July 7, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Five Napkin Burgers: A Prelude to Paris

Chef D'Amico's mythic burgers come with amazing fries. Photo: Steven Richter
Chef D'Amico's mythic burgers come with amazing fries. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now that 5 Napkin Burger has moved into the space that was Jezebel's for most of two eras, restaurant mogul Simon Oren and chef partner Andy D'Amico have their own little Monopoly game going on Ninth Avenue: Marseille on the corner of 44th, this new pop burger joint on 45th, and Nizza (Italian for Nice) in between. Not bad for Oren, who arrived in town from Israel in the early nineties not exactly loaded. All tile and glass and bare tables (Jezebel left not a string of fringe), the new place can work itself up into a din but I wouldn't call it torture (not even under the Geneva convention), though you don't have to be a card-carrying PETA member to be put off  by meat hooks overhead invoking ominous slaughterhouse images. 

White tile and slaughterhouse meat hooks chase the ghosts of Jezebel's.  Photo: Steven Richter

         In my crowd, rumors of a great burger demand attention. So just when a woman with reasonable priorities would have been packing for two weeks in Paris, I am tucked into a tufted leatherette booth, sipping a reasonable mango mai tai, and scanning the menu, a kind of comfort food melting pot, that makes me wonder if someone is doing fieldwork in the ethnic terrain at Brooklyn Diner.  Chicken soup with noodles and a matzah ball?  No kidding. And quite respectable. That could be turmeric providing the yellow, but it sure tastes like genuine chicken fat and the globe in the middle is almost delicate. The Szechuan chicken salad makes the Brooklyn Diner link doubly suspicious - not its uptown equal, but fine. A BLT salad suffers from a too-early tomato, pedestrian bacon and over-sweet dressing so it will be perfect for all those who think that's what a BLT salad ought to be. I'd like smaller chunks and some beans in my pork chunk chili.  You'll find Vietnamese summer roll, mussels and endive steamed in ale, crab Louis, California rainbow roll, lamb kofta burger, pasta primavera and barbecued lamb ribs on this something-to-please-everyone roll call. Bring your persnickety five-year old, your burger snob, your ossified uncle, a beer maven.  The list of draft beers, ales and large format bottles is like a long day's journey into hops. Sly Fox anyone? Oatmeal Stout? Albino Python?  I never drink beer.  Just reading the names gave me a thrill. (Non-alcoholic beer is the one esoteric choice overlooked.)

Salads seem like a sane warmup before the carnivorous plunge.  Photo: Steven Richter

        But we came for the five napkin classic - a burger that won its linen at Nice Matin - and it's worth the trip (granted, we live rather near), ten ounces, juicy and rare, with comté cheese, marvelous caramelized onions and exceptionally crisp fries. Let's call it three-and-a-half napkins, aw…maybe even four.  I love the cheddar-bacon burger too. The soft bun would be better toasted.  And alas, the tuna burger is having an off night (barely surviving a tough weekend, I suspect).  The genial server strikes it from the bill and offers the light version of New York cheesecake as a gift. Smart guy. His tip just gained a little weight. The strawberry rhubarb streusel pie, though overchilled and too sweet, is still a smile on a summer night.  I think that was me finishing it.

630 9th Avenue at 45th Street, NYC 212-757-2277


Suddenly We're Kissing Cousins with France

Spring tossed in a salade at Le Comptoir du Relais. Photo: Steven Richter

        It rained a bit but not even rain could dampen the sweet sentiment of great American chefs (some of them French-born) honoring their mentors, the legends of French cooking, in the garden at Rockefeller Center to benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels.  It was especially touching to meet sons cooking for fathers who were not well enough to make the trip: Jerôme Bocuse, working with Daniel Boulud, doing soupe de moules au safran in honor of his father, Paul. Claude Troisgros doing his father Pierre's signature saumon à l’oseille (as well as his own tapioca caviar), and Alain and Marie Lenôtre showing off the opera cake of the famed patissier Gaston Lenôtre. David Bouley served filets mignons de veau au citron in tribute to Roger Verger. Joël Antunes, due to cook in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, did an amazing gazpacho with tomato sorbet and basil in tribute to Pierre Gagnaire, who stood proudly by. Chefs and protégés seemed especially moved  by the evening.

      It is yet another celebration of the cuisinary ties between France and America that has brought me to Paris this week - a recognition of what America’s dining revolution owes France, and how America's gastronomic exuberance has affected Paris. We are an eclectic collection of  invitées from the U.S. on panels and the festival committee - “a celebration of innovation and creativity,” it says on the invitation: Paula Wolfert, Traci Des Jardins, Joyce Goldstein, Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Lomonaco, Ariane and Michael Batterberry, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, Parisienne Naomi Barry, the American who never went home.       

        I was already impressed by the ambition of the festival creator, Michel Cloes (CNN World) and his sidekick Albert Nahmias (once a restaurateur, now the eminence gris of France's food world) after Cloes launched his first festival last Labor Day in San Francisco. By a stroke of good fortune, this weekend coincided with France's irrepressible leader Nicolas Sarkozy taking over the European Union's presidency. The Eiffel Tower turned sapphire blue and wore the gold stars of the EU flag and Cloes’ floating-down-the-Seine event belatedly got an official title. Friday, the 4th of July, opera singers sang "La Traviata" as our bateau floated west, turning around at this city's own petite Statue of Liberty. I realized that in all the years I've been coming here I've never made this cruise - bad reviews and the touristy crowds of the Bateaux Mouches stifled the urge. High up on the third deck of this water-borne clubhouse, heads seemingly inches away from the mold under the bridges, it is sheer magic. Even unemotional mates are actually kissing.


First Immersion in Paris

Le Comptoir's meaty, rare onglet tastes like Paris on a plate. Photo: Steven Richter

        We slept on the flight, then inched into town Thursday morning to the Hotel Powers, a boutique inn on Rue François 1er in the Eighth Arrondisement -- cozy, elegant, but not uppity or overwhelming.  A clerk steps into the bar to make us dark coffee while we wait for check-in and housekeeping.  Then we quickly empty our bags into two closets and an armoire in the biggest hotel room I've seen in Paris -- I'm used to jumping onto the bed to make room for Steven to pass by in pocket size bargain hotels.  It's too late to be first in line for lunch at Le Comptoir du Relais - the one spot on every gourmand pal's list of Paris dining musts - including my own.  But Nahmias calls and announces that owner Yves Camdeborde will fetch us in the lobby of the hotel next door at 1 pm to escort us in. Of course, this isn't fair play. If I were lined up on the street waiting for a table, I would hire an assassin.  But try getting there at 11:45, as we did on our own two Thanksgivings ago.

Yves Camdeborde stops for a quick glass after an exhausting lunch. Photo: Steven Richter

        Camdeborde remembers us from our many pilgrimages during his heady whirlwind at La Regalade. It was a shock when he said he was exhausted and sold it -- “to take a sabbatical” -- and then wound up in this tiny canteen alongside the Relais de Saint Germain.  Here he is besieged again.  “I am exhausted,” are his first words as he leads us through the back door.

        A plate of powerful sausages, tangy cornichons and a basket of bread arrive as we settle at a tiny two-top.  Outside there are no loud challenges to duel.  I'm starting to feel like I'm entitled (also a dangerous illusion). All I can think of is the marvelous lettuce (sucrine) I ate at my last lunch. It's on the menu today in salade de légume du moment et sucrine - a collection of spring peas, carrots, haricots verts and broccoli, more cooked than we would serve them. From the blackboard specials, Steven has chosen the onglet steak - wonderfully chewy and rare. Surrounded by the proud and the flighty buoyed, I suppose, by their own brilliance at scoring a fought-over table, I feel myself warming up.  I decide I shall have a foie gras tartine…and I'll not share it with anyone - two voluptuous slices of some duck's swollen liver injected directly into mine on great country bread, perfectly toasted.

        Just a week ago I was in love with Istanbul.  Now I am totally smitten with Paris.  I'm not sure what this proves.  An extraordinary man with a vision and infectious passion died just days ago.  It was he, Clay Felker, the man who loved writers and writing, who told me I was a food writer before I or anyone knew it.  It's wonderful to survive.  The knees may be creaky, but not the five senses that tell you everything you want to know about the one, and then, all the things you love. 

9 Carrefour de l'Odeon. 011 33 1 44 27 07 97. No reservations for lunch, dinner reservations necessary. Fixed menu at dinner.


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