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The Paris A-List

The city may be infatuated with Americana like chicken in Coca-Cola, but the author finds that its best new restaurants are still defiantly French.

I moved to Paris to go to cooking school when I was 21 and didn't ship home my copper tarte Tatin pan, charlotte mold and asparagus plates until I was 36. During those years, I wrestled with puff pastry at l'Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne. I ate alongside Patricia Wells as she researched The Food Lover's Guide to France. And, eventually, I wrote two cookbooks of my own. I was so immersed in France that it wasn't until I got back to New York that I realized I'd missed a virtual food revolution. I had no idea what chipotle chiles in adobo were and could not figure out why anybody would want to put Chinese roast duck on a pizza. What I did know was an absurd amount about things like raising salt-marsh lambs around Mont-Saint-Michel and where to find the best boeuf à la ficelle in Paris (Cartet). And so when I came to F&W, I became the magazine's resident expert on France and the person everyone went to for advice on where to eat in Paris. Because the city is slow to change, I could safely recommend my old favorites, even though I hadn't visited them recently.

After four years, though, my restaurant list had begun to show signs of aging. One editor returned from Paris to tell me, in the nicest possible way, that her meal at Balzar had been awful; the seemingly immutable Left Bank brasserie had changed since the Flo Group bought it. Then a friend told me that Le Vin des Rues—a wine bar where the foie gras mousse is not an inferior version of foie gras but a deeply delicious thing in itself—had been sold by its crusty owner, Jean Chanrion.

It was clearly time to go back to Paris so I could update my list—and fill it out, too. I wanted to know what young sous-chefs had left Michelin-starred restaurants to open places of their own. I hoped to find a few modern restaurants where I could be surprised, even awed. Perhaps most of all, I was curious to see how haute cuisine had evolved. What would the French do with chipotle chiles in adobo?

Since when I'm in Paris I don't like to waste a single mouthful, I got in touch with all my old friends and colleagues, asking for recommendations, then double and triple cross-checked the names they gave me. And then when I got to Paris, I did the cowardly thing. I ate at L'Alsaco. I had to have real choucroute, made by a real Alsatian (Claude Steger) in a smoky Winstub with a topsy-turvy country scene painted on the wall. (Steger also makes the world's best schiffala, a kind of smoked pork shoulder served with sautéed potatoes.) Only then was I ready to try something new.

Too Haute To Handle?
Haute-cuisine restaurants are the laboratories of French cooking, I thought, the places where novel ideas are tested and refined. So I began at the high end of the scale. But sitting in Les Ambassadeurs, the long, mirrored dining room of the Crillon hotel, I was almost embarrassed by chef Dominique Bouchet's leg of lamb cooked for seven hours, which would not have been unexpected in a bistro but seemed strangely out of place here with the marble floors and Louis XV furniture. And as delicious as it was, I was surprised to see vacherin, a dessert of baked meringue, ice cream and whipped cream that I'm accustomed to ordering at Chez Jenny, a bustling brasserie near the Place de la République.

At Alain Ducasse's new restaurant in the Plaza Athénée hotel, the Bresse chicken en vessie (in a puffy pink pig's bladder) was just as moist as it had been when I'd had the same dish, a nouvelle cuisine classic, 18 years ago at Lameloise in Burgundy. Everything at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, from the potted herbs that waiters snip to make teas, to the baba, moistened with your choice of rum from anywhere on earth rum is made, was perfect, but in a déjà vu kind of way.

Eric Fréchon also has a Bresse chicken en vessie on the menu at Le Bristol, but his real interest is cooking with the amazing variety of ingredients from the French countryside. (Fréchon's return to cooking at a hotel restaurant was big news; some years ago, he had left the Crillon to open his own bistro.) I had not seen roasted sea bass in a broth of sparkling-fresh shellfish with hearty white coco beans before, but I knew it lay squarely within the established parameters of classic French cooking.

My meal at Hélène Darroze proved that the air doesn't need to be thin at the higher altitudes of haute cuisine. Since moving her Southwestern French restaurant to Paris last year, Darroze has received almost as much attention for the terrible service at her restaurant gastronomique as for her slightly smoky duck foie gras grilled over a wood fire and her incredible roast chicken with wild mushrooms. But even being stuck next to the cheese cart in a place that felt more like a hallway than a dining room and even with enough time between courses for a game of hearts (if only I'd brought cards), I would return. If truffles, cèpes and foie gras are on the menus of all the other sophisticated restaurants in Paris because that's what's expected, at Hélène Darroze they are the hard-working ingredients of a regional repertoire Darroze inherited from the three generations of chefs in her family. Not everyone will like the palombe en crapaudine, a tiny bird split down the back and roasted until rare, served with its dark liver spread on a slice of toasted country bread, but those who love game birds will be thankful to Darroze's family (and to Ducasse, a mentor) for having taught Hélène to cook.

If Hélène Darroze provided a burst of pure oxygen, perhaps it was because she at least looked outside Paris for her inspiration. I had been surprised at the fuss made over the fresh white truffles that Ducasse's waiters shaved over foie gras ravioli—until I realized Ducasse was the only French chef in Paris serving them. White truffles, you see, are Italian—which is to say, foreign. I had forgotten that the centuries of culinary tradition work like a barrier, making French haute cuisine nearly hermetic. Aside from a few Italian and Asian touches, it is still, brazenly, French—a point that was reinforced, time and time again, as I visited other restaurants known for their imaginative chefs: Lasserre, Pierre Gagnaire, Petrossian, L'Astor, Le Violon d'Ingres.

L'Easy Eating
After a few days in Paris, it was clear to me that I wasn't the only one looking for something besides traditional French food. Young French people are bored with the classics their parents and grandparents grew up with—even modern versions of same. They don't want serious cooking, they want fun. They want—oh no—American food. They even have a name for their version of our cuisine: l'easy eating. I found the best Americana as reinterpreted by a French palate at Korova, named for the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange. Frédérick Grasser-Hermé, who is a sincere fan of American junk food, consulted on the menu and design at this slick new spot with a glowing fish tank just off the Champs-Elysées. Her signature chicken with Coca-Cola is there, along with less gimmicky dishes, like great salads made with ultrafresh greens and the best veal ribs I've ever tasted—with a crust as crisp as the skin on Peking duck. And if you have been missing Pierre Hermé's daring desserts since he left Ladurée, you can find them here (along with Pierre himself, Frédérick's husband).

But the rest of the new wave—chic places like Bon, Chez Thiou and Tanjia, where the decor and celebrity clientele are more interesting than the menus—didn't seem to get it. Their attempts to cross-pollinate French cuisine with Asian or North African were, I thought, misguided or halfhearted. If going out in Paris meant eating the tried and true, then my course was clear: I would simply spend more time (and less money) at bistros, where I don't expect wild culinary innovation. And so I made my way to some of the new, inexpensive bistros where the young chef in the kitchen had been trained to cook in the grand restaurants of France but had instead elected to open a simple neighborhood place.

At Last, The Bistros
I loved Le Troquet (slang for bistro), which was filled with regulars who had obviously just stepped away from their offices or homes nearby, fully expecting to find a table without a reservation. They tucked into Christian Etchebest's crispy endive and green apple salad topped with salty ham and a runny egg, or served each other pumpkin soup from a tureen that had been set before them. The homey chicken fricassee came with a gratin of tagliatelle noodles that diners unself-consciously dunked in the fricassee sauce. The turbot, cooked so it was still pink at the bone, showed Etchebest's training at the Crillon and was nicely balanced by creamy cauliflower flavored with salt pork and a few crunchy cashews. Desserts—an exploded macaroon, for instance, its cookie layers and hazelnut cream arranged on the plate just before serving—were properly indulgent. As I cracked the hazelnuts that are served with coffee in place of chocolates, I decided I could eat at Le Troquet twice a week.

L'Ardoise (The Blackboard) is attractive because it's one of the few small restaurants open on Sunday, when most Americans don't have a meal at grandmère's to go to. But Pierre Jay's food would be worth searching out any day of the week. He cooks the way grandmère would if she, like Jay, had once worked at La Tour d'Argent. The artichoke en surprise turned out to be hiding smoked salmon and roasted red pepper among its leaves. But I was especially impressed by his pork pot-au-feu with chives, tiny leeks and snow-pea pods, delicate despite its sprinkle of cracklings, and the beautifully seasoned and perfectly moist confit of rabbit. And I was positively grateful to be able to eat a homey rum baba without wearing pearls.

Businessmen crowd the red leatherette banquettes at Chez Catherine near the bourse at lunchtime. In a bistro whose high, smoke-stained walls look like they haven't seen paint since the '50s (a ceiling fan just blows the smoke around), the new chef, Catherine Guerraz, is also hewing to tradition—up to a point. She pairs tiny herb-and-cheese-filled ravioli from Royans with slices of fresh cèpes in a light cream sauce. And her terrine of foie gras is not cut in slabs and served with toast but shaved and laid delicately on a plate with a green salad. I recommend both the partridge, served simply with great french fries, and the wild duck, which came with fresh black figs.

When I got to Thierry Faucher's wine shop, La Cave de l'Os à Moelle, there were already five people chatting at one of the two communal tables at the back. Faucher, who was once a sous-chef at the Crillon, has made his table d'hôte even more casual than his bistro, L'Os à Moelle (The Marrow Bone), across the street. I'd never been to a French restaurant where you pick a bottle of wine from the shelves at the front and serve yourself from pots set on an old stove in the corner. And I was nostalgic before I even began eating the rustic hors d'oeuvres that had been set out on the table: terrines of pork and of blood sausage, rillettes of guinea hen and bowls of cold periwinkles and whelks. After making my way through the creamy potato soup, the delicious rabbit stew with soft, white polenta, the cheeses and a banquet of nursery desserts, I was ready to ask for recipes for everything. By the time I shared a pot of coffee with my Danish and Italian neighbors, I was hoping Faucher would open a Cave in New York.

As I walked out, I thought maybe I had been searching for the wrong kind of culinary excitement. Accustomed to the anything-goes approach of American chefs, I had expected Paris, too, to give me things I'd never tasted before. What Paris does best, though, is give you something familiar and make you feel as if you've never tasted it before. So my new Paris restaurant list won't be very different from the old one. Only the names have changed.

By the way, that great leap into the unknown I was looking for in Paris finally did happen, just after I left. This winter, Alain Passard took the unprecedented step of removing all the meat and fish (poultry next) from his menu at Arpège. The country famous for treating vegetables scornfully may not have embraced chipotles in adobo, but it now has its first three-star vegetarian restaurant.

Published March 2001
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