Results tagged bistro from David Lebovitz

Some Thoughts on French Cuisine

France Map

French cuisine is, once again, a popular topic of discussion these days. Actually, anything controversial about France seems to foster a lot of heated debates. On one side are the folks decrying French-bashing, complaining that the French are unfairly picked on. Then there are the others who eat up books about how superior the French are, because they are better at parenting, they miraculously stay thin, they don’t have plastic surgery, everyone enjoys months of vacations, and Paris is a magical place where love, fashion, and fine food, flourish on the cobbled streets of the city. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between and, like any where, there is the great, the ordinary, and a bit of the not-so-good. I want to play the referee but there’s usually a bit of truth in most compliments and criticisms, and the reality is more complicated.

French cuisine gets its share of praise and criticism, some deserved, some not. One truth I’ve learned after living here for over a decade is that people really like to eat. The outdoor markets are crowded, lines snake out the door at bakeries, and cafés and restaurants are packed – even on Tuesday evenings – in spite of la crise (the economic crisis).

But what is French cuisine? Traditionally, cuisine du potager (cooking from the garden) or cuisine du marché (cooking from the daily market) were the foundations of French cuisine. Cuisine du potager was born out of economic and common sense; you cooked and ate what was closest to where you lived. Part of it was out of necessity (there was no Chinese garlic or avocados from Peru way-back-when), but mostly because the food was either free, picked from your own garden, or grown nearby. So you were always eating seasonally and locally. In France, you were cooking and eating local products; fresh cream, butter, and cheeses made in your region, peas from your garden, eggs from the neighbor’s chicken coop, and bread from the village bakery.

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Les Enfants Rouges

Les Enfants Rouges

To be honest, I’m not one to run to the newest restaurant right after it opens. The main reason being that I don’t like being disappointed, nor do I like eating bad food. It happened recently at a new place in town that had gotten some good press (which, suspiciously, may have been because they were invited guests), and found myself wishing I’d shelled out a few bucks for a sandwich jambon-beurre instead of a hundred or so euros for a meal that was misguided, with the food being mediocre, at best.

Les Enfants Rouges

The company made up for it, fortunately. So when a fellow (or fella?) San Franciscan was in town recently, it was Sunday night and she asked me where we should go for good food. Sunday’s tough because many places in Paris are closed. Some restaurateurs point the 35 hour work week, which was intended to employ more people and let people work less. And part of it are employee costs, which make it pricey to hire new people. So if you’re wondering why small restaurants in Paris don’t have dedicated people to answer the phone and take reservations, or are closed on weekends, those are some of the reasons.

Les Enfants Rouges

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Le Louchébem

paris bistro

Where do you go on a rainy afternoon if you find yourself near the middle of Paris? Quite a bit of the town has emptied out, as people make their exodus away from the city for the holidays. Those of us here are celebrating at home – or from the looks of things out there – doing a little last-minute scrambling for holiday gifts. There are cases of oysters on the sidewalk, sold by the dozen(s), and store windows are featuring foie gras, Champagne, candied chestnuts, and a few early galettes de rois (frangipan tarts.)

We were out-and-about near Les Halles, where the city has finally torn down the building which many feel has been a blight on the city since it was built, so there’s a bit of construction going on around there while they work on the new project. But those folks, too, seem to have taken a holiday breather as the regular sounds of jack hammers and cranes were replaced by, well, nothing. The neighborhood was well known for the giant Les Halles market, which had been replaced by Rungis out by the airport, but a few of the restaurants that retain the feeling of the era have remained.

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Philou

Philou

I always want to put Philou in my Paris favorites list. It’s got so much going for it; a friendly staff, it’s just enough out-of-the way that it attracts a good mix of mostly people who live in the neighborhood with others who come from other parts of the city, their menu features game and wild birds when in season, and when I look at the handwritten chalkboard, everything on it looks good. Plus the prices are gentle, at just €25 for a 2-course menu, or €30 if you choose three courses*. It’s what I would like to call an eminently likeable restaurant, but I’m always afraid I’m going to spell ‘likeable’ wrong and get in trouble for it. So let’s just say that it’s the kind of place that I really like.

wine sardines and semoule philou

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Aux Tonneaux des Halles

steak frites

Every once in a while, it hits me: I need steak-frites. It’s an infrequent indulgence, but when I do have it, I like my steak with a crisp exterior, pan-seared until saignant (medium-rare), with a large pile of real frites. Most my French friends like their beef bleu, which is close to uncooked, and if you order it that way, when you cut into your steak, it’s raw in the center. (My other half will ask for bleu froid, or “cold” in the middle.) I don’t mind raw beef in carpaccio or tartare, but it’s not really my thing to attack a large block of nearly uncooked meat.

Another difference is that American beef tends to be aged and easier to cut, and I’ve learned to only buy beef from a very good butcher in Paris because the difference if phenomenal. In restaurants, sometimes you’ll be served a piece of French beef that slices nicely, and other times you’re faced with something that even the best steak knife – and sharpest incisors – might have trouble ripping into.

telephoneNos assiettes
red wine at barsteak frites

So I tend to be fairly choosy about where I eat beef. Many of the classic Parisian bistros have been scooped up by restaurant chains, so there’s a dwindling number of places where you can find steak-frites done right in this town. But at Aux Tonneaux des Halles, honest bistro fare is still offered, with the daily menu scribbled on the chalkboards. And if you’re looking for a traditional steak-frites, done right, this is the place to get it.

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La Pâtisserie

 croissant

When you live in Paris, you tend to stick to pastry shops in your neighborhood. Not that there aren’t “destination-worthy” places in all twenty arrondissements – with many notable ones on the Left Bank and in swankier districts. But with young chefs opening bakeries in various neighborhoods, catering especially to locals, one doesn’t necessarily need to go all that far to find extraordinary pastries and confections.

La Pâtisseriepain au levain
baba au rhum at La Pâtisseriekouign amann

Cyril Lignac is a chef who is hosts popular television programs in France, and a few years ago had purchased Chardenoux bistro, an aging warhorse of a place where I once went to meet a good friend who was in town for a month. As I waited for him at the table, the place – and the waiters – looked so tired (both looked ready for a much-needed retirement), when he arrived, I quickly convinced him that we were probably better off going to a corner café for a salad. So it was good to hear that the bistro had been taken over by Monsieur Lignac and just across the street, pastry chef Benoit Couvrand was turning out stellar pastries and breads.

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Le Petit Saint Benoit

duck confit

I was recently following an online kerfuffle about the role that folks who blog about Paris play on the Paris dining scene. On one hand, there’s those of us that live and write about the city. On another are newspapers and magazines that do the same thing. I think I might be living under a rocher because although I do follow and read some of the various bloggers that also write about Paris, I don’t know if I perceived any problems with what they were doing: like journalists and television hosts, they’re simply writing and presenting information about restaurants in Paris.

There was some talk that people who live in Paris were writing up restaurants and people couldn’t get in to them. It’s an honest assessment as some of the “hot” restaurants in Paris have less than a few dozen seats and many of them only do one seating a night. So those eighteen seats because pretty valuable. In a place like New York City or San Francisco, for example, a restaurant might have fifty or a hundred seats, and do multiple seatings. Even so, reservations at restaurants du moment are often hard to secure in the states. But in Paris, with so many fewer seats, places fill quickly and extra attention can overwhelm a restaurant with a small staff.

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A la Biche au Bois

oeufs dur mayonnaise

It’s a standard request. Whenever people ask for a restaurant suggestion in Paris, even before they open their mouth I know exactly what’s coming—they want a suggestion for a restaurant that: 1) Serves traditional French food, 2) Is budget friendly, and 3) Has no tourists.

There are plenty of budget-friendly places to eat in Paris, like Chartier and L’As du Fallafel, but ones where you’ll find honest traditional French cooking are harder to come by these days. If you’re looking for the rare combination of good food and atmosphere, and modest prices, most of us have given up on the classic bistros and brasseries whose food slides deeper and deeper every year into the “lower than ordinary” category due to corporate takeovers.

There are a variety of reasons, and as Alec Lobrano noted in his terrific book Hungry for Paris, “..”it was accountants, who edited the menus” that were often the most responsible for doing a lot of the great old brasseries in. And nowadays most of the food in them is merely passable, but hardly memorable.

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