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Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée Restaurant

Alain Ducasse Restaurant at the Plaza Athenée

A few years ago in Paris, I was invited to a special lunch by Dan Barber, of Blue Hill in New York City, who prepared a meal at the restaurant of Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée. I’ve been fortunate to be on the guest list for some of these meals, including ones that profiled Japanese and Chinese chefs, meant to introduce the foods of other cultures to journalists and food professionals here in Paris.

Of course, Alain Ducasse has upscale restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo, New York, and Tokyo. But during a recent renovation of the Plaza Athenée hotel in Paris, Chef Ducasse and his chef at the restaurant, Romain Meder, decided to break from – and challenge – the traditional definition of luxury dining, and feature the producers and farmers, who produce the food, where good cooking starts. The menu has been completely rewritten, focusing on vegetables and sustainable fish.

Alain Ducasse Restaurant at the Plaza Athenée

Before this transformation, when Dan Barber was at the restaurant, he gave an impassioned talk to the French journalists and food writers (along with a few of us anglophones) that were assembled, about what he’s doing at his restaurants and his philosophy. Unfortunately the translator gave a word-for-word recapitulation, which didn’t (and couldn’t) explain the sociological shift and remarkable, and profound, transformation in American dining and eating habits over the last few decades. People used to say to me, “Don’t all Americans eat at McDonald’s?” But those who have been to the states now come back, and say “The food was incroyable.”

Farmers’ markets are in full swing in most major cities in America, and on airplanes (and in fast-food restaurants), you’re likely to find bits of radicchio in your baby lettuce salad, and even my local Safeway in San Francisco had organic milk from a local producer and bean-to-bar chocolate. French cuisine has taken a notable hit, mostly because of the increased reliance on pre-packaged foods. But that’s kind of becoming a thing of the past, and the tides are turning. And in this case, it’s coming from the top.

Alain Ducasse Restaurant at the Plaza Athenée

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Le Richer

Le Richer

I’ve had a swirl of visitors lately, and every morning it seems like I open my Inbox to find more “We’re Coming to Paris!!!” in subject lines. I’m not complaining because I love seeing my friends, especially those I don’t see often enough, but the joke about needing a social secretary has become a reality for me – just so I can get my other stuff done. I could probably also use a personal trainer at this point as I’m in the midst of 3-days of non-stop eating out. (Sunday is a day off, then Monday, it’s back out there to eat some more.)

In addition to having a great time catching up with friends from afar is that I get to try restaurants in Paris that I’ve been meaning to go to, but haven’t had the time to. Of course, everyone wants me to pick a restaurant and telephoning for reservations is another task for my yet-unnamed social secretary. I had suggested to my other-half to do it, but judging from the look he gave me, I don’t think he’s the right person for the job.

Le Richer

Taking a breather from eating copious amount of food, yesterday I had lunch at Le Richer with a friend from Nice, and decided to share it with you. It’s in that “happening” little area in the 9th, clustered around other new and interesting places that have popped up in recent years, such as Vivant and L’Office, the latter owned by the same team that owns Le Richer. And yes, that was me having dinner at L’Office last night, just after having lunch at Le Richer, right across the street — see? I wasn’t kidding..

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Juveniles Wine Bar

Juveniles Wine Bar & Restaurant in Paris

My interest was piqued the other day when I was reading a popular user-generated review site, and came across a review for a restaurant in Paris. The author said they could tell they were in a good place because when they walked in, nobody was speaking English. In an international city like Paris, I don’t mean to be Déborah Downer (pronounced dow-nair), but a lot of people in Paris speak English. And I find it curious that tourists don’t want to go to a restaurant where there are other tourists. (Good thing they don’t feel that way about hotels – I doubt there’s be any place to sleep!) It’s as if the presence of foreigners equals bad food.

I, for example, am often a tourist and I love eating well when I travel. I hope the presence of me and my friends dining in a restaurant, say, in Palermo or Vancouver, don’t portend to potential diners poking their heads in, that a restaurant sucks.

Juveniles Wine Bar & Restaurant in Paris

Restaurants in Paris often offer menus in English for a couple of reasons. One is that it makes the servers lives easier as the servers (who often has their hands full), don’t have to stand there and translate a menu for each and every diner. (You’ll notice dining rooms in most small restaurants in Paris don’t have busboys, runners, hosts, etc. The servers do it all.) And other reason is that it’s easier for the diners, too.

And for his or her host as well. Such as in my case, since I often translate menus when dining with out-of-town guests and friends who don’t read French. While I’m happy to run through the menu the first time for everyone, no one seems to pay attention. Then I have to go back and explain things item-by-item again. (And people always want to know things like, “If it says poulet fermier, what piece of chicken will I get?” or, “Is there going to be a sauce on that?”) And by the time I’ve read it all through for someone, I need a glass of wine — which at this point, is a priority.

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Pottoka

Pottoka in Paris

Sometimes I feel like a nitwit, especially when people start talking about all the new restaurants in Paris. I am a creature of habit (and I don’t like disappointment), so I generally go to the same places. I also tend to stay on the Right Bank, where I live, as the restaurants tend to be more exciting and less-fussy, with a more casual ambiance.

But I’d heard good things about Pottoka, over in the 7th arrondissement, helmed by chef Sébastien Gravé, who likes to improvise on his native Basque cuisine, known for lots of colors and contrasts, as well as a hint of spice. The restaurant is named for a breed of smallish horses from that region, which is located in the southwest part of France, and spans into Spain as well. So the foods often feature red peppers, lively seasonings, and seafood. It’s also famous for the Ibaïonan (Basque) charcuterie, which is some of the best in the world.

Pottoka in Paris

Since I was on my own, I didn’t start with any of the nice charcuterie on offer. But the list had some notable things on there, including cécina (dried beef, which if you haven’t tried, is great stuff) and cochonailles (cured hams and sausages) from the notable Eric Ospital. Scanning the dining room at midday, from the looks of things, this was a working lunch crowd that probably had to go back to their desks afterward, so not many people were drinking wine. I had a ton of work piled up back at home, too, but couldn’t resist a glass of cool Jurançon from Domaine Cauhapé that was pleasantly dry (some are sweet). It was a very generous pour and I cursed the unpleasantness that was waiting for me at my own desk.

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La Trésorerie and Café Smorgås

La Trésorerie and Café Smorgås

The word trésorerie in French means “treasury.” But in spite of its vaguely unpleasant connotation with the place that receives your taxes, it can also mean “treasure trove,” such as in this case, to describe La Trésorerie.

La Trésorerie and Café Smorgås

One of the nice things about living in an international city like Paris, is that you can visit “another country” by just taking a métro, bike, or a short walk, and find yourself in the middle of another culture. Behind the Gare du Nord are streets lined with Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants and épiceries (food shops), and the Goutte d’Or has a few lively markets, such as the one at Barbès, that caters to the African community.

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Bob’s Bake Shop

Bob's Bake Shop in Paris

Although people don’t hug in France, and to be honest, it kinda gives me the willies now, too – there are some people who I just can’t resist giving the ol’ wrap around to. (Which probably explains why a number of people back away when they see me coming.) One is a baker in San Francisco, who always seems to have a big smile on his face. I’m not sure what it is that makes me want to hug him, but perhaps I am hoping some of his good cheer will rub off on me — along with a touch of flour. Or else I’m still, hopelessly, Californian, and will never shake the body-bonding habit of hugging.

Bob's Bake Shop in Paris

But another target, for some reason, is Marc Grossman, here in Paris. Marc is the owner of Bob’s Juice Bar, a hugely popular vegetarian joint. But lest you think it’s full of kooky Californians getting their juice fix, it’s primarily Parisians who work in the neighborhood, obviously as attracted to Marc’s good food as the rest of us, who try to find a seat at the communal table in his café/juice bar.

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Tricotin (Dim sum in Paris)

Tricotin Dim Sum in Paris

One thing you probably don’t know about me is that I’m half-Chinese. Actually, I’m not officially half-Chinese, but I was unofficially adopted by two Chinese-American sisters, who have told me that I’m Chinese. Being Chinese has a host of advantages, which include learning how to open a métro door without actually touching the knob. And generally assuming that if you’re going out for Chinese food, that you order three or four times what you’re actually planning (or able) to eat, and taking the rest of it home.

In San Francisco, I’ve seen people bring their own plastic containers to restaurants. When the meals is over, they take them out and fill them up. (I haven’t tried that in Paris, but I have been able to go ten years without touching a métro handle.)

Tricotin Dim Sum in Paris

Another benefit of my bequeathed heritage is a plethora of amazing food. When I go to San Francisco, upon arrival, the refrigerator is stocked with won tons, dumplings, noodle soups, and chow fun. (Thick rice noodles.) And the rest of the time is spent going out to eat. One gets pretty spoiled living in California because there are a lot of great places for Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food. (Although after going to Thailand, I couldn’t eat Thai food anywhere else. When can I go back? And Vietnam, Burma, and Hong Kong are at the top of my bucket list.)

Tricotin Dim Sum in Paris

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Le Servan

Le Servan Paris chocolate caramel tart

I’m not always in agreement with those that say dining out in Paris is expensive. For example, last week I found myself with a rare moment of free time at lunch, and I pinged a neighbor, who unfortunately replied that he was out of town, like the rest of Paris in the summer. So I decided to go to Le Servan by myself, a restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about. And since it’s “hot”, I figured lunch would be the perfect time to go. And I was right. Although it filled after I got there, I managed to get there during the “sweet spot”, and grab a stool at the counter, where I had a terrific lunch for €23, all by my lonesome.

If you think about it, that’s three courses of food made with fresh ingredients, prepared by a highly competent staff. The price includes tax and tip, which in the states, would mean that about one-third of that total would be earmarked for those extras, and the meal itself would cost roughly €15. Yikes. Of course, one often adds a glass of wine – I had a nice Vouvray for €6 – so my meal deal clocked in at €29. But either way, I can’t imagine getting a meal like I had in, say…New York, London, or San Francisco. Because I liked it so much, I went back the next day with Romain.

aargh

Unfortunately the next day didn’t start off very well. Like, at all. But as Gloria Gaynor famously said — or sang — “I will survive.” (Although she didn’t sing it in French.) But good food, and wine, heals a lot – although not all – and it was nice to get a particularly bad taste from the morning affairs out of our mouths.

Two glasses of surprisingly inky rosé from the Loire did the trick. They were deeply colored, with the slightly maderized (sherry-like) taste that one often finds in natural wines, which have been left to their own devices.

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