I spent a few days recently in Paris, and while there I had a chance to do additional research on my never ending search for the perfect oyster. In fact, I believe actually I found it! It was on the first night, the 14th oyster slurped of the evening, a beautiful girardot splashed with lemon and nothing else. Light and of the sea, fresh and crisp, a perfect oyster. I have been eating oysters all my life, and have a penchant for the varieties of the Northwest, but this was unbelievable. The French love their oysters, and again I was reminded why.
The occasion was a reception in the recently renovated Paris Marriott Rive Gauche located on the Left Bank. This was my first visit, and the hotel is stunning. The restaurant’s two levels are anchored by a spectacular lounge ringed by social seating areas for whatever the mood, quiet intimacy to communal dining to private group nooks. Our chef, Fredric Nef, put together a collection of oysters, foie gras and rillette, superbly baked cockles with a crisp garlic crust, livarot (a beautiful cheese from Normandy made of cows milk), saucisson. Just enough to whet the appetite for the great food to come.
Just a few blocks away from the Champs Elysees is a hotel that is one of my favorites, the Renaissance Paris Vendome. The restaurant, Le Pinxo is a contemporary refuge in the historical area surrounding the Place Vendome, originally designed in 1702 and then later embellished by Napoleon with the imposing tower. The food served at Le Pinxo is modern Mediterranean, all done from the tiny but efficient show kitchen. Lunch for our group of 20 was a collection of small plates of roasted oysters (yes, oysters again!), steak tartar on crisp baguette toasts, garlic laced shrimp, grilled calamari on a skewer. All great, and expertly presented by Chef Fabrice Dubos and his crew.
Paris is a city of energy and passion. Great art, incredible museums, inspiring cathedrals. It is the French way with food however that makes it such a special place to visit, at least for a chef. Little food markets tucked away on side streets, bakeries that still bake just for the day, tiny little bistrots where owner-operators still cook simple classics that never disappoint, these are the things that make Paris a destination for all members of the food religion. Only in Paris can you duck out of a December rain into a corner bistrot, order a steaming bowl of gruyere laced onion soup and then a rich and satisfying cassoulet – brimming with tender white beans, confit, and sausages. That’s just what I did one afternoon of down time at Bistrot Paul Bert in the 11th Arrondissement. Bistrot Paul Bert is worth the long taxi ride from the center of the city, and is actually the only place I went twice to while in Paris.
French cooking gave us the fundamentals of cooking and created the base for most modern cuisines, (except for classic Asian or Indian cooking). Classic history tells us that the Italians brought a love of fine food to the French through the Medici’s, but it was the French who refined it. Still though, it is the cooking of the bistrot that inspires me, primarily because it has not changed. A steak frites, confit of duck, croque monsieur or croque madame, crisp green salad vinaigrette, and of course the ubiquitous “French” onion soup are what make dining in Paris so wonderful. There are also great sushi bars, Italian trattorias and restaurants of every concept imaginable, but when in France, I eat French.
What’s on your plate today?
This is going a bit off tangent from your entry, but in your opinion, how do you define "fine French food"? Or "French food" in general? People always talk about how the food in France is one of the beauties that draws us to the country but here in North America, it's not often you'll hear someone say "let's go eat French today" or the more colloquial "I feel like French tonight" because the kinds of French food aren't really defined the way Oriental food or Italian food is (aside from the foods that still retain their French name like baguette, escargot, and fois gras). After reading your post though, I'm starting to think perhaps it's more the way in which the French create their food? The passion they put towards it? The way everday people enjoy their meals and treat them all like something special? I've been to France a couple of times before but all three times I suppose I've never had the chance to really reflect and appreciate the cuisine there because I was too young to do so. In that sense, this comment may seem a bit naive (I suppose most people my age wouldn't be visiting these kinds of blogs), but I'm still curious as to what a chef's view on this is. I really enjoy your entries and thoughts. Thanks for sharing.