Hi folks! Lots of people going to Paris these days, thought I'd start getting busy with reviews. Here are some notes and early conclusions spanning six weeks of Paris eating. Look for some of these as full reviews, once we get enough return visits to do them justice. If I can, I'll put up three more on Friday. Enjoy!
Le Vieux Bistro. A secret tunnel used to connect this ancient bistro with Notre Dame, and terrace dining still gives an awesome view of the cathedral. Three times now we've been to this guide book staple (early or late is the only way to get a table these days) and found a superb boeuf bourginiogn, brought to your table in a wrought-iron dutch oven. They supply the ladle, you bring your appitite and a mere 16 Euros. They also provide the first trustworthy chocolate mousse I've found--light as air but rich in flavor. Sinful, but there's plenty of confessionals right next door.
Chez Clement. The French have strange ideas about chain restaurants, uncorrupted by any drive towards consistency. That's how tourist trap Chez Clement (eleven gaudy places throughout the city) makes it into our rotation: the one in Place St. Michel is pretty good. Stay with the specialties, like the rotissery plate. 15 Euros gets you a side salad (or tabouleh) and a mound of buttery, highly pureed mashed potatoes surrounded by a quarter chicken, beef, even a pork rib, all bathed in perfectly adequate stock. These are like no pork ribs you've ever had, but the French treatment (a touch of honey in a light brown sauce) is worth investigating. There's only one dessert of note, a "Chocolate Melody" with three flavors (white, dark and milk) in a frosted glass, very nice. The gimmick at Chez Clement is the lavish appointment, big cozy chairs, velvet, a faux luxury that Burke and I find appealing, in a campy way. Stay on the safe side of this menu, and you get a close, solid meal at a good price. Visit twice in a row and they treat you to a free shot of rum after coffee, which is warming in its own way.
Balzar. Every guide book demands you go to this quintissential brasserie in the 5th along Rue des Ecoles, but they don't tell you why or how. The food is fine here, though uneven (Burke once had a chicken plate that was tough and flavorless, desserts are frequently a wash). The service is warm but overwhelmed by the flood of tourists. Ever since Peter Maille wrote about Balzar it's been impossible to get a table--even hours before and after peak mealtimes. I'm not sure what folks get out of Balzar at such moments. The time to go is off hours--late, when the regulars reappear. Burke and I cornered a table one Sunday around 10:00pm, and suddenly we were in a deep, passionate conversation with a couple of ultra-regulars. When two 50-something, beret-wearing, chain smoking Parisian men let you into the sacred world of their conversation, when they nudge the tables together and linger over a mediocre strawberry tart, when they actually buy you a glass of wine, you know you've found part of the gleaming soul of France. Who cares about the food, this is what brasseries are all about! You don't even need to speak the language fluently. You're part of the club simply by being there at the right time, with a hearty mind and an open heart.
Stay tuned for Part II!
A Burke and Wells Essay