A L'ORIENT D'OR, Excellent Hunan Chinese Cooking, B+; LE VERRE VOLE, One of the Best Bistrots a Vins in Paris, B+
Everyone needs a great failsafe go-to Chinese restaurant in their lives, which is why I was so hopeful when I went to meet my friend Richard for lunch yesterday. He loves Chinese cooking, or all of the cuisines of China, as much as I do and was very keen to share his latest discovery with me, L'Orient d'Or, which is in the 9th arrondissement just a few doors down from the Folies Bergere. On a cold rainy day, I was definitely ready for a wok on the wild side, too, and that's exactly what I got, since this simple, friendly and very popular restaurant specializes in Hunan cooking, which, as our waiter explained, is characteristically gently acidic in taste and seasoned with garlic, onions, peppers and chili peppers. Or as Chairman Mao, a native of Hunan province, put it: "People from Sichuan and Jiangsu eat pepper, because they're not afraid of spicy food. People from Hunan eat pepper, because they're afraid not to eat spicy food. Most of the senior officials of the Communist party are originally from Sichuan, Jiangsu and Hunan provinces. So I'd say that people who like to eat spicy food are the real revolutionaries."
Since so many Chinese restaurants in Paris play it safe in deference to the presumed timidity of the French palate, I wondered if this kitchen would offer me the fire I was craving, and boy did it deliciously deliver. We started with a refreshing dish of ciboule, or Chinese chives, lightly dressed in sesame oil and flecked with red pepper, and then tucked into some delicious pumpkin beignets. Next, a superb dish of crusty chips of smoked pork with scallions and lots of chili peppers, a fabulous dish that dates back to the Han dynasty, and beautifully sauteed eggplant, also nice and peppery, that came to the table with nary a drop of oil on the dish.
In fact the generally dry nature of the cooking here--as opposed to the usual Chinese fare in Paris, which comes swimming in sauce, was a very pleasant surprise, and I can't wait to go back and try the chicken Zuo Zongtang, which you have to request in advance and which draws Chinese residents of Paris from all over the city. Richard says it's crispy on the outside, very tender, and has a well balanced melange of sweet, acidic and peppery flavors, which sounds terrific to me. We drank a very nice Alsatian pinot noir with lunch, and though the list is short, it's well chosen and the house wines by the carafe are much better than average, too.
L'Orient d'Or, 22 rue de Trevise, 9th, Tel. 01-48-00-07-73. Metro: Cadet or Grands Boulevards. Open Tuesday to Sunday, Closed Monday. Average 30 Euros.
UPDATE (7-17-11): Finally tried the Zuo Zongtang chicken, and it was pleasant, but not remarkable. Much prefer the smoked pork dish, the ciboule, the homemade grilled dumplings, the steamed dumplings stuffed with red rice, and the tofu with ground pork.
LE VERRE VOLÉ
For anyone visiting Paris, the city's thriving bistrot a vins scene offers both great eating and excellent value for the money. If Les Fines Gueles near the Place des Victoires is one of my favorite of the new generation of wine-oriented bistros serving good simple market-driven cooking all over town, I've also always liked the funky and very trendy Le Verre Volé on a side street near the charming Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement. The problem with this place, though, was that its popularity has always made it such a challenge to snag a table. Now, though, they've just expanded the dining room, which makes it incrementally more possible to enjoy one of Paris's best bistrot a vins without having remembered to call a week or two a head of time.
The head chef here is Delphine Zampetti, the girl friend of chef Inaki Aizpitarte, the chef at Le Chateaubriand, one of Paris's cult bobo bistros, and she learned her lesson well while working with Raquel Carena at Le Baratin and Inaki. To wit, her food is smart, stylish, international and wryly maternal. But the maman who inspired Delphine doesn't knit or make jam, instead she wears high-heels, practices Tai-Chi, has a passport full of exotic stamps, and a 24 year old lover.
Le Verre also usefully open on Sundays and many holidays, so after a long absence, I came for dinner with Bruno, Francois and Tina on Armistice Day. The new dining room is a narrow space to the right of the kitchen, and it's preferable to the busy, lively and often noisy front room if you want to have a quiet conversation. At the back of the space, an international staff works in an open kitchen, while twin etageres displaying the wines served and sold here--they specialize in organic and natural wines, line both walls. The price displayed is the retail price, with 7 Euros added for corkage.
Even though I hadn't been here in some time, I was hoping that the lamb-and-fig terrine I'd loved the last time I came might be on the menu, but alas, no such luck. So instead, I started with a salad of sliced oranges, flaked salt cod, croutons and black olives, while the others went with the Thai style green papaya and beef salad, finely sliced veal carpaccio with savings of mimolette cheese and grilled octopus with a salad of herbs. With forks and knives flying, we all tried everything, and everything was delicious accompanied by excellent bread the pleasantly fruity organic Saumur Champigny the waiter suggested. Next, it was a neat split between couples, with two having the grilled duck breast with roasted turnips and an intriguing side slaw of sliced radishes and onions in light mayonnaise, and the other pair, the plump and wonderfully tangy saucisse de Toulouse with potato puree and lively little salad of mixed baby organic greens and herbs.
Aside from the fact that this food was well-cooked, politely inventive and of very good quality, what I liked about it was that it was perfect social food, or pleasant comfort food to serve as a backdrop to good conversation and good wine, and the organic Crozes Hermitage, one of my favorite wines, that we drank with our main courses was spectacular.
If the rest of the gang finished up with apple-and-pear crumble and chocolate cream, I chose the cheese--excellent Comte, Abbaye de Citeaux, and Brin d'Amour as my grand finale and enjoyed it very much. Le Verre Volé a delightful address for a reasonably priced casual meal, and also offers the opportunity to discover one of Paris's lesser known but trendiest and most atmospheric neighborhoods.
Le Verre Volé, 67 rue de Lancry, 10th, Tel. 01048-03-17-34. Metro: Jacques Bonsergent. Open daily. Average 35 Euros.