Five nights in Paris in August provided a wide range of experiences from awful to very good, as we constantly negotiated the closings of everything from resturants and shopping to cultural exhibits. We only made two reservations for our family of four from Washington, DC, but even that proved to be too much as we couldn’t get to one of them.
The highlights were the pastries at Jacques Genin (especially the lemon basil tart), the matcha green tea ‘dome’ at Aoki Patisserie, cassoulet and pommes sarladaise at Domaine de Lentillac, and a selection of cheese from a fromagerie that was a Chowhound dream along with fabulous white peaches.
Here is my blow-by-blow account:
SATURDAY, August 6th, lunch at Le Marché des Enfants Rouge, a great location for eating outdoors at an open-air market. There are four restaurants there, and we chose the Creole place. Other choices were Italian, Moroccan, and French. The flavors here were very strong and exotic, exactly as I hoped they would be. Despite being surrounded by many international cuisines, I can’t find anything like it where I live. Crab farci, a cajun salad, and crab beignets were all very good. The plats looked copious, but we stuck to a variety of starters. Only disappointment was the ‘homemade’ juices that did not taste as such.
Picked up a variety of cheeses at the fromagerie there including a liquidy chèvre Pelardon des Cevennes, a runny St. Marcellin lait cru that had streaks of blue on the rind, and an herbed Brin de Maquis sheep cheese which was creamy in the center. Along with bread and white peaches, these proved to make an excellent dinner.
A little bit about white peaches in France: I don’t see many where I’m from, and they aren’t very good. But in France white peaches are glorious, and these peaches outshone my already high expectations. A real summer treat.
Late afternoon, we got into Jacques Genin two days before their summer hiatus. Had five pastries: all of them perfect. The lemon basil tart was a revelation: such power combined with creaminess and finesse of flavor that I could never have imagined. Mango Passion caramels are a treasure.
I had no idea I was going out to dinner this evening. I was horribly jet lagged, every bone in my body was aching, and I had a belly full of cheese, bread, and peaches. But my wife announced that she had to have a real dinner, so we slogged on over to the nearest place, which was Chez Gudule in the 12th. I chose a salad ‘papa’ for 12 euros that I hoped would be tiny with a few choice ingredients. My wife chose the steak-frites at 17 euros. The salad turned out to be an enormous platter of the most awful ingredients with a horrible dressing, and her steak was all gristle. I was at least hoping that my wife would give up on her steak, but she kept sawing away at that hunk of muscle like a wartime field surgeon, extracting every morsel of protein from the patient, thereby prolonging my agony.
SUNDAY was our day at the Louvre. My son recently took an Art History course, so I knew we were in it for the long haul. As a pleasant surprise, Angelina Café at the Louvre is a terrific place. High prices, but fully justified considering the quality. A great steak tartare (a WOW dish), braised veal that was both earthy and delicate in aftertaste, and a heavenly creamy risotto. Very good quiche and a disappointing Croque Monsieur rounded out the meal. The first three items great in absolute terms. At 1pm we waltzed into this place and got an immediate seat.
Dinner before scampering off to our Eiffel Tower lift reservation was at Crêperie du Port Manech in Montparnasse. A postage stamp sized place on a block with four other creperies in a very charming neighborhood. I can’t say how this stacks up to other places in Paris, but I cannot get Breton gallettes in DC, so this was a treat.
MONDAY lunch, near the Galleries Lafayettes, Café des Capucines. A very pretty second floor dining room. A creamy foie de veau with parsley and garlic. Why can’t I get something so simple and delicious in the U.S.? Really. There is almost no calf’s liver anywhere except for diners where it is served with a heavy beef gravy. We also had a spicy tartare (too many chopped olives and capers), a rather dry salade nicoise, and an exquisite ravioli dish with pesto butter.
The food Court at Galleries Lafayette is a wonderful location for a Chowhound, especially if you are bent on snacking. Several stands have seating, making this a prime destination for eating well and quickly at a reduced cost. Here I purchased my first taste of Bordier butter, which indeed is sublime – though the ‘algues’ version is not of any interest to me, only the salted butter. The perfectly smooth-looking domes of cream pastry at Aoki are a sensation, particularly the green tea. One of the best treats ever.
Monday night was our first reservation, and I wanted to have modern French once during our visit. I chose Le Bamboche because: a ‘coup de couer’ rating from Restoaparis.com, I knew the plating was going to be impressive, and I hoped it would not be very expensive. The results here were mixed, and it was hard to love the cuisine. Overall, as finely prepared as the proteins were (cod, veal, lamb, and steak), they were unsauced and the gorgeous accompaniments were drab tasting or downright wrong. If you stick to the 32 euro menu it can be a good deal, but we mostly did not, and the cost skyrocketed.
TUESDAY, we went to Le Bon Marché, and La Grande Epicerie. The only place to eat inside was cafeteria-style, and the food was ok. For a tourist, not as exciting as Galleries Lafayette. Le Bac à Glaces was closed for a month – only in Paris does an ice cream stand close for the summer - and we hit up Berthillon later between Ile de la Cite and the Marais. Excellent quality at Berthillon, the gianduia with candied orange was expensive and worth it.
We then ran into a problem for dinner and got stuck in Montmartre. We could not keep our reservation for l’Ambassade d’Auvergne, a place I had dined well at years ago (but still maintains high standards or so I am told). Instead we managed to have our second awful meal of the trip. Not having anywhere in mind in Montmartre, I saw in my Michelin Green Guide that they list Mere Catherine. Now, I already know that MC used to be good and is no longer, but I thought that if they still suggest it in the Green Guide, how bad can it be? Well, I am here to tell you that it can be dreadful. As in: “is this even food?” dreadful. My expectations were near bottom, and even then they were way too high.
WEDNESDAY, our last day in Paris had us eating lunch inside Musee d’Orsay – unfortunately no repeat of our Louvre experience. At 9:50pm we got out of the Centre Pompidou and had no idea of where to eat. Instead of risking our last meal to chance, I made a few frantic phone calls and finally got into Domaine de Lentillac. Low prices and our most successful meal. A deeply rewarding cassoulet (no small feat) with duck confit and sausage, and delicious confit with pommes salardaise. The pdt were exceptional. Only the stuffed cabbage had been put through the deflavorizing machine. Pate de Monbazillac to start and generous pots of creme brulee to finish. Much thanks to Buttertart for mentioning this place in an old post. I can always count on her fine judgment.
Paris is very, very expensive. To sum up, my tips to avoid throwing away a ton of money on mediocre food are: Creole food (I already have plenty of access to Vietnamese, Thai, North African at home), gallettes at a creperie, visit a fromagerie or traiteur for a picnic, and go to Domaine de Lentillac. Fortunately a bakery near our hotel had many truly good products, but all the other places to grab a croissant and the like produced middling results. Also near our hotel, Le Triomphe (known for their croissants) was closed for the summer.