Thursday, October 13, 2011

Les Restos de Paris

“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”  Lilly Bollinger

While I do love une coupe de champagne, and have had a few since we’ve arrived in Paris, the same can be said for un verre de vin. We’ve managed to say no to wine when we eat in our little studio, but every time we’ve gone out for dinner, it’s been too difficult to resist at least a small pichet de vin (and so we haven’t!). Maybe it’s a social thing? When we’re in the company of others, a glass of wine seems a must. I waxed poetic about our lunch at Le Grand Véfour but haven’t written in much detail about our other dining experiences at restaurants (les restos for short) – and there have been plenty.

On Friday, October 7, we celebrated our first month abroad with a dinner cruise on the Seine. Yes, they’re touristy, and yes, they’re expensive, but the food and wine are excellent and what is more beautiful and romantic than sipping a glass of champagne while gliding along the Seine, watching the lights of Paris go by? We’ve had multiple dinners in past years, including once with both Chris and Caroline, on the Bateaux Mouches, but decided to try the Bateaux Parisiens this time, a smaller, more intimate cruise line. We definitely made the right choice. The lighting was low and romantic (Joe even responded to my forlorn face when we were seated and switched our white lamp with the ginger one from the vacant table next door, thereby assuring an evening bathed in soft ochre light). The food, the jazzy live music, the city of light, and of course, the company, made for a perfect evening.

A note about restaurant lighting: as Caroline and I have agreed (we pretty much have identical tastes when it comes to dining out), if a restaurant doesn’t have just the right soft, romantic lighting, even if the food and service are perfect, it’s not going to score a perfect 10 in our book. And there are a surprising number of lit-like-a-hospital restaurants in Paris. I read that the bright light craze is fueled by a desire to look “modern,” but I’ll take old-fashioned dim any day. When I was a growing up, my grandfather Darby often took us out to dinner and what ranked first on his scale of restaurant standards was high quality food and plenty of it. And by high quality food, he meant roast beef, steak, shrimp and lobster, all accompanied by big salads and lots of starch. The ambience was of little consequence as long as our plates were full. Common criteria for those who grappled with the Depression? Perhaps. For me, however, it’s the other way around. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a foodie with the best of them, but a beautifully appointed room, warm lighting and soft music will get me every time. Such an establishment has already gone a long way towards scoring well on my report card, even before the food makes an appearance.

Getting back to my restaurant log, some of our most memorable meals have been:

·      Our very first dinner at Cafe Hugo on the Place des Vosges. Is there a meal more welcomed and delicious than the first after an exhausting overnight flight across the pond, no breakfast or lunch, and an all-afternoon nap? As Joe likes to say, “No one does simple salads better than the French,” and indeed, our first food in France, simple salades vertes with just enough creamy vinaigrette dressing were just right. Our plats of salmon and chicken with their respective sauces also fit the bill. The evening also confirmed that we were indeed in France, land of les Gauloises and les Gitanes, as all but us under the cafe awning were smoking. We resolved to eat inside more often. While smoking is still legal at outdoor tables, it is no longer allowed inside restaurants.
·      Le Procope. One of the oldest restaurants in Paris (it opened in the late 1600s), Le Procope is in the 6th, just south of the Boulevard St. Germain. It serves delicious prix fixe meals and the ambiance is warm and the sense of history authentic. The brass nameplate behind our banquette indicated that we were at Diderot’s table.
·      Au Bon Saint Pourçain. Recommended by several travel writers, although in few guidebooks, this quaint, inexpensive, neighborhood restaurant is on the rue Servandoni, tucked beside the Église Saint-Sulpice. We stopped by one afternoon to make a reservation for that evening and were greeted by a scowling gentleman with a big, black, bushy uni-brow sitting on a chair, holding court outside the front door. “Je voudrais faire une reservation pour ce soir” I stated. He asked me at what time and for how many people and then simply affirmed, “Bon.” He didn’t write anything down, nor did he even ask our name. He declared it: we were all set. When we arrived that evening, there he was again, greeting us with a frown and handing us over to the young waitress (a granddaughter, perhaps?). As we enjoyed our straightforward, traditional French cuisine (boeuf aux olives for both of us), along with a bottle of Au Bon Pourcain’s private label wine (all you’re asked is white or red) that evening, we admired the pen-and-ink portraits of the gentleman that included his distinctive eyebrow, hung on the wall and graced the restaurant’s postcards. This family-run resto will definitely stay on our must-go-back-to list.
·      L’Atlas. Just like New York, Paris has an amazing number of ethnic restaurants. Anticipating our visit to Morocco late next month, we decided to try a North African restaurant we’d read about for a tagine (a traditional meat stew with lots of vegetables) and couscous. While the authentic decor, food and service were excellent at L’Atlas, the fluorescent lighting took away from the experience. We’re hoping we’ll find dimmer, more romantic lighting when we reach Morocco itself.
·      La Coupole. Although this expansive Montparnasse standard and 1920s expat hangout resembled a Manhattan cafeteria when we arrive one evening unfashionably early at 7:15, its personality changed completely in a matter of minutes. What was at first an impersonal and hollow hall with its bright lights and high ceilings, swiftly filled with the hum of conversation and the clinking of wine glasses. It was rush hour at La Coupole as diners filed in and filled the seats. By 7:40, the place was full and our initial hesitation about choosing this famous bistro disappeared as we joined the buzz of conversation. The food was terrific and we continued to marvel at the speed with which patrons arrived.
·      L’As du Falafel. When Caroline studied in Paris two summers ago, the University of Arizona program was located in the Marais. Back then, she told us that one of her and her classmates’ favorite haunts for lunch was L’As du Falafel on the rue des Rosiers in the old Jewish neighborhood. Caroline is a falafel connoisseur and if she suggested it, we knew it would be good. On one of our trips to this ancient quarter, we sought out her recommendation. For a mere 5 euros, we had a warm, fresh-baked pita stuffed with falafel, shaved cabbage, grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes and tahini sauce. It’s definitely one of the best budget meals in the city and we returned before leaving Paris.
·      Chez Louisette. Our one visit to this bizarre saloon will definitely be our last, but we’re happy for the experience. What a strange place from another time! Our stomachs were growling fiercely and we were in desperate need of an escape from the maze of the Paris flea market, Le Marché aux Puces. There were too many aggressive hawkers selling too much junk and we weren’t enjoying our visit at all, so we followed the music and ducked into this red-checkered tablecloth joint down a narrow alley on the edge of the market. A mix of sideshow and frat party, Chez Louisette featured a man on the accordion and a woman in her 70s belting out Edith Piaf standards up on a raised platform. Green, red and gold tinsel hung unevenly from the ceiling over long tables set for communal meals. The carnival effect was amusing for a while (I actually did enjoy her rendition of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien). However, the food was mediocre, the subsequent singers were not as good as “Edith” and when the hat was passed after every three songs, we’d had enough. I was never a huge fan of the circus – it always seemed a little sad – and this place was a little too much “circus” for me.
·      Relais de Venise. Just down the boulevard from the busy Porte Maillot is a steak/frites restaurant with a winning formula. It’s so perfect, in fact, that I’m sure it’s the inspiration for Cleveland Park’s relatively new Medium Rare bistro in in Washington, DC. The Relais serves one thing, salad/steak/frites and all you get to choose is your wine, how your steak is cooked and if you want dessert. How the two eateries operate is identical: no reservations (the line forms outside the door); you’re served a simple salad (in DC the lettuce is topped with tomatoes and in Paris with finely minced walnuts); the steak is sliced and comes with a “secret sauce” -- of course, the one in Paris was slightly better – a delicious green herb concoction reeking with garlic; the frites are shoestring and salty; you’re served one portion from a metal tray and then get seconds once you’ve cleared your plate. The Relais de Venise was packed at 7:30 on the Wednesday of our visit (extremely early for a dinner crowd in France). We waited outside for about 30 minutes with the locals until a table for two freed up. Elbow to elbow with the other diners, we enjoyed our classic steak/frites and delighted in being part of the theater.
·      Café Laurent. I wish that we had known about this lovely jazz bar when we came to France in the summer of 2003 with my Mom and Dad. They would have loved it, although I’m not sure my Dad would have like the fact that he couldn’t get a good American martini (if you order a martini in France, they bring you a Martini & Rossi) or the 14 euro price of a French coffee (it’s simply too delicious to even try to describe the taste of its perfect blend of coffee, Grand Marnier and whipped cream). But for the price of an expensive drink, you get a long, lovely evening of sophisticated music and perfect tawny lighting(!) on a comfortable banquette in a lively quartier of Paris. Pas très cher, all considered. The cafe is in the gorgeous and classy but low-key boutique Hotel d’Aubusson at 33 rue Dauphine in Saint Germain. Christian Bernard is at the piano and the way he hunches over the piano to coax his expressive, jazzy style from the keys made us think of Schroeder, of Peanuts fame. Each night he plays with different “invited musician friends,” but he is what makes the music special. We wished we’d discovered this comfortable cafe earlier in our month; we made it there twice but we would have become regulars.
·      Carmine’s. We all yearn for familiarity even when we’re home and it becomes even more essential when we’re abroad. Our favorite neighborhood restaurant at home was Renato’s in downtown Potomac, MD, and we went there every Friday for take-out eggplant parmesan and about once a month for a dinner out. It’s the Cheers effect: everyone knew our names at Renato’s and they made us feel at home. And while not everyone there knew our names, Carmine’s became our Friday night go-to resto, the warm, friendly French-Italian bistro on the corner of the rue de Suffren and la place Joffre. It was easy and familiar and they make Paris’s best pizzas.

We’ve relished eating out in Paris but the food and the wines and the restaurants of the southwest beckon. While we’ll no longer be in Paris, there will certainly continue to be many verres de vin and coupes de champagne in our future.

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