Paris: Bar Le Passage

Bar Le Passage, 39 Rue Boissy d’Anglas (Place de la Madeleine), 75008 Paris, France, 01 42 65 56 66

I’ll admit that Taillevent is a very hard act to follow. Apparently, Alain Senderen, one of the other highly rated chefs in Paris, doesn’t it feel the necessity of trying. A day or so after the blissful lunch at Taillevent, I decided to try the slightly down-market, upstairs luncheon spot above his esteemed eponymous restaurant. The entrance to Bar Le Passage is a few feet inside the rounded portal in the photo above.

After lunch, I wondered whether Le Passage was where Senderen trained chefs and servers for service in the restaurant below. Or maybe he just doesn’t care all that much about the food and the service above. He figures people who come there are eating his name more than his food.

I had two dishes for lunch. The first was a round, flat-topped mound of minced veal and crayfish tartare, mixed with a light and creamy mustard dressing, that sat next to a gummy wad of cellophane rice noodles dressed with lemon zest and chives. The second dish arrived in a shallow bowl. At first glance, it looked the bowl held nothing but cream froth. When the foam subsided, I saw millions of vanilla seeds in cream settling over a square thin sheet of pasta enveloping and tucked under large chunks of lobster and chiffonade of spinach. The pure flavors of cream, vanilla, lobster, and spinach didn’t exactly sound majestic chords of flavor but they communicated with each other in an interesting conversation.

A hostess seated me in a lilac-hued room whose walls were decorated with stencilled tree branches. From the ceiling hung clear plastic squares with trees (if I remember correctly) etched on them. The decor was what you might expect in an Ikea cafeteria — modern and cheap. The service was indifferent. I saw another room where lunch parties were seated.

Nothing I ate made me curious to experience the cooking below, although the dishes on the lunch menu are the same as in the restaurant, as far as I could tell. The servers did not make me want to put myself in their care again. Alain Senderen does not seem to care what is happening above his shop.

Paris: Bistro Poulbot

Bistro Poulbot, 39, rue Lamark, 01 46 06 86 00 (a short walk from the Lamark-Caullaincourt métro stop).

Although I see no point in ever again renting a flat in Montmartre (too far from the center, too hilly, too uninteresting once you’ve seen the birthplace of modernism), I found a good place to eat. Bistro Poulbot is the laboratory of a chef named Véronique Melloul. She runs a very efficient operation. Food arrives promptly. The plates are decorous. The male server is correct, attentive, and friendly with a hint of aloofness, like a benign ghost hovering over you. To judge by the number of locals walking by who stopped to read the menu outside during the day, it’s probably new in the neighborhood. But it’s already popular. Reserve ahead. Although popular, no one hurried me, eating by myself and taking up a table for two.

My first course, bouchons rattes de l’escargot et pommes de terre, arrived in a round earthenware dish with twelve holes for snails. It looked like a traditional dish of escargot with parsley, garlic and olive oil. And it was, only the chef added one little cube of potato to each hole. The flavors were the same, but I felt like I’d eaten a slightly more substantial dish than escargots usually are. A sly way of stretching a traditional dish.

Next, the server put in front of me a plate of fondant de joue de boeuf. I saw a dark, round pan-fried patty, about an inch and a half high, with a hard, crusty surface. When I pierced the surface of the patty, I feared for a moment that it would explode. Hot juice oozed out, a harbinger of the succulent and tender shredded beef cheeks inside. Next to it sat a Chinese soup spoon with pomegranite sauce. On the other side lay four baby carrots and four baby asparagus alongside a braised shallot. The bittersweetness of the pomegranite blended well with the juicy fatness of the meat juice.

For dessert, I ate crumble de pain, fruits d’hiver, crème anglaise, noisettes, that is to say, a winter fruit crumble. Poached pear, dried apricots and cherries, and crushed hazelnuts, topped with bread crumbs, went smoothly with the dollop of whipped cream and the very thin puddle of crème anglaise. A little more cream would have made it a voluptous dessert.

Bistro Poulbot looks and feels like a traditional bistro. Dark wood wainscotting and chairs, etched frosted glass at the entry way, and a floor of small black and white tiles. Twenty-five seats make it a cozy place. So, if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth a visit.

Paris: Taillevent

Taillevent, 15 rue Lamonnais, email: resa@taillevent.com, 01 44 95 15 01

It made no difference to my two friends and me that we walked into Taillevent’s main dining room in the immediate wake of Jacques Chirac, the former president of the French Republic. Ted (very natty in his tie and jacket), Joby (elegant as usual), and I were terrified that this famously expensive, highly acclaimed restaurant would let us down. Powerful people like Chirac probably take restaurants like Taillevent for granted. In the two weeks prior to our date with gastronomic destiny, the three of us had eaten some pretty good meals in unpretentious restaurants that we could claim were the real deal. Was our lunch at one of the top restaurants of the world going to seem stuck-up? Or would it replicate the blissful feeling we’d all experienced at the French Laundry?

I’m happy to report that our lunch was worth every penny (95 euros, 4 courses, and four glasses of wine selected to complement each course). To start with the superficial, the decor was very different from what I expected. Think of a club room, only lighten the wood panelling to maple. Modern upholstery, sleek lines created by crisp white tablecloths. We shared the dining room with apparently very wealthy business and political men with a business woman here and there.

We sat down prepared to act fiscally responsible and go straight to the fixed lunch menu. But the à la carte menu and the tasting menu sorely tested us.

The à la carte list was short:

  • Noix de coquilles Saint-Jacques et olives de Lucques en salade d’hiver (Scallops Saint-Jacques and Luccan olives in a winter salad) – 64 euros.
  • Mousseline de pomme ratte, oeuf de poule et truffe noire (a mousse of fingerling potato with egg and black truffle) – 110 euros.
  • Epeautre du Pays de Sault en risotto à la truffe noire (spelt risotto with black truffles)- 120 euros.
  • Homard et châtaignes cuisinés en cocotte lutée (pastry-covered lobster and chestnut bisque — I think) — 120 euros.
  • Soufflé au chocolat (self-evident) – 30 euros.

Right. Then we looked at the tasting menu.

For 190 euros (or about $260), we could have the tasting menu:

  • Rémoulade de tourteau à l’aneth, sauce fleurette citronnée (remoulade of dill oil with a lemony hollandaise sauce)
  • Langoustine croustillante, marmelade d’agrumes et thé vert (fried crayfish with green tea and citrus marmelade).
  • Epeautre du Pays de Sault en risotto, cuisses de grenouilles dorées (spelt risotto with grilled frogs’ legs).
  • Rouget barbet poêlé, artichauts poivrade en barigoule (braised mullet fish, artichokes in a sauce made of mushrooms and crushed peppercorns.
  • Canard de Challans rôti aux épices, fruits et légumes caramelisés (Roasted duck with caramelized spices, fruit and vegetables).
  • Ossau Iraty, confiture de cerises noires (cheese with a black cherry paste)
  • Gourmandise à l’ananas, mousse à la Pina Colada (a tasty morsel of banana and Pina Colada mousse).
  • Palet au chocolat, parfumé au Rooibo (little chocolates flavored with Rooibo).

Nope. Fiscal responsibility lazily reared its sage head.

Here’s what we ate:

The amuse bouche, something in form between a mousse and a foam, was made of  fish stock (but not shellfish stock) and had a tiny little dab of lemon sorbet on top.

Ted had Langoustines et avocat en tartare: minced crayfish formed in a circle mold sitting on a thin, bright green avocado sauce. The bite Ted gave me had a burst of salmon roe. Doesn’t sound extraordinary, but it was delicious. Ted drank a glass of white wine, a fruity Reuilly.

Joby and I had ravioli de foie gras de canard: four little ravioli, filled with liquid foie gras that exploded in our mouths. They were barely immersed in a rich veal broth and sprinkled with grated black truffle. We drank a crisp, slightly sweet sauvignon blanc.

Joby’s main course was hands down the best. But when they put her plate in front of her, she was a little disappointed and we were for her. It didn’t look like much. Centered on the white china plate was a round and decoratively topped puff pastry that looked like a small circus tent. Then, one of our servers (we had two or three) ladled a sauce around one side of it that looked as thick and dark as chocolate. Inside the pastry contained shredded duck and duck liver. The sauce was Rouennaise, which means it was made with a red Bordeaux wine and pureed duck liver. I must confess once I had a bite I nearly shoved her off the banquette and took control of her plate. But I restrained myself. She drank a glass of very good Crozes Hermitage, which I also envied.

But I had a slice of exquisitely flavored veal on roasted baby root vegetables in a wine reduction. Ted had the same. We drank a pinot noir from Burgundy.

When we reached the cheese course, they brought us a plate with one large prune braised in Banyuls, the sweet wine from southwestern France (to die for), and a mousse made of one of my favorite blue cheeses, Fourme d’Ambert.

For dessert, we all had the same thing: a passion fruit cut in half, scooped out completely, and filled with batter made with the pulp that became a passion fruit soufflé. They looked like light brown toadstools. Along side was passion fruit sorbet.

We languidly reviewed the meal over a concluding coffee. What impressed us most was how friendly and welcoming the staff was. Chirac received no better service than we did. No snobbery, no looking down on us as Americans or even as tourists. The service was superb.

This lunch entered my Pantheon of top five lifetime meals. Maybe even top three, French Laundry, La Mirande in Avignon (under a previous chef than the current one, and Taillevent.

We left Taillevent on such a high that, slightly giddy, we wandered down the Champs-Élysées, around the Madeleine, strolled into a private art gallery with an impressive collection of 19th c. stuff (Renoir, Redon, Cassatt, Corot, Bonnard) and floated towards the metro. The sky, cloudy in spots, bright in others, created the kind of light people notice is particular to Paris. The city looked so beautiful. We kissed cheeks, waved, and descended slowly underground.