You could say I went to Paris for the art (Mona Lisa, Monet) or the literary inspiration (Hemingway, Pound, Joyce) or the history (Napoleon’s tomb anyone?) but in fact, I went for the food. After reading Alan Richman’s GQ article on the new wave of bistro chefs, I knew I had found my reason for the trip. Because until then, selfishly, all I could think of was the fact that the shopping really couldn’t be that better than New York (I was right, in fact, its worse…Paris menswear is stuck in eroticised pubescent “boy” mode). But Richman piqued my curiosity, so I set out to hit at least five of the most significant bistros of the moment during the week long trip. I knew we had to go to L’Ami Jean. I hoped we could get a reservation–and to Le Troquet. I made reservations at some tourist-traps just to cover the basics, Chartier, Brassiere Bofinger. We had a recommendation to try Les Papilles and so that went on the list. In the end we made it to Chez L’Ami Jean, Les Papilles, Le Pantruche, Chez Toinette (really an old standby but recently rediscovered and regarded), Restaurant Miroir, and Chartier (a tourist-trap just for kicks).
Barely worth mentioning for the food, except that we had FUN just being tourists and gawking at this century-old restaurant near the Opera. It was our first night, so the duck confit was tasty and the frites, crisp and the meal seemed very Parisian.
A sleepy cafe with very few tables and only one waiter, the food was very good, but a tad bit over-decorated. I started with a fricasse of “girolle” mushrooms with herbs, which I would repeat for our one home-cooked meal. More duck was had, roasted and served with fall root vegetables, but the Parmentier of Fresh Codfish my wife had was a standout, flakey and piquant served over a bed of mashed potatoes.
It was pleasant to find two great bistros in our little neighborhood off the Rue du Martyrs. In fact the area is quite hip, our flat on the Rue du Navarin was a few steps from the Williamsburgesque Hotel Amor and Le Mere Maison. Each night we would come back and pass the hipsters who so desparately looked like they wanted to live in Brooklyn.
Le Pantruche was delightfully modest and the quality of food growing exponentially better than our previous meals. We split the terrine of foie gras which melted in our mouths and over the crusty baguette. I had rable du lapin (saddle of rabbit) with chorizo which was light, sweet and spicy and without any gaminess. Desert was poached figs and salted caramel creme. My wife raved over the salted caramel panna cotta.
We nearly missed our reservation as Les Papilles is located deep in the Latin Quarter, past the Luxumbourg Gardens and near no Metro stations. Turns out I also forgot to confirm (a MUST), but the manager seemed to sense our desperation and sat us. We picked-out a slightly over-priced bottle of wine, a 2003 Chateau Chante Alouette from St. Emilion. I chose it for the name, but was rewarded with a 92-point bordeaux blend that set the night on fire!
Again, we had duck, but it was delicious moist and tender. The prix fixe meal began with a root vegetable soup poured over bacon and crouton. A cheese course followed, and then the roast duck.
Chez L’Ami Jean
The absolute highlight of the trip, I called and called to get reservations before the trip and no one picked up. I tried again in Paris at 9 in the morning and got through finally and scored a 10pm reservation, not a problem since we were on NY-time. This basque bistro is considered the best in the city at the moment and it didn’t disappoint. With little explanation of the menu, we dove in and took the chef’s menu, “Le Petit Voyage.” The meal began with a rich dark fish soup, almost too salty to eat but impossible to stop. After that course we had scallops and foie gras over a filet of mackerel airy, sweet and creamy, and salty. Next up were razor clams, chewy and briny. The main was a gorgeous duck breast with almonds. Before desert we had a cheese course, followed by a massive pot of riz au lait (rice pudding) served with a salted caramel creme and ice creams. The restaurant itself was nothing special, in fact it felt deliberately run-down and ramshackle, but the food was inspired and heavenly.
When we told our host at Le Pantruche of our little food adventure, he recommended Miroir, also on the Rue du Martyrs but above the Pigalle closer to Sacre Cour. We ate here on our last night, and frankly, after our delicious home-cooked meal and L’Ami Jean, we were finished. The food was undoubtedly good, but I’m not sure we could really “taste” it anymore. My wife only ordered one dish, the tuna tartare. She knows I am against ordering tuna from any restaurant (its endangered and in serious decline), but I couldn’t deny her. I had a rabbit and foie gras terrine to start which was cool and simple and moist, and then porcelet (milk-fed young pig), which was like a very tender pork chop with a nice gaminess that tasted of the farm. We finished with the poached pear and rice pudding…I was after a repeat performance of L’Ami Jean’s rice pudding but alas, the rice was underdone. Still tasty, but incomplete.
At the end of the meal, my wife looked up at me, with tired eyes, sated, and said, “I’m ready to go home.” I was ready too. You know how the excitement of tourism is a natural high that you can ride for days, but in the end, almost everyone wants to go home and have their Mom’s roast chicken. Still, I would recommend any of the bistros here to you if you are planning to visit Paris soon. Reserve early and of course, always confirm. Cheers.