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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National stereotypes visit Paris

See original imageTo engage in some national stereotyping, Italians are “exuberant and spontaneous”, Americans are “enthusiastic and demanding”, and Japanese are “delicate and discreet”.

That’s not just me, I borrow from the Parisian tourist authority. They also advise tourist businesses that Belgian visitors are “regulars and friendly”, Russians “passionate”, Chinese “serial shoppers” and Australians are “adventurers and casual”. Filling out that last, Australians love to engage in conversation, appreciate warmth and sharing, and are often direct in their appreciation.

This advice is available online in French as “Do You Speak Touriste?”

Some of the findings might already be changing: how long can Brexiters remain “connoisseurs and relaxed”, here especially for the cuisine, putting them among the bigger spenders (averaging 154 euros each per day), when the pound has been sinking?

Germans are “independent and precise”, and appreciate efficient staff and exact responses. But how long could those traits last, when German trains no longer run on time? In our experience, German trains are likely to be 10, 20 or 30 minutes late, with a weird pricing system often making first class cheaper. And they are slow – our suddenly cheap train from Berlin to Paris only sped up after crossing to the TGV tracks after Alsace.*

Sadly, Australians do not warrant being picked out in terms of “gastronomie”, although I’m not sure where else 177€ per day goes, making Australians the third fastest spenders out of 17 nationalities – and Paris is merely one stop in their notably wider travels. Wealthy Russians book at restaurants with international reputations, and spend a total of 187€ daily. Japanese travellers are particularly willing tasters, and end up being the top spenders on 214€.

At the other end, while Americans look for cafés and brasseries with atmosphere and décor, they also often opt for food trucks and takeaways (160€). The only visitors picked out as definitely not interested in gastronomy are the French (88€). That’s presumably because dining is cheaper, and often also better, where they come from. Some the best meals of my life have been in one-star restaurants in small French towns. Instead, French visitors window shop, visit luxury stores, and take home cheap souvenirs.

Cover artAnother interesting national difference is meal times. Most nationalities lunch around noon or 1 pm. With a bit more of a spread, breakfast is usually 7:30 – 8:00, but with some expected even earlier. I’m with Germans here, though, because they breakfast seriously, preferably between 8:30 and 10:00.

Dinner spreads even more wildly through the evening. Australians arrive at 7:30 or 8:00 pm, which sounds believable. The earliest diners are Canadians – at 5:30-6:00. Not that many restaurants are open before 6:00, when the colder European nations start arriving. The Latins are later – Italians arriving somewhere between 7:30 and 9:00, when Brazilians join in (and they are exceptionally interested in gastronomie). Also at 9 pm, Spaniards start thinking about dinner, although they might not front up before 11pm. Exceptions to the climate rule, Russians are also latish, probably booking at acclaimed restaurants at 9 pm.

 

* Footnote: What went wrong with German trains? Germans grimaced, and explained to us that Deutsche Bahn had been privatised. However, Wikipedia says that after the financial crisis, the government had shelved partial-privatisation plans.

A recent Guardian article blames deteriorating rail infrastructure:

To blame is a chronic lack of investment – with money being poured into the welfare state to the detriment of everything else – as well as the nation’s obsession with balancing the books. … Low interest rates and a surplus federal budget mean Germany could have been readily borrowing for several years to pay for upgrades, but the idea of going into debt is toxic to most voters, who consider debt to be immoral. So the majority of politicians, Merkel included, have simply chosen not to go there.

Get all worried about debt and deficit, and your character crumbles.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

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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The collapse of dining in U.K., U.S.A., France, Australia and Barbados

The past decade has seen the collapse of British restaurants.

Something to eat at El Celler de Can Roca

They held 10 of the world’s “Best 50” positions in 2005, and now only two. Almost as disastrously, the decline in number of world-beating French restaurants has plummeted from 11 to five. The U.S.A. went from nine to six, Australia from three to one, and Barbados fell from two to none at all.

Where did all that great dining go? Spain has lifted its total from four to seven, Peru and Mexico have come from nowhere to gain three spots each; Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Thailand and China came in with two; and Singapore, Russia, South Africa and Chile snapped up one. The rest of the world stayed roughly where they were.

I’m joking. What has changed is not the quality of the national stars but the scope of the “World’s Best 50 Restaurants”. A British magazine started the annual list in 2002, and still in 2005 found the great places either down the road, or in France, the U.S. and Barbados. Over the years, the judging has expanded further across the globe.

The best in the world, “Says who?” That’s Paul Levy’s comment on the latest list, just announced. “Would any critic dare to try to name the 50 best operas/singers/actors/artists in the world, except as some sort of perverse game?” The original foodie underscores his point with the photograph (above), chosen by the “Best 50” organisers to represent their very “best” restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

That Paul was not overly selective with the photograph can be confirmed elsewhere. Here’s another I’ve referenced:

Restaurant magazine had asked Paul to vote in the early years, and he was not surprised that “the initial list in 2002 maintained absurdly that more of the world’s top restaurants were in Britain than in France.”

He admits to have dined at some of latest winners, and that they are “very good indeed”. The problem is that we could both name dozens of equally wonderful meals nowhere near the list. Now shut, Ritual in Nelson Bay, north of Sydney, rightfully gained a devoted following, but regularly lost scores in the local guidebook until it was dropped entirely. I’m looking forward to the emergence of Orana – or is Adelaide going to prove just too far for the globe-trotters?

As a restaurant rating groupie, I can remind Paul that even a half-decent guide is better than no guide. And another consolation is that we are watching the “Best 50’s” self-destruction. I’m not referring to its encouraging of ever-more damaging jet-setting.

Rather, my point is that the near-doubling of the number of countries on the list from 11 in 2005 to 21 is only a beginning. The United Nations has 193 members. The judges don’t appear yet to have brought in Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco … Is Canada yet to make the grade? And those other former British colonies, Hong Kong and Barbados, might yet pop back.

Soon, the near-impossibility of comparing of apples with pears will be compounded by the total incredibility of rating them against okra, lentils, cardamom, pomegranates, couscous and, let’s hope one day, Kiwi fruit.

Restaurants in Europe as ranked by elite diners (Opinionated About Dining or OAD)

OSV300343 (2)ne of my most valued possessions is a framed, souvenir handkerchief of the best Parisian restaurants in the 1950s. Several are still going, but I’ve only ever got to one, Chez Allard. It was still run by the family, we had the front room by the zinc bar to ourselves, and it was totally memorable. We had proper, Burgundian frog’s legs, as boasted on the cloth, and wondrous duck with turnips. It’s not just because the hanky was a gift from the late Marlis Thiersch, who had brought it back from Paris not long after the war, but also because I cannot hide my secret sin, rating restaurants. A Michelin red guide for 1931 might be useless in a practical sense, but not to me.

When the World’s Best 50 go on-line, I’m in there. With even more alacrity, I follow Opinionated About Dining, put together from diners who are both privileged and obsessive, getting to the latest and greatest, wherever they are. OAD veers towards the more classical and expensive, but I can at least read about them.

Today, I received the  latest OAD ranking of 200 in Europe, and over the years I’ve accumulated meals at, not counting, seven on the list.

L’Arpège is no 3, and Noma no. 9. I would reverse those positions, but caught Noma in possibly more exciting, early days. Also based on one experience, Guy Savoy is right up there. Continuing to talk about Paris, two visits to the original Spring were among the most rewarding experiences of my restaurant life. We’ve also found excuses to go back to Grand Véfour and Septime, and, among those outside Paris, took in Bocuse … All recommended.

What would I add? –  definitely some far-away, one-star places, such as La Petite Maison in Cucuron, Les Chênes Verts at Tourtour, and Le Maximilien in Zellenberg. That’s based on one experience each, one or more years ago.

SV300349 (2)I would like to contribute ratings, but, really, my help would be scattered and mainly for Australia, and OAD so far encompasses only the U.S., Europe and recently Japan.

Several Australian places compare well. We keep returning to Sydney’s Sixpenny, and not only because it’s nearby. I’ve had the chance to appreciate much Ben Shewry cooking – his Attica in Melbourne is ensconced in the world best list. Somewhere newer that hits such heights is Adelaide’s Orana.

At Orana, Jock Zonfrillo and team bring flawless cooking to indigenous foods. Will it appear in the World’s Best 50 for 2015, to be announced on 1 June? I would hope so, despite only one dinner there, and a couple of criticisms, especially their one glass of champagne for an extraordinary procession, half an hour or more, of little tastes – really well done, and then separate wines came with each dish. The sommelier did a memorable job blending fruit juices for our daughter to accompany each of our nine wines, but I prefer my wine early and to taper off.SV300340 (2)

Unusually for such a good restaurant, Tripadvisor immediately ranked it at no. 1 in Adelaide, and it remains on top, out of 1,378 restaurants, such is Orana’s fierce support.

Today’s lesson for fellow guidebook tragics is that these guides, however seemingly erratic or opionated, are inconsistently backed by the Tripadvisor crowd. Take the case of Noma, which returned last year to #1 in the world’s best, now rates #9 in Europe for OAD, but only #20 for just Copenhagen, according to Tripadvisor.

As to Arpège, which is #3 for the whole of Europe on OAD, and #24 in the world’s best, it is ranked #714 by Tripadvisor, and that’s just for Paris. That’s better than somewhere I must get to one day, Ambroisie, coming in at #35 for OAD, and lying down there at #2,992 for the popular vote.

Yet, as unreliable as Tripadvisor might be, any guide is better than no guide, so I haunt that one, too.

English menus, when in France

A contact here in Sydney recently revealed that her aunt had booked them into the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Running 24 restaurants in eight countries, Alain Ducasse Entreprise presumably ensures a decent experience, on top of the view. But I was disconcerted that the aunt had apparently over-ridden my Paris suggestions, because “this should be less touristy”.

Just checking, Tripadvisor had attracted 2504 reviews for the Jules Verne (1380 or 55% “excellent” ratings), against 423 (289 or 68% excellent) for the most touristy of my recommendations.

The lesson here is that even the most touristy among us would rather dream that we weren’t.

Which brings me to complaining about being handed English menus in France. If only those establishments realised how insulting that was. Sure, some tourists complain they couldn’t order until the waiter translated. But many of us prefer the “real” menu.

The thrusting of English menus so offended me recently at a bistro in the Marais that I tried to persuade my companion to leave. If you must know, it was the Café Charlot (236 Tripadvisor reviews, with opinion spread from 48 or 20% excellent to 33 terrible).

It is not just that the waiter showed off that he immediately recognised us as foreigners. More to the point, it declared the place’s pretensions to being a tourist trap. The Café Charlot wanted to give no impression of authenticity. We stayed, and the lunch was otherwise unmemorable.

It put me in mind of our evening at the l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, aka the Bocuse restaurant, outside Lyon (936 reviews, 615 or 66% excellent). I can’t imagine it keeping its three stars without Paul Bocuse. I mean, fancy taking a star from among the greatest twentieth-century French chefs, well on the way towards his 90th birthday! His picture adorned the walls, and he was there in person, shaking hands and posing for photographs. In fact, he posed at every table, so a photo was hard to avoid.

IMG_0317 (2)Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time. The food might have been variable, but the heights were high. I imagine that the quenelle was definitive, also the Loup en croûte feuilletée (à partir de 2 persons). If you insist, “Sea bass stuffed in puff pastry shell, Choron sauce (two or more persons)”. The cheese board was top-level. And the ambiance was of a joyously elegant funfair.

That was after being automatically handed menus in English. Don’t they know that food tastes so much better in French! More to the point, the French name is often more recognisable for those with even a moderate appreciation of the cuisine. For example, which is the more understandable – “pâté” or “rich paste of mashed and spiced meat”? On top of that, English menus in France are often dismayingly translated.

We sat there stonily until they brought replacements, and I like to kid myself that the maitre d’ appreciated us all the more for it. The menu came with only a short wine selection, so we also asked for the full list. Here, the gains were measurable. A young sommelier helped us drink really well for less.

More considerate places offer a choice, announcing, “Here is the menu, or would you prefer one in English” (even if spoken in English).  Somewhere off the beaten track is likely to say, “We have an English menu somewhere.”

Also, there’s a simple improvement on separate menus – a single version with English translations in small print underneath. From the online menu, that’s the answer at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel tower.