Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chez L'ami Jean, Paris

Paris is a gastronomical mecca which can be confusing to many foreigners who will likely have many questions. What's the difference between a brasserie and a bistro? What's a cassoulet? Are those really snails? Where can I get a great meal? Thankfully, most of your food related questions can be found (or if not found, asked and then answered) on Chowhound (CH). CH is the place I head to first before I dine at any restaurant in LA so that I can get the scoop on the popular dishes and the ones to avoid. So as a devoted Hound, naturally I headed over to the Paris site for recommendations. Thankfully the Paris CH board was English friendly and very informative. Apart from some three star joints that were raved about, Chez L'ami Jean popped up numerous times. Apparently the food is consistently good so we made a dinner reservation.

Chez L'ami Jean is located in the Invalides area on the Left Bank, with neighboring streets lined with patisseries and high end stores selling truffles (the fungi, not the chocolate). Unfortunately (or fortunately) it was a rainy night so we made a beeline for the restaurant without taking time to peruse the stores.

The restaurant is tiny and rather nondescript. The menu focuses on Basque cuisine with a number of fish and game options.

Like most other Parisian restaurants, they offered a three course prix fixe menu for 35€ and have many other items on the ala carte menu. Although they do not have an English menu, the waiters will translate it for you, albeit with a little haste.

Bread was served with a puree of white cheese mixed with cumin that tasted like hummus. Wine was very reasonably priced unlike at Paul Bert the night before.

Cream of egg with pied de mouton
No... don't get TOO excited, it's not feet of some animal but wild mushrooms. The cream was rich and sprinkled with some sort of fried lardons that gave the creamy concoction a nice crunch. As with most of their entrees, the dish was topped with foam. This is the first time I've seen foam in Paris and I'm glad they don't just do it at fancy Franco-Californian restaurants in LA. This was my favorite starter of the night because I loved the creaminess and the earthiness of the mushrooms together.

Pumpkin soup
The soup was poured from a pitcher that was left on the table for refills. I liked the soup because it was rather thin and viscous and not too heavy or creamy.

Razor clams with mushrooms
There was a nice serving of shellfish and the broth was light. Lovely presentation with ribbons of shaved radish of some sort.

Calamari with lentils
The calamari was tender and the lentils were cooked perfectly. We read somewhere that the calamari dishes at L'ami Jean were highly recommended and after tasting this dish, we concur. The prix fixe plat options included two fish, steak, pork and a veal kidney dish.

Cocotte de porcelet, joue, mignon et autres
This was the ultimate pork dish that included the belly, cheek and terrine served with cannelloni beans and mushrooms. I liked how you were served three different parts of the pig. The pork cheek as expected was tender and melt in your mouth. The belly was fatty and scrumptious. And the terrine, I thought, was a nice addition; It tasted like Asian salted pork (the kind served with braised cabbage) and was definitely up there on the salt meter but very flavorful. The beans were cooked till they were soft and easily mashed. I also loved the mushrooms which always goes well with a heavy meat dish. Everything in this dish was delicious and was meant to be on the plate.

The dish was served in a cast iron pot with more than another serving.

Bavette de race de choix, cuisiner aux anchois, jus de viande
Steak cooked with anchovies and topped with marrow. We haven't had a bad piece of steak on this trip; they have always been perfectly cooked. The marrow was tastier than the night before at Paul Bert and was the perfect spread on a piece of bread.

Flétan en épaisseur, pied de mouton sauter au lard
Flétan is a halibut and is a great selection if you aren't feeling the heavy wintery meat dishes. The fish wasn't dry and although was light, the mushrooms added some heaviness to the dish.

Two sides were brought over; mash potatoes and puree of celery. I liked the celery puree better as it was smoother and had a sweetness to it.

Le riz au lait; Rice pudding with caramel and salted butter, and salted nuts
This is their well known dessert and was served in a large mixing bowl big enough for the whole table. The rice was al dente and mixed in with milky vanilla bean mixture. The rice pudding was also served with a side of caramel butter sauce and some mixed nuts which really gave the dessert an extra layer of flavor. The saltiness of the nuts was a nice contrast to the mild sweetness of the pudding. Honestly, this rice pudding was so addictive that I kept scooping "my last serving" onto my plate.

La clinique vous a sauver, la florét noir vous fera sourire; Black forest dessert
Somehow I had expected this to be a black forest cake but instead it was more of a deconstructed parfait layered with the ingredients of a black forest dessert. Personally not my favorite as I never cared for the sweet cherries in a black forest cake.

Mont blanc de marron gourmand
Chestnut ice cream topped with macaron. Chestnut ice cream seems to be the seasonal choice during the holidays. I liked how the dessert was plated but I think my mom was disappointed with just one small scoop of ice cream instead of a "mont blanc".

If that huge pot of rice pudding wasn't enough, they also brought over cookies and macarons in a tin can. You could tell there was a lot of butter in this (which is a good thing!) as the cookies were crumbly and rich. They weren't overly sweet either so you knew that it was made inhouse or purchased from a good patisserie.

We walked away impressed and very pleased. I was especially relieved because after dining at a handful of place in Paris prior to this night, we still hadn't experienced that amazing meal. Yes, we've had good meals, but nothing that I would call exceptional. The food at Chez L'ami Jean was spot on, rustic yet delicate and the presentation was lovely. The pork dish won over every other main course I've had this whole trip. Service was brisk but friendly. Although we were out in less than two hours (newborn at home awaits), we did see other tables lingering on for much longer. And to think we would have missed out on this special place had I not done some online research. Oh Paris Hounds, you did good. Hopefully I can return the favor if you are looking for dining recommendations in LA.

Hits: cream of egg, calamari, pumpkin soup, pork dish, rice pudding
Misses: nothing, c'est bon!
Rating: ****

Chez L'Ami Jean
27 Rue Malar
75007 Paris

Le Bistro Paul Bert, Paris

It's been about three years since we've been back to Le Bistro Paul Bert which was one of my sister's favorite restaurants back when they lived in the 11th. I recall the food to be good, classic French bistro fare with a lot of heavy pork dishes offered in the winter. Critics for many years agreed that it was one of the better bistros in the city.

The restaurant was filled with wooden tables and pictures of game animals on the wall especially of hares. Paul Bert has expanded its space in the last couple years due to its growing popularity. I remember when it was a tiny cozy spot with cramped seating. The bistro was still filled to the brim but now with more English speaking patrons. Is this a sign that it has been taken over by tourists? We'll soon find out that although the food is still good, Le Bistro Paul Bert did not seem to be the 'must-dine-at' place that critics used to rave about in previous years.

Three course prix fixe menu for 34€ with supplements. You could also opt for a two course for a reduced price.

Bottle of wine. It's interesting how the waiter brought over a wine list with a bunch of the lower priced wines crossed off. As such, there were only a couple bottles in the 50€ or less range. As it turns out, they had wine specials on a chalkboard which was hidden in some corner (many bottles priced in the mid-30s) but he did not even care to share that information with us. Also, he didn't pour the first taste for us. Granted my sister who ordered the wine was on the phone at the time (faux pas, I know but in her defense, she's a new mother who had to check in on her newborn), he left the bottle on the table and never came back to pour the first taste.

Oeufs au plat aux truffle cream +8€
It's hard to think of eating eggs for dinner but throw in some truffles and it's definitely a dinner plate. The sauce was rich and creamy with shaved truffles. Delicious, but perhaps a tad too rich with the yolk and truffle cream sauce combination. The sauce is great with crusty bread.

Croustillant de groin de cochon/breaded pork snout
I was excited to order this. The pork snout was breaded and fried. The snout itself was rendered down to a point that it was soft and buttery. It had a fatty texture and flavor that reminded me of the amazing pigs ear that I had at Church and State in Los Angeles. The groin de cochon was perfect as is, with no need for the tartare sauce. The cochon had a very strong pork flavor and the gooey, melted cartilage may turn some diners off. Not me though. But I did see an American couple beside us order this (probably without knowing what it was), then tasted it and had that puzzled look on their faces. The woman pushed the rest of her piece of cochon to the edge of the plate while the man gallantly tried another piece, this time dousing it in copious amounts of tartare sauce.

The cross section of the cochon. It looked a bit like Chinese crispy pork belly.

Terrine de campagne
Regular country pate was good but not anything special. I think I might be done with terrine on this trip. I've found them decent but there are so many other items to discover on the entree menu.

Carpaccio of mulet with citrus
Thin slices of fresh fish with a light dressing.

Salad de cresson and poached egg and lardons

Cote de cochon with gratin dauphinois ala creme de truffle +5€
This was the side of a pig, one of the biggest piece of pork that I have ever seen served. The slab was juicy and looked just like pork belly. The meat was lined with a thick layer of fat and crispy skin. The skin looked tempting to eat but you had to work hard to get the skin off the fat.

The supplemental 5€ was likely for the gratin which was creamy and rich with layers of earthy truffles. This was truly heavenly and I would have eaten the whole thing if I didn't have my own plate.

Chapon with thyme, cippolini onions, carrots +8€
Although we've had chapon a couple times on this trip, this is the first time that I have actually ordered it for myself. I liked the crispy skin and the very tiny drumstick. However, the white meat was not as juicy as I had hoped. Honestly, I have had juicier chicken in the form of a rotisserie chicken from Ralph's. The chapon was nothing special and definitely not worth the supplement since it just tasted like regular roast chicken to me. The sauce however was flavorful.

Cocquilles Saint-Jacques au kari gosse
The scallops were cooked in white wine and kari gosse, a Breton spice and served in their shells. Quite a small serving and my sister and her husband who both ordered this were done in seconds.

Entrecote de beouf with frites
This is one of the bistro's specialities. The meat was cooked perfectly, saignant on the inside which is common for French cooking and juicy from the fatty piece that ran along the cut. Atop the beef were crumbles of bone marrow. I am a lover of bone marrow but I thought this needed a bit more seasoning. It was like pure raw fat and had the taste of a wet rag. Such a pity as we had to let glorious marrow go to waste. I watched as our American neighbors played around with the marrow, proceeded to ask the waiter what it was and when told it was the marrow, cringed and perhaps looked a little ill. Great concept but I think it fell on the execution.

Paris brest: Choux pastry with hazelnut cream
This was one of their more popular desserts. I was eager to try this and compare it to the one I had at Chez Michel the night before. The verdict? Chez Michel's was better as the pastry was airier and the cream was lighter. The cream at Paul Bert was heavier and tasted more like custard in an eclair. But if not comparing it to the prior night, the Paris Brest actually tasted good.

Ile Flottante/Floating island
A meringue floating in creme anglais. The meringue was light and not too sweet. The creme anglais was milky and delicious. It's the kind of thing you'll want to bottle up and save it for the next day to relive with a piece of biscotti.

Grand Marnier Souffle
The light, fluffy cake emited alcoholic fumes when you broke through the top. The inside was hot and soft. This is the kind of dessert that is so airy that you can't possibly believe that it'll set you back over 500 calories.

They were no disappointing dishes at Paul Bert with some memorable (groin de cochon). Although the food at Paul Bert was good, it was not as exceptional as we remembered. Could it be due to the standards in the kitchen? Has it become a bit too touristy? Have our tastes changed or matured through the years or are our expectations now much higher? Perhaps it's a combination of all. Service was also less attentive compared to a few years ago perhaps due to the increased number of seating. Unfortunately the favorite neighborhood joint that we used to know is a bit more touristy but who am I to complain, I am one myself. All I know is that Le Bistro Paul Bert is still a place that offers good bistro fare but at 50€ per person, there are many other better restaurants in Paris to visit.

Hits: pigs snout, gratin, entrecote
Misses: bone marrow, chapon, service
Rating: ***

Le Bistro Paul Bert
18 rue Paul Bert
75011 Paris
01 43 72 24 01

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chez Michel, Paris

Chez Michel is located near the Gare du Nord, not a very pretty neighborhood but the restaurant itself is quaint and cozy. This is one of my sister's mother in law MTB's favorite place as the food never disappoints. That's the thing I've found with Paris dining: there are so many options out there that you really need to narrow it down a bit via recommendations. The chef Thierry Breton is known for his simple seafood dishes with influence from his hometown of Bretagne.

The restaurant has a small main dining area and an additional cellar area below which seems a bit more casual with no table cloths on the tables. It was full all night and reservations are almost necessary.

Dinner is a three course prix fixe with additional menus on the board for supplemental charge. It took a while for them to take our orders, but when the waiter came around, he rattled on so fast and seemed a bit impatient that in the haste, some of us ended up ordering the wrong items. Oh well...

Magnum of wine for five of us.

Soupe de Poisson/ Fish soup with emulsion of olive oil and Parmesan

The broth was poured tableside and the pitcher of remaining broth was left on the table for second helpings. The dry ingredients included various fish and fried fish bits. I loved the fried fish bits as it was salty and added texture to the soup. The broth itself was flavorful with seafood essence. It wasn't a cream base but yet was rich. I thought this was the winner of the night. I'm glad I decided to try something different and ordered this instead of the terrine.

Crème de potiron/Pumkin cream with chestnuts and smoked eel
As with the fish soup, this was abundant with seafood flavor. As this was cream based, it was heavier than the fish soup, hence thankfully no pitcher of refills!

We also ordered Craquelins de Saint-Malo/salad with goat cheese. MTB raved about it. Apparently the quality of the cheese was superb and it was breaded and deep fried.
Kig ha farz du "Père Breton" (Pot-au-feu Breton)
Veal stew with pork, sausage, ham, leeks, buckwheat dumplings and vegetables. I liked the ham which had a piece of cartilage attached. The sausage had a little sweetness to it. The other meats however were alright. They just tasted like boiled meat which perhaps was lacking some seasoning.

Very rustic serving of chicken. The leg was huge like bam-bam style and was juicy and tender. This version was better than the one we had at Restaurant Julien.

Cabillaud/Cod which is another one of their specialities.
IMO, the cod was a tad too salty, perhaps that's how the French like it. It was served with a potato and mushroom cake that was browned on both sides and tasted like hash browns. The potatoes had a sour tangy sauce to it. Although this is a popular dish at the restaurant, I didn't think it was anything special and would give it a skip.

Paris Brest which is one of the restaurant's known dessert. The puff pastry with hazelnut cream was lovely. The airy, crispy pastry paired well with the smooth nutty cream.

A fresh, buttery Apple Tart on a chopping board.

Quenelle au chocolate, a sort of ganache topped with a sprig of mint leaf. Rich and decadent.

Riz au lait façon grand-mère/Rice pudding served with marmelade
This came as a huge serving in a bowl. Seemingly simple but addictive with a vanilla bean flavoring. Surprisingly everyone loved it and keep going for more.

I really enjoyed dinner at Chez Michel. It was a good, filling meal and the prices were good for the quality of food. I especially enjoyed the soup and the desserts. Service was mixed on various levels. It was a bit slow but rushed at other times. We waited a long time before ordering and also between the plat and dessert, however was rushed through ordering. It was also a mix of friendly and cold service depending on the server. Another issue was that "the credit card machine wasn't working" the waitress said unapologetically. At a place where the bill came up to about €250, I worried about the youngster party at the table nearby that was celebrating a birthday who I assumed would be hoping to pay for the tab with plastic. Thankfully my dad had cash, else what is one to do when the restaurant is located close to the middle of nowhere with no ATMs easily accessible.

Hits: fish soup; desserts, generous portions; reasonably priced
Misses: cod, erratic service, credit card machine
Rating: **** because the soupe de poisson is worth going back for

Chez Michel
10 Rue Belzunce
75010 Paris
01 44 53 06 20