Paris: The Agony and the Ecstasy!

I just returned from a few days in Paris. It was a business trip. But even a busy business trip offers opportunity to enjoy some of the beauty and the grandeur that Paris offers. And, of course, to enjoy some of the wonderful food and wine that Paris offers.

The trip offered lessons learned and re-learned. First lesson. It is possible to spend a stunning amount of money on dining. Second, a stunning amount of money does not assure a fabulous meal. Third, it is not necessary to spend a stunning amount of money for a fabulous meal.

Perhaps not exactly dramatic revelations, but interesting. I was in Paris for four nights--so had four dinners. Three were at bistros. One was at a fine dining restaurant with a history of Michelin stars. Three were immensely satisfying. One was a bit disappointing.

The first night, two of us went to Les Cocottes--Christian Constant's casual bistro. Chef Constant had earned two stars for his fine dining restaurant...but thought it was unfortunate that many people were priced out of the opportunity to eat well. So he conceived of a far more casual, and less expensive, approach--Les Cocottes (which more or less translates to "the casseroles").

Les Cocottes takes no reservations. When I first visited, three years ago, the doors opened at 7 pm. The line started forming not long after 6:30...and by 7:15, the wait was perhaps an hour. Because of that popularity, the doors now open at 6:30. Seating is all at a bar--the restaurant is designed for efficiency. Service is brisk. Those used to "owning" their table for the whole evening may feel a bit rushed--the pause between courses is relatively brief--but the ability to turn seats several times is key to their business model...and to keeping prices affordable. The menu offers starters, mains and desserts...with perhaps a dozen options for each. And they offer a "special" for each that changes nightly. My experience is that perhapse 60%-70% of the patrons order the specials.

I did. And I was very pleased. I started with lovely white asparagus in an herbed vinaigrette. Those who have visited Europe during the relatively brief white asparagus season know how good it can be. Why we can't seem to offer it in the US is not obvious to me. There is sometimes white asparagus in our supermarkets. But it has normally traveled about 4,000 miles to get there--based on the lack of flavor, I'm guessing by slow boat. The flavors of this offering were subtle and elegant. All the mains are single pot dishes (cocottes) served in Staub pans that come straight from the oven to the table. I had scallops of veal with risotto. Rich and satisfying. The wine list is simple and straightforward. We shared a young bottle of Fleurie from Beaujolais. Fresh and enjoyable.

The next night, we met customers at Restaurant Laurent. The former hunting lodge just north of the Champs Elysees is absolutely lovely. It's a park-like setting that seems a world away from the nearby crowds. I've been before. Also with customers. I didn't see the bill that time. And I remember the food as good. I saw the bill this time.

There were no prices on the menu. If there had been, we mght have rebelled against the ~$100 for the scampi starter that the waiter promoted. The overall bill for dinner bordered on stunning (and that's without wine). The food did not. Perhaps part of that might be due to the fact that it was a Monday night--maybe the junior varsity was in the kitchen. But I think part of it is due to the proximity to tourism. My experience is that the closer you get to tourist sites in Paris, the higher the prices and the lower the quality. It's not 100% accurate...but close enough for me to adopt it as a guide.

The next night, we went to the "anti-tourist" restaurant: a tiny bistro down a narrow, winding street four or five blocks south of the Arc de Triomphe. It was called Le Hide--Hide Kobayashi is the name of the chef owner, who is originally of Japanese extraction. Reservations are definitely required...but weren't too difficult to get, as long as we were willing to eat early (by 7:30--the beginning of the French dinner hour--the restaurant was packed). Like Les Cocottes, there was a limited list of starters and mains...perhaps eight each. That list changes daily, based on what's fresh and good in the markets. We saw that first-hand, by going on consecutive nights (we spoke of it so highly that those who hadn't been lobbied for a return).

And both nights, the food was excellent. Not really surprising when you look at the chef's resumé. He has cooked under some of Paris' best--including Joël Robuchon. And when you visit his restaurant, he's in the kitchen doing the cooking. The first night, I started with escargots. Really good--steaming in garlic, parsley and butter inside a puff pastry shell. The second night, it was a big, luxurious hunk of seared fois gras. More than I cound eat. My mains were a rich beef stew, flavored with mustard, and a different take on veal and risotto. Everything was excellent.

The wine list was short, but pleasant. The first night, we started with a with a 2012 Chablis that was crisp, with sutble complexity. Then a 2009 St. Emilion that offered the rich approachability of the vintage. I didn't know the producers. It didn't matter. The wines were well-made. The second night, it was chenin blanc from Saumur in the Loire Valley and then a 2002 red from the Haut-Medoc. Again, very pleasant.

Oh...and the prices for the meals we had at Les Cocottes and Le Hide--including wine and dessert? About half what just the starter cost at Laurent. While these bistros are not exactly original discoveries (Les Cocottes was once featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations program and Le Hide comes highly recommended on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp) they are proof that the alleys and side streets of Paris do contain bistros that provide a really good dining experience at a fair price. Lots of them, actually.

And the hunt for them can be really fun!


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