I love Chinese cooking, which is why I often despair at the confused, dumbed down versions of China's food served in Paris. The main problems that explain the wilting mediocrity of Chinese cooking in Paris are an instinctive French aversion to spicy food and also the fact that few Parisians know enough about the country's diverse regional kitchens to demand anything more authentic than the safe and confused menus that prevail in neighborhood restaurants all over the city. Many of them are run by Chinese owners who immigrated to France from the former countries of Indochina--Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and so they offer the curious mix of southeast Asian and Chinese dishes that has come to be the prevailing "Asian" cookery found in Paris. What this means is a mix of Nems (Vietnamese deep-fried Spring rolls), dim sum, timid soups and miscellaneous sautees with sauce--beef with oyster sauce, etc.
This unfortunate state of affairs is why I was very curious when a friend from Hong Kong recently recommended the Bistrot de Pekin in the 8th as serving some of the most authentic Chinese food in town. The location just steps off the Champs Elysees in a neighborhood of offices and hotels wasn't encouraging, but we decided to give in a try on a rainy Sunday night in the hopes of discovering a Chinese place we could really love. Though it's one of the hoariest cliches in the book, it was immediately encouraging to arrive at this friendly, attractive place with tall-backed Chinese chairs at tables lined with bamboo matting and peach walls and find that it was mostly full of Chinese patrons.
I came along with the list of dishes to try that had been jotted down by my friend, and after a fair amount of discussion with the waitress to make sure we'd get these and not some of the dumbed down dishes purveyed to the French clientele, we sipped an anonymous but decent red wine by the carafe (6.50 Euros for a half liter) and waited hopefully. The meal got off to a very promising start with fat noodles in a wonderfully fiery peanut and sesame sauce, a Szechuan dish that I used to eat often when I lived in New York. Next, a really excellentsoupe Pekinoise, thick, cartilege rich broth that was wonderfully tangy with vinegar and filled with black mushrooms, fresh slivered bamboo shoots, and shirred egg. The raviolis grillee were excellent, too--obviously homemade and seasoned with garlic, ginger and Chinese herbs.
When the main courses arrived, it was apparent we'd grievously over-ordered--portions here are generous, but I loved the tetes de lion, giant pork meat balls with chopped water chestnuts adding some texture to the soft, nicely seasoned pork, a fiery marmite de boeuf (casserole of beef and Chinese cabbage in chili oil rich broth) and delicious bok choy sauteed with garlic. Inevitably, I saw all sorts of wonderful looking dishes being delivered to neighboring tables, so I look forward to eating my way through the long menu here during the months to come, and also to stopping by for one of the very good value lunch menus. Eureka! Real Szechuan cooking in Paris.
The 10th arrondissement is one of my favorite parts of Paris, especially the area in and around the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, which has the brilliant antic human variety that's always made me love living in a big city. Here is urban life at its most wonderfully variegated--one block devoted entirely to African barbers and beauty shops, another lined by Turkish cafes, here a Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian epicerie, there a restaurant teasingly called El Papi Chullo.
A sure sign that one of the last authentically populaire districts of central Paris is beginning to evolve, however, is the very popular Le Napoleon, a corner cafe that smart and very amiable Polish-born Frenchman Rafael Grusziewicz remodeled and relaunched after ten years of working in various different Costes brothers restaurants and a stint in New York that included waiting at La Goulue. "The neighborhood is starting to stir," says Grusziewicz, "and for me, it's just perfect right now. You have a great mix of young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor, people from all over the world, and it's feels friendly, tolerant and creative. This is the vibe I had in mind when I bought what was a faded old corner cafe and turned it into a neighborhood hangout."
Open daily from 8am to 2am, it's become a real local institution and is especially busy at noon, when it slings one of the best hamburgers in Paris, a big fat juicy baby with a half decent bun. To be sure, it'd be better with a slice of real sharp cheddar and a bit of real bacon, but the burger itself is very, very good, and comes with good frites and a side of very tasty coleslaw if you want it. Otherwise, the menu is a happy and reasonably priced top of the charts of local comfort food, including roasted goat cheese and salad, terrific cheese and charcuterie boards, a tofu burger, club sandwiches, steak tartare, tarte tatin, tiramisu, and fromage blanc bio. They also serve brunch on the weekends, and food until midnight. "I wanted to do a happy, honest, reasonably priced place with good quality, nothing fancy, nothing gastro, but good, and a place where everyone would feel welcome," says Grusziewicz. To which I'd reply Mission Accomplished, if the phrase didn't have such horrendously tragic resonances, so how's about "Bull's Eye, and well done," instead.
Bistrot de Pekin, 38 rue de Ponthieu, 8th, Tel. 91-42-56-50-86. Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Open daily. Avg 30 Euros.
Le Napoleon, 73 rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, 10th, Tel. 01-47-70-21-36. Metro: Chateau d'Eau. Open daily. Avg 20 Euros.