Secret Paris

aligotParis secrets, or at least the dining we’ve enjoyed these past five weeks, with the added test of wanting to return.

We’ve previously reached some three-stars, emerging names (the original Spring, early Septime), and short-lived (Agape Substance – a steamy central bench shared with the chefs).

The plan this time was to concentrate on cheap and near, and I have already reported tagines Chez Hamadi.

Our recently-departed studio in a surprisingly quiet street between St Michel and Odéon-St Germain put us handily a few doors from New Delhi’s takeaway – three men, stove and tandoor jammed in a hole-in-the-wall. Other places were only slightly bigger – costs cut by small, crammed tables with no linen, and probably some bought-in prepared foods.

Yet one visit made me a regular at Vins et Terroirs (competitively-priced at 12€ for two-course lunch, 18€ dinner), and I went eight or nine times. You can’t beat fast and friendly waiters under exposed beams and an ingrained spirit of gastronomie. A lentil soup with egg stood out. One night a missing dish was replaced by foie gras (so I ordered the missing dish a couple more times). Even a toughish steak seemed apt, and they assured me the profiteroles were made in-house in small batches – the chocolate sauce seemed real, too.

Opposite the St Germain covered market, Le Petit Vatel was even more cramped, and a tad more expensive with dishes at a proportionately higher level. The simple boudin noir with a little apple … missing it already.

On the way there, we could check out the lunch queue at the smart Comptoir du Relais (either queue, or get there early or late). Couldn’t resist a second shot at their lobster bisque (not thick, and I recall tomato hidden in there somewhere).

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Back closer, and named after an uninhabited, war-ravaged island off Brittany, Cézembre is new, compact and excellent value for high quality, contemporary food (fixed menu of five dishes for 45€, plus 25€ for three matching glasses of wine), even if I couldn’t resist feeling that the overall effect was of comfort food with foam. On tripadvisor, Cézembre rates #14 out of 13,742 restaurants in Paris, so bookings will get harder.

The restaurant has just one young waiter, who also runs the dishwasher, and two in the kitchen, so not a quick night. I heard that the original intention had been to open in Australia, and the waiter looks forward to surfing again at Byron Bay.

A city this size and so densely cultured has innumerable “secrets”, even still in the Marais. Those hazy photos above… that’s a sausage with aligot, approximately two parts potato to one part cheese. We’ve been to Roland and Josette’s many times, although only managed twice this stay – a dream of a small bar with its clutch of long-term, bohemian habitues, leading into an even smaller dining room. It’s hardly mentioned on tripadvisor, and one French complaint is that it’s a survivor of the 1950s (a complaint!). To give away the address, true gourmands, it’s Le Bougnat (the “Le” avoids confusion with another place).

allard-profitrolesNearly 40 years ago, I dined Chez Allard, a then one-star bistro founded in 1932. Monsieur Allard (by then, the son, André) recommended sharing the frogs’ legs, because they were the real burgundian ones, and recommended against their famous specialty of duck and olives, because duck and turnips were briefly in season. Just accept our carafe red, he reassured. I probably had profiteroles. And the meal in a then near-empty bistro was magnificent, the duck among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Allard was so close to our studio this trip that we almost shared a wall. Accordingly, we popped around the corner to catch up  with duck and olives (the dinner was a gift, gratefully received!).

The bistro has been done over in a respectful renovation by Alain Ducasse’s team. The recent switch from Laetitia Rouabah to Fanny Herpin as chef has maintained the tradition of a woman in the kitchen – originally Marthe, and her daughter-in-law Fernande Allard on my original visit. Because the door was often left open on to the kitchen, we can confirm that the young chef and/or her offsiders were hard a work every day from early morning until early morning.

The menu retains many old favourites. I started humbly, but well, with Frisée jaune aux beaux lardons et croûtons (curly endive with lardons). Marion liked the oeufs cocotte so much that she ordered them again when we returned for lunch. M. Allard was right about his wife’s duck and turnips (and I again thank them). Although the effect of the olives was different, the sauce was reminiscent, and one of the lively young waiters (immediately picked him as Italian) proudly revealed the green olives were Sicilian.

Still tightly packed, and with a predictable menu, this bourgeois bistro showed the benefits of paying more for table linen, attentive service, no kitchen short-cuts, and warm bath for the profiteroles chocolate.

This was the not-so-cheap, but really-near version of this trip’s search for the tiny “secrets” in which Paris abounds. The city might be losing favour on those near-ridiculous “world’s 50 best” lists, but dining density remains high.

Previously, I have enjoyed looking for the way ahead (the new/the exciting/the “best”). But there’s nothing like lost locales.

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Being a regular

See original imageAs a restaurateur, I cannot deny having loved our regulars. We had a couple who came fortnightly, for years. They drove quite a distance from a beach suburb, and plainly  enjoyed each other’s company. We kept Table 8 for them.

Another Sunday pair were a Melbourne manager returning most weekends to Adelaide for his delightfully stay-put partner. Oh, the conversations we had about the strangeness of both the Anglican Church and the devotion of its shunned member (he was gay).

How can I forget the well-to-do couple, who came so regularly over so many years we witnessed the gradual deterioration of one of their healths, and how… no, I’ll miss that

So many regulars, and those are just the first to come to mind. Regulars might have come weekly for a burst, or fortnightly for years, or even just annually, re-living the night they proposed marriage at the restaurant, or married there, eventually bringing children.

I became a regular at a modest restaurant here in Paris’s Latin Quarter after two lunches. By the time I took Marion there for dinner, my third meal, we were greeted with Kirs. The wine recommendation was as delicious as its price was moderate. When a dish was not available, it was instantly replaced with foie gras.

How did this happen? Who knows? I hope I just seemed to enjoy the first visit.

Of course, there’s a element of sales in hailing regulars, but I like to think it’s more human than that. People generally like other people (and waiters really have to like other people). It might be a passing relationship, not necessarily even on first-name or any name terms – perhaps just the “McGuinnesses on Table 8” – and yet meals are at the heart of society, and that goes for hosts and guests.

This good, modestly-priced restaurant in the Latin Quarter seems to fill with locals. At least one or two regulars seem to return for lunch perhaps even daily. Nights are quieter, with a sprinkling of tourists.

Let’s see how the relationship develops. A third visit might have involved something lesser than the previous lentil soup with egg, but I somehow enjoyed the tougher steak (following Brillat-Savarin’s carving instruction: cut across the grain). Next, “my” table by the door was taken, so I tried somewhere else, which was not quite up to it.

Upon our departure, I might give the restaurant a strong online recommendation. It’s already within the top 1000 of the 13,632 tripadvisor listings f0r Paris. That’s despite seven “terrible” ratings for cold ravioli and lamb to spit out, etc. Poor irregulars, I’m sure you enjoyed your crepes down the road. “Do not eat there” – I’m sorry, you missed out. No, I’m not sorry.

Humans need each other, value each other, and the rest is regulars.

Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

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We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

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Noma pops up

491720065_a873ca0190[1]Frequently judged the “world’s best”, Noma restaurant is much less than the hype, and I intend that as a recommendation. If you feel so inclined, have the money, and can score a booking, then go, when it pops up down south.

The Sydney Morning Herald has just carried huge photographs of chef Rene Redzepi to accompany a double-page spread about his moving the restaurant from Copenhagen to Sydney for 10 weeks during their winter/our summer. But I skipped the article for a number of reasons. Mainly, it’s the hype; I don’t need any more breathless accounts of stratospherically-ranked cooking.

Reportedly flying in 35 chefs, 30 waiters and 10 reservations and administrative staff, plus “partners and children”, a so-called destination restaurant celebrating local-ness remains one of globalisation’s tragic contradictions.

An associated reason for my deliberate page-turn was that, decades ago, I was already dreading Sydney’s over-development (fellow journalist Gavin Souter assured me it had already happened), and the Barangaroo developers would seem to be supporting Noma’s relocation to lend civility to their latest harbour-side imposition.

I also admit that despite the restaurant offering a total of 5000 places, and at a projected $400 to $500 each, I can’t imagine managing to obtain a booking. Locals will be competing with diners who fly around the world to reach worse attractions.

And, finally, another confession, I’ve already been. Indeed, we almost went twice. My wife’s second Copenhagen conference let me book for a significant birthday in April 2010, but an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull grounded an estimated 10 million travellers, including us.

Not that my birthday was a total disaster, because we quickly booked trains to England via L’Arpège in Paris. To tell the truth, my actual birthday was a couple of days later, so that I celebrated again. With my wife occupied at another conference in Coventry, my daughter and I dined at what the Good Pub Guide rightly indicated would be a dream of an old inn, the Fox & Hounds, Great Wolford, Warwickshire.

491693630_5b41aa8303[1]The Noma visit in May 2007 was unforgettable, notably for its completeness. I remember numerous snips of this and that by way of found grasses, flowers, etc, quite intriguing, although more common these days. And I particularly recall tiny, cold, dense oysters. If you want more details, “YKL” had posted on egullet a few days earlier about the same menu (and I’ve borrowed two of YKL’s photographs to accompany this reminiscence).

As I say, the meal was unforgettable for its completeness, which means not just the food. There was the port location and the old building, which had been converted to promote the North Atlantic (hence Noma’s choice of ingredients). My daughter and I sat outside with a beautiful German riesling in the late-afternoon sun, awaiting my wife to cycle from her conference. We gazed across the harbour (not high-rised like Sydney) and back at the spiral church steeple that our daughter had just climbed.

Then, there was the exemplary friendliness. One little thing was that, after they had found somewhere to stow my wife’s bike, they brought out an extra round of marvellous crisps, including cracklingly-thin fish and chicken skin.

We could never forget another extra. We were keen to phone our severely disabled son back in New Zealand, which tends to sleep when Denmark is awake, and vice versa. Since this evening was an appropriate time, we inquired about a public phone. The waiters insisted that we use the restaurant’s. But you don’t understand, we said, this is a phone call to New Zealand.

Given our boy’s brain damage, “phoning” really meant singing to him down the line. It was an emotional moment, and when we were together back at the table, the waiters slipped us small handkerchiefs.

In this globalised, connected world that magnifies celebrity to an unbearable level, I know Noma to be much, much less – much friendlier and more intimate – than might be imagined. So, I skipped the double-page spread.

Then, in a phonecall, old friend Julie Rigg checked if I noticed it mentioned my gastronomic history of Australia. To write the article, Jill Dupleix had joined Rene Redzepi for a day trip of 13 hours, sourcing ingredients through Victoria. He and two assistants had already scoured the Adelaide Hills (location of our Aristologist restaurant in the 1980s and early 1990s) in the company of Adelaide chef Jock Zonfrillo (and I’ve already praised his Orana restaurant).

Dupleix reported that the team had passed by Melbourne’s Essential Ingredient in search of a copy of One Continuous Picnic. Not sure if they found one, but if Redzepi is still looking, I’ll gladly send a copy, signed “in memory of 31 May 2007”.