July 21, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Champagne pour Moi: Splurges and Dirges

Whoever you are Paul, merci for all your outlets and the addictive baguettes. Photo: Steven Richter
Whoever you are Paul, merci for all your outlets and the addictive baguettes. Photo: Steven Richter

        Home again, we’re denying jet lag as I leap – fork drawn -- into the food blogging fray.  I just can’t quite digest how quickly amateur fooding on the internet has ballooned, the yeast of I-am- because-I-am run out of control.  But I don’t really give a lamb’s shank.  As the revered and trusted GQ mouth, Alan Richman, confided, from his seat a foot away from me at Persimmon’s communal table just hours after I landed at JFK:  “I always tell people who ask about the other critics, that like her or not, Gael Greene is the only one to stand up successfully to the Times.”

        It wasn’t exactly a compliment – I got that “like her or not” – it was just a fact. I slipped into my bib as New York’s Insatiable Critic cautiously in 1968, prudently inhibited, knowing that the Times Great God Craig Claiborne reigned supreme.  But the spotlight New York played in as the first city magazine swept over me too.  Restaurant sociology like my “Mafia Guide to Dining Out” (with tips from Nick Pileggi), Clay Felker’s command that I pursue “How To Beat the Menu Rap,” and “How Not  To Be Humiliated in Snob Restaurants” suggested a new way to look at eating out. My passion, with the magazine's clout, was filling restaurant seats. I tried to respect that power.

        And in my forty years reviewing restaurants at New York, I got to thrust and parry with the motley crew of mouths fielded by the Times after Craig retired:  Raymond Sokolow. John Canaday (he had resigned as art critic so managing editor Arthur Gelb sent him out to eat from 1973 to 1976 and didn’t seem to mind when Canaday bowed to his wife for judgment on dessert). Marian Burros now and again. Mimi What’s-Her-Name. Brian Miller (with and without Pierre Franey whispering in his ear). Ruth Reichl. William Grimes. And of course, Frank Bruni. Did I leave anyone out?  No offense meant.

        I’ll be posting my take on Persimmon and Forge this week so check in please.


Eating the Euro

Let prudence fly away when l’Ami Louis’s escargots arrive.  Photo Steven Richter.

        My guy and I vowed we would avoid the Euro-zone this year.  As a chronic penny pincher – regular readers will have noticed? – I’m undone by a wobbling dollar.  Buenos Aires last July and Merida in the Yucatan in February made our arthritic currency seem absolutely muscular.  But when the two of us were sent E-tickets to join the Franco-American host committee of “Gastronomy on the Seine,” our Euro panic began to seem quite manageable, especially housed in a junior suite with terrace at the Powers Hotel in the stylish Eighth Arrondisement next door to Maison du Chocolate. I ate my favorite lunch of our two weeks in Paris on that little terrace, windows thrown open to a cornflower blue sky: Tuna and tomato on a marvelously chewy baguette, with lemon sorbet and chocolate ice cream in cups from a nearby branch of Paul Bakery (salami for Steven, sans mustard…Paul sandwiches can only be bought as is).

        I am telling Parisian pals how much we love Paul’s crusty, multi-grain baguette. “I know Paul is commercial, but it’s so fabulous.”

        “Kayser is better,” I am told.

        Next day I buy a Monges baguette (like Paul’s, these baguettes come in several flavors) and a chorizo bread from an Eric Kayser boulangerie steps from the tourist frenzy of the Rue du Buci. Okay, Kayser is good, and the chorizo-loaf lasts, perfect for toast with some Pont-l'Évêque cheese two days later.  But Paul’s baguettes are better. I can tell my Gallic pals about this comparison tasting, but they won’t be impressed.  My forty years as a restaurant critic is easily trumped by the mere fact they are French.


Is This the Best Italian Food in Paris?

        I know Albert Nahmias from the seventies when it was impossible to get a table at Olympe, the restaurant he ran with his then wife, DominIque in the kitchen. (Today DominIque Versini runs the pocket size Casa Olympe in the Ninth. Her roasted lamb shoulder was sensational the one time I ate there.) Albert Nahmias is an arranger-extraordinaire now, his cell phone larded with phone numbers that can lead to tables you covet.

        “Come with me for lunch at Armani,” he says.  “It’s the best Italian food in Paris.”  We are four on a desultory summer day when most of tout Paris has already fled for vacance, and I am annoyed to discover that the late arrival joining us is M. Massimo Mori, who runs the low-ceilinged Emporio Armani Caffe in a loft above the sales floor, as well as his own flashy Mori Venice Bar.  Lunch with the guy in charge is not my idea of how to judge a restaurant. But it turns out to be a good way to find out why there is no garlic in the linguine vongole, nicely intense clam taste but... “I never had a clam sauce without garlic,” I protest.

        “We are Italian, but we do not put garlic in everything. You cannot serve garlic in Paris, “ Mori protests.

        “But then, it’s not really Italian, is it? And this pesto?”  I indicate the little plin plin ravioli, $36 on the day’s special menu, its alleged robiolo filling utterly obscured in a swamp of pesto overwhelmed with fresh marjoram.

        “But this is not pesto Genovese, this is pesto with nuts and marjolaine," Mori explains as if to an idiot.

        “But pesto means garlic and parmesan,” I insist. “Even walnut pesto with marjoram.  And so much sauce, too much sauce…that is not Italian.  I can’t even taste robiolo.”

        Still, from the look of the few well-dressed ladies with their decorators at lunch, I see the place has cachet.  I like the vitello tonnato, the raw artichoke bruschetta, thin tagliatelle tossed with asparagus, scallops and speck, and a fabulous fritto misto with zucchini flowers and shrimp, though not its misguided sweet and sour sauce for dipping. 

149 Boulevard Saint-Germain 33 1 45 48 62 15.


Paris on Sale

One must hack away to get the luscious lamb under that quilt of fat. Photo: Steven Richter.

        It seems a shame not to linger after our gig - I crave a Paris fix at least once a year - so we move to a friend’s very grand apartment in a neighborhood of haute couture bordering side streets of antiques and art. Our daily explorations draw us past Sonya Rykiel, Etro, Kenzo, Yves St. Laurent.  One street has nothing but giant handbags in chained bondage.  Another is boobytrapped with shoes, not just costly S&M beauties and couturier sneakers, but budget copies for commoners.  And absolutely everything is on sale. Soldes - French for “sale,” my mantra - is the password in all the windows. A normal woman would have bundled together a few dozen pathetic twenties to stock up.

        Not me. I stand in line at a cash register in Monoprix to buy a lipstick. For a total of 39E, the women in front of me has scored a blouse, a sweater, pants and a wallet. When the sales clerk rings me up, I discover my lipstick costs 12E…$17.20 at $1.60 per euro.  I’m a Duane Reade partisan. I’ve never paid that much for a lipstick before. But I need to buy something.  I am saving my big splurge for dinner.


If  I Have Only One Life to Live...

Louis Gadby dispenses champagne and pampering at l’Ami Louis. Photo: Steven Richter

        If I had only one night for dinner in Paris, it would be at l’Ami Louis. I actually carry with me directions in French for how to get to Rue Vertbois, the narrow one way street in the 3rd. I always tell friends to budget $200 or so per person because the asparagus of spring will be at least $100, ditto the mushrooms of fall, and you might want a serious wine. A l’Ami Loui regular, my longtime gourmand co-conspirator, the Wall Street Voluptuary, claims he was charged 170 euros for mushrooms and when he complained, the house said the price of the platter was “normal” and refused to call him a taxi. Often Steven and I wallow in the house’s gorgeous côte de boeuf. Tonight it’s 120E for two, or $192.   But I’m not going to pinch sous here.  I’ve decided this will be our anniversary celebration – 21 years and we haven’t killed each other yet. Definitely the night for a splurge.

        I’ve been writing about the decadent joys of l’Ami Louis for many years and Louis counts me as a friend of the house now. The little joint, deliberately scruffy as always – landmark status, not to be touched – is nearly empty when we arrive at 8:45.  “Gael!” cries Louis, rounder and with another chin or two, as he plows forward for a hug.

        “Champagne for Gael,” he cries out to the back of the room.

        I really enjoy this. You don’t ever outgrow being the little girl from Detroit. I have friends, habitués here, who never order less than three or four starters – asparagus or mushrooms, the spectacular foie gras that comes in slices, like inch-thick postcards, scallops or frog’s legs ($93 tonight).  A dozen plump snails in the shell is our usual choice and we devour too much toasted baguette to mop up the garlicky butter. Chewing and mopping takes a nice while and the waiter deftly deposits a fresh mound of toast as the first cools. Then come two huge double lamb chops for Steven from a pile on a platter, enough for Henry VIII. I get half a pigeon – the other half whisked away to keep warm. I have never been disappointed here before but now I am.  My pigeon is not rare as I requested, but barely pink. Anywhere else I would send it back but I like being fussed over by Louis and I wonder how quickly he would forget my name.  A mountain of fries arrives, hot as they should be.  All around the room, people are gasping and giggling at the first sight of their own tall peak of twisted ribbons. I’m trying to remember if I was ever wild for these fries.

I eat these garlicky potatoes as if there were no tomorrow. Photo: Steven Richter

        “But I asked for the pommes Bearnaise,” I say.

        “They’re coming. You shall have both,” I am told.

        So I share a bite of Steven’s splendid chop – bundled in fat that he must carve away. Between the supernal peas – neither over or undercooked – and much too much of the crusty potato cake sprinkled with raw garlic and parsley, my pigeon distress evaporates.  I eat a leg and then a bit of salty breast. Eleven o’clock, the tables are full. A young couple is just being seated. “Champagne,” Louis cries out again and again.

        Usually I order raspberries just for the excess of crème fraiche the waiter will pile on top. By this time, I’m almost amused that raspberries cost $45. Tonight though, I feel that I might not survive the night if I surrender to crème fraiche.

        “No dessert, merci,” we say, just the bill.  A grand mess of oversize cherries is set between us…divine cherries. Too many is just enough.  As for the shocking tab (a slice of foie gras, my two glasses of Chateau Neuf du Pape and the cherries from Louis) is just 139E about $122, a collector’s item, a museum piece, surely the smallest bill of the year at l’Ami Louis.

32 rue du Vertbois, 3rd. 33 1 48 87 77 48.


Sometimes on Sunday

Atelier Maître Albert’s rotisserie chicken is my Sunday standby. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s always a challenge to find a restaurant in Paris open on Sunday. L’Atelier de Robuchon is one. My first choice is l’Ami Louis, of course, when maxing out the credit card is not a risk. And I’ve been sending friends and readers to Atelier Maître Albert, Guy Savoy’s small rotisserie in the 5th not far from the Quai de la Tournelle. With entrees at 17 to 29 euros, it’s not the deal it once was when the dollar was prime, but the handsome room with its ancient stone fireplace and glowing rotisserie wall is brighter than it used to be.  I can read the menu and see my food, a definite plus, though it confirms that the chicken livers in Karen’s salad are not rare.  Snails wrapped in filo are dazzling on their red platter, with fava beans laid out like emeralds, but without garlic and butter, what a blah. And I don’t need light to know something went wrong with gummy risotto stuffed into baby squid served with shaved asparagus salad and asparagus dressing. Karen politely asks if the chef meant the risotto to be that way? I like the answer: the chef sends bowls of fabulous cold zucchini soup with floats of parmesan and marscapone as her apology.

Okay, it’s gorgeous, but Maître Albert’s pastry-wrapped snails are bland. Photo: Steven Richter

        Each entrée has its own side dish in an iron casserole. The first rate rotisserie chicken (choose breast or thigh) comes with excellent potato puree.  Eggplant in a pesto sauce accompany three fatty little lamb chops.  And the night’s wonderful monkfish steak on the bone with pine nuts gets a side of bell peppers and zucchini in a black metal pot. Profiteroles in pudding-like chocolate sauce satisfy the need for just a lick of sweet. 

1 Rue Maître- Albert. 5eme. 33 1 56 81 30 01.


Butter Me Up

 Grenelle’s lovely egg on garden tomatoes refuses to run. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At the moment tiny, adorable cream and lemony 153 Grenelle has that kiss of chic, a savvy French crowd.  Many of them remember chef-patron Jean-Jacques Jourteux from Les Semailles thirty years ago.  Lured from Monaco to open this little place with his rounded sister Mimi dishing out the charm, Jourteux has not arrived yet when we stuff ourselves at a small table for three in the window.  When he finally blows in looking very Jim Belushi, with long, greying hair and pink shirt tails flying, he seems so busy schmoozing the crowd, I wonder if he knows where the kitchen is.

        But there are some finds on this abbreviated 59E ($85) four-course prix fixe dinner:  Garden tomatoes with a soft boiled egg (that would be better if it were still runny), langoustines with cornichons and giant capers and the foie gras with leeks in vinaigrette.  The filet of beef is really good, but two of the lamb chops are not rare.  And my loup is a stingy little piece of overcooked fish with not much flavor, though its accompanying nest of spinach is fabulous. And the three course lunch is just 35 euros.

Grenelle’s finale of four small sweets is disarming. Photo: Steven Richter

        “The butter here is exceptional,” says our Parisian pal.

        “But we didn’t get any,” I point out.

        He asks and it arrives, “by the famous Marie-Anne Cantin next door,” he replies.  Okay. Now we know who makes the butter of the moment.  Wonderful indeed, as is the fresh goat cheese served with tomato jam followed by the finale: four small desserts for each of us: peach tart, caramel ice cream, berries and crème brulée.

153 Rue de Grenelle  33 1 45 51 54 12


More on Paris eating to come soon when I post My Hot Addresses in Paris in the Travel section.

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