Trip Report – Birthday Week in Paris (long)
I returned last week from Paris. The occasion was a “significant” birthday, so I chose to indulge in a week of drinking, dining and culinary debauchery. My choice of restaurants was influenced largely by the postings on this board, but I did use other sources to supplement and cross reference. Home base for this trip was a rented apartment in the 7th – a quiet residential area with a magnificent view of the Tour Eiffel.
Sunday – we arrived early, so we checked into our apartment and dropped off luggage (our traveling companions’ luggage unfortunately did not arrive until Tuesday). After a trip to the local boulangerie (in what was to become a daily ritual), we made it to the rue Cler market to take in the sights and smells. I was in cook’s heaven. Fresh meats, produce, fish, and cheese lined the streets. Unfortunately, since I planned to have dinner out every night, I limited my purchases to cheeses, coffee, Charcuterie, and the like. With ingredients like these, I wondered how Parisians can justify meals out; although after seeing the small kitchen in our rental (which was actually very well furnished), I understood the challenges of gourmet cooking in such a small space.
Afternoon, we headed to Marais for a light lunch and shopping for essentials for our friends. We had a quick lunch in a local café – Le Preau – which was a good entry for the first day.
Dinner at Fish – we had eaten here on our last trip to Paris, so we knew what to expect. By 7:30 the place was filled with English speakers. Entrees included fois gras, and pumpkin soup with chanterelle mushrooms. The mains included mille-feuille of lapin, braised beef cheeks and loup de mer with risotto and cepes. It is obviously mushroom season, so cepes figured prominently in many of our meals. Desserts of pear and apple crisp, citron tart and panna cotta finished the meal. As both I and my traveling companion are wine hounds as much as chow hounds, wines played prominent roles in most meals. Here we had a bottle of 2001 Gangloff Cote Rotie – which was drinking perfectly.
Monday – We had scheduled cooking class at Le Violin d’Ingres in the morning. This included hands on prep along side the chef in the kitchen. Our menu for the day included cream of pumpkin soup (another seasonal favorite), quail stuffed with fois gras terrine and served with cepes and fingerling potatoes sautéed in the pan juices and a dessert of apple tart. This was a great way to see the inner workings of a Paris restaurant kitchen, get some hands on experience and new recipes and end the experience with a fine meal.
Dinner Monday night was at Ze Kitchen Gallerie. After hearing much about the inventive cuisine and the small plate/tasting format, the actual experience was a bit of a let down. Starters included a pork croquette in which the dominant flavor was cilantro rather than the pork itself, pumpkin soup (again) this time served with ris de veau, and a tempura plate including soft shell crab. Mains were waygu beef which was both braised and served as a steak, scallops, and razor clams and monkfish. Wines for the night included Chablis and a Mont Redon Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc. Desserts were mainly variations on a theme of sorbets and fruits. I chose to drink mine. Individually, the components were well executed, but the meal never came together in a cohesive way.
Tuesday – After waiting for their luggage to arrive, as promised by Air France “between 10 and 2”, we met traveling companions for a late lunch at Willi’s wine bar. By 2:00 we were seated, and closed the place down for lunch. This was a return visit to Willi’s, so we knew to expect good basic food at a reasonable price and were not disappointed. Starters of salad with quail and tuna tartare were well executed. Mains included a very good roast chicken served with vegetables, pork glazed with honey and spices and cod with risotto. As would be expected, wines were good and a great match for the food.
Dinner at L’ami Jean. OK – I had heard tables were tightly packed, but had no idea I would be literally elbow to elbow with neighbors. I believe we were the only English speakers there, and got plenty of curious looks. This was the wrong night to forget my Marling Menu Master, and servers were not overly helpful, so we took a few wrong turns on our selections. None of my dining companions was willing to share the fois gras for 2 (and even I have limits), so I had to forgo that experience. Ris de veau were “out of season” and unavailable. Entrees included sautéed cepes, quail, seafood cannelloni with cepes, and seafood soup. My wife proclaimed it the best soup she has ever eaten – a cross between a soup and lobster bisque. Mains were braised veal cheek and tongue, pork steak and scallops. The best dish we did not order, and the one that gave me dinner envy, was the hare braised in blood served to the table next to us. Lesson learned here is to take time with the menu and insist on explanations for unknown dishes. Of course, we finished off the meal with Riz et Lait and were not disappointed. Exceptional wines included Daggeneau Pouilly Fume and Giles Barge Cote Rotie. All in all, this was quite a memorable experience.
Wednesday – After a day trip to Versailles, we returned to the area around Les Halles for a quick pizza lunch before heading to the Pompidou center. This was a niece change of pace from previous meals – good, cheap, filling, but unremarkable.
Dinner at Le Chataubriand (with attitude). After hearing about difficulty making reservations and several unsuccessful attempts on my own, I used the concierge service recommended by apartment rental company. She was able to secure and confirm reservations, but good thing I kept copies of my correspondence with her on my blackberry. Upon arrival, the manager’s seating chart did not show a table with our name on it and he insisted we must have made a mistake because there were several restaurants by the same name. After showing him correspondence, he rechecked his reservation book and “found” our booking. Maybe this had something to do again with us being only English speakers in the house or could be status quo for this establishment. The only dinner option was 45 euro prix fix menu, but each dish was a winner. After making adjustments for wife’s aversion to fungi of all sorts, dinner consisted of sautéed prawns with green radish salad, calamari with Japanese radish and roasted baby horseradishes (wife proclaimed this as best calamari she has had – tender and flavorful), perfectly executed filet of loup de mere, boeuf carrot, cheese plate and chocolate dessert. We consider ourselves knowledgeable about wine, but list was largely composed of small producers unknown in the US. We went with the staff recommendations and were not disappointed.
Thursday (THE BIG DAY)
Lunch at Le Cinq – First of all, I have to say that the recommendations of this board were spot on. I made the decision to have one special meal and was not disappointed. After hearing so many reports of starred restaurants not living up to expectation, I was apprehensive about choosing one.
The room was magnificent, and we were seated at a corner table large enough for 6. All staff was gracious, friendly, and professional – without a hint of the attitude we received at other restaurants. Lunch was a 3 and a half hour affair and the pacing was perfect.
Wives chose from the menu du jour, but I and my traveling companion went a la carte. Somehow, I was given a menu without prices, so my choices were unconstrained by economic considerations.
We started the meal with amuse bouche of pumpkin soup, mushrooms and sable served on blini – and a bottle of 1996 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchhill.
A la carte entrees included truffles 3 ways – served with a carpaccio of veal, over truffled mashed potatoes surrounding a coddled egg and shaved over a cream of truffle soup. I chose the fois gras seared with ginger over gingerbread and accompanied it with a perfectly matched Tokay. Other diners chose entrée of oysters, clams and asparagus.
Main courses were a huge veal chop served with the remainder of the white truffles from entrée, wild venison tenderloins, scallops and blanquette de veau. The wine was an excellent bottle of 2001 Chave Hermitage.
I chose the cheese plate for dessert, leaving choices up to the professionals and was not disappointed. Other desserts included profiteroles and chocolate cake – both topped with gold leaf.
We received an additional plate of sorbets and post desserts too numerous to mention. I ended the meal with a glass of 1996 Chateau d’Yquem. A fitting end to a decadent dining experience. Expensive at over 1400 euro for four, but worth every cent.
Wife and I took a quiet walk around the neighborhood before dinner to try to work off the excesses of lunch. Stopped at a café on rue Cler for the mandatory glass of Beaujolais Noveau. It received an acceptable rating of “didn’t suck” and was much better than the swill we get back in the states.
Dinner – After lunch at Le Cinq, I figured we needed a lighter dinner and attempted to secure reservations at Frenchie. After many failed attempts to make reservations (the times I did get through, I was told to call back one week from the date), we chose Au Bon Accueil. The best thing about the restaurant is that it was around the corner from where we were staying, so we did not have to make the 15 minute trek to the metro to which we were becoming accustomed. Maybe it was the fact that we had just eaten what is possibly the best meal of our lives, or perhaps it was an “off” night, but this was the least impressive meal of the week. Everyone but me ordered from 31 euro menu. By 8:15, and with many tables as yet unfilled, they had already run out of the beef main dish, so we had to draw straws to see who would get the one remaining portion. Starters include salad, parsnip soup, and terrine of wild game (authentic, as I removed several pieces of shot from the terrine); mains were the one remaining dish of braised beef, and roasted cod over mashed parsnips. I went to the a la carte menu for ris de veau meuniere. It was so salty as to be inedible. My taste buds were angry and screaming for relief. The one bright point of the meal was the now ubiquitous and universally available molten chocolate cake; however, this was perhaps the best version I have eaten.
Friday – The end is near
Dinner at Le Gaigne –
Travel companions got better offer to meet acquaintances at their local favorite Le Machon d'Henri in 6th, so wife and I had a great meal at Le Gaigne. Since we had made early reservations for our last night in Paris, we secured a quiet corner table in this small, intimate restaurant. We both chose the 38 euro prix fixe menu, which was perhaps the best value of the week. First course was chicken and fois terrine with spiced chutney, followed by chestnut soup with vegetables and thinly sliced walnuts, scallops over braised leaks with quinoa, wild venison served 2 ways and dessert of fruit pastry (cross between a turnover and a sautéed crepe) with quince puree. We chose a premier cru burgundy rather than the wine pairings, and it was a good match for all dishes.
All in all, it was a great trip, and everyone is looking forward to a speedy return.
re: John Talbott
John, I always think ZKG is a qualified recommendation and it is important to understand the diners frame of reference. It doesn't surprise me that it polarises opinion; in a Paris paradigm it has obvious appeal, but for diners from countries, where this style of food is relatively common, it often fails to excite.
I suppose you're right, Phil, but since I have friends in and myself eat enough in NYC and California, I'm not sure Ze duplicates what my buddies say they cannot get there but can in Paris. There's something about French products and cooking that renders Thai, Lao, etc meals here special. I don't think Frenchie or Spring would be the same in London and Chicago either. But hey, people keep saying they don't get it at Ze, so I get the message - altho' I don't get it (anymore) at Regalade or Benoit or l'Ami Jean or Aux Lyonnais, all of which regulars here love and I loved long ago. Lost loves, a sad tale.
re: John Talbott
I agree. I also think we underestimate the psychology associated with food e.g. sangria is a first class drink in a beach bar in Spain but rather disappointing on a windy winter day in Chicago.
As a resident of Paris I would tire of classic French fare and crave more exotic dishes, and this craving led to a diminution of my standards for non-French foods (I don't think it is the produce it is the novelty value of the cuisine).
I suspect the same will happen in reverse here in Sydney and I will rave about average French food because I miss Paris i.e. I crave l'Ami Jean now even though I thought it only OK when I lived in Paris, and best for a rowdy Friday evening rather than a fine dinner.
So to be a good guide it is so important to take context into account, unfortunately a near impossible task on the board.
I stayed in a Paris Perfect apartment once, too, and highly recommend them (although you can get decent hotel rooms that are a lot cheaper). I also tried le Gaigne a couple of weeks ago (the menu dégustation), but didn't like the cooking much, as I found it too spicy, experimental, and basically un-French. The couple at the table next to me were thrilled with their food, so chalk it up to personal preferences.
Thanks so much for a wonderful report. I too will be in Paris at the end of January for a " big birthday" ( likely bigger than yours) and staying in the 7th in a Paris Perfect apartment ( 4th time, we love them) so your experiences will be most appropriate and valuable to us...we have done Willie's, Au Bon, Ze Kitchen and Le Violin and have Le Cinq as a definite and Gaigne on our " maybe " list ...you have helped with our choices as we seem to have similar palates..many thanks and nice job !