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Paris reviews: a Tour Eiffel trio

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  • Moshulu Feb 9, 2006 05:01 PM
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Ever since the last rivet was popped into the Eiffel Tower, this question has haunted the Champ de Mars: where to eat lunch? Here are three simple answers:

Les Deux Abeilles
185 rue Université
open 9-19

Le Sancerre
22 avenue Rapp
lunch and PM drinks

Harmonies Mets et Vins
20 rue Jean Rey
open all the time

No reservations normally needed at any of these places.

Les Deux Abeilles (pron. duhz ahb-ey) is not exactly a stereotypical French lunch place. It’s more like where you would go for brunch on the Upper East Side or in Sausalito. The two smallish dining rooms are noisy and brightly lit with natural light (totally un-French). The menu features soups, fancy salads, deep-dish-style quiches and tarts, and a large selection of marvelous home-made cakes and pies. The salads deserve the special attention of chowhounds, partly because they are intrinsically very good, but also because their quality is such a departure from the standard Parisian rubbish. “Composed salads” have become an international food commodity but, unfortunately, the ones served in 95% of Parisian establishments are simply gross. Most of the time, the lettuce is not very well washed or picked over for slimy dead leaves. Canned corn and unspeakable grated carrots are shoveled on, then gristly chicken and those preserved duck gizzards are added before it all gets doused with bottled dressing. You won’t get anything like that at the Abeilles. But there is another reason for going there: this is one of the top people-watching places in Paris. The French are the world’s most attractive Caucasians (at least the women are, too many of the men being congenitally afflicted with early hair loss). Here you can see the toothsome ladies if the 7th arrondissement, perfectly albeit casually dressed and coiffed, their gestures choreographed but nonchalant (even when brandishing a cigarette), their expressions bespeaking vulnerability and disdain. Chowhounds should come here to enjoy the food and the spectacle but, please, no strollers/tshirts/baseball caps, etc. Better come soon, since the Lord only knows what will become of this place once that hideous Musée du Quai Branly opens next door in June.

If the Abeilles is for Americans who are experiencing an onset of homesickness, Le Sancerre represents the very spirit of small-town France, transplanted into the unlikely setting of the 7th arrondissement. Going in for lunch, one must take a minute or two to adjust to the sudden lack of light, for this is a somber, slightly dingy little place, furnished with dark-stained rustic wooden tables and chairs. There is scarcely a tourist to be seen ever, although the owner is the friendliest guy on Earth, and the service is always relaxed and efficient.

Right across from the entrance is the bar that features (you guessed it) Sancerre wine. Most people are familiar with the delicious white variety, but not everyone knows that the region produces an excellent little pinot noir that goes particularly well with simple food like omlettes or roast chicken. The wines are from several producers, but I recommend the great Alphonse Mellot. The owner and his dog Charlie are hunters so, in the fall and winter, there is likely to be a stew or paté of whatever they bagged the previous weekend. On Fridays there is friand, a sort of delicious meatloaf, but the real reason for coming here is to eat the omlettes. Not one omlette in a hundred in Paris qualifies as the real thing, so it is worth a special trip just to taste the Sancerre’s version. I usually go for mushrooms and/or potatoes.

One more tip: across the street on avenue Rapp is one of the loveliest Art Nouveau apartment buildings in Paris. It is best to admire it during the winter when it is not hidden by leaves.

Harmonies is the name of the restaurant in the hideous Hotel Mercure Paris Tour Eiffel Suffren. Mercure, in turn, is an undistinguished globalised chain of hotels, comparable to Best Westerrn or Marriott. So has Moshulu lost it? Or is this another one of his stupid jokes? Not this time: the food at the Mercure is authentically very good, and a bargain as well. The décor is what you will find in any moderately-priced hotel on any continent, and there is no atmosphere to speak of – just nitrogen and oxygen. But the kitchen prepares exemplary “international” lunch cuisine, derived from traditional French but simpler, fresher, lighter, more imaginative. On recent visits, I had cold beef/vegetable marbré, lightly cooked salmon and haddock tartare, slices of monkfish with sautéed vegetables, a filet of daurade on a bed of onions and artichokes. In fact, seafood seems to be the chef’s specialty. Fish is really the test for any French restaurant since it requires careful preparation and timing. Alas, attention deficit disorder is the most serious problem with French food today. Most of the time, French cooks simply don’t watch what they are doing.

At the Mercure, I like the little touches that make a place special. Instead of the standard basket of awful Parisian baguette slices, they serve freshly-baked crusty hollow rolls coated with sesame or poppy seeds. The napkins are real linen, and there are salt and pepper mills on each table. The wine list is unremarkable but fairly priced. Service is efficient, discrete and attentive (yes, in Paris!).

I’m not sure why the Mercure restaurant is so good. The headquarters of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique is next door and, on any given day you can see the luminaries of France’s fantastically successful nuclear energy programme. The Australian Embassy is the other neighbor, which probably helps. Whatever the reason, this is a great place for lunch. A word of warning, however: the whole area around the Bir Harkeim metro is crawling with pickpockets, and the busy intersection is a major hazard for pedestrians.

Incidentally, just down the rue Jean Rey is the visually striking but otherwise ridiculous Paris Hilton. This noisesome object appears to serve no useful purpose, but not so: it houses the Pacific Eiffel restaurant, which, like the Harmonies, serves good-quality California-style food.

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  1. Thank you for this terrific posting! I immediately shipped it off to my son and his wife in London. They get to Paris when they can.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Pat Hammond

      I drop in to Sancerre whenever I am in Paris and always buy a couple of bottles to take home. After reading some of your reviews, I'm glad to see that you like it!

    2. Thanks, Mosh. I am glad that Sancerre is serving regional fare. I believe Chavignol is in Sancerre too. It's too bad Sancerre can't give a lesson to "Chinon" in the Marais, a restaurant to avoid.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Busk

        Indeed, you can walk from Sancerre to Chavignol, home of the famous cheese. It is there that I first began my investigations of the Great French Mystery: given that there is goat cheese everywhere, how come you never see any goats?

        The Sancerre area is very pretty, somewhat reminiscent of Tuscany. Nominally, the wines belong to the Loire family, but a look at the map will reveal that the country is somewhat closer to Burgundy than it is to the Touraine, which may explain why the red grapes are pinot noir.

      2. Good tips, thanks. My husband and I will be in Paris March 9-18 2007 and we would appreciate any further advice about non-touristy restaurants that have "real" French food/atmosphere at a fair price. We'll do one or two splurge meals, (any advice there?) but otherwise want to find good places where the real folks eat. We'll be using the Metro. Also, any neighborhoods to be avoided by tourists after dark? Thank you.