Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:24
Since I'm unapologetically obsessed by good food, it amost never happens that I leave the house without knowing where I'm going to eat. Most of the time, in fact, my destination has been carefully researched, and when possible, I love reading a menu online beforehand, partly to tease my appetite but also because this way I can construct my meal meditatively before being distracted by a waiter or a waitress or the good conversation of a friend. This advance planning isn't only because I absolutely hate the idea of having a bad meal, but is also due to the fact that even in Paris the odds are so hopelessly stacked against spontaneity. These days, just winging it almost never works and reservations are almost always required.
Last night, though, I'd gone for drinks with my friend Christian, and both of us had been too busy to do any restaurant research beforehand. Since we were meeting near the Place des Victoires, I'd vaguely thought that it might be useful for research purposes to see what the food's like at Le Grand Colbert these days, although I very much doubt it's good (if you've been lately, please let me know if I'm right or wrong), and also knew that we could always go to Les Fines Gueles, a bistrot a vins that we both love.
Unfortunately, it got late on this rainy night, and Les Fines Gueles was packed when we swung by, so I was thinking that maybe Citronelle & Galanga, a good Vietnamese, would do the trick, and we were on our way over there when we noticed the brightly lit shopfront of a new business in the rue d'Argout and wandered over to see what it was: a new burger joint. But not just any burger joint--and they're lots of those in Paris these days (see: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/eurofile-the-new-american-tastemakers-in-paris/?ref=food). Instead, this was a small room with a very good looking and well-dressed crowd sitting on oak stools at oak tables tucking into big juicy burgers made with meat from Yves-Marie le Bourdonnec, one of city's very best butchers. And it glowed with a certain irresistibly bluff urban chic.
The menu looked terrific, too, and we instantly decided to give it a try. The two young owners couldn't have been more welcoming when we stepped inside either, so we stood and started drinking a fabulous bottle of Bordeaux while we waited for a table. Chatting with the French owners, we found out that one of them had lived in California, the other New York, and that they'd recruited the delightful Camille Malmquist, an American in Paris baker and blogger, to do their baking for them, including the best hamburger buns I've ever eaten, and, later, a superb miniature cranberry topped cheesecake.
I was all set for a "Cheesy"--a burger made from a specially composed mix of ground beef from Le Bourdonnec with English cheddar, bacon, homemade barbecue sauce, onion, pickles and iceberg lettuce--never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd actually want to eat iceberg lettuce, which is just about the only salad I knew as a child when Mom would cut a head into wedges she called 'hearts of lettuce' and we kids called hunk o' let, slathered with either Stop & Shop Italian dressing or Marie's blue-cheese dressing, but to our despair, they were sold out of everything but the "Sweet," a monthly special veal burger with garnishes that were vaguely inspired by Vietnamese Bánh Mì sandwiches, to wit, carrots, pepper and mint, but also grilled Parmesan shavings, chorizo (which I never found) and arugula. Ditto the sweet potato fries--all they had left were regular fries, but they were homemade.
Even though I'd have liked this magnificent mound of meat cooked much rarer, this little baby turned out to be a beauty of a burger, and the fries were terrific, too. The oak stools were sitting on were carved with a stylized version of a burger, the service was just charming, and if we weren't already in the thrall of Bacchus, they had a great short list of beers we could have been sipping. Chatting further with the owners, they explained that they want Blend--the name is intended to refer to Le Bourdonnec's 'secret' mix of meats, to be a showcase for the "friendly, fun, alert, involved" service they both enjoyed so much when they were living in America. Oh, and if this place is a success, which is more than likely to be, they bashfully admitted they'd open other branches of Blend in Paris, and then maybe beyond.
We finished up with Camille's superb little cheesecake, and on the way home, I marveled at the fact that hamburgers have become so popular in Paris--when I moved here 25 years ago, they were still a poorly prepared novelty item at places like Joe Allen's in Les Halles, and also that the city now has some really good burger places. So what happened? Well, lower airfares have meant that a whole generation of younger Parisians have fallen madly in love with New York, and lacking the stern gastronomic codes of their parents, they eagerly embraced the city's comfort foods, which seem so redolent of a certain personal liberty.
And what about me? Was it heresy for anyone who's lucky enough to live in Paris to chose a nice juicy burger over a perfectly roasted chicken or a cast-iron casserole of boeuf bouguigon? Of course not, since the hunger before any meal is an evanescent expression of who and how you are at that moment. The most powerful cardinal points of any good appetite--novelty, adventure, nostalgia and biological cravings beyond my capacity for scientific analysis, gently pricked by such keening qualities as rarity and a desire for self-expression, should never be ignored, and last night, the proper prescription for me was a really good burger. Amazingly enough, in Paris now you can get one. And hats off to Camille Malmquist again for those amazingly good hamburger buns.
44 rue d'Argout, 2nd, Tel. 01-40-26-84-57. Metro: Bourse, Sentier or Les Halles. Open daily. Average 25 Euros.