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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.

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Entries in Restaurants in Les Halles (2)

Friday
Apr202012

THE BEEF CLUB--A Mis-Steak in Les Halles, C-

   For the last year or so in Paris, there's been a sudden curious flowering of 'Anglo-Saxon' (the French often benightedly insist on using this medieval term when referring to almost any English speaking country, even Nigeria) restaurant concepts that run from burger trucks and joints to Upper East Side style dating restaurants (La Maison Mere) to some happily very decent Mexican places, with a couple of tedious mini-pastry trendlets (cupcakes, whoopie pies) thrown in for good measure. Since I love a good burger, I've been delighted by the arrival of La Camion qui Fume and Blend, and generally bemused by the profusion of Caesar salads and cheesecake all over Paris, since in the main, this is a harmless set of trends that mostly bespeak the fact that Parisian Bobos really love New York City.

  After dinner at the new The Beef Club the other night, however, I'm starting to have some serious doubts about what this trend means for Paris. If the food scene in every major city is in constant evolution, Paris isn't every major city. It's much smaller than London and New York, and without the same jumped-up financial sectors as those two cities, there's less money to spin the wheels of the local restaurant industry, which is already struggling for a variety of distinctly local factors like the moronic 35 hour work week (whoever France's next president may be, I hope they'll renounce this daft Ruby Goldberg feint at economics once and for all).

  What this means is that a big trend here has a lot more impact that it would in a larger city with a more lavish expense-account dining culture. A perfect--and rather sorry--example is the fact that almost everytime a neighborhood cafe or brasserie is remodeled these days, it turns up with a faux Costes brothers restaurant style decor. Though they're definite signs Parisians are finally becoming bored by the Costes restaurants, the ripple effect of their success is still being copied everywhere. They were the ones who pioneered the local idea of well-sourced brand-name products instead of real cooking, and they also launched a whole sad battery of recipes that are more about assembling things on plates--salmon tartare, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, etc., or just plain applying some heat here and there than are about the transformational art of cooking. And the new wave of Paris burger restaurants and steakhouses are basically just taking a leaf from the same playbook, since they're all about prestige sourcing, too--meat from star butchers like Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec or Hugo Desnoyer, plus a smattering of tantalizing culinary snobberies like moutarde de Meaux or Ogleshield cheese, and the smart art of grilling.

  So the menu at The Beef Club offers a rather wilting and warning boilerplate of things that are likely to become ubiquitous in Paris, and what bothers me most about this is that they're not French. I'm very far from being a gastronomic protectionist, but I honestly don't understand why the beef served at The Beef Club comes from farmer Tim Wilson's farm in Yorkshire (yeah, yeah, yeah, it's grass-fed and the breeds are different from what you find in France, but so what--give me Bazas beef or Charolais or Blonde d'Aquitaine any day), but most of all I just don't get this completely misbegotten and off-kilter version of a New York City steakhouse cross-bred with some wispy English version of same  and then lightly extruded through a French sensibility. Paris already has several superb steak restaurants, like Le Severo, so why do we need the Peter Luger modeled, super market-researched The Beef Club when what we're really short of in the City of Light these days are good French bistros?

  On the basis of the crowd there the other night--lots of younger affluent but fashionably bedraggled Parisians who checked their iPhones and Blackberries constantly through dinners with which they mostly drank Coca-Cola Light, I am light years away from being part of the target demographic. Still, I might have liked this place if the food had been better than average and the service half-decent. Since starters were expensive and neither original nor very appealing--Caesar salad, Scotch Egg with salad, and grilled rabbit livers, among others, we went directly to the main courses. 

   I had a very sorry 23 Euro "Beef Burger" (as the Brits call hamburgers, a puzzling but precious little beat of verbal snobbery), a tasteless and rather overcooked burger on a stale roll that exhibited almost none of the promised garnishes of "bacon, grilled onions, lettuce, pickles, red leicester, ogleshield and sauce maison au whisky" and a side of ho-hum frites cooked in duck fat. The others had steaks, which were good, but in no way memorable, and we drank the cheapest red on the wine list, a Gigondas at 29 Euros. 

  To be fair, service was doubtless off its game because the restaurant had been reconfigured to accomodate two large tables of French food bloggers, but the amateurish and absent-minded behavior of everyone who waited on us drove Michael and Dorie right up the wall. We glanced at the menu for dessert--cheesecake, bien sur; chocolate mousse with crushed pecans and salted caramel sauce; or a fruit salad on a bed of passionfruit mousse, and decided to pass.

  "I hate this restaurant," the normally sugar-sprinkled Dorie exclaimed while we were waiting for the bill, which a waitress finally deposited on the table with an, "Et voila!" 

  With an an average meal running at least 60 Euros a head at The Beef Club, I couldn't help but comparing this place to La Rotonde, where I'd had dinner a few nights before with Bruno. There, in a grand old dining room with a decor recalling the first-class dining carriages of another era--brass coat rails and fringed silk-shaded lamps, it was a pleasure to sink into an atmosphere so profoundly Parisian. To be sure, tourists fill the glassed in terrace of this historic Montparnasse brasserie, but the low-lit booths in back are still the haunt of a cross-section of Gallic captains of industry and Left Bank power brokers, and the impeccably calibrated service--polite, alert, vaguely deferential and exquisitely wry, couldn't possibly be more old school French, which meant that I just lapped it up.  

  I'd hadn't been to La Rotonde in at least twenty years, and so had almost no memory of the food whatsoever. And truth be told, I wasn't expecting much, because I never expect much from Paris brasseries anymore. So what were we doing here? Bruno was craving oysters, I was hungry for meat, it was late, and we'd just been to a gallery show of a friend's photographs around the corner. So Bruno went with the 39 Euro menu, which brought him six Quiberon oysters, sea bass in preserved-lemon sauce on a bed of wild rice and one of the best millefeuilles I've had in Paris for a very longtime.

  I went with some oysters, too, and then had an outstanding steak tartare made with beef from butcher Hugo Desnoyer and so generously served I almost couldn't finish it. The tartare came with beautiful little mesclun salad and freshly made frites, and even though the ever dieting Bruno wasn't drinking that night in penance for a lot of Sagrantino recently consumed in Umbria, I was able to make myself happy with a little 25 cl carafe of white Macon to start, and then the same measure of a good inky Colombo cotes du Rhone before I forced Bruno to share his millefeuille with me.

  You won't get to eyeball the millefeuille, because our pretty blonde waitress knowingly and neatly divided it in half before she served us, and it looked so good that I immediately devoured my half before thinking to record it for posterity. If the menu at La Rotonde name dropped a bit--the Saint Marcellin was from the cranky La Mere Richard in Lyon, sorbets from Berthillon, veal chop and a few other tasty morsels from Hugo Desnoyer, what I quickly understood was that the quality of this restaurant is so supervailing you really don't even need these hang tags. I can't remember the last time the little playing-card squares of rye bread served with an order of oysters were actually good--they're invariably stale and taste like baked dust, but here the bread was delicious. So the next time I'm hankering after a meaty comfort-food feed, I'll give a definite miss to all of the new 'Anglo-Saxon' restaurants in Paris, and head for La Rotonde, where I'll order the 39 Euro menu, and have the following meal.

1) Terrine du moment de Gilles Vérot

2) Gigot d’Agneau de Lozère (Hugo Desnoyer) rôti aux herbes, jus et garniture

3) Baba au vieux rhum ambré 

I'm really looking forward to it, too.

The Beef Club, 58 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1st, Tel. 09-52-52-89-34. Metro: Les Halles, Louvre-Rivoli. Dinner only, Tuesday to Saturday. Average 60 Euros. 

La Rotonde, 105 boulevard Montparnasse, 6th, Tel. 01-43-26-48-26. Metro: Vavin. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 39 Euros. Average a la carte 50 Euros.

Friday
Oct142011

YAM'TCHA--A Brilliant Encore, A-

   Because I avoid going out to lunch--it's lovely, but takes too much time, and five is the maximum number of dinners out that I'm willing to do during a given week, I don't get back to many Paris restaurants that I've tried and liked as often as I'd prefer. So I made an exception to my life as a shut-in during the day when my freshman roommate from college turned up unexpectedly and called to say that he had a lunch reservation at Yam'Tcha, a wonderful restaurant in one of my favorite Paris neighborhoods, which is that great stretch of ancient turf between the rue de Rivoli and Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement. Despite the fact that the destruction of Les Halles was one of the greatest urban planning disasters any major western city has ever been subjected to, these atmospheric side streets survived untouched and they heave with terrific food shopping--I'll take any excuse to buy a baguette at Julien (75 rue Saint Honore), or browse in the many great boutiques in this neighborhood.

  For reasons having to do with his expense account, which I benefitted from, my friend specifically asked me not to mention him by name, so I'll call him Brad and briefly state that he lives in a large East coast city and works as a money man. His real passion, however, is good food, and when we were kids in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, he was always game to try the off-beat restaurants recommended in the local counter-culture newspaper with me, our favorite being a Polish place in Hadley that doubtless no longer exists but which made some of the best stuffed cabbage I've ever eaten. There was great pizza in Springfield, too, and a better-than-average Chinese place that we liked in Holyoke. Anyway, between white-knuckle meetings with a couple of French banks, he was rightly keen on trying Yam'Tcha during a day-trip to Paris from London, and since it's a real challenge to get a table here, I was thrilled to be dealt in on the fun.

   Arriving, I'd forgotten how attractive this small shop-front place is--old beamed ceiling, exposed stone walls, a pretty Chinese panel of lotus flowers, and also was happy to see that Brad is still as handsome as he was when I was driving him crazy by playing the same Bette Midler record all the time. Since he didn't have much time, we decided on the carte-blanche lunch menu, which includes an amuse bouche, two first courses, a main, and then a choice of cheese or dessert. We also chose the tea-and-wine pairing for this meal--two different types of tea and two glasses of wine, which turned out to be an excellent decision, since the teas were superb and we drank a brilliant white Collioure, one of my favorite wines, and then an exceptionally good Bernard Grippa Saint Joseph.

  As we ate our delicious amuse bouche of slivered broad beans with cubes of smoked tofu, sesame seeds and a light sesame-seed-oil dressing, I gave him the back story on delightful chef Adeline Grattard, who works with a team of three in a tiny glass enclosed kitchen just inside the front door. To wit, after cooking with Pascal Barbot at the brilliant three-star L'Astrance, she headed for Hong Kong and became intrigued by the kitchens of China. We both loved the crunchy, savory beans and the silky smoky tofu, and chatted away, with Brad mentioning that he'd run into Abigail, my freshman year girl friend after a fashion, on the street in Boston a few weeks ago. A beautiful woman from Kansas, she's now the happily married mother of four on the North Shore of Boston and doubtless still rues the day she met me, since John and his girlfriend, and the two of us created a perfect rectangle of frustrated desire for about a year. He was secretly besotted with Abigail, while I was secretly besotted with him. Abigail was very keen on me, and Brad's's girlfriend Lizzie was also carrying a quiet torch for Abigail (she's new a distinguished neurosurgeon in San Francisco). 

 

  "This is wonderful food, such an interesting mixture of great French produce and Asian flavors and cooking techniques," Brad said when he tucked into our first course, crunchy shrimp (from Mozambique) in XO sauce with dried prawns on a bed of almost raw riced potatoes. I loved the mixture of textures and also the umami notes of the XO sauce and dried prawns with the sweetness of the fresh shrimp, which were served with steamed rice flour rolls.

   

   Next up, my favorite dish of this meal, a deeply vegetal and slightly peppery watercress veloute with oysters topped by nearly transparent slices of Bigorre pork. Here, Grattard stayed true to her Burgundian roots, and the soup was also a nice pause from the Asian palate. "You know what's great about this food? It's inventive without being gimmicky or silly," said Brad, and I agreed. Grattard's cooking is deeply personal, gently creative, and unfailingly delicious.

    "You know, I always knew that you liked me," Brad said when our main course, wok-sauteed Bigorre pork with Japanese eggplant in a light soy based sauce with microplaned garlic and ginger arrived. "It was sort of weirdly flattering," he added. I decided a Cheshire cat's grin was the best response. "Of course, now with my little paunch and graying hair, I'm sure I've lost whatever appeal I had in those days...." Bemused, I reassured him that he was wrong, and we dug into the pork--a succulent little rack of ribs and a chunk of filet with a crispy golden skin. It was delicious.

  "Do you remember the time we went to that party at Wellsley where I smoked pot for the only time in my life and had a panic attack?" I'd never forget it. "You were a really good friend, I mean you could have just dumped me, but you took me outside for some fresh air and I calmed down, and the next day we met my parents and ate lobsters at Anthony's Pier Four." Yikes, memories of that frosty pair from Philadelphia's main line were not going to distract me from nettle-flavored Gouda with hot toast, a perfect conclusion to this meal with a last slug of Saint Joseph.

Brad preferred dessert, a perfectly ripe Brazilian mango garnished with blanc-manger, raspberries and passionfruit seeds under a pane of brown sugar, which was served with jasmine scented green tea.

 

  "What a wonderful meal," he said once we'd paid up, and he was enjoying a cigar on the sidewalk outside. And it was indeed an excellent lunch, and one much abetted by really good service. "I can't think of a better basis for a life-long friendship than a love of good food, too," he added, and then I packed him off into a taxi and promised I'd try and get back next summer with Bruno so that he and his charming wife Rosa, a native of Manila, and me can cook up a storm together.

Yam'Tcha,  4 rue Sauval, 1st, Tel. 01-40-26-08-07. Metro: Louvre-Rivoli. Closed Sunday dinner, Monday and Tuesday. Average 75 Euros.