Sunday, April 24, 2011

Casual dining wins in Paris

This afternoon I was reading another back issue of The Art of Eating by Edward Behr, a thin and independently published magazine that is all about good food and good restaurants all over the world. Coincidentally, one of the two back issues I brought on my trip with me featured the bistro Le Chateaubriand in Paris, a casual restaurant run by a young chef Inaki Aizpitarte.

Le Chateaubriand is a 50-seater restaurant in a pretty nondescript neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, and Inaki is a 30-something chef who's crazy about Brazil and whose parents come from the Basque country.


When the San Pellegrino 2011 list of the World's Top 50 Restaurants came out, I was very surprised to see Le Chateaubriand in the Top 10, and first as well among all restaurants in Paris. This was very hard to believe considering all the grand and also intimate and casual restaurants in Paris -- to think that Le Chateaubriand was selected ahead of Paris' large club of Michelin three-star and two-star stalwarts.

So it was interesting to read Mr Behr's take on Le Chateaubriand a full year-and-a-half before it's become world-famous. Now foodies the world over will have Le Chateaubriand on their minds and Paris trip schedules, and I'm sure that with the new San Pellegrino list, this small and unassuming restaurant will now be among the most impossible places in Paris to get a reservation at.


Paris has long been known for its very grand restaurants but much of its dining scene outside of these hallowed and serious temples of dining border on mediocre. Some people may disagree with me on this, but that's how I feel after countless trips. I eat very well if I go somewhere famous or occasionally to an unknown bistro if I'm lucky; but more often than not, the chances of good food outside of the Michelin guide are slim.

I personally believe that Paris has more lousy restaurants per square kilometer than many other major French cities simply because so many restaurants cater to the tourist market. Throw a stone in the St. Germain area, for example, and chances are it will land in front of a brasserie with so-so food rather than incredible food, happy to serve tourists they will most likely never see again.

Meanwhile, in the hills of the south of France or in my favorite Normandy, for example, more restaurants are probably good simply because they're also seeking business from fastidious and oftentimes tight-fisted locals. They just can't afford to be mediocre because they rely so much on local patronage.


Within the circle of grand restaurants, however, are some of the best restaurants in the world. Paris' Michelin-starred restaurants are truly pleasurable experiences because this is a city that takes its stars seriously. Some of my favorites include L'Ambroisie in the Marais district, Guy Savoy off the Champs Elysees, Le Pre Catelan in the Bois du Boulogne, Le Bristol in a hotel of the same name just behind the Elysees Palace and L'Astrance, which is actually near my Paris flat. I have very good memories of meals in each of these restaurants.

One of my last meals on my last trip to Paris was with six Filipinos from Manila at the Le Bristol -- it was the end of our second trip together to France in four months (we enjoyed our eating trip to Paris in late spring so much that we all returned in early fall), and we had such a wonderful time that I still keep a photograph of us at this meal on my Mac as my screensaver. I really hope we can all travel together again sometime soon -- and we actually might! My trip to Bordeaux later this year looks like it's going to coincide with my friends' plans.


However, back to the changing restaurant scene in Paris. Mr Behr has noted a trend in Paris in the past two years towards more casual restaurants that are not as hung up on getting or keeping Michelin stars. This probably has something to do with the global recession that hit in 2008 and made many previous free-spending fine diners re-think their budgets -- although master chefs Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire started their casual restaurants before 2008. And interestingly, their casual restaurants are across the street from each other in Paris' chic designer and home furnishings district.


Joel Robuchon's restaurant is one of my favorites in Paris and I eat here even when I'm by myself. I used to catch the evening flight out of Paris back to Asia and it was a little ritual for me to have a last lunch at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon even by myself on every trip, just before taking the car to the airport.

If I have enough time, I go for the proper tasting menu; but if I just have an hour or so and possibly want to get some last-minute shopping done in Bon Marche afterwards, I order one of their pastas. Yes, I know. This is a French restaurant in Paris and what am I doing ordering a pasta? But I've never been disappointed yet by any pasta I've orderd here so it's a great choice as far as I'm concerned. And a delicious lunch and a couple of glasses of wine at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon certainly take the edge off the long flight ahead.


The trend towards more casual dining can only be good, though, as this means more people will be able to enjoy delicious meals at more reasonable prices. A meal for two at a three-star Michelin restaurant, after all, can easily go upwards of 500 euros, whereas you can get by at a casual bistro for 50 euros per person. The atmosphere and service are not the same, of course, but neither is the bill. A single appetizer at L'Ambroisie, for example, costs 130 euros (and this was sometime back as I didn't visit Paris last year) and I remember being shocked that they were offering a slice of chocolate tart at close to 100 euros. However, the chocolate tart was billed as the most heavenly in the world so I just had to have it.


Appropriately, Le Chateaubriand was chosen as Paris' best restaurant above every single other grand restaurant in Paris. This fact probably made a lot of foodies who know their Paris fall off their seats, actually, but I'll bet Mr Behr is smiling to himself at making a very good call. Another person who called a couple of restaurants right in the San Pelli 2011 list is my serious foodie friend Jerome Velasco, Travelife's Hungry Traveler columnist, who travels and likes the good life as much as I do.

Last year Jerome ate at Noma in Copenhagen, the best restaurant in the world for two years in a row now (see his account in the Feb-March issue of Travelife); and he also went to Le Creations de Narisawa, Asia's best restaurant according to San Pellegrino (see his account in the Nov-Dec issue of Travelife).

The other day, between two countries as we were both traveling abroad, we were discussing the 2011 San Pellegrino list and he reminded me that he'd called Le Creations de Narisawa right. He also feels Noma is the best meal he's had so far -- which is a pretty big statement coming from him, but it seems it's spot on since it's been the #1 restaurant in the world for two years.

"I'm surprised to see Chateaubriand so high on this list, though, and ahead of all the great restaurants," I said to him. "I would never have chosen that." He replied, and I could almost feel him smiling at me with satisfaction through the phone at having called another restaurant right. He'd apparently been to Le Chateaubriand way before San Pelli put it on the international food map: "I've eaten there already. It's cheap and good, and certainly good value."

He ate at another upcoming restaurant somewhere in Asia the other day. "It's something like #100 now. But watch out for it. It will climb very fast. The meal was excellent."

* * *

At the end of the article on Paris' changing restaurant landscape, Mr Behr includes a Le Chateaubriand original recipe for an intriguing-sounding dish of beef with eggplants directly roasted on fire so that the skin becomes blistered and black as the eggplant is cooked. I usually don't follow recipes as I have no patience for measuring and timing things from a book when I cook, but perhaps this time will be an exception.


To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people


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