Monday, December 04, 2006

Then and now

1987 . . .


Restaurant reviews

Thoughts on some of the amazing food we ate while in Paris.


Menu Degustation

Pour l'ensemble des convives de votre table

Crème brûlée de foie gras de canard
Fèves de Tonka
Epeautre du pays de Sault en risotto
Fricassée de girolles
Rouget-bartet poêlé
Brandade de merlu et aïoli
Selle d’agneau princier en rognonnade
Jus à la sarriette
Chèvre frais
Tapenade et mesclun
Œuf-neige aux fruits rouges
Palet au chocolat caraïbe et à la verveine

I could write a lot about this meal. Rather than describe every dish, I will say that every single aspect of this meal was perfect. The service struck the right note all the way through a three hour lunch—friendly without being over-familiar, attentive without being obsequious, helpful without ever once being condescending. The three of us were clearly out of our element in this restaurant filled with older, very visibly wealthy couples, business lunchers, and one obvious rock star (ripped jeans, tattered leather jacket, sunglasses, carefully prepared bed head dining with an impeccably suited and groomed woman—agent?) And yet we felt welcome and comfortable as soon as we relaxed enough to realize that everyone in the restaurant, including us, were being treated with equal courtesy.

We all had the 7-course “menu degustation” and all the food was fantastic. The revelatory dish of menu was the “Crème brûlée de foie gras de canard Fèves de Tonka.” One of the very few dishes I’ve ever eaten that I wouldn’t know where to begin recreating, it was as advertised, foie set in custard, not sweet but silky, topped with a few grains of caramelized sugar and ground tonka beans that gave a vanilla and almond scent, all topped with a deep-fried leaf of lemon verbena.

We had two wonderful (and wonderfully paired) half bottles of wine, a white and a red (Meursault-Charmes Domaine Michelot, 1999, and Beune Les Teurons, Domaine Germain, 1999), which the sommelier chose for us (we didn’t know where to start with the biblical wine list). The sommelier overheard me comment on how much I liked the pinot compared to Oregon and California pinots, and (with only a hint of disdain for US wines) spent some time talking to us about the differences in how the wines are made.

I could go on and on. When, at the end of the meal and after paying our (staggering) bill, we expressed an interest in seeing a bottle of the house armagnac that had been left on the center staging area from another table, three glasses appeared and were generously filled, on the house. It was simply the single most perfect meal I’ve ever had in every respect. We are both deeply grateful to Sue for enabling this extravagance.

La Maison du Jardine

This was the find of the trip. We stumbled upon this place in the 6th (on the r. Vaugirard, IIRC) completely by accident. We set off to find Le Petit Luxembourg, recommended by Sandra Gustafson in her book Great Eats Paris (which was in our experience, Mediocre At Best Eats). When we arrived at the address, there was a tiny take-away shop with a couple of stools called Le Petit Lux. It didn’t match Gustafson’s description at all, and looked all-around bleak. But next door was La Maison du Jardin, a tiny restaurant that was packed to the gills with locals. We managed to wrangle the last table in the house and were very lucky as this was one of the best meals we had in Paris.

I had cepes baked in a small casserole with tons of garlic and, I think, demi glace as an entrée, followed by a generous serving of tender, intensely flavorful pork stewed and served on a bed of tender white beans. Theresa had a pan fried cut of beef (sorry, don’t remember what) that was both tender and flavorful, a combination we would not encounter again in beef on our trip. Everything was beautifully presented and prepared.


We ate at this amazing Moroccan restaurant on the east end of Bd. St. Germain twice. The first time we shared couscous with various meats (merguez sausage, grilled chicken, tiny and scrumptious meatballs in a rich sauce), and 3 tagines: lamb and fig (lamb was melting off the bone, the figs were a perfect counterpoint to the lamb), chicken with preserved lemon (this one packed a substantial preserved lemon punch without quite crossing the line to overpowering) and the “tagine sans viande” (more or less a Moroccan ratatouille, with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers all perfectly melded by long intense heat).

Petit Bofinger

We chose this over Bofinger hoping that Alex and stroller would be less of an issue. We also chose it on the recommendation of Sandra Gustafson’s Great Eats Paris. What a mistake! The single worst meal of our trip, hands down. Service was slow, even by Paris standards, and sullen. The veal was gristly and tough (!), the crème brulee was served warm and soupy, and the fruit glazed in sabayon was canned fruit served cold and had sat long enough that the sabayon had separated into egg and liquid. Gross. Inexcusable. If I had gotten this meal here, I would have spoken with the manager. Since my French is limited, I just sucked it up.

Altitude 95

The restaurant on the 1st level of the Eiffel Tower. A mediocre and quite pricey lunch. A fish stew on the daily special ranged from acceptable to one piece of fish that had been cooked to absolute sawdust. Theresa and Cathy liked their chicken, though I thought it was dry. I ordered the cheese course and was presented with an icy cold wedge of brie de meaux that I’m fairly certain had been frozen as it had a strange, spongy layer running down the middle. If you feel compelled to eat at the Eiffel Tower, I’d say save your centimes up and go for Le Jules Verne (though you’ll get a much much better meal for the same or less many other places).

Le Jules Verne

Our second run at the Eiffel Tower was a romantic lunch for two at Le Jules Verne on the second level. The view is amazing, the banquettes are cushy, the service was fine but stuffy. The food had an old-school feel to it, starting with an amuse of salmon “gazpacho” that was belly salmon in tomato aspic. Fishy and gelatinous, just not my thing. Entrees were boudin noir and caramelized apple on a paste on a strip of puff pastry, solidly tasty; and (stay with me, this was all on one plate) cod tartare with dill and black caviar, a small shot glass with warm artichoke puree topped with a crust of fleur de sel, and a small brioche bun with cumin and lardons. Each piece was individually tasty, but as far as my mouth could tell absolutely nothing tied them together. For the main course we both had the oxtail ravioli. What can I say? It was oxtail in pasta with a completely unremarkable sauce. Not a thing was wrong with it, and not a thing made it memorable. For dessert we had a chocolate sable topped with ice cream, and a puff pastry strip (that looked exactly like the strip from the boudin noir appetizer) topped with cooked quetches (sugar plums) and vanilla ice cream. Both were fine. We were also brought tiny glasses with panna cotta and berry puree, two tiny squares of chocolate cake, and a bowl of very delicious itty-bitty chocolate truffles.

Here's a photo as we wait to descend after lunch. I wish I had taken a pic of the ride up. The elevator takes off at about 45 degree angle and quickly swoops to vertical. Instead, I took this picture on the way down, because I was slightly drunk and fascinated with this couple's hair. Do you think they got a 2 for 1 deal on the toupees?


This restaurant in the 7th on r. Jean-Nicot specializes in ham, and especially Iberian ham from the free-ranging, acorn-munching black-footed wild pigs. Not available in the US, we had to try. Our lunch was on the spendy side for a very casual restaurant, but the servings were incredibly generous (so much so that we wrapped the bit of remaining ham discreetly and slipped it into a purse—at $200 euros a kilo I wasn’t about to let it go to waste!) We started with delicious marinated sardines, roasted red peppers and garlicky bean spread, all served with generous amounts of sour whole wheat Poilane bread. Theresa had three types of ham and a side of silky mashed potatoes infused with fruity olive oil. I had sliced black-footed ham on the mashed potatoes, cepes sautéed with little lardons of black-footed ham, and a poached egg. Altogether it was unctuous, oozy, piggy, earthy goodness.

We each had a glass of a very full-bodied, delicious Spanish wine—Vina Pedrosa Reserva. Just thinking about that meal makes me uncomfortably full again!

La Fourmi Ailee
("The winged ant." Okay, if you say so.)

A small café near Shakespeare and Co. on the r. du Fouarre in the 5th. We sat outside here and enjoyed a bottle of wine and a simple dinner of quiche and nicoise salad. Service was quite slow, but the evening was nice and we visited with some Midwestern retirees on their first ever European trip; we didn’t mind a leisurely evening.

Le Pre Verre

This was a chowhound tip, and a great one. 8 r. Thenard, in the 5th. A hip, modern feel to this bistro that was doing a brisk lunchtime business on the Thursday that we went. We showed up around 1:00 without a reservation and initially they just told us no. A little perseverance and about a 10 minute wait got us a table.

(we figured out that "Le Pre Verre" means "The Glass Meadow." Lots of wines here.)

Entrees: chestnut soup with a giant blop of crème fraiche for Theresa and Tristan, this was rich, slightly sweet with some pieces of chestnut in an otherwise velvety smooth puree; it was completely delicious, and a huge serving. Head cheese for me. This was my everyone-orders-something-scary-by-accident-once-in-France moment, and more’s the better. Had I known that “hure de cochon” meant pork head cheese I surely would have passed and missed a yummy treat. It was a slice lightly dusted with spices and pan fried so it was slightly crispy on the outside. Lots of fatty, porky goodness on the inside. Served on a bed of vinegary greens, just the thing for all those rich pig bits.

Mains: Turbot “boulliabase” for me—a minimalist, Asian take on the classic fish stew. 2 large pieces of fish were cooked to absolute perfection and served in a thick broth of saffron and lemon grass cream with 1 large tender potato, 2 cherry tomatoes still connected by a stem and peeled, and a dollop of cilantro suspended in butter on top. “Cochon de lait fondant aux epices, choux croquant” for Theresa. This was pork cooked to the near-melting point in milk infused with star anise, cinnamon and other spices, with bits of still crunchy savoy cabbage. Licking the plate was seriously contemplated. “Thon croute au ponzu, pois cases torrefies en puree” for Tristan. A generous tuna steak crusted in whole fennel seeds, roughly crushed peppercorns, and?? Tristan loved it. For me the spices were too much. It took us some time with the dictionary to figure out what they did to those peas, and now I don’t remember it all. Roasted, pureed, and otherwise mushed, they were yummy.

For dessert we had figs preserved in olive oil with olive oil ice cream, a chocolate pave with treacle ice cream, and an apple crumble with sheep milk ice cream, a berry sauce and little crumbles of sheep cheese. All were terrific and none too sweet. Huge portions, delicious and interesting food, reasonable prices. What a find!

Le Reminet

Went here on the recommendation of many chowhounds. This was very near our apartment, also a plus near the end of our trip when we were all walked out.
Everything was very good, though in the same price range I’d return to La Maison du Jardin first. Our experience differed from recent reports—the service was slow-ish, but not bad in any way, and all the food was delicious. Cauliflower soup was, I think, nothing but velvety puree of cauliflower, cream and salt. Lovely. Goat cheese fried in brick dough on tart greens was well-executed. Salt cod with warm potatoes, capers, roasted peppers and greens was good, though the cod could have used another change of water as it was verging on too salty. Onglet with jus, green peppercorns, and caramelized shallots with leek and potato tart; chicken stuffed with bleu cheese and walnuts served with a crispy shredded celery root pancake; and a veal faux filet with pan sauce and shredded potatoes folded into a triangle and fried—all were delicious if not earth-shattering.

Le Scheffer

Another chowhound rec. Straight-ahead, old school bistro food, as promised. I was disappointed in the frites that came with the steak frites—seemed like they came frozen out of a bag—and the steak was half gristle. Sad at a place such as this. Pork short ribs braised in honey and lime were exquisite. Service was somewhat abrupt, though we were happy that they were kind enough to squeeze us in without a reservation at 9 on a Tuesday night, since the place was hoppin’.

Tea at Laduree

One of the highlights of the trip. The first time we did this, we were seated upstairs, which, based on our second experience, I think is the non-smoking section. Definitely a plus. Downstairs was quite smoky; upstairs not a whiff. We sat in lavish, ornate sofas and perused the 12 or so pages of delicacies each more decadent than the last. We tasted the ice cream with macarons—here the macarons are stuffed not with butter cream but with a generous slathering of ice cream and served atop a big scoop, flavor of your choice. Lovely, delicious, the perfect thing for a hot September afternoon. We also tasted a religieuse that was light and impossibly rich at the same time,

a completely over the top chocolate confection, a giant rose macaron, and a Mont Blanc—spaghetti-like extrusions of sweetened chestnut puree over whipped cream.

Accompanied by iced coffee and tea, we were all on a blissful sugar and caffeine high for the rest of the day!

Berthillon ice cream

I am not a fan of chocolate ice cream. If I want chocolate I want dark chocolate and ice cream has too much, well, cream. I tried the chocolate ice cream reluctantly here after hearing rave after rave. It was like a chocolate truffle. But frozen. But only enough to hold it together. It touches your tongue and turns to dark chocolate fondue. But better. The caramel beurre sale ice cream was so good I had to stop walking and lean against a wall just to wrap my head around the intensity and richness of it. The sorbets were lighter, but the flavors no less intense. Especially the lime and thyme.

Pierre Herme

Voted best canelle in Paris by our very dedicated group of travelers, who tasted every canelle we came across. Just like a hand-held crème brulee—deep caramelized sugar taste on the outside, creamy goodness inside. Also the most interesting macaron flavors. Olive oil was especially and surprisingly tasty. Apricot and pistachio was a passing flavor that we lucked into, dusted with sparkling powder. Like a Hansel and Gretel house for adults (and without a witch).

A l’Etoile d’Or

A very out of the way chocolate shop near the Moulin Rouge, and a complete contrast to the other shops we visited (Pierre Herme, Patrick Roger, Pierre Marcolini). Those places are immaculate temples to chocolate. This place is an insane jumble of incredible goodies, including Bernachon chocolate bars which are available in exactly two places: the Bernachon shop in Lyon, and here. Denise Acabo, the owner, is just as insane as her shop, and just as delightful. A bundle of pig-tailed enthusiasm, it didn’t matter at all that she speaks almost no English and we almost no French. We walked out with 100 euros worth of chocolate and almost immediately regretted not having spent more. Worth a special trip.

Here is Alex with Mme Acabo. She gave him his first real candy, a big caramel sucker.

Sign, sign . . .

The Italians were still gloating

A special prize for anyone who can tell us what this sign means. Or, for the person who comes up with the most creative guess. The flip side of the sign was the same image, without the red hash mark.

Many thanks to Tristan, who took most of these photos and to Jim who took the rest.


Theresa, Lisa and Jim spent one morning at the Catacombs. These are ancient passageways originally dug as limestone quarries. In 1786 and for the next 15 years, millions of skeletons were moved from the city cemetery at Les Halles, which posed a public health hazard, to these underground chambers. What a weird, creepy job that must have been. The passageways go on for miles, and only a few are open to the public. The tour starts in a large, active public square.

This sign greets you as you pay for your tickets:

After decending many flights of stairs this sign awaits:

(Stop! Here is the empire of death.)

The next two or so miles are corridors lined with femurs and skulls.

Every once in a while there was a glimpse like this--the bones that didn't make the neat stacks:

After climbing back up many stairs and just before being spit out into a remote back street (with no clue which way to go for the nearest metro; thank goodness a passing man saw our confusion and pointed us the right way) we saw this: