[TRAVELMAN] Paris restaurants: Fusion and Tradition

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Wed, 14 Apr 1999 08:05:13 -0700

"The menu makes more stops than a German tour bus." -- a guide to the=20
latest Wallpaper* generation overdesigned, underfed chic eateries of=20
Paris. And a second piece on bargain bistros so proud of their wine=20
lists they don't even serve water :-) The latter review is by NYT=20
star critic Mimi Sheraton, blast from the past. (Grimes, I believe is=20
a foreign correspondent). Anyone buying me a subscription to=20
Gault-Millau to get me to practice my French? --RK


April 14, 1999
The French Learn to Speak Fusion

PARIS -- There is a dessert in Paris called the wonton kumquat=20
Nutella. It cannot be found in Escoffier, or anywhere else, for that=20

Served at a new Right Bank restaurant called Cafe Mosaic, the kumquat=20
surprise comes in a bamboo steamer that holds a very undessert-like=20
display of three soft wonton envelopes, each containing a whole=20
kumquat and a small puddle of molten Nutella, the commercial=20
chocolate and hazelnut spread. The thing is awful. But in Paris, it=20
may be the wave of the future.

In this city of bistros, brasseries and three-star shrines, a new=20
type of restaurant seems to be taking hold: ultradesigned, up to the=20
minute and emphatically un-French in style and culinary point of view.

The spaces tend to be large and, by French standards, quite noisy.=20
The waiters and waitresses, who are very young, ply their trade with=20
an almost American casualness. The food is strange.

=46usion has come to France, and it feels funny. Influences from Asia,=20
America and -- heaven help us -- even England have been creeping into=20
one of the world's most rigidly codified cuisines. Like steam opening=20
a mussel, the cultural pressures of the new global economy, and the=20
internationalizing of taste, have forced the inward-looking French to=20
look outward on a peculiar new world.

Classically minded chefs are trying to assimilate concepts like=20
Afro-Thai cuisine and to accept the idea that patrons care as much=20
about the setting as they do about the food on the plate. The result=20
is a new culinary moment in France, one that Gault-Millau magazine is=20
calling "the new disorder."

All this and the euro, too -- it's a lot to swallow. But Paris seems=20
titillated by the strange new dances that its chefs are trying out,=20
and the theatrical spaces in which they perform them. They have=20
mobbed the new Lo Sushi, designed by Andree Putman, where patrons=20
pick up their sushi plate from a conveyer belt, and Man Ray, a=20
hip-to-the-hilt Pacific Rim restaurant whose owners include Johnny=20
Depp and Sean Penn.

The new restaurant wave has attracted a group that Patrick Derderian,=20
the owner of Zebra Square and Bermuda Onion, recently called "the=20
happy few" -- about 5,000 young and restless diners who move from=20
address to address, their ranks swelled by well-to-do young=20
professionals who, like the scene makers, want more than food from a=20

"It appears that the era of the brasserie is over," said Miguel=20
Cancio, a restaurateur and the consultant behind Man Ray, Barfly and=20
Buddha Bar. "People want more -- they want to be transported=20
somewhere else, and to be entertained."

Asian, barely three weeks old, could stand as an archetype for the=20
new fussy French fusion restaurant. It is enormous, a 400-seat,=20
two-level affair that occupies nearly 2,000 square yards of prime=20
real estate on the swank Avenue George V.

The decor is high-tech teahouse, with an emphasis on dark, exotic=20
woods that contrast sharply with the polished concrete floor and a=20
Zen garden of dazzling white sand and bleached rocks that sends out=20
vibrations conducive to spiritual peace. The sound system broadcasts=20
a third-world mix of weird animal noises, rain-forest drips and=20
tribal grunts and chants.

The menu makes more stops than a German tour bus. The dim-sum cart=20
rolls by, followed by mixed plates of Japanese sushi, Vietnamese=20
spring rolls and a green salad with sesame dressing. Dishes bear=20
names like Ming beef, chicken Chitchat, Paradise Lost salad, and the=20
intriguingly named "Delta Brochette Pff, Pff," which turns out to be=20
chunks of chicken thigh on a stick.

It's a menu to read as much as to eat. Each dish is a statement, a=20
little like the macaroni and cheese at Spoon, Alain Ducasse's new=20
restaurant with the cheeky American accent. The dish itself is not as=20
important as the fact that it's on the menu, like the fish and chips=20
at Alcazar, Terence Conran's shiny new Left Bank brasserie on the Rue=20

Alcazar is nothing if not shrewd. Under the direction of Guillaume=20
Lutard, formerly the senior sous-chef at Taillevent, the kitchen=20
turns out a carefully calibrated mix of brasserie standards, seafood=20
platters, pan-Mediterranean fare and the occasional English dish,=20
like bread and butter pudding, or fish and chips.
It's world food for young diners who move easily from Los Angeles to=20
New York to Paris to London and who feel most comfortable in casual,=20
sleekly designed restaurants that buzz and hum.

Alcazar's design is crisp and clean to the point of being antiseptic.=20
The large open kitchen, with its gleaming white tiles and shiny=20
stainless steel fixtures, is so pristine it could serve as a hospital=20
operating theater, which is, in fact, what it looks like.

On the blond-wood tables, the salt and pepper, arranged in neat=20
piles, come in a precision-tooled rectangular steel ashtray=20
(available for about $15 on the way out), and the American-style=20
selection of four rolls (plain sourdough, rye sourdough, black-olive=20
and walnut) is served in what seems to be an oval Shaker box but on=20
closer inspection turns out to be the lid to a container of cheese.

Alcazar is cute that way. Every touch has been thought through with=20
one aim in mind: to make diners feel that they are the actors in a=20
first-class production, with all the right props in place.
It's a set-design approach to dining that was perfected at Buddha=20
Bar. Some of the heat has cooled at this first of the=20
mega-restaurants, but when it opened in late 1996, it created a=20
sensation. It was the Parisian equivalent of Balthazar or Asia de=20
Cuba in Manhattan, a highly wrought stage set that allowed chic young=20
Parisians to put on a show for themselves.

The scene has since shifted, but the decor remains. Buddha Bar is a=20
fever dream of tropical elegance, its dense, opium-inspired interior=20
rich with exotic woods, betasseled chandeliers and lush fabrics.

Upstairs is a mile-long bar in the form of a dragon ship. Downstairs,=20
there's the unignorable Buddha, a serene mass of beatitude seated on=20
a square pedestal large enough to support a Cadillac. Rising nearly=20
60 feet to the ceiling, he has the air of a customer waiting=20
patiently for a very big meal.

When it comes, he will want more spice. The lurid sensibility that=20
went into the decor evaporated mysteriously at the kitchen door. The=20
menu, a pan-Asian and French smorgasbord, skips blithely from=20
Vietnamese spring rolls to Korean-style grilled steak to miso-glazed=20
turbot, an Asian package tour for the timid.

When it comes to the desserts, the exotic mask drops entirely. Except=20
for a blancmange with coconut milk, the line-up is as French as a=20
cancan. There's nothing wrong with any of the food, exactly, and the=20
restaurant's excellent hot sauce, served on the side, works wonders=20
on just about everything except the blancmange, but on the plate,=20
Asia seems as remote as Buddha's smile.

In the United States, chefs have embraced the new ingredients and=20
spices of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean with a sometimes=20
unseemly passion. They may not always love wisely, but shyness has=20
not been a problem.

In Paris, however, fusion resolutely refuses to fuse. When it comes=20
to visual style, and atmosphere, the French cannot be beat. They seem=20
to have no trouble with the theatrical elements of dining, or the=20
international design idiom that goes with flashy fusion cuisine from=20
Sydney to Miami.

There are not many New York restaurants, for example, to equal the=20
drop-dead elegant Telegraphe, recently redone in a blend of Viennese=20
Secession and Art Nouveau by the design team behind the three-star=20

But the intercultural mingling that energizes American chefs tends to=20
stump the French, for reasons that are not that hard to figure out. A=20
cooking tradition as ancient and deeply ingrained as France's=20
presents every chef with a hundred reasons not to try anything funny.

America, by contrast, has always been a "why not?" culture, and the=20
national tendency toward experimentation has been powerfully=20
reinforced by an unending influx of new immigrant groups and new=20

The example of Jean-Georges Vongerichten shows that a French=20
sensibility and Asian ingredients can produce spectacular results,=20
but his brethren here in the old country appear to be struggling a=20
bit with their spring rolls and their sesame vinaigrettes. They=20
either pussyfoot or, like a teetotaler who falls off the wagon, they=20
go wild and shoot up the town.

Cafe Mosaic, the Mad Max of Paris restaurants, falls into the second=20
category. Deceptively, the interior is cool and understated, with=20
dark wood blinds covering the windows facing the busy Avenue George=20
V, and a suave semicircular bar, decorated with a vase of white=20
orchids, off to one side of the room.

All the more shocking, then, to witness the parade of oddities=20
streaming out of the kitchen. Anis-steamed crayfish whiz by in a=20
mason jar. The "salade verte" turns out to be a half-head of iceberg=20
lettuce, sitting on the plate like a stooge. Then come the kumquat=20
wontons a la Nutella, or even better, the "orange a l'orange," a=20
glistening orb of citrus fruit, preciously situated in a large gray=20
bowl, that oozes an orange cream when pierced with a fork.

Some of this is thrilling, like the smoky roast pepper, with a sauce=20
of anchovies, chickpeas and soy, or the ruby-colored pigeon breast=20
mired in a gooey plum-peanut sauce and surrounded by kumquats. All of=20
it is cartoonish.

At table after table, French diners, after a scandalized intake of=20
breath, were laughing as the plates arrived, and who could blame=20
them? In retrospect, the two mini-baguettes placed on the table at=20
the beginning of the meal seem like the last word in irony.

Make it official. French cuisine has entered the postmodern era.

Taste of the Future
LE T=C9L=C9GRAPHE 41 rue de Lille, 75007 Paris; telephone (011) 33-1-42-92-=
BUDDHA BAR 8 rue Boissy-d'Anglas, 75008 Paris; (011) 33-1-53-05-90-00.
ALCAZAR 62 rue Mazarine, 75006 Paris; (011) 33-1-53-10-19-99.
CAF=C9 MOSA=CFC 46 avenue George V, 75008 Paris; (011) 33-1-47-20-18-09.
ASIAN 30 avenue George V, 75008 Paris; (011) 33-1-56-89-11-00.
LO SUSHI 13 rue de Montalivet, 75008 Paris; (011) 33-1-42-65-18-18.
MAN RAY 34 rue Marbeuf, 75008 Paris; (011) 33-1-56-88-36-36.

Taste of Tradition
CHEZ CATHERINE 65 rue de Provence, 75009 Paris; telephone (011)=20
RESTAURANT DES BEAUX-ARTS 11 rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris; (011)=20
LA R=C9GALADE 49 avenue Jean-Moulin, 75014 Paris; (011) 33-1-45-45-6858.
LE VILLARET 13 rue Ternaux, 75011 Paris; (011) 33-1-43-57-89-76.


Meanwhile, Back in the Bistros, It's Thoroughly Classic

PARIS -- FOR generations, bistros have been the culinary soul of=20
Paris, casual neighborhood restaurants where regulars drop in for=20
local gossip and a reassuringly familiar meal. Almost as important as=20
the food is the setting -- usually small, intimate and aglow with=20
stained or painted wood, etched glass and mirrors, bric-a-brac,=20
prints and posters, all against the rippling hum of voices and the=20
tinkle of glass and silver that signify contentment.

Even as the French embrace culinary exotica, the appeal of the=20
classic bistro, for a taste of Paris past, is undiminished. Lately,=20
in fact, there is a boom in bistros, new and old, that serve=20
traditionally lusty cuisine at prices starting at $20 for a complete=20
meal for one, wine included. The concept is so popular that some=20
new-old bistros now require reservations as long as three weeks=20
ahead, which really compromises the spontaneous bistro spirit.

Such bistros produce dishes in varying degrees of excellence, from=20
the meticulously superb to the comfortably homey.

Bistros are so popular that many new ones, like La R=E9galade and Le=20
Villaret, have opened in the last seven or eight years.

Like their 100-year-old forerunners, they offer thoroughly French=20
fare, albeit with a few lightened, stylish variations.

As much as I value culinary creativity, given only three or four days=20
in Paris, I play it safe and opt for the old. On just such a schedule=20
last November, I searched out the traditional, earthy, bistro flavors=20
and aromas that have defined French cooking for me since my first=20
visit, in 1953.

My quintessential bistro is the Restaurant des Beaux-Arts in=20
Saint-Germain-des-Pr=E9s. Admittedly, nostalgia is always the plat du=20
jour, since I had my first Paris meal in this snugly cozy place with=20
some impecunious painters who were almost nightly patrons. Across=20
from the =C9cole des Beaux-Arts, this bistro caters to art students and=20
neighborhood antiquarian book dealers and up until the 1960's used to=20
save regulars the 25-cent charge for napkins by storing each for a=20
week in a chest of 56 small drawers. Only drawer No. 4 remains=20
active, accommodating a 40-year client who hates the modern paper=20
napkins and dines there every Sunday on that bistro classic, boeuf=20
bourguignon. The present owner, Laurent Bargeau, who took over from=20
his father, says that the restaurant is about 100 years old and that=20
Oscar Wilde as well as Picasso were among the regulars.

Choosing well for the price is the trick here, where a two-course=20
prix-fixe is about $10 for lunch (figuring 5.8 francs to the dollar)=20
and where a thoroughly satisfying three-course dinner with wine runs=20
about $22. The appetizers are classic -- escargots; nicely burnished=20
onion soup; jambon persill=E9, the fork-size chunks of ham set in its=20
green-gold aspic, and a salad of slim haricots verts with bacon=20
topped with a poached egg and tomatoes (though sometimes unripe). One=20
of my favorite main courses is the nurturing pot-au-feu, a=20
restorative dark brew of broth-softened leeks, carrots, turnips,=20
potatoes, spoon-tender beef and a marrow bone served with coarse=20
salt. That, or the boeuf bourguignon or the entrec=F4te topped with=20
marrow, along with frites (not always as crisp as they might be) is a=20
great buy anywhere at $15.

With these prices, one does not dally, either in the snug=20
ground-floor room with its green walls and mirrors on which daily=20
specials are painted, or in the more private low-ceilinged upstairs.=20
But I have never felt unduly rushed, and the memories, charm and=20
soul-warming fare, plus the house wine, Touraine rouge (about $3.50=20
for a two-glass carafe) inevitably lure me back.

By contrast, regulars at Chez Catherine -- business clientele at=20
lunch, local residents for dinner -- are as thoroughly bourgeois as=20
the neighborhood. This is a set-piece of a local bistro, hidden away=20
on a quiet street near the Galeries Lafayette department store on=20
Boulevard Haussmann.

Catherine Guerraz took over the former Le Poitou and now offers=20
engaging starters like ravioli with c=E8pes in a smoky cream sauce that=20
owes more to France than to Italy. Even better was the g=E2teau des=20
foies de volaille, a hot mousse of chicken livers that is a classic=20
of French cooking. Silky, bean-size chicken kidneys and crunches of=20
cockscombs enliven a light tomato sauce.

Braised squab with tiny, oniony green peas is a quintessential bistro=20
dish, rendered soft and mellow in a way that might seem overcooked to=20
nouvelle palates but that develops the richest, most sensual flavors.
Slightly chewy steak aux poivre has its proper mantle of black=20
peppercorns, cream and a hint of Cognac.

Other benchmark dishes are cassoulet and confit of duck. Satisfying=20
desserts include tarte Tatin, the apples and crust nicely firm=20
although insufficiently caramelized, and a cr=E8me br=FBl=E9e accented by=20
pistachios and pears. There is a long, tantalizing wine list with=20
very decent buys like a 1995 Gigondas, Domaine des Espiers, for about=20
$24. My three-course meal came to about $33.

The most convincing new-old bistro is La R=E9galade (a bit out of the=20
way, near the Porte d'Orl=E9ans) even though this is hardly a=20
neighborhood hangout, what with reservations made weeks in advance by=20
habitu=E9s from all quarters of Paris, the United States and Japan.=20
Owned by the chef, Yves Camdeborde, and his wife, Claudine, who=20
efficiently runs the convivially noisy dining room, this handsomely=20
rustic place opened in 1992 but looks as though it has been there=20
forever. Seating is elbow to elbow, as might be expected where a=20
truly excellent three-course meal is offered for about $32.

As tempting as the other appetizers are, I can never resist the=20
incomparable cochonnaille, the huge basket of homemade sausages well=20
cured to taste antique along with a terrine or two of delightfully=20
unctuous p=E2t=E9s, complete with cutting board and knife for=20
all-you-can-eat self-service.

I always hope they'll take the basket away while I still have room=20
for the hearty main courses like beef braised with carrots and red=20
wine or the lightly salt-cured pigeon with lentils.

=46rom fall to winter, I go for the properly crusted cassoulet or the=20
dark and spicy blood sausage, boudin, nested on buttery mashed=20
potatoes, or the game.

Desserts like the individual Grand Marnier souffl=E9 and the vanilla=20
pot-de-cr=E8me are much better than the bland rice pudding and the=20
omelette norv=E9gienne (French for baked Alaska).
The modest wine list is adequate.

Another bistro of the 1992 vintage is Le Villaret, a crowded and=20
young-spirited spot that feels genuine despite its atypical,=20
half-timbered brick walls.

=46rustrations at finding it in the hectic whirl around the Place de la=20
R=E9publique disappeared as we tucked into a meal of old flavors in new=20
guises, for about $32 a person, without wine. Appetizers like=20
consomm=E9 of hare with wild mushrooms, or fricass=E9 of asparagus and=20
artichokes in a peppery sauce fleshed out with a flaky phyllo packet=20
of boned calves' feet can be followed by andouillette sausage of=20
boneless pigs' feet with c=E8pes, braised lamb's tongue fragrant with=20
sherry, and game in season. Pain perdu (French toast) with warm=20
clementines made a lovely dessert, as did the vanilla pot-de-cr=E8me=20
with madeleines.

The owners, Oliver Gaslain and Jo=EBl Homel, are so proud of their=20
limited but well-chosen wine list that they serve no water. But it is=20
available, self-service, from a tap near the bar. Schtick, French=20