PARIS, France–A few years ago, my husband and I started on a quest for the perfect bistro in Paris, something that I felt obliged to test for both my guests as well as myself. My research project began after having several great meals at L’Affriol√© on the rue Malar in the 7th district in Paris, and noting that friends of mine from New York had eaten twice¬†there¬† in the same week of their very short stay.
I purchased a book called “Bistrots de chefs √† Paris” which profiled 20 chefs of the n√©o-bistrot movement,( including at l’Affriol√©) each one revealing in luscious four-color photography one of their favorite recipes. Our first foray to La Cave Gourmande in the 19th district was a mixed experience: while the food was delicious, at 8 pm in the evening there was no one in the restaurant and only a handful of other diners showed up–and this was a Saturday night. It took us over 30 minutes to get to the restaurant and parking proved to be a problem.
While the chef, Mark Singer, was a talented American, I am afraid to say we haven’t been back–perhaps because of the restaurant’s out of the way location.
(Lesson#1–to charge lower prices, many bistros are in lower rent districts, that are far from the center of town).
Our second jaunt was closer to home: L’Entredgeu, a shoe-box-size bistrot in the 17th arrondissement. The first problem: we were squeezed like sardines next to another couple, to the point that our neighbor’s elbow was practically in my husband’s soup. The soup that we ordered came readily enough. Then to our surprise, the waiter showed up with our dessert, instead of the main course!
When we sent it back, we then waited another hour for the main. By that time the restaurant was total chaos with a horde of angry diners whose reservation had been lost and who were being turned away on a rainy night. By the end of the miserable evening, we had learned that the husband had left his wife in charge of the restaurant, and that she was totally overwhelmed by the situation.
(Lesson #2–check out the size of the restaurant before you go, and whether service can be a problem due to staffing issues).
That single night almost put a halt to our adventures–my husband accused me of making him my “guinea pig.”
Next stop, not my choice, was L’Ami Jean in the 7th arrondissement, on the same street as l’Affriol√©. This time it was for lunch, and we were a crowd of six, in a bistro that was only a tad bigger than the one in the 17th. The wood-panelled room in the summer was hot and crowded with diners of all nationalities–including some very discreet Japanese.
Our table was essentially American and rather rowdy, but I couldn’t hear myself speak. As to the food, the only thing I remember was the copious and delectable portion of rice pudding–true comfort food. The waiters kept on banging into the back of our unfortunate host–I shudder to think of the black-and-blue marks that he got that day.
Nor did I our disappointments stop there.
Who hasn’t read rave reviews¬†about chef Aziparte’s¬†Le Chateaubriand in the 11th arrondissement? I thought that I was in store for an outstanding dining experience, one that I felt compelled to book six weeks in advance. It was to be my birthday celebration. When we arrived at the restaurant at around 8:30 pm, we saw that we were seriously over-dressed. I had chosen to wear a red knit dress, my husband a jacket and tie.
People stared at us with hostility and disdain–you must be mistaken, their hardened gaze seemed to say. We had landed in bobo heaven with diners¬†decked out in¬†well-worn jeans, unshaven faces, and I-just-got-out-of-bed hair. A waiter deigned to hand us the night’s tasting menu, typed on grease-stained photocopy paper. How chic!
As for the chairs and tables–they must have hauled them in from the dumpster–not even Emma√ľs would have accepted to resell them. How simple! How unpretentious!
After 20 minutes, the waiter finally brought us a bottle of still water and two glasses of white wine. It was clear that we were not being made to feel welcome–not in the least. My husband started to look as if he was in physical pain. “What’s wrong?” I asked with some concern. “I am starting to get acid stomach. I think it’s best we went home,” he told me. And so we did. I went to bed hungry on my birthday, and the next night, we happily stuffed our faces at l’Affriol√©.
(Lesson#3: don’t believe all you read; many Paris restaurants are highly over-rated for the experience you get).
At that point, my husband and I decided to put the guidebooks back on the shelf, and venture into our own uncharted gastronomic waters. At last, we discovered the outstanding cuisine of Le Violon d’Ingres, the celebrated gastronomic bistro of Christian Constant in the 7th arrondissement.
What’s not to like? The creamy white walls and ceiling, the discreet indirect lighting, the crisp white tablecloths, the smiling welcome by the maitre d’ and the food, the glorious food! Three years ago, I was taking photographs of our dinner celebration the night we got married. Next, I hosted a 50th birthday with 18 guests for a lovely French client. I have been sending people there ever since.
Of course the prices have gone up since we first ate there. But even if you pay around 100‚ā¨ per person for a three-course meal with wine, you will eat exquisite food that is well presented and not in bite-size nouvelle cuisine portions.
My best story about Le Violon d’Ingres is this: in 2009, I was hosting a Grand Crus of Burgundy trip for a few lucky Americans who hadn’t lost their money to the likes of Madoff. They had paid for three numbered bottles of wine from the Roman√©e-Conti estate that I was able to source. We were supposed to have drunk them at a glorious one-star Michelin restaurant in Burgundy, but an asthma attack brought on by the pollen season drove our guests back to polluted Paris. I needed to find a replacement restaurant fast.
The Violon d’Ingres came through with flying colors and <strong>only charged us a 150‚ā¨ corkage fee. Now that’s class.
Both Au Bon Accueil and Oscar’s–two excellent but unpretentious tables, pass the taste and the welcome mat test without a hitch. Thoumieux’s brasserie is an over-exposed joke passing for a restaurant–serving some unidentifiable spread in an empty aluminum sardine box. Their poulet demi-deuil (chicken in half-mourning) is a recipe that should have been either rewritten or buried long ago.
But my biggest recent disappointment was Verjus where I took my husband for a very big birthday dinner.¬†”Will you still feed me, will you still need me, when I’m 64?” (The answer is yes, but I can’t¬†always¬†vouch for the feed).
First, it took repeated phone calls and emails to nail down a reservation. Should I have attributed this to overwhelming success or to negligence? Hard to tell.
The night we arrived in early March, I was surprised to find a very, very dimly lit restaurant with only a single tea-light on each bare wooden table. The restaurant is in a glassed-in veranda, and the noise level even early in the evening was high. There wasn’t a single flower in sight. I understood that the Verjus team had originally been the creators of the highly successful Hidden Kitchen which hosted dinners for happy and hungry strangers in their home.
My Australian clients told me in February that it had been “one of the best meals of¬†our lives” and they looked like they were serious eaters. I went there with the highest of expectations. Not being big eaters, we chose the four-course tasting menu.
The problem was–unlike other French restaurants–we could barely see what we are eating. We learned that something that looked and tasted like tiny morsels of black olive was in fact pickled brussels sprouts. While the subsequent fish course and lamb course were tasty enough, the portions were so miniscule, that we finished each dish in two or three bites. We ate the dessert in two spoonfuls. In short, I left the restaurant seriously hungry. No wonder they left us in the dark–but our stomachs were still growling.
Later that same week we had a lovely dinner in the cosy restaurant of the five-star hotel La Maison de Rhodes in Troyes. While were hungry, we chose to split the saut√©ed crayfish appetizer, went on to an outstanding lamb tajine and grilled duck confit, and had absolutely no room left for dessert. It was real food, deliciously and honestly prepared–what the French call “la cuisine du terroir.” The chef had a sense of hospitality that you rarely find in Paris–I don’t know how he did it, but he served and greeted each guest with a smile and attentiveness that is now increasingly rare in the French capital. We didn’t stop exulting over it the entire night.
(Lesson #4: in the age of gastro snobbery, stick to your instincts. If you get the cold shoulder leave at once. If you can’t see what the food looks like and you don’t want to eat in the dark, this place isn’t for you. If you still believe in dressing nicely when you go out, find those places that retain such quaint values. Bon app√©tit!)