap noise is about as pleasant a sound as fingers on a chalkboard.
The Web site describes the “adorable” owners Gilles and Elizabeth Epié as “a dynamic and sexy couple.” Someone needs to turn the PR down a notch. Some eat this stuff up and love what the couple does, but this is not my cup of tea.
Having spent a big hunk of time cooking in California, Monsieur Epié makes a laudable effort to offer a menu that’s good for you, but I don’t want to come to a place like this and have a dish that looks like it was pulled from the ‘heart-healthy’ section of a menu.
I will also mention that at a wine tasting yesterday, I had a very similar main dish - fish with spring vegetables - at the wine bistrot Vin Chez Moi (18 rue Duphot 75001) and it was about twice as good (and good looking) as this. Everything we eat at Citrus Etoile is good, but there’s no point during the meal where we say ‘Mmmmm!’ I hate to say it, but I felt like I could do some of this at home.
It also feels like you need to know what to get - there’s a businessman a few tables away whose tie is thrown back over his shoulder like it was in his way. I want what he had, but at 70 euros a head for lunch without wine or dessert, I should be able to point at dishes with my eyes closed and come up with winners every time.
Again, maybe it’s just me. Everything about this place is what the French would call ‘more than correct’ but I’m not interested in paying for a seat in a semi-exclusive place that doesn’t make me want to eat with my tie slung over my shoulder.
Lunchtime prix-fixe options at 49 and 69€. It goes up from there.
Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.