Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"It's a Grill!" : The Birth of the Baby Bistro

Oh, to dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant. The food! The wine! The service! Paradise on earth … if you are lucky enough to own an American Express Black card (or you are dating/married/going to be married to someone who does.) For all of us other plebians who dream about dining on lobster and caviar at a round table with Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse and Lucas Carton (this is a fictional dream, people, Lucas Carton is allowed to be a real person!), truffles worth more than a month’s rent and wine that costs enough to send your grandchildren through college, the only Michelin-inspired object we’ll be purchasing are new tires. However, a new hope has emerged for currency-challenged citizens everywhere (or at least those who have the luxury of living in or visiting Paris, France): the baby bistro. Or the “sister bistro” if you prefer. Many of France’s most talented celebrity chefs have decided to give back to humanity by feeding the poor. Okay, so maybe not the poor, per se, but people who yearn for delicious, French food, but simply cannot merit spending 75 euros on a truffle big enough to feed an anorexic lilliputian.
One of the prime examples of this new trend to nourish the average man comes after the sad news that recently shocked the world: Lucas Carton is no longer with us. A moment of silence please. Luckily, Lucas Carton is not a person, but the name of the popular Right Bank restaurant where Alain Senderens made food a veritable art form (and charged prices worthy of such esoteric art.) Senderens recently announced thathe was handing back his Michelin stars and reopening his Paris restaurant as a much simpler “brasserie de luxe.” The concept was straightforward: simple food, prepared to perfection, at (more) reasonable prices in a relaxed, convivial bistro atmosphere. Imagine sampling some of the world’s top cuisine without having to ask Muffy to forgive you for putting your elbow on the table accidentally as you reach for your rare ukranian ostrich cocktail to wash down a spicy bite of kangaroo tail from the eastern jungles of outer Mongolia served with a ponzu and lobster marinade over a bed of caviar from a beluga whale whose mother just turned 47 yesterday, congratulations Betty Blue.
I, for example, have spent the year in Paris on a student-intern’s salary (read: I make less per month than the man begging for your extra euros in the metro) yet I can say that I have eaten food prepared by the likes of Guy Savoy, Jacques Cagna and Jean Georges Ver- oh who can really pronounce his last name anyway, what other famous French chef’s named Jean Georges do you know? No, I haven’t pick-pocketed clueless wealthy tourists on my way to dinner, I’ve discovered one of the secrets of life, namely, designer names at affordable prices.

My favorite B-list celebrity chef dining experience is by far any of Guy Savoy’s Paris restaurants (with the exception of the Guy Savoy namesake restaurant itself). L’Atelier de Maître Albert is one of my favorite spots in Paris. Though, being featured in many anglophone guidebooks, the restaurant does attract many tourists, but as long as you don’t head in for the 7:30 dinner shift, you won’t have to worry about too many loud Americans ruining your meal. The decor is modern yet welcoming, and visitors to the main dining room face either the warm fireplace or the open-faced rotisserie oven boasting delectable meats dripping with flavor as the crackling of roasting skin passes lightly through the air. The roast chicken with mashed potatoes is some of the best I’ve ever had – the potatoes are lightly whipped with just enough butter to satisfy your appetite, but not enough to force you to unzip your pants – and the other selections of meats such as cooked-to-perfection steak and lamb are also infallible. The side dishes come literally on the side, and are brought out in piping hot skillets to ensure heat and flavor throughout the course of the meal. The appetizers and desserts change constantly, but are always light and delicious. The duck carpaccio and the soup du jour served with, as the poor English translation describes, “one’s own madeleine,” are a wonderful way to tease one’s palate, and the tarte du jour or the jars of flavored creams never fail to complement the delicious meal. The service is outstanding, especially for such a popular place. I always feel welcome, and, after forgetting the scoop of vanilla ice to accompany my plum clafoutis earlier this summer, one of the waiters not only remembered me, but greeted my guests and me with glasses of champagne on the house to remedy his mistake. The copious glasses of wine (none of which cost more than 10 euros) and comprehensive wine list are yet another reason to pay a visit to this left bank establishment just a hop, skip and a jump from the Seine.

Further along the Seine, Guy Savoy’s other restaurant, Les Bouquinistes, is a bit more expensive and less casual than it’s sister down the road, but is, if possible, an even more pleasurable dining experience. Reserve early and request a table overlooking the Seine, so you can stare at the people walking by as you chew your perfectly prepared Guy Savoy-inspired food and feel pity for the passersby not sharing in your experience. On a recent visit with my parents, we started with a “croustillant d’escargot” which featured roasted snails wrapped in a crispy phyllo-dough-like crust and served with a delicious accompanying sauce. I had the Daurade Royale served “à la plancha” with eggplant caviar and beefsteak tomatoes, my mother opted for the duckling filet served with the most delicious rice any of us had ever had, made with coconut milk and fresh coriander, and my father had the St. Pierre filet, a special that evening. And then came dessert. I don’t think three people have ever been so happy since John Ritter moved in with Suzanne Somers and Joyce Dewitt in 1977. I had a – I hope you’re sitting down – fig millefeuille (aka a “napoleon” in anglospeak) served with an almond cream gelato and toasted almonds, my father ordered the cheese plate filled with a variety of fromage français all of which were delicious and my mother chose the crème brûlée served in three separate pots, each with a different aromatic flavor. I’ve recently been back to sample the autumn menu, and the scallops with chorizo “chips” and pumpkin risotto were divine, and almost as good-looking as the maître D. The dessert sampler for two, while geared towards chocolate lovers, was a fun romp through the many ways to combine sugar and cream for culinary delight. Though not cheap, Les Bouquinistes is certainly a special experience and I challenge Guy Savoy to serve me a better meal in his namesake restaurant. (Really, Guy, I’m free on Saturday.)

Across the river, in the 16th arrondissement not far from the Trocadéro, Monsieur Savoy has established yet another culinary Mecca to feed his friends on the right bank. La Butte Chaillot features an atmosphere and prices similar to L’Atelier de Maitre Albert, but with more modern decor and a different menu. I’ll begin with dessert since La Butte Chailott’s tarte fine aux pommes may just have changed my life when I tasted it for the first time last December and had a veritable “culinary orgasm.” The delicate, crispy layers of buttery pastry covered in thin slices of tasty apples and complemented with a scoop of vanilla ice cream helped me to survive the cold Paris winter. The fish dishes here are always great and have featured such palate-tempting plates such as a tuna steak served with an asparagus and pea risotto or the sea bass served over a zucchini and tomato tart. There is always a vegetarian pasta selection on the menu, and Savoy’s famous roast chicken and mashed potatoes combo is also a menu staple. Starters are typically more creative takes on traditional French cuisine such as foie gras served with pineapple and fig chutney or a mixed greens salad with crispy prawns and sesame. This is a great place for a business lunch or a casual meal with friends.
Monsieur Savoy has also recently opened a more-upscale-than-his-other-restaurants-but-less-pretentious-than-his-original-restaurant locale called Chiberta, off of the trendy Champs-Elysées. So far, I’ve heard only good things about this Guy’s latest culinary endeavor, but expect to pay more for the experience. The tasting menu starts at 100 Euros.
Though Guy Savoy likes to see his patrons hopping around the city to get a taste of his gourmet offerings, many other chefs have opted to open bistros right next door or across the street from their original establishments. Jacques Cagna, for example, opened La Rotisserie d’en Face which is indeed “en face” (across from) his namesake bistro in the heart of the sixth arrondissement. La Rotisserie d’en face serves Jacques Cagna fare without Jacques Cagna prices. The atmosphere is that of a typical French bistro and, though also “en face” from Le Christine, whose clientele is 99,9% tourist, is a neighborhood favorite of St.-Germain residents looking for a casual meal any night of the week. With a 28 euro menu at lunch and a 42 euro menu at dinner, La Rotisserie d’En Face is quite a bargain especially in wallet-shrinking Saint Germain. With a wide variety of changing menu options, crispy warm multigrain bread served fresh from the oven, and a waiting staff that will make you want to return again and again, La Rotisserie d’En Face is a great way to enjoy yourself while your rich friends entertain themselves with Cagna’s latest offerings across the street. You can all meet after supper to discuss your meal and walk off the calories during a long promenade along the nearby Seine. Or, if you’re craving fish, check out Cagna’s other bistro across the street (different street, this one’s on the Rue des Grands Augustins) called l’Espadon Bleu which features a wide selection of our friends from the sea cooked in a variety of creative ways.
Also hopping aboard the “dine across the street for less” bandwagon is chef Stéphane Gaborieau whose Pergolèse restaurant in the fancy schmancy 16th arrondissement has been a neighborhood favorite of wealthy locals for years. Gaborieau also runs Le Petit Pergolèse right across the street (essentially right next door since the street diving the two establishments is about wide enough to fit two dieting French poodles) which offers Pergolèse-quality food at more “petite” prices. Though the portion sizes may have gluttonous Americans wanting more, Gaborieau – who often makes personal appearances to assure that even his guests on the “other side of the tracks” are enjoying his offerings – serves up delicious plates of light yet satisfying meals in a quiet street in the far west of the city. The place is always filled with locals, n’er a tourist in sight, and the relaxing ambiance provides a great escape from the nearby mayhem of the Champs-Elysées.
And for those of you who have always dreamed of waking up in the luxurious Hôtel Crillon with a knock on the door as room service brings you fresh croissants which you savor as you look out onto the place de la Concorde in your robe and slippers, well, I’m sorry but you still may never be able to have this experience, but at least you might be able to have dinner in one of the Crillon’s restaurants, let’s start with that. Though the famous Les Ambassadeurs is always on top of the list of Paris’ best restaurants, le Crillon’s “other” restaurant, l’Obélisque, offers a more casual yet equally special atmosphere right down the corridor. The service at l’Obélisque was perhaps the best I’ve ever had, unpretentiously welcoming yet appropriately removed, and the meal was memorable to say the least. For only 50 euros (Only? You ask, horrified, but, welcome to Paris, ladies and gentlemen), diners receive three copious plates of palate-enhancing cuisine. The menu is advertised as being traditionally French, yet it is surprisingly very creative as well and is under the direction of Les Ambassadeurs chef Jean-François Piège who recently left La Plaza Athénée to engage Hotel Crillon diners in his culinary delights. On a recent visit (again, with my parents, did I not mention that I make 30% of the French minimum wage per month for my internship?), I started with the mussels served in a delicious tomato broth, then moved onto the cod served in a red wine sauce with asparagus. For the record, we had dined at L’Angle du Faubourg, Taillevent’s “sister bistro” the night before, and the cod that I ate at L’Obélisque could have eaten the cod I was served at L’Angle Faubourg for breakfast. And still had room for the gastronomically life-altering slice of pastry-otic heaven that fell from the heavens and onto my dessert plate: the Obélisque millefeuille. As you may have noticed, the millefeuille is ubiquitous on Parisian menus this season and I have taken it upon myself to taste as many as possibly. After a tight race (I’ll give the prize for most unique millefeuille to Les Bouquinistes, congratulations Guy), I congratulate the fierce competitors, but must give the Prize for the Best Millefeuille I’ve Ever Had to l’Obélisque. If another famous chef or establishment would like to challenge this decision, again, my mind is open. (and, again, free Saturday).

Taillevent has also opened a “sister bistro,” but unfortunately it’s a very bratty, pretentious and disappointing younger sister. As previously mentioned, the portions are big enough to feed Mary Kate Olsen Barbie dolls, and the service was – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it service. It was more like men and women dressed in server attire bringing food to your table, but apparently unable to smile or emit any signs of sentiment whatsoever in the process. Though some of the inventive dishes did show signs of promise, the cold decor matched by even colder service and the sounds of loud Americans yelling in the background, ruined the experience. The desserts were unimpressive and the sommelier even less sweet. The prices are way too high for the quality of the cuisine and I think Taillevent should be ashamed to place it’s name on such an ostentatious, low-quality establishment.
Speaking of pretention, Jean Georges Vongerichten’s name has become synonymous with affected cuisine all over the world. However, his homeland hub, Market, located just next door to the Christie’s building on the luxurious avenue de Matignon, is actually quite casual and offers delicious, relatively affordable modern French food. While the restaurant becomes a bit trendier and fancier on the weekends, during the week, it remains a casual yet chic spot to experiment with Jean Georges popular cooking. Start with some of the more fun appetizers such as a cooked tuna and wasabi cream pizza or the chicken soup with coconut milk, then move on to his main dishes served with the most delicious sauces imaginable. My favorite is the crispy spice-crusted Daurade Royale served in an absolutely delectable sweet and sour sauce featuring a mélange of soy sauce, honey and myriad other unique spices. The duck, usually served with a sweet sauce – I’ve sampled it with both a honey vinaigrette and with a fig compote on recent trips – is also memorable. Although it almost seems like a cardinal sin to order cheesecake in a country famous for its delicious pastries and traditional desserts, Jean Georges’ version of the classic American douceur is made with the lightest crème fraiche and served with a strawberry sorbet…sublime. Though dining at Market feels more like a night out on the town in Manhattan than soaking up the culture in Paris, France, it is a very chic and enjoyable way to enjoy Jean Georges without paying gastronomic prices.
Other ways to sample the gourmet talents of France’s best chefs include: Alain Ducasse’s traditional, artery-clogging Aux Lyonnais bistro, his trendy, experimental Spoon, his upscale 59 Poincaré or his latest venture Benoît. One can also get that much closer to Alain Ducasse by visiting his Boulangepicéries throughout the city, a joint venture with boulanger to the stars, Eric Kayser and Laurent Plantier. At the original Be in the 8th arrondissement, try the creative and delicious sandwiches made with their famous wholesome baked bread. I recently had a roquefort cheese and pear compote sandwich served on their famous Périgord walnut bread and it was unforgettable. I now frequent his Be on the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie for their fresh-baked baguettes, mini-pains filled with seasonal goodies such as figs, oranges or walnuts and raisins and, my personal favorite, the crispy cheese bread made with emmental baked right into the crust. Joel Rubochon has also rid himself of Michelin stars to open the increasingly popular left bank staple, l’Atelier du Joel Rubuchon, where guests sample heavenly fare as they brush elbows on casual countertops with Saint Germain’s famous French movie-star inhabitants.
So here’s to praying that French storks keep on dropping off baby bistros so that average people like you and me can have our gateaux and eat them too without filing for bankruptcy just to enjoy some foie gras.

Word of the Day
titivate: to smarten up; to spruce.

Pastry of the Day
Tarte Normande
A Tarte Normande is a flaky pastry-based variant of the apple tart made in Normandy which is essentially a creamy egg custard tart topped with apples, sliced almonds and sugar and baked until the topping is slightly caramelised. Paul makes a superb version that, after a few seconds in the microwave and topped with a bit of creme fraiche, will make you want to spend all of your days in Normandy.

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