TRIP REPORT - LONG
We are back from our trip to Paris and I wanted to give a report to those who gave such great advice.
We made it to several places:
La Rotunde: After some heated debate on this post about the merits of a traditional brasserie experience, we ended up at La Rotonde in Montparnasse simply because it was our first night, we had no reservations and it was close. We ordered some drinks and a seafood platter to share and it was wonderful – three different kinds of oysters, all fresh, sweet and briny; whelks, clams, Spanish mussels, and two mounds of tiny shrimp. Some fresh bread. We didn’t order anything else and looking around at the other diners I am sure we made a good decision.
For me, getting some simple, fresh relatively local seafood was fantastic and a perfect way to start the trip. We enjoyed sitting on the street, people watching, watching the overzealous antics of our waiter trying to bring customers in, and imagining earlier times when Hemingway and his friends were cavorting about the place and it was less touristy.
I now understand the debate on brasseries that my post generated. There are brasseries pretty much on every corner in Paris, and most of them are for sitting and drinking and most of them don’t take their food seriously and in fact some of it can be quite bad. I see now that all the Paris chowhounders know this but for visitors who think they can just wander around Paris and because it is Paris all the food will be good, this is important to understand. But I am still glad I experienced La Rotonde, as I enjoy experiencing places with such history to them and the fresh seafood platter was just great.
Chez L’Ami Jean: This restaurant now is one of my all time favorite restaurants ever (along with Cibreo in Florence, St. John in London, Momofuku Ssam Bar in NYC, and a few places no one will have heard of). For me, there is something so perfect about this place. There is love and passion in this food. It spoke deeply to me of a certain way of living – honest, pure, assertive, fresh, smart…beautiful. Everything a bistrot should be (unless you want quiet romance).
Our waiter quickly recognized both our confusion when he handed us the large books that constituted menus and my desire to make the most of the experience and he was extremely helpful, friendly, with a great loose wit that matched our mood perfectly.
For our appetizer he brought us a large casserole of Chef Jego’s terrine, a basket of five different kinds of sausages (including blood and chorizo, I can’t remember the others), a small bowl of pulled duck confit, a bucket of cornichons and pickled onions, a plate of shaved cured ham, and of course bread and butter. It was an addictive, elbows out, sleeves rolled up sort of experience that I will remember for a while. A special appetizer that was prepared in a bowl for us to share of lobster and chanterelles in a buttery chanterelle broth/foam was crazy delicious, seductive and powerful.
For my main I ordered sweetbreads, two large lobes adorned with a smear of a dark reduction on the plate and not much else. You better like sweetbreads but if you do – perfect. My wife ordered sea bass which came reluctantly I think with a few vegetables, and her parents ordered another sweetbreads and a trio of pork preparations. A few bowls of silky buttery mashed potatoes. Dessert – the rice pudding with caramel sauce and some crumbled granola. Simple, satisfying, perfect. And a Paris Brest.
The food at Chez L’Ami Jean is powerful. Nothing fussy or delicate about it but the product of a Chef who knows EXACTLY what he is doing and what he wants his restaurant to stand for. It doesn’t make sense but somehow that restaurant makes the world a better place for me – eating there somehow connects me to something fundamental about eating and living and being in a certain place at a certain time that is how I want to live. It made my Paris trip worth it.
Le Cinq: My father-in-law and I discussed whether we wanted to shell out for this place and we decided to go for it. We went for lunch and ordered the five course tasting menu, which really is 8 courses given all the extras they throw in to make you feel special.
What is there to say about this place? It is completely over the top in terms of attention to detail and making everything as luxurious as possible. If you are someone for whom places like this are regular, well then we’re in different social classes. But for me, I like the fact that this was a once-in-a-lifetime meal and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I have eaten at other restaurants with the same sort of ambition as Le Cinq – exquisite attention to detail, perfectly precise and beautiful preparations, sophisticated technique, absolutely the best ingredients, and creative combinations that surprise you. I think it is extremely hard to get this right – when you are trying so hard to do so many things perfectly, and to be creative and surprising at the same time, something usually suffers. Kind of like modern dance – 90% of the time I am hopeful but then I am asleep. (Sorry to people who like modern dance.) Usually my experience of these ambitious restaurants is that what suffers is the flavor, the actual taste, and that should be the most important thing. I remember a multi-course tasting I had in Chicago at a restaurant called “El”, opened by two young chefs who had worked at Alinea, and it was all so pretty, precise, inventive, well-sourced, and ultimately meaningless. The food was…nothing special. That experience, in fact, made me cynical about the modern fine dining experience (have you read “The Man Who Ate the World” by Jay Rayner?).
Well, Le Cinq has restored my hope. It was a perfect restaurant experience. Like Chez L’Ami Jean, I think this is a perfect restaurant. I think they are both perfect because they both are perfect at being what they are trying to be. Le Cinq is trying to be exactly what you would expect for the main dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel just off the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Each dish they served us was a powerhouse. Beautiful preparation, amazing technique…and flavor that grabs you and stays with you. We started with an amuse of melon mousse with chili oil and saffron threads on top, marinated octopus with little melon balls, and a melt in your mouth cheese raviolini.
Then, a razor clam from Galice, sautéed in a seaweed-infused butter that sort of exploded in your mouth with the salty briny taste of the sea, with slivers of toasted almonds, fresh ginger, and seaweed on top, and a little shrimp garnish.
The dish we all collectively lost ourselves in with giddy pleasure was a single large shrimp I believe from Madagascar, poached in butter with the head on, served with a shrimp stock spooned on by the waiter, some asparagus from Luberon, a few apple slices dotted with apple jelly, and a fine black crispy lace made from squid ink to give the dish some crunchy contrast. The server instructed us to squeeze down on the shrimp’s head to release the juices inside to mingle with the shrimp stock. This dish was pure dreamy pleasure, intense, exquisite. My mouth is watering as I write this, The memory of this dish will haunt me.
Next a pistachio sorbet that was complex and not sweet; startling and a bit perplexing and it helped to shake me out of my shrimp dreams and ready for the next course.
Next a soup of baby chanterelles, in an earthy mushroom broth with a light foam on top, some chervil, and two beautiful sweet onion and tarragon ravioli hidden beneath the foam, served in a grandiose gold bowl and garnished with a little gold leaf. The soup was delicious but the only single touch of the whole meal that I thought was unnecessarily pretentious was the gold leaf, but I must admit my 7 year-old daughter was thrilled to eat the gold leaf (on her dessert too) and she will remember it.
Let me say, as an aside, that the staff treated us with such grace and charm that the service was as memorable as the food. They brought out a plate of chicken tenders and fries for my daughter with such fanfare and elegance that she will remember it forever, with not one but two mini-jars of hotel honey in which she could dip her tenders. They made her feel like a real princess. She was in fact quite nervous about the whole experience (we told her, “this will be the fanciest lunch of your life” and it lived up to that claim) and they put her not only at ease but made her feel quite special. I am still puzzling over the strange mix of coziness and discomfort that I personally felt at being pampered to such a degree. As someone who was a waiter at some nice restaurants when I was younger, I know what these guys (yes, all guys, except for the beautiful hostess) go through, and often in nice restaurants I want to hang out more with the waiters then the other guests. The service at Le Cinq was simply the best I have ever experienced in my life, elevating service to a level I personally had not experienced before (and don’t know if I need to experience often!).
The next course was the main course – for me and my mother-in-law, a pigeon breast, partnered with a beautiful chunk of foie gras, in croute. Not sure how they did this one – the pigeon was perfectly cooked, tender and rare, the foie gras just warmed so it melted in your mouth, and the cereal crust perfectly crisped. Three different temperatures and cooking times, it seemed to me, all done together in one magical package. Fantastic. The pigeon and the foie gras was so tender and powerful in flavor and the crust offering some delightful texture and salty herby goodness. Some cherry chutney and swiss chard on the side.
For the others, a cod loin, perfectly cooked, with zucchini flowers, burrata cheese, champagne butter and salted plums. Quite a strange set of invitations to the party on that plate but my taste of it was sublime, harmonious.
Desserts included a classic fraisier topped with a violet granita and strawberry sorbet. Light and refreshing and packed with sweetness and fresh fruit flavor. They offered us next a German bottled water that they claimed was the purest water we would ever drink, served in a special blue glass, and I must admit skeptical about this one I did a side by side tasting with the other bottle we had and indeed you could taste the difference. Still not really what I am after with my food experience – simply a novelty. Finally they wheeled the dessert cart over to us where our waiter who could not (or perhaps choose not) to speak English delighted us with a whimsical animated interaction to provide us with a variety of caramels, chocolates, and marshmellows to eat and pack away in little to-go boxes for the road.
If you are interested, total bill (including a few glasses of wine, no bottles) for four adults and my daughter: $764 euros.
For me, personally, while this may be the single best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, at the same time it won’t make my list of favorite restaurants along with Chez L’Ami Jean. They both were perfect in their own ways. Le Cinq impressed the heck out of me and it was an experience I will remember, but my heart will always be with CLJ.
Le Violin D’Ingres: I will keep this review short. The food here was good, not great. Service fine. I wanted to go here specifically because of my quest for cassoulet. The cassoulet was very good, but not memorable. You may tell me it was a foolish move to try to find great cassoulet in Paris in summer, and I will agree with you. After Le Cinq, and CLJ, perhaps this was destined to be disappointing. But the biggest disappointment was the Grand Marnier soufflé we had for dessert. Beautiful to look at, streaked with a wonderful caramel sauce, but in fact a bit lacking in taste and somewhat eggy. The biggest disappointment of the trip.
We had a few other less memorable meals that I won’t review here. All in all, I want to thank all of you for your help on this trip. We had an amazing experience and I am eager to get back to Paris soon. For me, after CLJ and Le Cinq, the trip was complete, satisfying, perfect. So while some of the meals afterwards were not as memorable, those two meals were so memorable and outstanding that everything else was just food for thought.
Wonderful! Yes I know this is a food-focused board not a board about culture but to me great food experiences are often embedded in a specific cultural context and cannot be separated. This is what we are after - thank you.
Chef June yes that was just to see if people were paying attention. No, I am just kidding it was an honest error, this is why I am glad for this board to help me - I believe at a certain point in my research I confused some details of Benoit with Josephine Chez Dumonet. My learning curve is usually fast but the Paris boards have beaten me! Thanks for the great post about this restaurant.
Thanks everyone for the discussion. I'm now convinced to drop the brasseries from the plan. We are after full of life authentic experiences, not dead historical set pieces...and we'll have plenty of opportunities to see the Paris historical art, architecture and interiors on non-food related endeavors.
Narrowing down the list from above, we now have:
Extravagent meal: Le Cinq
Bistronomique: Chez L'Ami Jean, possibly Au Gourmand (rec'ed from a Paris friend) or Chez Casimir or Regalade St. Honore
Traditional bistro: Violon D’Ingres (for cassoulet) or possibly Josephine Chez Dumonet
Nouveau: Rino or Saturne
Steak frites: Relais de l'Entrecote
Again, I thank you all for your time - we're looking for feedback on creating a varied eating experience, hitting different types of restaurants each trying for an authentic expression with quality, and if I've got the categories correct.
Parigi I will only say I read your comment here:
"It is too tiring to try to talk people out of things, and I really do not have this ambition. You must have your own compelling reason for going, so go and have your own unique enjoyment."
to my wife, who laughed out loud and said, "oh my she is your soulmate that is exactly what you would have written to someone."
I am just trying to determine if an authentic solid brasserie experience can be had and your comment is in fact influential. I appreciate any post simply because I am entering your chowhound community and taking your time and don't want to disrespect the community or waste your time!.
Thanks for the reply Parigi - much appreciated. I will adjust my categories. I'm surprised you downgraded La Régalade seems to be oft-mentioned on these boards.
Also I originally noted that Pied de Cochon and Bofinger were more for experience than food, but you still would delete them? You can't get an honest fresh plate of oysters or something simple at these places? Not having been to Paris I am under the belief that there can be good brasseries and bad ones - good food just means a genuine authentic context-specific expression involving quality ingredients and quality techniques, so I'm looking for an authentic expression of a brasserie with quality ingredients and techniques. Not possible?
My family is coming to Paris for a week in June. I've been researching CH posts for about the past month as well as a few other recommended blogs.
I've got a list of top contenders based on this research, and I don't want to do one of those posts looking for you all to vet my choices. I suppose you guys are bored of those requests!
But where I could really use help, and I'm hoping others will find this thread helpful too, is with understanding how the restaurants that keep showing up in post after post differ from each other such that one can have a wonderful (easy!) and varied (hard?) dining experience in Paris. It is really hard to get a sense for if I am going to end up in a loud causal place of a stuffy formal place or a tiny neighborhood place etc. I am hoping to steer my family to not just wonderful food but a variety of styles and moods: maybe one extravagent meal, a few chowhound fav bistronomique bistros, maybe a less expensive modern more inventive type place or two, maybe a traditional brasserie, and also traditional bistros (e.g., serving coq au vin, cassoulet - yes, we're coming in June but I can't resist trying to find a great traditional cassoulet -, grand marnier souffle etc.).
It has been extremely hard reading the posts (as well as looking up the restaurant sites themselves) trying to get a handle on what's what in this sense.
So with that in mind, if any of you would care to correct my impressions as to what's what, I would greatly appreciate it. I could be way way off on how I've categorized them - please correct me!
And I absolutely promise to give a report on my trip afterwards, to make it worth your time to help me out.
Extravagent but worth every penny for an unforgettable experience:
Wonderful bistronomique type with an amazing chef and a great value:
Chez L'Ami Jean (already reserved)
Regalade St. Honore
More traditional expensive bistro:
• Josephine Chez Dumonet:: Lots of heated debate about JCD, issues of being too touristy, overly hyped, Alain Ducasse's industrial gourmet, but others say it is wonderful
• Violon D’Ingres: Formal, somewhat traditional, here's where I can get my cassoulet, as well as a great souffle
Fun bistros with a twist:
• L’eccallier du bistrot: Seafood focused
• Le Petit Canard: Duck focused
Inexpensive modern bistros focused on a younger more adventurous crowd:
• Neva Cuisine
• Chez Casimir
• Agape Substance
Traditional Brasseries (go for the experience, not the food):
• Pied de Cochon
• Relais de l'Entrecote
Thanks KoolWhip - we will definitely try these. Yes I know about Sabor, haven't tried it though. Just got back from Brazil and had amazing churrascaria there; hard to imagine Sabor would do anything but disappoint in comparison. Not to sound snobby, more feeling lucky I was able to experience that in Brazil. You are right - that's not what I'm after - more wondering about any local, casual family-style brazilian, or places to buy brazilian ingredients to cook myself. Of course, Brazil is a big place, and there are big regional differences in food, but that's another story.
The southside of Milwaukee seems to have dozens of restaurants for the Latino community there. Do people have favorites? My favorite is simply the lunch counter at El Ray supermarket for what I think are the best tacos around. I've explored several other places and none are as good, but there are dozens and dozens of places. Also I really like Senor Real, a family style Mexican place.
Also do people know of Brazilian places, either restaurants or groceries? I suppose because they speak Portuguese, perhaps they are not in the same southside area as the others?
Or what about Christmas Day? We're coming in to Sanibel/Captiva...
We've done our research on restaurants but didn't factor in Christmas Day - anything open? Chinese food in Fort Meyers?
I found a previous post with several people suggesting the use of white rice flour instead of wheat flour if you need to make a gluten-free roux. I am having guests over for gumbo and will try with the rice flour because one of them is on a gluten-free diet, but I must say I am skeptical. I can see it working in some recipes but in gumbo the flavor of the roux is so critical to the overall flavor of the gumbo - have people successfully made gumbo with white rice flour or another alternative to wheat flour for the roux? I may make the rice flour roux a few days in advance to test it out first, then freeze it if it seems right, else make something else entirely.
You guys are amazing - after reading every post possible on Sanibel/Captiva, my family and I have had some fantastic meals, and just as importantly, seem to have avoided some real tourist traps.
I'm going to post a whole report, but I have one question.
We would like one meal, fresh seafood, seasonal ingredients. Can spend money but don't need to.
So far, we've ruled OUT:
We're after good fresh seafood, local preparations, something we can't necessarily get elsewhere.
If we can't decide we might just go back to Doc Fords.