Le Cinq, Saturne, Spring, Chez Denis etc (long...)
Reporting back on our recent trip to Paris with our 12 year old daughter and 17 year old son, both of whom are cautiously willing to try new foods, but are happiest with steak frites. We dined together for four of our six meals, with my wife and I peeling off for dinners alone at Saturne and Spring while the kids picnicked at the hotel. With the exception of Le Cinq, all the restaurants we tried were new to us and selected largely on the basis of careful reading of Chowhound; happily, there was not a clunker in the lot, and our meals at Le Cinq and Saturne were memorably excellent. As a side note, although Paris seemed mobbed by tourists for the Easter holidays, we felt as if we were the only non-French speaking diners at each of our restaurants, except unsurprisingly at Spring, where we felt as if we could have been sitting in a NYC dining room. Our regimen included morning runs for my wife and myself, miles of walking during the days, and light or no lunches (except for Le Cinq of course) which explains how we were able to eat so much at dinner without flagging. The only non-restaurant food I will highlight was the amazing merveilleuse at Merveilleux de Fred, which we happened upon on the rue St Dominique on our way back from the Eiffel Tower: a truly amazing confection of meringue, whipped cream and shaved chocolate, which was unlike any sweet we had ever eaten before. If the concept is exported to NYC, the clunky, leaden cupcake will soon be extinct.
We dined our first night at Jeanne A., an epicerie in the 10th Arr with just a few tables. The vibe was relaxed, the service friendly, the Morgon (Foillard) excellent, and the food good (lamb, artichoke, apple tart) or better (potato gratin.) A perfect, reasonably priced find for a first quiet evening…
Le Boeuf au Courrones in the 20th Arr is practically empty at 8.15 when we arrive, but it fills up over the course of the evening with what appears to be a neighborhood crowd - I'm pretty sure we were the only non-French diners in the place. I immediately like the slightly faded, but very clean ambiance of the big room, and we sit nicely at a banquette; I like even more the prix fixe menu - aperitiff, first course, main course, cheese, dessert, half bottle of wine or water, and coffee for €33 (=$45 including tax and tip). Our Son of course wants the a la carte ribeye at €42 so I agree to split the ribeye for two at €80, but Mom and Daughter order from the menu and we mix and match so that everyone is happy. The food is generally very good - particularly my pate of duck foie gras (included on the menu), Mom's and Daughter's onglet (hanger steak) with caramelized shallots, and the wonderful pommes soufflés, an old fashioned, hard to find nowadays dish of potatoes fried in such a way that they resemble freshly cooked, soft rather than crisp potato chips with air in the middle. We enjoyed our half liter of Brouilly, but our expensive steak is not a patch on Luger's or, truth be told, the onglet.
The portions are very generous (including the cheese plates), the service is excellent, and everyone is in a jolly mood. Le Boeuf au Courrones is a keeper, particularly with the prix fixe menu and cheap and cheerful Brouilly.
Dinner at Saturne was superb. I had reserved seats at the dining bar which afforded us a great view of the handsome Scandinavians in the kitchen. The service was friendly and efficient, and because we were sitting next to each other the noise level was fine. The €60 seven course menu offered no choices, although for a supplement one could order an additional course of ham, vacherin or comte. The food was inventive and unexpected - savories were leek ice cream with four d'ambert dust, a canneloni of watercress draped over a wonderful huge oyster from Normandy, smoked eel with shaved fresh horseradish and pickled onion, sweet, fleshy turbot with grapefruit, and rare pigeon with a mustard sauce. We opted for the 31 month old Comte before desserts and it was superb - shaved into nutty-sweet swaths that melted on the tongue and were even more delicious on Saturne's superb sourdough bread and salty butter. Desserts were less seductive - I'm not a big fan of carrot ice cream and while the chocolate pave in the next course was luscious, I'm not sure why anyone would bother making ice cream from hay or garnish it with dried celery…The accompanying seven wines for €60 were organic and sometimes a bit sour; my favorites were the more conventional Puligny Montrachet, Cotes du Rhone, and Muscat. The portions were properly sized: large enough so that we had more than a few bites of each course to savor, but not so large that we felt stuffed at the end of the meal. In fact, we thoroughly enjoyed the whole wheat madeleine that ended the meal.
For our next steakfest, I had originally reserved dinner through the hotel at Le Severo. Unfortunately, because the concierge at the hotel did not confirm our table until we arrived at 3pm, the restaurant had given it away - a cockup that the concierge blamed on Le Severo, saying that it had never happened to him before; I wonder why then that the hotel took care to ask guests to reconfirm restaurant reservations first thing in the morning…anyway, we got the short end of the stick and given how busy the Easter weekend is in Paris it was not easy to find a substitute: Chez Dumonet and Bistro Paul Bert were both fully booked. But then I remembered always wanting to try Chez Denise, where the concierge found us a table at 8pm. When we arrived we found what could have been a stage set for a French bistro stuck in a time warp: blackboard menus, tables jammed together, framed black and white photographs on the walls, proprietor's hound sleeping by the entry. Amazingly enough, we seemed to be the only American table there. The food was good to very good, but finesse free: Daughter's foie gras terrine was a couple of delicious huge slices surrounded by unctuous yellow fat and Son's pork terrine was in a similar vein; once again, he and I split the Cote du Boeuf which, while of better quality than the other night and served with sinful bone marrow, was cooked too rare (I should have acceded to the waiter's suggestion of “medium”); Daughter's onglet was again more successful, beefy and funky in a wonderful French way, and the mountain of frites were superb; we finished with iles flottante, which was deemed not so successful as the other night, and a baba au rhum, which only I loved - more like a panettone soaked in rum and topped with cream. But what made Chez Denise really special was its clientele: although our neighbors spoke no English, we managed to communicate in franglaise and they seemed to enjoy observing the kids; when they admired the rognons de veau at the next table, their neighbors donated a kidney; while we all agreed that the cervelle at the next table was a bit too adventurous for us, I would happily return for more of that cool Brouilly and to try the enormous portion of lamb with haricots.
My wife and I dined alone the next night at Spring, where dinner is excellent, if not at the same often brilliant level of Saturne (and about a third more expensive). More conventional in its technique and presentation, the meal improved steadily from its disappointing amuses of (over) fried whitebait and watery radishes, served with a good enough anchovy mayonnaise. The first course of raw Normandy oyster and sea bass in a citrus vinaigrette is good, particularly the oyster, but not up to Saturne's bivalve; the sole in a complex, layered lobster sauce that follows is delicious, with a lovely, resilient texture; next some delicious breast of duck with turnips and dates, which is about as good as Saturne's pigeon; and then an excellent dessert of a chocolate cake which is a mix between flourless and brownie, served with hazelnut ice cream and caramelized pears - quite homey and definitely better than the sweets at Saturne, which tried too hard. I drank an excellent half liter of 2003 white poulsard from the Jura, which I preferred to my organic wines from the other evening. For the first time in Paris, we felt surrounded by Americans, including a table of three Kardashian lookalikes who seemed to spend the entire evening texting, Facebooking, or tweeting on their phones, entirely uninterested in their food.
Our final meal was a festive Easter lunch at Le Cinq, which was as wonderful as it had been at my wife's and my dinner three years prior and much more attractively priced. We were greeted by a tray of amuses bouches - two deep-fried Nice olives, a parmesan chip with tapenade, and marinated salmon, followed after a suitable gap by a trio of goat cheese fritter (our least favorite), double shelled fava beans with a cauliflower cream, and a morsel of pear with cinnamon. Then the bread service: first, one small piece of focaccia with a special olive oil from Sicily; then, four different types of rolls (seven grain, boule, mini baguette or a croissant variation) served with amazing butter - both slightly salted and the revelatory seaweed. Son had a kir and I a tiny pour of Lillet blonde on the rocks (ridiculously priced at €23 and €20 respectively). I ordered a superb bottle of 2007 Raveneau Montee de Tennere premiere cru Chablis for €90, not cheap but below what it would cost in a NYC wine store, if you could find it. Very erratically priced wine list which rewards careful mining.
Then the meal proper began. The very reasonably priced €95 luncheon menu offers a choice of two starters, two mains, and two desserts (although Son and Daughter were offered the ability to select dessert from the a la carte menu, which they did). Three of us started with the decadent sautéed duck foie gras (served hot, not chilled as a terrine) with strawberry and rhubard - my favorite preparation of foie gras and very generously apportioned; Mom had the delicious white asparagus, which was not at all woody and was served with delicate small seafood fritters. For our mains, we each had the braised veal shank (aka osso buco) served with a wonderful sauce redolent of orange zest and with discs of bone marrow atop - I've never had better; Mom had the Amberjack fish which was as luscious as toro.
A palate cleanser of lemon sorbet with cream cunningly shaped to look like a white mushroom refreshed our palates and it was onto cheese and dessert (sigh). Son, who had complained bitterly when we denied him his fifth roll, was about to say uncle. But he rallied and was able to enjoy most of his chocolate soufflé served with pistachio cream and green chartreuse; Daughter, who had not been so enthralled by her veal, made short order of her cheesecake, but spurned the accompanying candied carrots - what is it about the French and carrots for dessert? Mom liked her very light meringue with strawberries and raspberries, and my selection of Comte, Vacherin, Roquefort, and goat cheeses from the impressive cart was excellent.
As I recalled from our last meal there, Le Cinq has a strange schtick whereby they give you a glass of flat mineral water from the Black Forest at the end of the meal to assist in digestion. Daughter said it made her tummy feel good so maybe there's something to it…but just in case you need a little something extra to settle your stomach they bring over the dessert cart with chocolates, marshmallows, canneles, and petit fours for the final salvo. Except of course for the boxes of caramels they send you home with.
The service at Le Cinq is remarkable: attentive, anticipatory, and proper, but without a hint of snobbery or condescension; our children, who are accustomed to dining out but not in such rarified surroundings, felt elevated, but comfortable. As an example of how friendly everyone was, our primary waiter, observing us admire the lamb that was being carved at a splendid cart, reminisced about his family's Easter lunches.
So all in all, a splendid trip. Just remember - go to Mervilleux de Fred and be sure to reconfirm Le Severo early!
I just wanted to say that when we took out now twenty-something brood to Paris (when they were 13, 14 and 17) their favorite restaurant by far was Chez Denise, for the same reasons you mentioned. So thanks for the wonderful memories, and for writing such a great report. One of these trips I will make it to Le Cinq!