[Warning: Very long read ahead. If suffering from attention-deficit syndrome, just look through the pictures, and go to the bottom of post for the relevant contact information. Yes my dear readers, this is a 'best of' type of post, lots of secrets revealed]
Laduree is many things to many people. During our honeymoon in Paris in 1998, I came across Laduree's magnificient macaron displays in their windows at Madeleine, was totally enchanted and went back twice to sit in the tiny and beautifully dressed upstairs cafe. The macarons were memorable, and amidst the solidly heavy silver teapots and scents of really good perfume, I listened to husband's, sotto voce, blow-by-blow translation of a wealthy older man propositioning a gorgeous younger woman to be his mistress, oolala.
Since then, Pierre Herme has taken and owned the macaron. Yet Laduree was hardly affected, it is still difficult to get reservations and the staff can be unbearably arrogant. Reason is that they still retain the atmosphere, the total experience of being in a beautiful room for a civilised meal with Visa the only plastic allowed. Me, I go back for their brunches because they do a seriously good pain perdu (French toast made with brioche that soaks up unbelievable amount of milky eggy liquid) and decent scrambled eggs, and represent good value compared to what corner cafes charge for sad industrial-standard breakfasts. Laduree's pastries can be hit and miss, but their three types of croissants are not too bad, and I really love their St Honore. It is a towering confection of puff and choux pastry filled with vanilla custard inside and glazed with brittle caramel, rich yet light, full of contrasts in textures and compostion.
They also have raspberry and chocolate versions. The raspberry version was as delicious as it looks (the side got smooshed in the box) and if anything, was actually better than the classic.
Other alternatives to Laduree: Mariage Freres still remains a firm favourite, especially the outlet near Parc Monceau in the 17th. I love just sitting in the quiet space downstairs, surrounded by palm trees and tea samovars while eating scones with their tea gelees accompanied with their always excellent selection of darjeeling teas. Angelina is reliable for molten chocolate and the best Montblanc pastry in town. It is now part of a big restaurant group and is open every day for business. To jump the always snaking queue for a table, make a reservation for lunch, you will be seated straightaway. Share some foie gras salad and a classic ham-cheese omelette, some times I think these are better than the sweet courses. Touristy perhaps, but don't knock it till you have tried it.
On a recent visit, husband and I shared a platter of shellfish. Belons are flat and minerally, Fines de Claires are plump and creamy, both headily delicious with a glass of well chilled champagne.
This a raw clam. It reminded me of raw chicken and I said so to husband. Even he was disconcerted, he loves clams but had never had them raw, so he made me have first taste. Thankfully it was very good, a little chewy and meaty in texture, but the taste was of sea and umami.
Both of us are suckers for sardines, always tempted to order it if it appears on a menu. Here it was beautifully deepfried, even V was willing to down the heads and tails.
Sole meuniere means to be cooked in the flourmiller's fashion, i.e. dusted in flour and panfried. It is tricky to get right, which is why I almost always order it if is available. This was just nice, not drowning in butter but was crisp enough on the bones that it can be eaten, and not dried on the flesh. Their crepes with orange sauce was decent, but not as extravagant as those in more fancy seafood restaurants with their a la minute flambeing in Grand Marnier and copious amounts of melted butter.
Quickie on classic restaurants: My top 3 are La Biche au Bois for its generous and inexpensive food, Josephine chez Dumonet for the best veal liver and overall enjoyable dining experience (except in high summer when it is sweltering) and Flottes for Flintstone portions of bone marrow before hitting the shops along Faubourg St Honore.
Now we discuss restaurants of the moment. We like Le Chateaubriand a lot, but it may as well be located in the boondocks because it is more than an hour's drive on weeknights. The cooking, by white-hot chef Inaki Aizpitarte, is inventive but accessible, and always interesting. Recommended for adventurous diners, because there is nothing classical served here, excepting some amazing cheese.They are doing so well they will open another restaurant, Le Dauphin, next door.
Guilo Guilo in the Montmarte area is even more of a schlep for us, and out of question for children. Open for weekday dinners only. Diners sit around a counter facing a well-drilled team of young Japanese chefs as they serve a series of Japanese dishes with modern and/or French twists, like hay-smoked tuna, chicken with ox-tongue lapped with raw egg yolk and the best of French and Japanese in their signature foie gras sushi- it costs extra, but is worth it, you will see the chef pan fry and assemble upon order.
Thoumieux gets into this list even though it is a Costes restaurant. One day husband took me to a very pleasant restaurant overlooking Ecole Militaire. It is very spacious, with deep comfortable banquette chairs all round and gorgeous AND efficient waitstaff. Before my first course arrived I told him this was a typical Costes restaurant, and I was right, my salad bowl was perched on a plate embossed with the very name. The food at most Costes restaurant will be afterthought, maybe even after-afterthought in certain outlets like L'Avenue along Avenue Montaigne where it is strictly for watching,and be seen with or as ,fashionable people.
Thoumieux opened in early summer. Located along food-intensive street of rue St Dominique in the 15th arrondissement, it has all the signature Costes attributes plus a really beautiful Art-Deco styled dining room and a menu by star chef Jean-Francois Piege (who is also helming the more upscale and expensive Le Piege on the second floor). That it is open for lunch and dinner every day and situated 20 minutes walk away from our apartment is also another bonus. Their squid a la carbonara substitures frozen squid sliced into 'noodles' and is very good, and very on trend. Most dishes are light on sauces, relying on the beauty of their ingredients. From the dessert menu, I really liked their Churros 'n' Roll, basically freshly fried churros dipped in good chocolate.
So all was well until Le Mini Palais opened. 20 minutes walk away, check. Open every day, check. Unpretentious but eye-pleasing decor due to sky-high ceilings and dramatic window views, check. Very smart service, check. Famous chef (Eric Frechon) to oversee the food, check. Good food based on best of seasonal ingredient, check. Kinder pricing than Thoumieux, check check check!
Le Mini Palais doesn't serve any fireworks, but for uncomplicated good food it does it very well and the crowd knows it. I did not expect to like V's pasta bolognaise but found myself helping her to finish the frenchified version of this italian classic.
This was the dish that made husband vote for Le Mini Palais over Thoumieux. Squid cooked lightly in its own juices and a sprinkling of mild sweet Espelette peppers beat Thoumieux's carbonara version fair and square.
Of course, not everything proceeded smoothly. Iberico pork cheek coated with mild tandoori spices was lovely but accompaniments of shoestring fries were too dry and salty. If they had served it with rice it would have been better. Another dish I liked was cod steamed with ginger, it is exactly like how I would do at home, again, the lack of rice or suitable accompaniment made it a lopsided experience for me.
The French like their desserts like everybody else on the planet, but they are also mindful that it will not be too healthy. The solution? Cafe Gourmand- this is codeword for a cup of coffee and mini-portions of desserts. The apple and raspberry salad was unexpectedly delicious, I will order a full portion next time.
Final section of this post is about Japanese food in Paris. We eat Japanese more often than any other cuisine because it is usually of acceptable standard and is overall a lighter alternative to the local food.
There is a fair number of branches of established Japanese restaurants such as Yen for their home-made soba noodles, Oto-Oto for quite unremarkable food and Nodaiwa for eel dishes.
A fail-safe option would be any restaurant operated by the Isse & cie group. Bizan is their elegant restaurant for sushi and sashimi while the more down-to-earth Momonoki serves tonkatsu and Una Sei has unaju and tempura, all of reasonably high standards. My favourite place though, is at their Workshop Isse which serves a daily (except Sunday) lunch at an amazing 10 euro price- this usually comprises 2 small dishes, 1 main dish with rice or noodles and a soup, all very homemade and healthy, and very filling. They don't take reservations, go early to get a place. The gourmet food selection at Workshop Isse is a wonderful place to pick up really quality artisanal products like soy sauces, sesame oil etc, and even rare stuff like 12 year-old Yamazaki whisky and 70% polished daiginjyo sakes.
For really good fish, we still go to the Comme des Poissons. By day this tiny and basic (no blond wood or contemplative ikebana arrangement, only formica and Ikea stools) sushi counter place is really busy, little wonder as they serve generously portioned sets like a well-stacked chirashi bowl for about 14 euros. Service is shockingly brusque- I have been asked to move places or to hurry up with eating; a friend I brought along could not come to terms with the experience at all, I think she was traumatised, and her experience is not unique judging from many online reviews. However, things are completely different at night. Husband and I have a habit of going for their evening omakase dinners- it is nothing fancy and is a downright bargain at about 75 euros; the chef goes all out to make the best of the daily fish available and everything would be terrific, it is far far better quality than what one gets in so-called best sushi restaurant like Isami, and he will feed you until you wave the white flag. Signature dishes include a wonderfully clear and yet intense fish soup and marinated sardines, always a super treat like a really voluptuous piece of abalone or fat scallop, and finally ending with a slickly glazed unagi sushi. We brought my third sister and her fish-dealer boyfriend for dinner, first apologising for the lack of ambience. He brushed it aside, and declared it the best meal of his trip, even more amazing than Le Chateaubriand!
Still, for hesitant diners, there is an equally worthwhile, though slightly more expensive, omakase experience to be had at refined Juan a few streets away from Comme des Poissons. You have to tell them which menu you want when you reserve, choosing either shabu-shabu or sushi. The chef will greet you when you enter and leave the restaurant. It is calm at night, as they don't serve walk-in customers. Like Comme des Poissons, you won't hear about their omakase meals because it is usually Japanese customers who enjoy it, not the French, so there is little information on the internet. It is obviously not as good as in Japan, but we prefer this kind of experience for dinner than a more demanding (time, attention, money) meal at a starred place anytime. Sit back at the counter, have glass after glass of premium sakes and enjoy what the chef puts out- boiled whelk, impeccable vegetables, mini-chirashi with abalone and shrimp roe, premium sashimi treats, deeply satisfying fish broth and finishing with trio of ice creams and selection of delicate pastries. Everything would be of high quality and cooked by the chef himself, served with quiet pride by a well-coiffed lady dressed in traditional kimono. Go with an open mind, or when you cannot take yet another meal of heavy traditional French cuisine or what could be another pretentious meal at an overhyped trendy restaurant-it will reset your palate and mood.
I don't have much to add about Chinese restaurants. There are still no credible Cantonese places- LiKaFo and Miramar would not even make third-rate in Asia; instead, I usually direct friends to a the always excellent Szechuan place Le Bistro de Pekin. We love the place so much we eat there at least once a week, as I cook less now that we are packing up the kitchen, we have also been getting takeaways from them. For a change though, one could always go to a Hunan restaurant. L'Orient D'or is always packed with local and Chinese customers. The food is good and cheap. Every table orders the cabbage cooked in spicy oil, it will make a convert of even the most die-hard vegetable hater.
The menu is vast, and varied. Scallion green salad is very appetising, and braised tofu with salted egg yolk was quite tasty even though they used surimi instead of crab. What not to order though, is their General Tso chicken- it may be authentic enough and quite spicy for beginners but they are other dishes more worthy of attention in their menu.
This concludes the post and our eating adventures in Paris for the moment. I hope it will be useful for anyone planning a trip here.
L'Huitrier: 16 Rue Saussier-Leroy 75017 Paris T: 01 40 54 83 44
La Biche au Bois: 45 Avenue Ledru-Rollin 75012 Paris T: 01 43 43 34 38
Josephine chez Dumonet: 117 Rue du Cherche-Midi
75006 Paris T: 01 45 48 52 40
Flottes: 2 Rue Cambon 75001 Paris T: 01 42 60 80 89
Le Chateaubriand: 29, avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris. T:01 43 57 45 95
Guilo Guilo: 8 Rue Garreau 75018 Paris T: 01 42 54 23 92
Thoumieux: 79 Rue Saint-Dominique 75007 Paris T:
01 47 05 49 75
Le Mini Palais: Grand Palais, Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 75008 Paris T: 01 42 56 42 42
Workshop Isse: 11 Rue Saint-Augustin 75002 PARIS T: 01 42 96 26 74
Comme des Poissons: 24 Rue de la Tour 75016 Paris T: 01 45 20 70 37
Juan: 144 Rue Pompe 75016 Paris T: 01 47 27 43 51
Le Bistro de Pekin: 38 rue de Ponthieu, 75008 Paris
L'Orient D'or: 22 Rue Trévise, 75009 Paris T: 01 48 00 07 11