David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 12 May 08 08:01
We're delighted to introduce our next guest, Alexander Lobrano. A Connecticut Yankee, Alec moved to Paris via Buenos Aires, Boston, New York and London 23 years ago to work as a writer for Fairchild Publications (W Magazine, etc.). It was the food not the frocks that rocked him when he got to Paris, and after going free-lance, he's written for every major food and travel magazine in the U.S. and U.K. European correspondent for GOURMET since 2000, Lobrano has also won several James Beard awards for food writing. Praised by Alice Waters as "a wonderful guide to eating in Paris," his book HUNGRY FOR PARIS, The Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants, was published by Random House in April 2008. Leading the conversation with Alec is Kay Hardy. Kay has been a Paris-phile since she took her first trip to France at age 16. She returned to Paris for a college semester in the fall of 1968, just missing the spring student uprising. She has continued to visit The City of Light at least once a year for the past 15 years, where she thoroughly enjoys both the food and the photographic opportunities (see her pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/khardy/sets/72157603762961340/). On The WELL, she hosts the <france.> conference, as well as cohosting <chow.ind.> <travel.> and <beatles.> Welcome, Alec and Kay!
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Mon 12 May 08 10:44
Bonjour de Paris, and it's a pleasure to be here. As we begin our conversation, I'd like to share some good news and refute a general impression that I found during my recent book tour in the USA--that Paris has become perilously expensive for foodlovers. Sure, the dollar's very soggy at the moment, but as far as I'm concerned Paris still offers better value than most large American cities when it comes to the middle-of-the-road $30-$40 meal. A good example, from my book HUNGRY FOR PARIS, is Hier et Aujourd'hui, where you can get a great meal for about $35. Then there's the 14 Euro lunch menu at Au Vieux Chene, etc., etc. The fact is, Paris remains a terrifically affordable place for foodlovers. Do you have an favorite budget address you'd like to share?
kayili! (kayo) Mon 12 May 08 23:12
Hi Alec, and let me start by saying that your book was a pleasure to read. I skipped around from arrondissement to arrondissement and ... well, I'm looking forward to some good food on my next visit, and a reason to visit new neighborhoods. On my last trip I went to Le Coin de Verre in the 10th. A funky, convivial place -- we were in a room with a big fireplace, old wooden tables. Plates of sausages, bottles of wine, big dish of potee, andouiette if you like that. Those $30 dinners can become a lot more expensive if you like to drink wine -- but every night doesn't have to be a party night. Anyway, it's definitely not in a touristed part of town -- we walked over from the Belleville metro, and saw lots of small North African bars and even some nightclubs. I'd send friends who like sausage. Another moderately priced restaurant that I always go to is Chez Leon, a couscous restaurant that used to be on the Blvd Beaumarchais and now is on the rue de Lyon, not too far from the train station. Their grilled meats are good, it's great to get a big pot of vegetables, but... the desserts are the stars at Chez Leon. The coup Leon is an almond cake with sabayon ice cream, toasted almonds and a shot of cognac to pour over. Finally, it makes me smile to see you mention Aux Vieux Chene. I haven't been recently, but in the past my friends lived nearby and it was their neighborhood hangout. A prix fixe dinner was 20 dollars, including an enormous and excellent cheese plate. Now that was a bargain meal. I am looking forward to hearing about lots of other moderately priced restaurants, but in the meantime I hae a question for Alec: in your introduction you say "in any given week in Paris,I usually try a halfdozen new restaurants and return to a few more old favorites." Does this mean you generally eat in a restaurant 10 times a week? By new restaurants, do you mean new to you or new to Paris, and how do you find out about them? What was your most exciting recent discovery?
kayili! (kayo) Mon 12 May 08 23:15
(Also, I know that Vieux Chene has changed hands at least twice since I was last there; I was reminiscing about the good old days, not suggesting that a 20 dollar prix fixe dinner of that sort exists anywhere, anymore).
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Tue 13 May 08 00:28
Hi Kayo, Re Au Vieux Chene (7 rue de Dahomey, 11th, 01.43.71.67.69), it has changed hands several times within the last few years. The current chef owner is Stephane Chevassus, and he's not only a terrific cook but a great host as well. If I love this place because the food's so good, and so reasonably priced, I also go back again and again because it's such a good time. Re my girth-busting weekly dining schedule--Yup, believe it or not, I do eat out on an average of ten times a week, and as glorious as this may sound to some, I'd point out that not every meal is a success and that some of them are awful! What I try to do, however, is never go out for meals on Saturday or Sunday, preferring to go to the organic market on the boulevard des Batignolles on Saturday morning, stock up, and then cook all weekend. I love to cook, and can't imagine a credible food writer who doesn't. My latest find is La Bigarrade (106 rue Nollet, 17th, 01.42.26.01.02), a tiny storefront place in the 17th arrondissement, where chef Christophe Pele and his assistant cook fabulous food in a miniscule open kitchen. The menu, which is a single tasting menu of 7 or 8 dishes, changes all of the time, but my last meal included scallop tartare in a soy-sauced-spiked sabayon with microscopic orange zest and tiny almost invisible sprigs of escarole; a sublime bon-bon of roasted foie gras in red-cabbage juice with cockles, cockle foam and lemon brioche; steamed cod with caille de brebis (fresh ewes milk cheese), puree of preserved lemon and asparagus; and a terrific little filet of rare-cooked Spanish free-range pork with a slaw of carrot, daikon and reglisse root and mocha cardamom cream with nougat marcapone and a crispy wand of pain depices (spice bread). Fabulous!
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Tue 13 May 08 14:24
More on saving pennies, or dollars, in Paris. Friends from Cape Town arrived in Paris this morning, and I gave them my usual primer in what to do and not do in Paris restaurants when you're on a budget. 1) Eat your main meal at noon when many restaurants have good-value lunch menus. 2) Share a first course and a dessert--it won't raise eyebrows. 3) Drink tap water. By French law, every restaurant is obligated to bring you a carafe of water if you request. Just say, "Une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." 4) Drink the house wine. In a wine producing country like France, it's very rare that it's not better than average. 5) Unless it's a gorgeous sunny day and you're willing to cough up a little extra money to sit at a table, drink your coffee standing at the bar in any cafe. The standing price is cheaper than the seated one. 6) Always ask the price of any wine-by-the-glass. Wine-by-the-glass is still a new phenomenon in Paris, and some restaurants try to get away with murder by charging a stiff fee for a single glass when you haven't seen a printed price. 7) Eat ethnic while in Paris. Paris's largest and busiest Asian neighborhood is due south of the Place d'Italie in the 13th arrondissement, and it's a terrific place for bargain hunters. 8) Picnic! On a gorgeous summer day, nothing beats shopping one of the city's open-air markets for a picnic. One of my favorite picnic spots is the western tip of the Ile de la Cite where Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire danced in "An American in Paris." Ciao--or should I say, chow? Alec
lmc (lmc) Tue 13 May 08 21:30
hi alec, welcome to the WELL! looking forward to reading this topic and your book.
kayili! (kayo) Tue 13 May 08 22:32
Well, as for ethnic cuisine, you include le Bambou, in the 13th [70 rue Baudincourt, metro Tolbiac] as a superior example of Saigon style cooking. Every time I go to Paris I mean to try Vietnamese food, but... I work in the Vietnamese neighborhood of San Francisco and eat good vietnamese food maybe three times a week. We have restaurants from various regions of Vietnam. There used to be a couple of Viet/French restaurants, but I think they're long gone. Is there anything special about Vietnamese restaurants in Paris? It seems like an ideal opportunity for french/asian fusion. Any thoughts on this? I'd love to try something different in Paris, but I feel the restaurants here set a pretty high standard. And while we're on the subject of Asian cuisine in Paris, why are the Chinese restaurants so bad? And is sushi fetishized the way it is here?
kayili! (kayo) Tue 13 May 08 22:47
Oh, and I wanted to say I very much enjoyed your story of your first real night at home in Paris, wandering out in a snowstorm, and ending up at Brasserie Balzar. It's just perfect -- a stranger being taken into a warm and welcoming traditional french restaurant, and getting good food (and a bottle of wine!). It made me think of AJ Liebling, _Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris_. Anyway, you note that many of the old brasseries have been bought by a couple of chains, and have become not so good. I think I read that someone recently bought Brasserie Balzar and it's good again ... ?
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Wed 14 May 08 02:45
In general, I tell people to avoid the brasseries in Paris these days, because as I explain in HUNGRY FOR PARIS, they're mostly owned by one of two chains. A few of them still serve serviceable food, though, including Le Vaudeville in the 2nd arrondissement, which is much more Parisian than the touristy and not very good La Coupole and Bofinger, and Le Stella in the 16th arrondissement. It's true that the food at the Balzar isn't as good as it used to be, but I make an exception for this place because it has such wonderful atmosphere and people-watching. Last night, I was also impressed by the food at Le Congress, a well-heeled brasserie not far from the venue of the upcoming Rolland Garros tennis matches--wonderful oysters (yes, you can eat them year-round), decent steak tartare, a nice strawberry "soup" (strawberries in their own juice seasoned with Szechuan pepper) and decent wines by the carafe.
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Wed 14 May 08 02:49
Re Asian food in Paris, I think the Bambou is very much worth going to for anyone who comes from a city that doesn't have good Vietnamese food. San Francisco and Washington, DC have great Vietnamese restaurants, but this wonderful cooking remains almost unknown in huge parts of the US. Re sushi, yes, it is very popular in Paris, but it's also shatteringly expensive, and aside from Isami on the Ile Saint Louis, I usually prefer to get my sushi fix when I go to New York or London.
kayili! (kayo) Wed 14 May 08 07:58
So, Alec, if a friend was coming in to Paris for three days, and asked for advice on restaurants, what would you suggest? Three days, six meals, one splurge. Say, a visitor from a major US city. Hmm, would your recommendations change if it was a visitor from Des Moines?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 14 May 08 08:40
(Note: Offsite readers with comments or questions may have them added to this thread by emailing them to <firstname.lastname@example.org> -- please be sure to put "Paris" in the subject line.)
Barbara Sewart Thomas (barst) Wed 14 May 08 09:30
I really enjoyed the book, Alec. I too loved your description of your first meal at Brasserie Balzar as well as the chapter about the history of the Brasserie. I ate at Balzar twice and, while they weren't the most wonderful meals I have ever had, they were good satisfying meals in a great atmosphere. I also enjoyed your review of La Grille. I went there with my husband when we were in Paris a year ago. I think the first mention of it that I heard was on the Well in the French topic with a link to a New York Times review. It was everything you said. I had their boeuf bourguignon and have never tasted any boeuf bourguignon anywhere that was quite that delicious. I still have a distinct memory of the way it tasted. As you said in the review, people better get there fast, because it probably won't be long before they retire. Here is a photo I took there: http://www.flickr.com/photos/barstphoto/516703761/in/set-409946/
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 14 May 08 10:05
What do you do for breakfast?
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 14 May 08 10:51
Wow, I wish I could've seen this book. Anyone who loves La Grille is okay with me. It inspired one of my favorite pieces of food writing I've done: <http://berlinbites.blogspot.com/2007/03/i-might-have-dreamed-this.html> And your money-saving tips are perfect. If the restaurant's pichet wine isn't any good, what you've just ordered isn't going to be, either. In fact, it tells you a lot about the place you're eating, the care with which it's selected. There's a lot of good cheap wine in France, and it's just as easy for a restaurant to serve it as it is to serve something dull or downright bad. I've also had good luck in way out-of-the-way parts of town, like the place I discovered down by the Convention Center at the Porte de Versailles. People who live there gotta eat somewhere! As for ethnic, do you know Senegalese food at all? I had some great stuff up in Barbes once that made me want to investigate further, but that was years ago. Do you know any good places open now?
La plus nouvelle poubelle (stet) Wed 14 May 08 11:34
for breakfast you join the fast-moving line moving through a place like the one near the corner of the rue croix de petits champs and the Rue Saint-Honoré and get a cup of coffee and a croissant for 1 euro. Just don't ask for jam or the server will frown. With training she will learn to give you a double coffee and croissant, though she will be dubious of the variation from the special.
kayili! (kayo) Wed 14 May 08 11:41
Breakfast is not a big deal in Paris, but yes the past couple of years I was there I went to the Bar au Metre, corner of rue Oberkampf and ... hmmm. Well anyway, excellent coffee, excellent croissants, and cheap. Half the people there are workers having what I think of as the traditional Parisian breakfast: a glass of red wine and a cigarette. Well, no cigarettes anymore.
kayili! (kayo) Wed 14 May 08 11:42
oh, and I pointed my friend Naomi in Paris to the topic and she sent me an email: Is the Stephane he mentions now running the Vieux Chene the former l'Ebauchoir waiter turned cook who we last saw cooking and semi-running Le Petit Porcheron, one of the Ebauchoir/Baron Rouge/Trois Petits Cochons/Bombis/La Liberte restaurants? I think we had heard they were thinking of taking over Le Vieux Chene--wait, in fact, the guy who runs La Boulangerie is part of that crowd. He was the last person running the VC. As you recall, when he wasn't there, it was not to be enjoyed. And I'm leery of the 14-euro lunch because many places are just microwaving Picard plates at that price. Other than that, if he's (Alec) been such a foody in Paris for so long, how come we've never run into him? Seems to me he must be eating in the wrong places! The only solution for a serious girl is to go have lunch at the VC asap, n'est-ce pas? Oh, my only comment on Vietnamese food is that your favorite place in Berkeley puts in way too much beef bouillon, as did a place in Oakland I tried many years ago. Monsieur Nhan's beef pho was much more subtle, though like French wine, if your used to the heavy California taste, what I'm now calling subtle I used to call flavorless. And good Chinese food can be expensive, since they do up a proper restaurant with cloth napkins and such.
La plus nouvelle poubelle (stet) Wed 14 May 08 11:46
and let me offer you one amendment to this excellent advice: >) Drink tap water. By French law, every restaurant is obligated to bring you a carafe of water if you request. Just say, "Une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." I recommend "Un carafe d'eau avec de glace, s'il vous plait."
La plus nouvelle poubelle (stet) Wed 14 May 08 11:48
also re: breakfast: as in Italy, if have your croissant and cafe standing up at the bar, instead of sitting down, it's much cheaper.
La plus nouvelle poubelle (stet) Wed 14 May 08 11:49
But Alec Lobrano - your job to find the best food in Paris - is this not a burdensome and frustrating occupation??? Serious question: have you read Bill Buford's "Heat," & if so, what did you think?
La plus nouvelle poubelle (stet) Wed 14 May 08 12:01
and the write-up of the Vaudeveille Cafe brought back fond memories http://www.well.com/user/stet/francepage-Pages/Image13.html http://www.well.com/user/stet/francepage-Pages/Image14.html
you can be my yoko ono (techgirl) Wed 14 May 08 15:36
this discussion is making me hungry. i'm feeling guilty for having not read your book yet, alec but it is next in my pile. i'm looking forward to the discussion here.
brady lea (brady) Wed 14 May 08 15:48
loving the start of this discussion so far too-- can't wait to here more. i've had the good fortune to go to paris with <kayo> twice now, and we ate very well both times. haven't had a chance to see the book yet but can't wait to now. if you have a free moment to explore other parts of the well, check out the independent food conference, chow.ind. it's about eating, cooking, various food and drink obsessions. in fact, because of chow.ind i've had some kind of random paris dinners with other well peeps like <mcb> <captward> and <dmd>.
Alexander Lobrano (aleclobrano) Wed 14 May 08 16:45
In response to La Plus Nouvelle Poubelle about the ardours of being a food writer, let me begin by saying that I can't tell you how much I loved your questions, since it recognizes that being a food writer is 1) a very serious profession 2) not always easy. In order to deliver my manuscript for HUNGRY FOR PARIS to Random House on-time, there were weeks last year, when I went out for both lunch and dinner for two weeks in a row. On the one hand, I love going to new restaurants, on the other, all I really wanted to do was stay home in my gym shorts and T shirt and make spaghetti carbonara, and this leads me to the usually unspoken horror of being professionally involved with food, which is that they're many times when you are eating when you're not hungry, ordering things you don't naturally like, and forced to try and maintain some sort of fair and sane equilibrium so that your critique will be solid, honest and useful. All of this being said, I absolutely love what I do, since it so perfectly fuses all of my major interests in reading and writing, eating and drinking, and meeting and watching people.
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