French Restaurants

February 9th, 2016 § 2 comments § permalink

HG is very fond of French restaurants but hates over rich, over composed, exuberantly expensive haute cuisine. HG despises tasting menus that turn meals into marathons and leave HG feeling stuffed and queasy. In France, HG likes simple bourgeois cooking (Found, alas, in a diminishing number of bistros) and brasserie staples like oysters and grillades. (HG/BSK loved the seafood at Le Bocal and Boulingrin during a recent visit to Rheims. In Paris, Le Stella remains a favorite for plateau de fruits de mer and racks of lamb). HG recalls with nostalgia New York of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when there were numerous very cheap and very satisfying French bistros. HG was inaugurated into French dining during the World War Two years when HG’s late, beloved sister Beulah Naomi would lunch with adolescent HG at Larre’s in the West 50’s. Very cheap. Fifty cents bought a four course meal (Plus salad). Tables were filled with French teachers and Francophone refugees. HG later learned that a distinguished trio of artists–Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell and Andre Breton–dined there daily. HG and his sister would also eat at the modestly priced Charles a la Pommes Souffle. As the name indicates, the restaurant specialized in delicious crisp and airy potato puffs. They are no longer on New York menus and in very few Paris restaurants. They demand total attention while cooking and are labor intensive. The West 40’s in the Theater District had numerous French bistros. Only one, Chez Napoleon, remains. Happily, it offers true grand mere cuisine including one of HG’s favorite dishes, Cervelles Meuniere–calf brains sautéed in brown butter with capers. During HG’s college days (CCNY–1946-1950) and journalist days (1950-1955) HG confined French dining to the very cheap, very robust bistros on 10th and 11th Avenues in the West 50’s. The ocean liners were still docking on the West Side Piers and these restaurants catered to French, English and Dutch crews. A big meal cost about three dollars and featured lots of innards like liver, kidneys, hearts, gizzards and tete de veau. It was in these rough and ready joints that HG cultivated a taste for dishes not favored by mainstream America. As HG’s finances improved in the mid-’50s and the ’60s, HG favored the delightful (Long closed) Fleur de Lis on West 69th Street (It was here on a hot summer night in 1963 that HG and BSK dined on their wedding night. The temperature was soaring and HG finished dinner smelling like a large garlic clove. Made BSK question her marital choice). During their residency on the Upper West Side, HG/BSK ate frequently (when not consuming Chinese food) at Fleur de LIs. HG’s favorite meal–a dozen escargots, frog legs meuniefre, camembert, creme caramel, red wine–cost about ten dollars. Once a month, HG lunched at what HG considered (and still does) the best French restaurant in the world, Le Pavillon. Curiously, for many years the two best French restaurants were not in France–Le Pavillon in New York and the Connaught Restaurant in London. Henri Soule ran Le Pavillon with Napoleonic imperiousness and rigorous attention to detail. HG’s dining companion was often the late Theodore Kheel, the distinguished lawyer and labor arbitrator. Soule opened the restaurant in 1941. He died in 1966. The restaurant closed in 1971 but it was only a shadow of itself after his death. One of HG’s regrets is that due to pregnancy and other circumstances, BSK never dined at Le Pavillon with HG. Dining at Soule’s with the love of HG’s life would have been a sublime experience.


Reims Dining:

Brasserie du Boulingrin

November 30th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Paris brasseries have entered a sad period. Once delightful places like La Coupole, Vaudeville, Bofinger, Balzar, Flo have been purchased by giant restaurant chain-conglomerates and now roll out industrialized food. Glittering decor and fresh oysters can still be relied upon. But, that’s it. The old time hip, lively and happy atmosphere has disappeared. Only Le Stella in the 16th keeps the old traditions. Its carte is a virtual parade of traditional dishes: Tete de veau; steak tartare; sole meuniere; choucroute; Iceland herring; steak frites; ile flottante, etc. The affluent residents of the 16th have impeccable manners but restraint is cast off when they confront Stella’s vast plateau de fruits de mer. In Reims, the Brasserie du Boulingrin maintains the old brasserie spirit. Art deco interior. Smoked glass and mirrors. Red leatherette banquettes. Young, smiling waitpersons. Dinner conversations are animated but the noise level is kept at a civilized pitch (This seems characteristic of French restaurants in contrast to their noisy American counterparts). On a second visit, HG sipped a cold, dry Muscadet, while devouring a dozen big, briny oysters. This was followed by very generous servings of sole meuniere. Two large fish were deboned deftly by the young woman serving HG/BSk. The filets were gilded by spoonfuls of buttery lemon cooking juices. Served with bowls of buttered boiled potatoes dusted with parsley. Dessert was, in keeping with Boulingrin’s generosity, dinner plate-sized creme brûlées. HG sipped an after dinner glass of cold Mirabelle and reflected upon the good fortune of having a splendid wife, a loving family and an appetite geared to the delights of old fashioned brasserie dining. HG interrupted this happy contemplation with a bout of severe envy as he watched a choucroute garnie presented to a young man at an adjoining table. The platter of kraut, sausages and pork was kept warm under a glass dome. This single portion seemed large enough to feed a platoon of Prussian Hussars. HG vowed to sample it if HG ever makes it back to Reims and Boulingrin.Restaurant-Reims-13

Happy Sunday

January 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The other Sunday, HG prepared for pro football AFC and NFC playoffs by making HG’s version of steak tartare. Using a big, sharp chef’s knife and HG’s trusty Chinese cleaver, a half pound of totally lean beef tenderloin was chopped—not too coarsely, not too fine. This was mixed with plenty of minced sweet onion, anchovies, capers, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, Keen’s English Mustard, dash of ketchup, dash of tabasco. Topped with a raw egg yolk for a final mixing. HG Steak Tartare might not be approved by the steak tartare classicists in such Paris eateries as Le Stella, La Rotonde and Severo, but its robust, spicy flavor enlivens HG’s palate. Thusly, HG settled down before the TV with the meat treat, sliced ciabatta and a cold Sam Adams Ale. HG’s two favorite teams are the Denver Broncos (HG/BSK lived in Denver and environs for 26 years) and Seattle Seahawks (HG/BSK had homes in Vancouver, B.C., for more than ten years and consider Seattle Vancouver’s sister city). Broncos and Seahawks won. HG’s spirits (and stomach) were happy. Now, what should HG eat for the Super Bowl?


Paris: Day Seven (Le Stella)

January 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Joy. Back to Le Stella, HG/BSK’s favorite brasserie in Paris. Loacted in the posh 16th arondissement, Le Stella serves a virtual encyclopedia of the great dishes of classic bourgeois cuisine — the type of food Moms, Aunts and Grannies of a certain class put together for family dining. On the other hand, Stella also serves, perhaps, the best oysters, shrimps, clams and other sea critters in a manner you would never eat at home. You can see them all stacked on Ice at the entrance to the brasserie on Rue Victor Hugo. As long time habitues, HG/BSK and Beautiful Granddaughter Sofia were greeted with welcoming kisses, hugs and handshakes from Christian, one of Le Stella’s elegant and capable managers.(Sofia received her first ever hand kiss). Chilled white Sancerre was poured and the party was off to the races. A plateau de fruits de mer containing the freshest, briniest oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, langoustines, bulots, tiny snails, etc. To follow: Poached raie smothered in capers, fish broth and melted butter (plus some boiled potatoes) for HG. BSK/BGS tucked into a rack of lamb (cooked to the proper shade of pink) that rested on a very generous mound of buttery haricot verts. Crisp pommes frites. Much red Fleurie was poured. Dessert was light and luscious ile flottane. A magical meal in the great down home Paris tradition.


The Eternal Le Stella

July 30th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Le Stella is a brasserie/bistro on Avenue Victor Hugo in the very affluent, posh 16th Arondissement of Paris. Few tourists among the conservatively dressed, well mannered clientele — mainly residents of the neighborhood who are as conservative in politics as they are in dining habits. No Asian, Italian, Spanish or (heaven forbid) American influences have invaded the kitchen. The menu is pure Eternal France. As one food writer has put it: “The dishes are what Grandma would have cooked (if she was a very good cook) or what would be on the menu if you took Grandma out for Sunday dinner.” Like any proper brasserie, Stella has a vast bank of oysters, other bivalves and crustaceans outside the entry door, manned by guys with striped shirts, fisherman’s hats and shucking instruments (of course, a rugged Breton fisher-guy selling oysters is a clear signifier of the freshness of the seafood). HG/BSK have often launched their dinners there with some oysters and a bowl of bulots (sea snails) with freshly made mayonnaise. If HG wishes a light repast he moves on to pickled herring with potato salad. Then soupe de poisson (with some assertive rouille). Cheese course is rich St. Marcellin (accompanied by a glass of the very nice house Bordeaux). Finale is the sumptuous Ile Flottante. A glass of Vielle Prune (a strong digestif). At other times HG chooses steak tartare with pommes frites; tripes a la mode de caen; blanquette de veau; choucroute (a Wednesday special); tete de veau (admittedly a special taste); grilled pig’s foot. And, there are times when HG switches from an oyster starter to diving into sizzling escargots or the more delicate pleasures of smoked salmon with blini or a frisee salad. A happy choice is to share a carre d’agneau (rack of lamb) with BSK, a lady who is an adventurous eater but has not developed a passion for tripe or the interior and exterior of a calf’s head. Service, under the supervision of manager Christian, is friendly and professional. One warning: On a visit to Stella (without HG/BSK) intrepid SJ ordered the Andouilette, a house specialty. SJ thought this was a spicy, New Orleans-type pork sausage. Wrong. Stella’s Andouilette is a chitterling sausage, a sausage with rather intense barnyard odors and the distinct flavor of pig shit. Like fressing up tiny little song birds, this is one French food passion HG (and SJ) doesn’t share.



November 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

When HG was a very, very little boy lamb chops were his favorite dish. The little guy called them “ompalomps.” HG hated spinach. So, his cunning Mom buried the spinach in buttery mashed potatoes and HG consumed every drop. Okay, enough sickeningly cute kiddy memories. Lamb chops remain an HG favorite. Best lamp chops ever were the chops at Leon Lianides’ great Greenwich Village restaurant, the Coach House. The rack of lamb was also wonderful there, only matched by the rack at Le Stella, the Paris brasserie. But the marvel, the ultimate not-to-be-equalled rack is found at an unlikely place: The Grand Hotel Restaurant in Big Timber, Montana. HG discovered it because Big Timber is midway, between Denver and Vancouver, so it was a logical place to stop when motoring between the two cities. At the Grand Hotel you accompanied the lamb with a robust red wine from Walla Walla, Washington (HG thinks Wall Walla has the best red in the universe). Another favorite of lamb lovers is the mutton chop at New York’s venerable Keen’s Chop House. You can get it with Yorkshire Pudding and it is a treat. (The old Gage & Tollner’s in Brooklyn served their mutton chop with corn fitters, a nice idea). BSK likes to butterfly a leg of lamb, marinate it in red wine, garlic and herbs and then barbecue it to crusty perfection. Serves it with Greek Avoglemono sauce (eggs and lemon juice are the principal ingredients). Big time gourmandizing.

Is Paris Overrated?

June 5th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

The answer to this question is: Yes and No. If you are talking about food and the price/quality ratio, New York tops Paris. Also, Paris is, for the the most part, a one trick pony. True, many of Paris’ most edgy restaurants and 3 Star Shrines have increased the use of Asian spices and cooking techniques to touch on a type of fusion cuisine; but overall, what you get in the majority of Paris Restaurants is French food. With the exception of Moroccan, other ethnic cuisines are dumbed down to suit conservative Parisian tastes. Compare that to New York which has three distinct Chinatowns each with an enormous amount of eating spots. There are whole neighborhoods in Queens (and in other boroughs) devoted to ethnic dining: Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Argentine and Colombian, Russian, Jamaican — and much more. And those are just the outer boroughs. Within Manhattan itself, you are able to go on a veritable world cuisine tour in just a 4 block radius. And, yes, great Jewish pastrami still lives in, alas, fewer and fewer places. Makes Paris seem very provincial. Small town. In addition, New York has steak houses like Peter Luger’s and Spark’s that are true carnivore heavens.

But, Paris still has that indefinable something, Call it charm. Call it elan. Call it sparkle. Whatever. HG is thinking about late night meals at the art deco brasserie Le Vaudeville which seemingly hums with joy and the promise of good times. Brass. Aged, cigarette-smoke stained marble. Perfect lighting. Or, dinner at the brasserie Le Stella on posh Rue Victor Hugo. Low voices. Women who know how to tie scarves. Men in well cut tweeds or blazers. Soaring towers of fruits de mer. Or, the died-and-gone-to-heaven grilled sole drenched in the best butter at Le Dome. Or, the intimacy, warmth and sheer sexiness of many small bistros serving unassuming food. There was a left bank place called Balzar where the clientele and atmosphere were so diverting that the so-so food was forgiven. (Taken over by a chain some years ago, HG does not know if the place still pleases). Other Paris pluses: Steak tartare (always bad in New York); Belon oysters; blood sausage (boudin noir); tete de veau and offal. (An exception: Paris tripe doesn’t compare to New Mexico menudo as served by places like El Parasol near Santa Fe).

Probably, the most beguiling quality about Paris restaurants is their sheer professionalism. No surprise. The restaurant, as we know it, was invented in Paris. But, if your interest is in variety and getting a dining bang for your buck, New York is incomparable. Yes, “What street compares to Mott Street in July, sweet pushcarts gently gliding by?”. But, an after dinner walk in Paris with the Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance is nothing to sneer at.

HG: Steak Patriot

April 29th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG rarely waves the flag, believing, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, that patriotism is the last refuge of fools and knaves. However, when it comes to steak, HG is a red-blooded, Yankee Doodle boy. Nothing compares to American steak (prime,of course). HG never had a good steak in Paris. Much lauded steak frites in a Paris bistro would get thumbs down from discerning New Yorkers (men and women who learned to eat steak on Steak Row and at Peter Luger’s). Alec Lobrano, the most informed and fair minded of Paris food writers, likes the steak at Le Severo in that city. HG and BSK sampled the steak there and found it only passable. However, steak tartare at Severo and at Le Stella and many other Paris eateries is exemplary. German restaurants in New York prepared great steak tartare in years gone by (Luchow’s covered its steak tartare with a generous layer of black beluga caviar). The great raw beef dish disappeared along with New York’s most fabled German restaurants.

If you rent an apartment in Paris, visit the Hugo Desnoyer butcher shop in the 14th and buy a rump steak (Lobrano’s suggestion) and grill it at home. And, if you’re renting a New York apartment, pick up a New York strip at Lobel’s on Madison Avenue. One pound strip: $47.98. (Hey, you only live once).

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