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Diner's Diary

The best 102 Paris restaurants are reviewed in Hungry for Paris. Since the Paris restaurant scene changes constantly, I regularly post new restaurant reviews and information on the city’s best places to eat on this site. I also review selected books with various gastronomic themes and comment on favorite foods, recipes, cookware and appliances. In addition to the reviews and writings here, I'd also invite you to follow me on Twitter @ Aleclobrano. So come to my table hungry and often, and please share your own rants and raves in the Hungry for Paris readers forum.

There are many ways to move around the reviews, which are categorized by grade and location. Click here to see the index. Lookout for the tags at the bottom of each post to guide you to more restaurant choices. You can also share any article directly with Facebook, Twitter and email, and there's a print button if you'd like hard copy. Enjoy!

Entries in Alexander Lobrano (183)

Wednesday
Jul212010

MYSTERY CUISINE, Good Food with an Amusing Side of Theater, B+; ROSSI & CO, A Nice Neapolitan, B

  Cards on the table, I've always been pretty dubious about molecular cooking, often finding that I want a real chef in the kitchen instead of a gastronomic Salvador Dali. Instead, I whole-heartedly subscribe to the infallible dictum of Auguste Escoffier who said “Cooking becomes genius when things taste of what they are.” So science in the kitchen doesn't really work for me. 
  On the other hand, I'm not adverse to food as entertainment, and so it was with great curiosity that I went to dinner the other night at the teasingly named Mystery Cuisine, a tiny restaurant next to the Palais Royal. Since my pal David and I had been enjoying the terrace at the nearby Cafe de Nemours, one of my favorites, I was a little apprehensive about stepping into a heat box when we arrived at the front door. Instead, we were greeted by a gust of nicely chilled air and amiable chef-owner Edouard Desrousseaux de Vandières and led to a table for two in a partially curtained niche of this low-lit and decidedly mysterious dining room.
The dining room at Mystery Cuisine
  The wonderfully named Desrousseaux de Vandières (sounds like the hero of a romantic novel) then proposed the "best Mojito in Paris" to start the meal, and we happily obliged. I loved the cocktails, and have had some very good ones in my day, notably in their country of origin, so I wasn't going to be an easy sell. But these really were terrific, served in amusing glass that glowed from within (the glass sits on a battery-powered light in plastic holder) with lots of ice, plenty of fresh mint, and as we later realized, lots of rum, too.
  After agreeing to the "menu gastronomique," which is priced at a rather astronomic 99 Euros, we were busily gabbing when our hero came through the curtains and served us a very pleasant little amuse bouche of cubed aloe vera with grapefruit pearls that David immediately identified as being made with sodium alginate.
And before I go any further, let me stop here to very firmly say that Mystery Cuisine is definitely not a place for anyone who wants a good solid meal. Instead, it's a whimsical sort of Alice through the Looking Glass culinary experience that will delight some, madden others. So now I consider that you've been fairly warned: you come to this restaurant as much in search of entertainment as you do to eat.
  Our first course, a sampler plate, was attractively presented on a piece of black slate and included a canape of excellent duck foie gras on spice bread with a strawberry slice, a little ramekin of lobster bisque, and a bit of drama when the owner painted a corner of the plate with truffle oil a table and then dispensed us each a rosette of foam.
Foie gras on spice bread
  This was nothing compared to the performance of the main course, however. Wearing black sunglasses, the owner heated large square pieces of slate with a blow torch and then served us another sampler that included a superb Vietnamese style veal stuffed ravioli topped with foie gras and flamed with Armagnac for me, and a lobster ravioli with seaweed pearls, olive oil and black truffle for David, and for both of us, little bowls of Pho (his wife and fellow cook Thu-Ha was born in Vietnam), a slow-cooked egg yolk in a china spoon with seaweed pearls (lots of pearls here), and a delicious wasabi spiked gratin dauphinois (great idea). All rather odd, but also a lot of fun and unexpectedly tasty.
  The star of the counter clockwise cheese course that began with Roquefort foam (lots of foam here) and ended with chevre, was a millesime Comte, and then a dessert sampler with a good crunchy chocolate pastry and macadamia nut mousse with caramel being the standouts. Finally, for the curtain call, an "aphordisiac potion" that left me puzzled and seemed rather impotent, perhaps a good thing under the circumstances.
  Through the meal, Desrousseaux de Vandières poured a suite of excellent wines to suit each course and his service was velvet but without being coy. So would I go back? I'd love to try the reasonably menu decouvert at 39E, since it begins with the same very good foie gras and lobster veloute and then offers a choice of three different hamburgers--veal with foie gras and black truffles, duck with asparagus points, or the quite intriguing ecrevisses (crayfish) with mache and black truffles, and this is also the kind of place where you know you'll have fun initiating someone who's never been before.
  Back through the looking glass into the muggy Parisian night, we agreed that it had been a lot of fun and chastely set off for our respective beds.
  For more on this highly unusual place, take a peak at this video: http://www.restovisio.com/restaurant/mystery-cuisine-130.htm (Just in case you were wondering, the chef has cut his hair since this clip was made)
Mystery Cuisine, 37bis rue Montpensier, 1st, Tel. 01-40-20-03-02. Metro: Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prix-fixe menus 39 Euros, 59 Euros, 99 Euros.
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  As someone who deeply loves Italian cooking from all regions of that country, I've become habitually wary of any recommendation for a good Italian restaurant in Paris. Why? Because for rather unfathomable reasons, the Gallic take on Italian food is almost invariably disappointing. I mean, who else but a Frenchman would dream of adding creme fraiche to risotto?
  So it was with politely subdued skepticism that I decided to follow up on the ecstatic report of a friend who lives in the neighborhood and joined another Italian food loving friend for dinner the other night at Rossi & Company, a new Neapolitan salumeria just off of the heaving and very trendy rue Montorgeuil. I arrived first, and was almost taken aback by the warm welcome from Marco Rossi, the handsome Naples born proprietor. I decided to have a glass of white wine while I waited for my friend, and Rossi let me taste a delicious and unusual Sicilian white made with chardonnay and albanello grapes, before pouring. Though it was a very warm night, I instantly felt at ease in this pleasant little place, where much of the menu is on display in a glass case and they're only a few mosaic topped tables.
  When Nadine arrived, we moved to one of the two sidewalk tables and after serving us cherry-tomato bruschetta, Rossi explained his brief menu, telling us that he personally imports almost everything he serves directly from Italy. We decided to start with the mixed antipasti platter, and it was excellent, with tasting portions of creamy mozzarella di buffala, fleshy green olives and fat caper berries, garlicky sauteed mushrooms, octopus and squid salad, pickled zucchini, grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, stuffed artichoke hearts and garlicky sauteed mushrooms. We were enjoying this feast when Rossi returned to the table with a big open crate of fat squat purple eggplant, excitedly telling us that they came from Naples too, and that he'd ordered them to prepare eggplant Parmigiana for the painter Fernando Botero.
  "He's just adorable," said Nadine when Rossi left to bring the eggplant back inside, and she was right. It's rare to meet anyone who takes such pride in his produce and his cooking and who also so eagerly wants his guests to enjoy themselves. Our main courses were wonderful, too. The only fault I could find with my linguine alle vongole (baby clams) was that I could easily have a portion twice the size of the one I was served, and Nadine loved her thick salmon steak on a bed of black venere rice with zucchini.
  Chatting with Rossi again over very good espressos, he told us that he has family in Brooklyn--a branch of the family emigrated a century ago, and showed us a picture book about New York's Little Italy with a photograph of an Italian bookstore founded by his family called Rossi & Co on Mulberry Street. A complimentary lemon granita ended the meal, and Rossi proudly displayed the wonderfully dimpled and gently perfumed lemons he imports from the island of Prochida in the Bay of Naples. A delightful evening and a very good meal, so now I have two Italian restaurants that I can recommend in Paris, the other being the excellent but tough to get into Caffe dei Cioppi. 
  
10 rue Mandar, 2nd, Tel. 09-54-96-00-38. Metro: Etienne Marcel. Closed Sunday. Lunch menu 14.90 Euros, Average a la carte 30 Euros. 
 
Saturday
Jul172010

SUMMER READING: "Sunday Soup" by Betty Rosbottom, and "Chef" by Jaspreet Singh, and A Secret Garden in Paris

  For me, one of the great pleasures of summer is having more time to cook, and the first thing I do when I'm a weekend guest at someone else's country house or I take up residence in a vacation rental is attack the cookbook shelf. Last summer, I spent ten days on the Greek island of Paros, and the magnificent house in which we stayed came with not only an amazingly well-equipped kitchen--the full battery of All-Clad cookware and Kitchen-Aid blender and mixer made me almost as wildly happy as the sweeping views view over the Mediterranean, but several shelves of Greek cookbooks, all of which I read cover to cover. My favorites were Modern Greek by Andy Harris, Real Greek by Theodore Kyriakou and Charles Campion, and The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas, and the recipe for Greek wedding pasta (with chickpeas, spinach and feta) that I found in Real Greek has become a firm favorite.

  This summer, my favorite cookbook is Sunday Soup, a beautifully illustrated volume with some sixty soup recipes by syndicated cooking columnist and frequent Bon Appetit contributor Betty Rosbottom. During her long career--she ran a cooking school in Columbus, Ohio, and now consults for another one in Western Massachusetts, where she currently lives, Rosbottom has developed a wonderfully companionable but flawlessly professional writing style, and she's a superb easygoing but very talented cook, too.

  I came across this book at the country house of friends who have a pretty old farmhouse just outside of Provins in eastern France, and on a rainy afternoon while everyone else was napping upstairs, I decided that Rosbottom's French lentil soup with garlic sausage would be a perfect dinner and got to work. This easy and clearly explained recipe turned out beautifully and was a big hit later that day with a houseful of three tired children and three equally weary adults. With a green salad, a baguette, a cheese tray and an easily made rhubarb tart, we ate very well indeed.

 The next day, the sun was back and we headed into Provins to go to the wonderful market there. Knowing that my hostess hates to cook, I volunteered to shop for Sunday lunch and dinner (one way of making sure you eat well), and after buying a butterflied leg of lamb to marinate all afternoon before grilling for dinner, I came across a stand that was selling canteloupe at 5 for 2 Euros and decided that we'd start with Rosbottom's Chilled Melon Soup. All I need was 2 medium canteloupes, 1 honeydew, some limes, sugar, a bunch of mint and a blender, so this was a snap decision for our first course, and served with fresh rosemary and country ham foccacia, it was a big hit (everyone loved the lamb and the wheatberry, tomato, basil, green onion and feta salad I made, too).

  Returning home to Paris, I ordered several copies of this book--it's an ideal house gift--and am now looking forward to trying Rosbottom's Cold Weather Potato Chowder with Caraway Cheese and Creamy Stilton Soup with Sauteed Pears this Fall.

  My two favorite kinds of shopping are for food and books, and there's nothing that's more fun than to load up on novels that will keep me company during an afternoon nap following a dip in the Mediterranean or, even better, keep me up all night nursing a glass of ouzo. 

  Since I'm going back to Paros in August, I did some avid book shopping in London a few weekends ago, and unfortunately, I've already finished Chef by Jaspreet Singh. This beautifully written novel by an Indo-Canadian is an ideal summer read for anyone who loves to eat and loves to cook, too. Set in the Kashmir region, it tells the moving and unexpected story of Kip, who works as chef to an Indian general who is stationed in this beautiful but troubled--India and Pakistan have been quarreling over the border here ever since the partition of Pakistan from India--region with tremendous grace and elegance, and it's a lot of fun that Indian cooking plays such a major role in the novel.

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   Anyone looking for a secret garden in which to spend a warm afternoon in Paris, might enjoy the beautiful gardens of the Musee Rodin in the 7th arrondissement, which are open to the public from Tuesday through Sunday, 10am-6pm, with an admission fee of one Euro.

  Looking for a breathe of fresh air last week, I decided to hide away here for a couple of hours between appointments and was very pleasantly surprised by the charming summer-only cafe terrace that's shaded by huge chestnut trees. The cafe menu is simple but pleasant, with light dishes like a smoked salmon sandwich with horseradish cream and cucumbers, a goat cheese, tomato and basil tartine (open sandwich) on Max Poilane bread, and a very good chef's salad. It's hard to spend more than ten euros for lunch, and this is a perfect place for a timeout during a day of shopping or sight-seeing.

Cafe Terrace, Musee Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 7th, Metro: Varenne.

 

 

 

 

Friday
Jul092010

LA GAULOISE, Bistro Blues: C-; and an Excellent Lunch at SPRING

 

  Meeting friends for lunch, I was looking forward to a good meal at La Gauloise, a long-running bistro in the 15th arrondissement where I've had some wonderful meals in the past. On a very warm day, they were sensibly tucked away in a shady corner of the large outdoor terrace in front of the restaurant when I arrived, and our first order of business was to order a bottle of Bandol rose, which is great summer drinking because it has a lot more character than most other modish roses. 

 Studying the 28 Euro lunch menu, I dipped a soggy cucumber stick in a little pot of herbed creme fraiche, and quietly noted that it had no taste at all, a warning signal as it turned out, since the meal that followed was dishearteningly mediocre at best. I started with a dish that could have been wonderful--pot au feu vegetables with a coddled egg and a sharp mustard sauce, while the others went with gaspacho they judged disappointing, and marinated herring, which I found well cooked but underseasoned. Meanwhile, if the accompanying egg was perfectly cooked runny, my vegetables had almost no taste whatsoever. Next up, steamed salmon (bland), chicken (dry), and, for two of us, boeuf bourguignon, a dish I crave whatever the weather. 

  At its best, this brilliant standard bearer of French cooking is tender, redolent of wine and completely irresistible. Here, the sauce was decent but the beef was stringy and dried out, almost as though it had been cooked independently of the sauce, which even made me wonder if a) it hadn't been assembled at the last minute, and b) if the sauce had been made on the premises. 

 I finished this lackluster meal with some Ossau-Iraty with black cherry jam, and had to send it back immediately, since the salad was a little clump of wilted, partially rotten leaves. When the plate returned, I ignored the new salad in favor of the cheese and found it completely tasteless. The others enjoyed their chocolate mousse, which was very good, but none of us would return to this restaurant before the kitchen starts to make a real effort in terms of the quality of both its produce and its cooking.

La Gauloise, 59 Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, 15th, Tel. 08-99-69-81-79. Metro: La Motte Picquet Grenelle. Lunch menus 22 and 28 Euros, Avg a la carte 45 Euros. Open daily.

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  Yesterday, it was with a mixture of excitement and apprehension that I met friends at the newly opened and much anticipated Spring, chef Daniel Rose's superb looking restaurant in the rue Bailleul. I've missed Rose's cooking ever since he closed his little place in the rue de la Tour d'Auvergne near me in the 9th arrondissement, and have been following the birth of the new place with keen interest. 

 In the Metro on the way to lunch, however, I couldn't help but hoping that the food would be as good, or even better, than I remembered it. Well, let me stop right here and say that you should pick up the phone and book here immediately: Spring, 6 rue Bailleul, 1st, (33) 1-45-96-05-72. springparis.blogspot.com. This place is going to be taken by storm and one of the best things about lunch yesterday was that I was able to make a dinner reservation in person for next week, which is when I'll do a proper review.

 Our lunch as privileged guinea pigs was sensational. Rose plans to build his lunch menu around bouillon with different garnishes (pigeon, grilled chicken, baby vegetables from Joel Thiebault), which you can then expand with a variety of small plates according to your appetite. As he explains, the bouillon is meant to be "restaurant," or restorative, and also channel the fact that the original restaurants in Paris specialized in bouillon.

  We started with melon with garlicky lomito (cured pork loin) and lime zest, a perfect summer palate teaser, and then ate smoked eel with gently pickled baby eggplant, flash grilled shrimp on a bed of baby fennel salad, trout with avocado slices and coriander flowers, and then the best bouillon I've ever had in my life--deep, ruddy, potent and profoundly soothing, with grilled chicken and tiny vegetables. Desserts were superb, too, including a brilliant preparation of raspberries in a light cool syrup of lemon verbena and white peaches, black cherries with fresh almonds (sublime combination), and a deconstructed lemon tart with chocolate shortbread crumbs. All told, it was damned good meal in a stunningly attractive space, and most of all, it was really fun, with a great soft soul soundtrack in the background, terrific wines--an Alsatian pinot noir (I was dubious about this one, but it was terrific) and an Austrian Gruner Vertliner, and the pleasure of watching the kitchen team work in their brand new open stainless steel kitchen. 

  A few weeks ago, Rose told me that he wanted to reboot Paris restaurants for the 21st century. Well, he has, and I can't wait for dinner next Saturday night.

 

Thursday
Jul012010

LA TOUR D'ARGENT, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, B+; LES BANQUETTES, A Could-do-Better Bistro, C+

 Walking to lunch at La Tour d'Argent from the Metro station at Maubert-Mutualite, I found myself so lost in thought that this post might never have seen the light of day if a strong-armed and quick-witted old lady hadn't yanked me back up on the pavement from the path of an oncoming van delivering butter and eggs. It was a hot June day, and after waiting a half hour at Sevres-Babylone because of yet another pointless RATP strike, I was puzzling over  a mysterious and unsettlingly sweet whiff of linden flowers when I completely lost track of where I was and what I was doing on the way to one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, La Tour d'Argent. Why? The Place Maubert and environs are profoundly freighted with memory for me. For many years, two of my closest friends in Paris, Anne and Peter, lived just off the place, and we spent many wonderful bibulous evenings in neighborhood restaurants--Al Dar was a recurring favorite, or cooking at home--we loved grilling confit de canard and making pommes Sardalais, that fabulous dish of sliced potatoes and chopped garlic and parsley cooked in duck fat.

  I was also musing over the six meals that I've eaten at La Tour d'Argent during the twenty four years that I've lived in Paris. Actually, it should have been seven meals, because the first time I ever came to Paris, my mother had booked here for an appropriately grand slam first experience of French gastronomy for my two brothers and my sister and I, but when we met my father and sister at our hotel off the Champs Elysees--Mom, the bros and I had been traveling on our own in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany--Dad put his foot down. It was ridiculous, from his point of view, to be spending so much money to feed the children. Mom reminded him that she was spending money that she'd inherited from a benificent great-Aunt she'd never met, but Dad held firm, despite Mom's tears, and we end up in the Pizza Pino at the end of street, where we were served pizzas with the shocking garnishes of pineapple rings (Hawaiian) and a fried egg (say what?). Coming from one of the best pizza regions in the United States, Connecticut, we found these toppings hilarious, and the night was saved, sort of.

  It subsequently took some twenty years before I finally did get to La Tour d'Argent--as a reviewer for an English restaurant guide. I invited a South African girl friend to join me, and she was thrilled, but I arrived worried about the modest budget I'd been given for this grand night out, and was especially apprehensive about the wine list, to wit, would I be able to find anything that we could possibly afford in this huge leather-bound tome. Arriving, I went through a steeplechase of "Bonsoirs" while being escorted to the lift, and then got hit with the buck shot glamour of the dining room when the doors opened. The vast candle-lit room at dusk on an autumn day was absolutely magnificent, and to my surprise, I was shown to one of the coveted corner tables with a full-on view over Paris. 

The view from La Tour d'Argent

  Staring out at Paris--Notre Dame, of course, but also a tiny piece of the Centre Pompidou, and various other monuments, I relaxed--I'd been feeling rather intimidated by this place, and then my friend Amanda showed up, and I made a split second decision and decided to forget about going over budget and just enjoy myself. So we drank Champagne and were nibbling some rather dried out gougeres, when I someone at close proximity uttered a long rolling summoning "Bonsoir" in a beautiful baritone just over my left shoulder. When I looked, I saw a very elegant and handsome older man in a beautifully cut suit with a batchelor's button in his lapel, and dimly wondered who on earth he was. He stood there in a slight bow with his arms behind his back and a bemused but friendly expression on his face. He was obviously waiting for something, but I couldn't imagine what it was, so we both muttered "Bonsoir," and he bowed slightly, said "Bienvenue," and moved on the the next table. And so I met the late Claude Terrail, one of the most celebrated restaurateurs of the 20th century.

  The meal that followed was very pleasant--we frog's legs and mussels in a ginger-scented nage and artichoke heart stuffed with crabmeat on a bed of celeri remoulade to start, then a beautifully cooked canette a l'orange that we'd have been quacks to pass up, since even twenty some years ago, such vieille France masterpieces were becoming hard to find in Paris. But the food was ultimately secondary to the grandeur of being here--the silver-plated water goblets, the impeccable service, the magnificent view, the elegant international clientele, and most of all, the tantalizing sense that this was a very special occasion, which it was.

 Other meals at La Tour d'Argent had their ups and downs gastronomically, but it was always a huge pleasure to dine here for the very rare experience of a profoundly French meal with so much head-spinning ceremony. 

  So on my way to lunch, I was extremely curious to see what I'd find now that Monsieur Terrail senior is gone and new chef Laurent Delarbre has taken over. On a sunny afternoon, the formal dining room reminded me of my Aunt's Park Avenue apartment--you know, a formal space, elegantly decorated, a bit stiff, but the service was just as gallant as I remembered, and Delarbre got off to a good start with delicious little tomato-and-basil canapes in a bright basil coulis. My London pal Tatiana and I studied the menu eagerly, too, and finally decided we'd do a mix of Delarbre's more contemporary creations to start and then add to our numbered postcard collection--every duck served here since 1890 has come with a numbered postcard as a souvenir. Just after we ordered, Andre Terrail, Claude's son and the director of the restaurant, stopped by, and after a nice chat, we decided that there must be some gene in the Terrail family tree that favors full-barrel charm. 

  I liked my thin Wagyu beef scallop rolled around crispy vegetables, but would have liked more the wasabi mentioned on the menu, while Tatiana was very pleased with her sea bass carpaccio, which also needed a big of salt. The Rully 1er Cru "Les Cloux" Jacqueson 2000 that the sommelier suggested was superb with both dishes though, and went down a treat with the duckling as well. The bird came to the table already neatly carved into breasts and legs, which was a big disappointing, since I like the table-side theater of the bird being carved before my eyes. The meat was perfectly cooked, deeply flavored and came in a lush, velvety sauce of its gizzards, and we both loved it. What went missing, though, was some nice crispy skin--curiously, this bird came skinned.

  All told, it was a very good meal, and a precious one as well, since this type of courtly restaurant that's so old-fashioned it's almost tongue-in-cheek, is nearly extinct in Paris. So would I go again? Yes, most definitely, and especially for the 65 Euro lunch menu, which is one of the best buys in town.

La Tour d'Argent, 5 Quai de la Tournelle 5th, Tel. 01-40-46-71-11. Metro: Maubert Mutualite. Avg 250 Euros, lunch menu 65 Euros.  Open Tue 7pm-10pm; Wed-Sun 12pm-2:30pm, 7pm-10pm

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  During this sweltering week in Paris, everyone's been rushing to snag a table in any outside setting possible, so when a friend who lives in the Luberon came up to Paris this week and suggested dinner somewhere near the Gare de Lyon, because she was getting a late train, I called a bistro I'd been curious about for a while, Les Banquettes, and asked if they served en terrasse. They do, and so Sue was sitting at a cafe table with a glass of white wine when I showed up for dinner and very grateful to be outside.

  The actual restaurant has a charming flea-market decor, and service was friendly and attentive from the start. Unfortunately, however, some unnamed problem in the kitchen meant that very little of the chalkboard menu was available by the time we showed up. So we settled for a terrine of red peppers and goat cheese in beet puree--for Sue, and very good, and a coddled egg with bacon and asparagus spears for me. Sue's terrine was tasty enough, but needed salt, as did my single egg, which was hidden at the bottom of a little pond of hot unseasoned cream with a tangle of slivered carrots, celery and zucchini and a little wad of soggy sprouts standing in for the missing asparagus. it was acceptable but certainly not memorable, and the same could be said the cod steaks we both had as a main course. They came with exactly the same vegetal garnish as my egg and likewise were very underseasoned. 

  Since the setting and service were so agreeable, and they mention on their webdsite that on Tuesday nights they serve aveyronnaises dishes that I love--aligot, truffade, saucisse au couteau, and pascadous, I'd be inclined to give this place another chance if I were in the neighborhood, but it's certainly not worth going out of your way for.

Les Banquettes, 3 rue de Prague, 12th, Tel. 01-43-47-39-47. Métro Ledru-Rollin or Gare de Lyon. Prix-fixe lunch 14 Euros (including a glass of wine), Prix-fixe dinner menus 24 Euros, 30 Euros.

Saturday
Jun262010

Le CRISTAL DE SEL, Sincerely Good, B+; La COUR JARDIN, La Vie en Rose, B-/C+

  One of the conundrums of writing about food in Paris is that I rarely have the opportunity to return to a restaurant I've already reviewed as often as I'd like.* Why? The insistent churn of the new and the fact that I won't do more than five dinners out during any given week--weekends I not only love to stay home and cook but also give my alarming girth a respite, mean that it's hard to get back to places I've already been with much regularity, so I was delighted when a friend who lives in the 15th arrondissement suggested dinner at Le Cristal de Sel the other night. *(the recent exception has been La Regalade Saint Honore, where I've now been almost a dozen times and thoroughly enjoyed every meal)

  I liked it when it opened two years ago, ate there several times, and then it sort of slipped by me. My friend told me that they'd just reopened after a fire, though, so this seemed a good occasion to see how talented chef Karil Lopez's cooking had evolved in the meantime. Lopez trained with Eric Frechon at the Bristol hotel before he went out on his own, and my abiding memory of his food was that it was unusually sincere, delicate and almost maternal, or quite unusual for a male chef.

  Though it was a rather long Metro ride from my digs in the 9th arrondissement, it was nice to come above ground on the rue du Commerce in the 15th arrondissement--it's one of the sweetest streets in Paris and has a real village feel, being friendly, convivial and peaceable. The only real danger in this neighborhood, in fact, is that you might be hit in the head by an expired geranium flower, since several people were busily dead-heading their window boxes as I walked down the street. The last time I'd been out here, I had an excellent meal at the Cafe du Commerce, which serves great steaks and really good frites, and heading to Le Cristal de Sel, the memory of this feed meant that I arrived with a really good appetite, too.

  Arriving, the restaurant looked terrific, with bamboo floors, generously spaced zinc topped tables with comfortable wooden chairs, good lighting, and votive candles burning inside niches gouged into pink blocks of cristal de sel, or salt cristal, probably from Tunisia.

Le Cristal de Sel  Over glasses of a Jean-Luc Colombo Viognier so good we decided to drink a bottle with dinner, we studied the chalkboard menu, which was helpfully explained by Damien, the charming maitre d'hotel here. Lots of things looked good, but I started with shrimp wrapped in crisp phyllo pastry and served with a delicious Tandoori spiced mayonnaise and a lively little salad of fresh herbs and Madame C went for the crab lasagna, which had also tempted me and was terrific--perfectly dressed crabmeat with fava beans and fine matchsticks of Granny Smith apple that shot the dish through with a pleasant tanginess. Next, langoustine filled ravioli in a foamy nage on a bed of buttered cabbage for me--a dish that's at once comforting and quietly luxurious, and perfectly cooked gray mullet in a brilliant sauce of rosemary honey with green asparagus tips and squid rings for Madame C. 

  Both of these main courses were not only delicious, but served as a perfect foil to our chatter about living in New York City in the early 1980s when the subway cars were still covered with graffiti and both of us were completely broke. C worked for a famous fashion designer with an insatiable appetite for both cocaine and Latin men, and I toiled in a niche on East 50th Street as the editorial assistant to Random House editor Joe Fox, one of the most brilliant and charming men I've ever met. Joe used to refer to the letters I typed for him as my "canvasses" because they were often so thick with White-Out, the correction fluid used for typing mistakes, of which I made many and also generously gave me the review copies of every book the company published, a privilege of being an editor. I'd like to think that it never occurred to him that I'd run them downtown to the Strand bookstore for weekend money, or at least until the shock horror day when I showed up with a big bag of books to sell and found myself standing in front of his son, who'd just gotten a job there. "Oh, Hi Alec--Books to sell?" he said, and I fled. In any event, shared memories of how we'd both once subsisted on Progesso brand canned lentil soup only served to make this excellent dinner taste even better.

  C finished up with fromage blanc from Bordier in Saint Malo, which came with a choice of homemade jams--Lopez loves making jam, and I had a nice aumoniere (fancy name for a crepe folded like a purse) filled with apples that had been cooked in salted caramel, a wonderful dessert. All told, a very good meal, and I hope I'll be able to get back to this charming restaurant again sometime soon.

Le Cristal de Sel, 13 rue Mademoiselle, 15th, Tel. 01-42-50-35-29. Metro: Commerce. Lunch formulas 15 and 18 Euros, a la carte 40 Euros.

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  I love summertime in Paris, and one of the things I like best about it is the full-barrel enthusiasm with which Parisians take to dining outdoors whenever they can. Paris does outdoor dining than any of the other large cities that I know well--New York, Boston, London, Prague--too, because it not only has wide sidewalks but is truffled with secret gardens and courtyards. 

  One of the prettiest ones is the interior courtyard of the Hotel Plaza Athenee, a charming aerie with marble floors and ivy colored walls punctuated with tomato red window awnings where a surprising number of birds (tape?) provide a chirpy aural backdrop.

 La Cour Jardin at the Hotel Plaza Athenee  

  During the summer, a seasonal restaurant called La Cour Jardin sets up shop here, and on a warm night, it's a very pleasant if predictably pricey place to dine. Working with executive chef Alain Ducasse, La Cour Jardin's chef Sylvain Fouilleul does an appealing Mediterranean themed menu of the sort of simple summery dishes that make for great warm weather dining.

  Stopping by for dinner the other night, I loved my terrine of heirloom tomatoes with fresh basil and a delicious cartridge of Rove (a fresh goat cheese that's produced just outside of Marseilles), and my glamorous friend enjoyed her lobster salad, too. The latter was composed of perfectly poached medallions of lobster and a huge thatch of herbs and greens that were intriguingly garnished with oven-dried lobster roe, but which might otherwise have benefited from slightly more assertive seasoning.

  Our main courses were excellent, though, including goujonettes (strips) of John Dory with delicious stuffed baby vegetables for me and baby sole meuniere for my friend. We shared a curious declension of raspberries for dessert--raspberry compote, a raspberry glazed beignet, and a raspberry milk shake for dessert, and thoroughly enjoyed both an excellent bottle of William Lefevre Grand Cru Chablis Les Preuses and the cheerful, eager young service here. 

  As I mentioned, this place is expensive, but as habitually frugal as I usually am, I have to admit that a little extravagance is occasionally bracing.

La Cour Jardin, Hotel Plaza Athenee, 25 avenue Montaigne, 8th, Tel. 01-53-67-66-65. Metro: Alma-Marceau. Average 100 Euros.