Excerpt: 'Hungry for Paris'

Hungry for Paris
Hungry for Paris
By Alexander Lobrano
Paperback, 464 pages
Random House
List Price: $16.00

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1st and 2nd ARRONDISSEMENTS . TUILERIES, LES HALLES, BOURSE

Chez Georges

Chez georges is the gastronomic equivalent of the little black dress—unfailingly correct, politely coquettish, and impeccably Parisian. This is why it was no surprise to find ourselves seated next to the affable and slightly owlish Didier Ludot on a balmy summer night. A self-described antiquaire de mode (antiques dealer specializing in fashion), Ludot runs La Petite Robe Noire (The Little Black Dress) and another boutique specializing in vintage fashion in the Palais-Royal. Since he was entertaining a customer, a stylish Park Avenue blonde who gamely insisted that they speak French so that she "might mend the wreckage of what I half learned in college"—much to her credit, her French was good, and much to his credit, his patience didn't fail once during a two-and-a-half-hour meal—Ludot's choice of a restaurant was perfect. Chez Georges is exactly what most foreigners want a bistro to be, which is basically a place where time has stood still on a very French clock (Parisians like it, too, but find it expensive).

Here, the menu is still written out by hand daily and then mimeographed in lilac-colored ink. Brown banquettes upholstered in what the French euphemistically call moleskin but North Americans know as leatherette line both walls of the long, narrow railroad-car-like dining room, and there's a little bar just inside the front door where your bill is tallied and taxis are called. The decor, such as it is, dates back to its founding in the early 1900s and doesn't add up to much more than mirrors interspersed with Gothic columns and a pale tiled floor.

The older waitresses who have ruled the roost for decades are gradually retiring, but the younger staff perpetuate a delightful house serving style based on smiles and solicitude. And most important of all, the menu hasn't changed an iota during the twenty years that I've been coming here. This place remains an unfailingly good address for a trencherman's feed of impeccably prepared bistro classics.

On a warm night, Alice, Bruno, and I raced through a bottle of the good house Chablis and the plate of sausages and radishes that came with a little pot of butter as soon as we'd ordered. Though everyone and his great-aunt is staking a claim to Julia Child these days, I couldn't resist telling them about how she'd taught me to butter my radishes on my first visit to Chez Georges. Invited to dinner by the late Gregory Usher, an American who founded the cooking school at the Hôtel Ritz and a close friend of Julia's, I arrived uncharacteristically early and found Child already seated and alone. I introduced myself and watched in fascination as she buttered a radish and chomped away. Then, after a swig of Sancerre, she said, "The radish is one of nature's most underrated creations." I smiled, and she added, "It's a good thing no one overheard me. When you're my age, a remark like that could land you in an old folk's home. Still, a nicely buttered radish is just the thing to remind any cook to stay humble and simple in the kitchen. Most foods don't really need any improving."

I suspect Child loved Chez Georges for the same reasons I do. Not only is the food delicious, but it's a good spot in which to channel frivolous, flirtatious postwar Paris, the wondrous city that not only made Julia Child into Julia Child but Audrey Hepburn into Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron into Leslie Caron, etc.

Bruno, good Frenchman that he is, ordered a salade de museau de boeuf—thin slices of beef muzzle, a curious crunchy mix of meat and cartilage, which Alice gamely tried, and I went for a sauté of girolles, tiny wild mushrooms, which were delicious, but not garlicky enough. In fact, the microscopic bits of chopped parsley included to make it a real persillade (mix of chopped garlic and onion) alarmed me. No knife I know could have chopped that finely, so suffice it to say I deeply hope Chez Georges isn't starting to take shortcuts, like ready-made restaurant-supply-company persillade, for example. Alice had a good ruddy ratatouille, in which the eggplant cubes retained their shape but had a correctly soft texture, with the lovely addition of a handful of plump capers.

Our main courses were outstanding, too, including Alice's veal sweetbreads with girolles and Bruno's similarly garnished veal chop. Neither was as good as my grilled turbot, a big slab of meaty white fish on the bone with sexy black grill marks like a fishnet stocking. It came with a little huddle of boiled potatoes and a sauceboat of béarnaise sauce so perfect that I polished off what my fish didn't need with a soup spoon.

I couldn't resist the wobbly and wonderfully cratered crème caramel in a fine bath of slightly burnt caramel sauce, while the others ate wild strawberries and first-of-season French raspberries with dollops of ivory-colored crème fraîche, confirmation of my deeply held belief that butterfat is bliss. Just as we'd finished our coffee, the blond waitress of a certain age, a handsome woman with a severe chignon, reappeared; she'd changed out of her black uniform and white apron and was wearing a perfectly pressed pink paneled linen skirt and a matching sleeveless top. She bade everyone good night and went, Cinderella-like, into the night. When we left a few minutes later, our transformation went in the opposite direction, or silk purse into sow's ear, since after several delicious blowsy hours of la vie en rose, our beeping cell phones signaled the impatience of the world outside. This is why I hope we'll always have the delicious antidote to modernity offered by Chez Georges and buttered radishes.

IN A WORD: The perfect all-purpose Parisian bistro and a great place to hunt down impeccably made bona fide bistro classics like blanquette de veau (veal in a lemon-spiked sauce) that are increasingly hard to come by.

DON'T MISS: Terrine de foie de volaille (chicken liver terrine); harengs avec pommes à l'huile (herring with dressed potatoes); foie gras d'oie maison (homemade goose foie gras); escalope de saumon à l'oseille (salmon in sorrel sauce); coquilles Saint-Jacques aux échalotes (scallops sautéed with shallots); grilled turbot with béarnaise sauce; profiteroles (cream puffs) with hot chocolate sauce. ... 1 rue du Mail, 2nd, 01.42.60.07.11. métro: Bourse or Sentier. open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. closed Saturday and Sunday. • $$$

Les Fines Gueules

Wine bars are having a major revival in paris, and this one, occupying a pleasant corner just up the street from the Banque de France, is one of the best. The best is its theme, too, since it serves only the finest pedigreed produce. The butter comes from Jean-Yves Bordier in Saint-Malo, the oysters from David Hervé in Oléron, the bread from the Poujauran bakery in the 7th, vegetables from the lord of the legumes, Joël Thiébault, and meat from the star butcher Hugo Desnoyer; all of the wines on offer are organic.

The beautiful zinc bar announces the vocation of this place, and exposed stone walls make for a mellow atmosphere. Since it's not far from the Louvre, it's ideal for a light lunch, maybe veal carpaccio with shavings of three-year-old Parmesan, a plate of charcuterie, jamón ibérico (the best Spanish ham) with Buratta, a creamy cheese from Puglia in Italy, and then maybe one of the daily specials from the chalkboard menu—cod with fork-mashed potatoes, zucchini, and pleurottes mushrooms; steak tartare made from Salers beef; or fusilli with Gorgonzola sauce. Finish up with a cheese plate, a varied selection of perfectly aged cheeses that might include a chèvre from the Ardèche, Brie, Parmesan, and Roquefort. Friendly service and modest prices add to the pleasure of a meal here, and the restaurant is open daily, although only charcuterie and cheese plates are served at lunch on Saturday and Sunday.

IN A WORD: With a very convenient location, this is an excellent example of the new breed of Paris wine bar. Perfect for lunch or a light, casual dinner. ... 43 rue Croix des Petits Champs, 1st, 01.42.61.35.41. métro: Palais-Royal, Musée du Louvre, or Sentier. open daily for lunch and dinner. • $$

Higuma

I have a permanent, slightly desperate craving for all small stuffed foods—ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, tortellini, pelemeni, Slovenian struklji, anything stuffed. Almost every cuisine has at least one and often many small stuffed foods, confirmation of the fact, I think, that the idea of filling one object with another strikes a very deep primal cord of human pleasure. At any given moment, I'm also in constant, slightly desperate want of all and any form of pasta, and it's this pair of insatiable yearnings that explain why I never miss a chance to have a quick meal at Higuma, a buttercup-yellow-painted Japanese canteen at the end of the Avenue de l'Opéra less than a five-minute walk from the main entrance of the Louvre.

A portion of gyoza, grilled featherlight pork dumplings, comes as a stuck-together regiment of seven, a truly hopeless number if you're sharing. At lunch the other day, I overheard a middle-aged Swedish couple fall into a surprisingly adamant quarrel over who had eaten how many gyoza, and it was all I could do to stop myself from leaning over and suggesting that they order another portion.

Complimenting the gyoza is a full and filling range of Japanese noodle dishes, most of which are served in broth with a choice of different toppings—roast pork, shrimp, tofu, and so on. These dishes are excellent, too, and rounded out with a Kirin or a can of unsweetened Singaporean iced tea, this place offers a quick and deeply satisfying meal in the middle of Paris for a very moderate price.

IN A WORD: Prompt service, a spare but immaculate dining room with bare tables, basic lighting, and quick service. The delicious Japanese comfort food served here makes this a valuable address in the heart of town. Ideal for a quick bite before or after the Louvre.

DON'T MISS: Gyoza (grilled pork dumplings) and noodle soups, including kimuchi lamen; noodles topped with Korean hot and spicy pickled cabbage; and nikuyasai itame, fried noodles with pork and vegetables. ... 163 rue Saint-Honoré, 1st, 01.58.62.49.22. métro: Palais-Royal. open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. closed Saturday and Sunday. • $

Liza

Paris is one of the best cities in the world for anyone who loves Lebanese food. Why? Lebanon was a French protectorate from 1922 to 1943, and the Lebanese still learn French, aspire to sending their kids to school in France, and love vacationing in Paris. Many wealthy Lebanese also fled the country during its recent cycles of turbulence and settled in Paris, which means that the capital has a large, affluent community. The French themselves love Lebanese food, especially mezze, or the assorted hors d'oeuvres that begin most Lebanese meals.

Liza is one of the best of a new generation of foreign tables in Paris that are ditching ethnic stereotypes—in terms of both decor and cooking—for edgy style and culinary authenticity. Located near the old Bourse, this place is a sexy gallery of almost invisibly contrasting tones of ecru and ivory rooms with dark parquet floors and perforated white steel tables that were imported from Beirut, owner Lisa Soughayar's hometown.

The kitchen shows off just how dazzlingly good and varied Lebanese cooking can be, with mezze and regional dishes that go beyond the usual standards. The best way to enjoy this restaurant is to come as a group, so on a warm summer night Bert and Noël, friends who live in Los Angeles, joined Bruno and me for dinner. For starters, we loved the lentil, fried onion, and orange salad; the kebbe, raw seasoned lamb, which is sort of a Near Eastern take on steak tartare; grilled haloumi cheese with apricot preserves and moutabbal (a spicy mash of avocados), and fried shrimp. The main courses were excellent, too, including roast sea bass with citrus-flavored rice and fruit sauce, grilled lamb chops with lentil puree and cherry tomatoes slow-baked with cumin, and ground lamb with coriander-brightened spinach and rice. Among the desserts we enjoyed were the rose-petal ice cream with almond milk and pistachios and the halva ice cream with tangy carob molasses.

IN A WORD: This small, stylish, friendly Lebanese restaurant has quickly become popular with Paris's large Lebanese community and fashionable Parisians who love the decor and light, bright, authentic cooking. An excellent choice when you want something other than French food.

DON'T MISS: Lentil, fried onion, and orange salad; kebbe (seasoned raw ground lamb); grilled haloumi cheese with apricot preserves; moutabbal of avocados and fried shrimp; grilled lamb chops with lentil puree and cherry tomatoes; roast sea bass with citrus rice and tagine sauce; rose-petal ice cream with almond milk and pistachios; halva ice cream with carob molasses. ... 14 rue de la Banque, 2nd, 01.55.35.00.66. métro: Bourse. open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. closed Sunday. www.restaurant-liza.com • Copyright © 2008 by Alexander Lobrano

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Hungry For Paris

The Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants

by Bob Peterson and Alexander Lobrano

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