Oscar le Restaurant, Paris Sunday, Sep 29 2013 

It has been a strange end of summer in Paris. Just when you think autumn is settling in for good and you have seen the last rays of sun, summer comes back. Last week certainly was very nice, with warm days and fresh nights, so, last Friday, with an upcoming trip to Northern Germany and a conference call ahead of us, we decided to have lunch outside. My colleague, a sun-loving Dane, and I set off towards the place du Marché Saint Honoré but the terraces were already packed. I then remembered seeing a restaurant with seats outside on the nearby rue des Pyramides. We sat down at a table in the shade of the Eglise Saint Roch (while we would have liked some sun on that day, it would be welcome on hotter days), quite far from the other guests so that we were not suffocated by smoke. The distance was also sufficient enough to make the boisterous gentleman’s talk of his wide experience of the Anglo-Saxon world (commonplace in Paris, as French people can be both fascinated and repulsed by their experience in NY or London – few venture beyond) more amusing than annoying. We ordered some tomato pasta, and the risotto of the day. After some time, the owner arrived and apologised because she had mistakenly asked the kitchen for a spinach risotto. With time pressing on us, I settled for the spinach risotto and the owner promised me a coffee to make up for it. While the risotto was a bit too creamy and cooked for my liking, it was nevertheless acceptable and I was told the pasta was equally good. The tap water was also chilled and drinkable.

In total, the bill came to 35 euros and I was a bit disapponted to find out I had actually been charged for the more expensive risotto (the one which I had NOT ordered but nonetheless got). Maybe it was the owner’s Rolex Daytona, or the fact she brought us chocolate even after I had refused coffee, but I did not complain.

Before leaving to buy coffee from nearby Verlet, we reflected on the meal and acknowledged that we would have paid marginally less to be closer to other guests and perhaps eat lower quality food on the place du Marché Saint-Honoré. I never thought I would say that, but you have to be realistic about this area of Paris, which is enjoying unprecented levels of wealth and affluence: among the many tourist traps that litter the place, I probably would return to Oscar.

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The French foires aux vins Saturday, Sep 7 2013 

Despite the name, evocative of the medieval splendour of long forgotten trade fairs, the foires aux vins actually take place yearly in French supermarkets. Again, forget any clichés you may have in mind about French people leisurely doing their weekly shop at a bustling market, for supermarkets are in fact very successful (the term “hypermarket” was even coined in France). They are where the vast majority of French people shop.

French supermarkets are therefore very powerful and demanding with their suppliers, which has caused concern and anger amongst them, especially as the customer is not always the winner. The foires aux vins, however, offer a good occasion to take advantage of the supermarkets’ bargaining power as well as, in this particular year, of the slow down in Asian markets. Plummeting sales to Asia have apparently left a few suppliers with a lot of wine on their hands, which they are keen to discreetly get rid of. But enough talking: ferret has managed to get its paws on the catalogue for the foire aux vins at Carrefour Calais and would like to share a few potential good buys with you. In ferret’s opinion, it is best to focus on Bordeaux wines, as they are usually well represented due to the large quantities produced by even the most famous properties (as opposed to Burgundy).

(Red unless otherwise indicated)198190

Prestige buys

  • Saint Julien Château Gloria 2009 €29.90, £25.57 – not for early drinking though
  • Pessac-Léognan Château Carbonnieux white 2011 €24.90, £21.29 – a good introduction to the brilliant Pessac whites. Drink from 2015 over 10 years.
  • Pessac-Léognan Château Carbonnieux 2011 €23.90, £20.45 – also a good introduction to refined Pessac reds. Drink from 2017.

Value for money

  • Haut-Médoc Citran 2011 €11.50, £9.83. Excellent value for a wine that will drink until the beginning of the next decade.

And plenty of other wines: look out in particular for the 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux vintages.

  • Carrefour Calais
  • Avenue Guynemer
  • 62100 CALAIS

Foire au vins from 11th September to 6th October 2013

The wines of the Rhône Valley Monday, Aug 26 2013 

rhonevAlthough very small by comparison with, say, California, the Rhône valley, stretching in the South-East quarter of France from the south of Lyon to the south of Avignon, is home to a great variety of wine. For a start, one can distinguish between the northern Rhône valley – Lyon to Valence – and the southern Rhône valley (Montélimar to Avignon). Wines made in the former are more subtle and lower in alcohol than their southern counterparts.

Understanding the hierarchy

Basically there is a three-tier hierarchy of Rhône valley wines.

  • the Côtes du Rhône: the most basic level, with the least stringent rules in terms of location and output. This does not necessarily mean low quality: the red Côtes du Rhône from Emmanuel Reynaud (Château des Tours) and Jamet are among the most enjoyable, best value for money wines that I know.
  • the Côtes du Rhône village: here the rules go up a notch, and in some cases producers are allowed to mention a particular place name, meaning that the wine must come from a designated area. Both Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages are usually from the southern Rhône valley, although there are noticeable exceptions in the north (the Jamet Côtes du Rhône being a prime example).
  • the appellations: supposedly the top level, they have to come from a designated area renowned for its particular climatic and soil conditions (the terroir). Northern Rhône valley: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Péray, Cornas. Southern Rhône valley: Châteauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tavel.

Some to try

I recommend you try at least one Condrieu, a wonderfully aromatic wine made from the Viognier grape. Grown on very steep slopes south of Lyon, it has unique aromas of tropical fruits with a savoury finish. Sadly they are not cheap ( Waitrose offers 2011 Condrieu from reliable producer Guigal at £32.99 a bottle).

Looking at my favourite retailer’s wine catalogue, I would also recommend trying the 2011 Saint-Péray from Les Vins de Vienne (£14.99 from Waitrose)  or the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages La Redonne 2011 from Jean-Luc Colombo (£12.99), which should be a good introduction to northern whites.

Regarding red wines, try getting your hands on some 2010 Crozes-Hermitage for fruit-packed flavours.

Bar le Passage, Paris Sunday, Dec 9 2012 

Recently on a cold November day, I met up with two former colleagues for a long lunch at this trendy Paris restaurant, the younger sibling to the prestigious two star Michelin restaurant, Senderens.

The entrance is located in the passage de la Madeleine (just right next to the watch shop where I bought my trusty Longines), where you will have to ring and announce yourself.

After climbing up a set of stairs, we were led to the elegant dining room, from which I was able to enjoy pleasant views over the place de la Madeleine. The food was very refined, not too heavy, including an excellent venison pâté and a nice take on the rhum baba. Service was relatively friendly, with a waiter complimenting me on my wallet and offering the possibility to share a glass of a velvety (but quite expensive at 19 euros) 2005 Gevrey Chambertin from Geantet-Pansiot.

Overall, the level of noise was quite low, which makes it a good location for lunch (36 euros for three courses) or dinner (39 euros for four courses with two starters), provided you reserve in advance.

Le Pur’, Park-Hyatt Paris-Vendôme Sunday, Nov 25 2012 

I was lucky enough to be recently invited for an evening at this fashionable restaurant in one of the most sought-after districts of Paris. After a warm welcome from the numerous staff, I found the other guests (French, Dutch and German people were around the table that night) enjoying a round of drinks. I accepted a glass of Puligny-Montrachet, which proved to be excellent after it had had the chance to warm up a bit (I have found it is quite common  for restaurants to serve white wine too cold and red wine too hot). While everybody was perusing the menu, I looked at the surroundings of elegant decoration and understated luxury – this is certainly not a place where you will be expected to sit within inches of the next table’s diners, as is often the case in Paris. After a rather tasty array of amuse-bouches, the food arrived. I had gone for abalone with a red pepper chutney and disappointment started to sink in: the taste of the sea food was overshadowed by the chutney, which tasted frankly unrefined to me, with the wrong balance of seasoning and herbs reminiscent of tinned food. The Puligny, however, still proved eminently quaffable, as did the red 2001 Hermitage “Petite Chapelle” from Jaboulet I had chosen from the impressive (but overpriced) winelist: at €155 a bottle, this mature Hermitage seemed to make a lot more sense than the recent Côte-Rotie at the same price. Other Rhône valley wines under €100 may prove a good option, such as Stéphane Montez’s Saint Joseph. I was back on the Puligny for my main of veal sweetbread cooked with seaweed butter, which proved equally disappointing, as the richness of the sweetbread was not counterbalanced by any sharper ingredients. Perhaps I was a little biased by this point, but I was also not taken by the cheese. I left after a pre-dessert amuse-bouche and a (also disappointing) coffee, but I have to admit the desserts looked good (as experienced with Ferret on one occasion for tea).

On the whole, for a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the most prestigious hotel chains, I would say this restaurant fails to deliver, especially at the rarefied level of prices it commands (at least €300 for two). My boss, a regular, agrees, while a collaborator, who was lucky enough to enjoy a romantic dinner there, told me she had never experienced food this nice. Given the prices involved, and unless you happen to be staying at this hotel or enjoy celebrity spotting, I would not even recommend trying to find out who was right: there are plenty of other options to enjoy a quiet and luxurious night in this area of Paris, such as for instance the restaurant at the nearby hotel Scribe, managed brilliantly by Sofitel.

  • 5 rue de la Paix 75002 Paris
  • +33 1 58 71 10 60
  • paris-restaurant-pur.fr/

Le bistrot du cuisinier, Blois Thursday, Aug 16 2012 

We arrived in the town of Blois, a couple of hours away from Paris, at midday on a hot and sunny August Saturday. I initially wanted to lunch at the Mercure located on the quays of the Loire, but the hotel’s restaurant is now shut for lunch. The friendly receptionist was however kind enough to recommend a restaurant, located about 10 minutes’ walk away on the other bank of the River, facing the old town.
Le bistrot du cuisinier was easy to find and we were quickly sat in a modern looking interior where tables are well spaced apart. We settled for the €19.50 lunch menu, which proved excellent value for money, and all went for the same food, accompanied by a reasonably priced glass of white Chinon 2011.
The meal started with a vegetable gaspacho and salmon cake. The ingredients were fresh and tasty, but the fish cake was maybe a tad dry. Fish followed fish (duck was also an option, but it was to be on our menu that night), with a trout ballotine and creamy girolles risotto. This course was better, with a succulent risotto and well cooked mushrooms (even though I wish the fish had been less cooked) and also went well with the minerally and appetising Chinon. We finished with a verrine of caramel ice cream with salted butter, chocolate mousse and bailey’s cream. These ingredients nicely complemented each other and the dessert was therefore balanced and light. I also noticed that, despite the high heat that day, we did not feel bloated or too thirsty after this meal, which is a sign that fresh ingredients and reasonable seasoning were used.
As a consequence, we were able to discover the many gems of Blois, including the Renaissance castle, the rose garden and the museum of magic.

Restaurant review: Bar Boulud, New York City Sunday, Mar 11 2012 

It was a cold and rainy night in New York and we just had a scary drive from JFK. We were glad to enter the warm dining room, separated from the cold street by an ingenious double door. A friendly and enthusiastic waiter soon appeared and we started to peruse the menu over some iced water. I was immediately drawn to the extensive wine list which featured a lot of carefully chosen wines from over the pond. Sadly we could not go for the $195 1986 Chateau Grillet (although this might actually offer value for money as compared to other French wines on the list) and we settled for a glass each of an excellent Chardonnay from Au Bon Climat, especially made for restaurants belonging to the Boulud galaxy.

ImageThe food was a nice match for this mineral wine, with a generous plate of very fine charcuterie and most of all, a superb lobster salad, laden with generous pieces of the delicious crustacean. Dessert was shared, a light chocolate and coffee tart, and followed by espressos (an important distinction in America!), which probably were the best we tasted on this trip.

Even though we are used to French wines at French prices, at $133, this wasn’t a cheap dinner (the most expensive of this American trip) given that we got off kind of lightly as compared to other items on the menu.

However, this certainly was a very sophisticated experience in terms of both the crowd and the wine list. The experience might not actually be worth this much money, but we would certainly return to enjoy the careful selection of ingredients and the cheerful atmosphere.

1900 Broadway (between 63rd and 64th Streets), NY, NY 10023

telephone 212.595.0303

http://www.danielnyc.com/barboulud.html

A week in Paris Sunday, Jan 29 2012 

On a rainy Tuesday night this week, I made my way towards the Michelin starred restaurant Jean, in the former bohemian district near the rue Saint Georges in Paris. The interior looked spacious and warm and I was led to a comfortable banquette near the window. The two other guests soon arrived and, while exchanging the latest gossip, we started to study the menu. We asked the waiter what was offered as part of the 50 euro menu but finally decided to choose from the expensive carte.  I went for the roasted pigeon, accompanied by a lovely glass of 2006 Roc d’Anglade (16 euros!). It was followed by a baba au rhum of the same standard: good but not as exceptional as to command such prices. In total, the bill came to a hefty 240 euros for three.

The ambience was very pleasant though, with reasonable noise levels. Staff were helpful and some nice extras were offered (amuse-bouche, mini-starter, petits-fours) but I would demand something more special for this price level of food.

Later in the week, come Friday night, we were out and about in the achingly trendy 2nd arrondissement, at the lively Au Rocher de Cancale. Specialising in seafood, this sociable venue (so sociable that it was difficult to get through the door!) also offers a wide variety of meat dishes (such as duck, and traditional burgers) and salads, as well as appetisers inspired by mountain cuisine and Thai food to name just a few. The only one of our party to order an appetiser (cheese ravioli) attracted looks of envy from the rest of the table, and others dug straight in to share, while the rest picked from a plate of cheeses, charcuterie and salad that we’d ordered, which was well-complemented by a red wine from Graves.

Service was patchy on this busy Friday night, with servers often too busy to welcome arriving customers well or bother to check their reservations. Food seemed to take a long time to arrive, and when it did arrive, the quality was mixed: while the duck was cooked perfectly, it was spoiled by its maple syrup sauce, which lacked any sort of seasoning or mixing with other ingredients, meaning it just swamped the meat with its lack of refinement, and we have had far better chips in England which actually taste like potato.  However, others at the table liked the chips, so it’s perhaps just a matter of taste. The meat in the burger was merely average, and for the same price you can have a better burger in chains such as the Novotel.

Given the disappointment of the main course compared to the appetisers, dessert seemed a rather appealing option…rendered all the less appealing by being the only one in your party who’s considering ordering. A shame, as there’s nothing more hateful than being the only one eating dessert among a large party, and the dessert menu contained several temptations (such as salted caramel tarte tatin, and red fruit tart with pistachio ice cream). When divided up, the bill came to between €25 and €29 each for a main course, adequate coffee, and a share of the charcuterie plate and 2 bottles of wine between a party of 7. We would perhaps consider visiting again, but you need to be wary: price is acceptable, but service could definitely be improved, and quality is variable too.

After all of that we were glad to be eating homemade fare chez nous for the rest of the weekend, which culminated in a Shropshire pie and an English date pudding. Yummers is not the word.

Restaurant Jean, 8 rue St-Lazare, 75009 Paris – 01 48 78 62 73

Au Rocher de Cancale, 78 rue Montorgeuil, 75002 Paris – 01 42 33 50 29

Restaurant reviews: the good, the bad and the surly Sunday, Jan 22 2012 

The good

Recently, on the way back home, we stopped at a very unassuming Mercure, on the outskirts of Chalon-sur-Saône in the French region of Burgundy.As is the case with the Mercure chain (more of which below), we did not really know what to expect. We were certainly pleased by the modern, if a little bit obvious, decoration of the restaurant. Unusually, this one even had a name “Millezim”, as if to emphasize its individuality. We were greeted with a smile and led to a small table next to the illuminated cellar. For, as the name of the restaurant might suggest, wine was a central focus there. I perused the extensive wine list and could not help noticing a 2007 bottle of Delas’s mighty Hermitage priced at 37 euros (I did not check if this was a typo, but finding this wine at this price in a shop would already be a bargain of sorts). We eventually settled for a glass of 2007 St Joseph from les Vins de Vienne which did not disappoint, with fruit, body and freshness. The food was equally good: capon and chestnuts for both followed by a chocolate cake and a nice millefeuille. With tea, the total bill came to a reasonable 49 euros.

The bad

This experience was preceded by an entirely different one, in a restaurant of the same chain, in the nearby Burgundy town of Beaune. Escaping the dreary motorway restaurants, we showed up for lunch hoping to enjoy the Mercure mix of reliability and individuality: I must have dined at about ten different Mercure restaurants and have rarely been disappointed with the food or the service.

That day in Beaune the dining room was almost empty (with the existing patrons all being dotty French pensioners, which we maybe should have taken as a bad sign) and I actually had to ask the receptionist to call a waiter, who was probably chatting in the kitchen. My course of beef bourguignon was dry and chewy, we cancelled dessert as a result of the poor quality of the main courses, and coffee was bad as well: what a let-down in a hotel that claims to be a 4-star one!

The surly

Looking for a place to lunch on a sunny day in the southern town of Nimes, we ended up in a local brasserie, the Café de la Bourse, which boasted a sun-drenched terrace. We were shown to a table by one of the numerous waiters and handed menus, which offered a selection of usual French brasserie staples.

When were allowed to order, my sister-in-law asked for her salad to be served with her meat. Because of the noise coming from the nearby road, where poorly maintained local vehicles circled round Nîmes at something close to the speed of sound, he probably could not hear the request at first, but we then made sure he did. To our amazement, the disinterested salad turned up a moment later, on its own. Would it not have been more simple, instead of acknowledging our request with a nod to say that it might actually not be possible? And that is even before I start mentioning the food, which was poor, and the prices, which were not.

Four Ferret Food and Wines fixes for French restaurants:

1. Employ enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who care about what they do, even if this means paying them a decent wage.

2. Cook with fresh and, when possible, local produce. They don’t need to be that expensive.

3. Accept your limitations. Don’t offer fancy and expensive dishes if you have not got the muscle.

4. Assemble a wine list which looks it has been made by someone who actually likes wine, and does not expect to make a 200% profit on each bottle.

Addresses

Millezim, AVENUE DE L’EUROPE – 71100 CHALON SUR SAONE – RESERVATION : 03 85 46 51 89

Mercure BEAUNE CENTRE, Avenue Charles de Gaulle
21200 – BEAUNE – RESERVATION 03 80 22 22 00

La Grande Bourse, 2 boulevard des Arènes,

30000 NIMES – RESERVATION 04 66 67 68 69

L’Opéra restaurant Saturday, Dec 17 2011 

I recently had the chance to sample this newly-opened restaurant thanks to the generosity of our German partners.

It is certainly one of the places to be seen in Paris, judging by the line of official cars waiting outside and some of the guests on this weekday lunch: a former minister for culture, a famous radio and television presenter…

One of the first impressions is space, in a capital where you are used to eating right next to other diners. The level of noise is also fairly acceptable even though the very high ceilings create some form of echo.

For this is no ordinary place: after 136 years, this previously little-used space of the magnificent building designed by Charles Garnier has finally been converted into a restaurant, following its architect’s dream and a couple of failed attempts.

We are greeted very courteously for Paris, our coats are taken and we are swiftly led to a set of tables in the mezzanine. During the meal, service is efficient, if a little distant. I also can’t help noticing one of Ferret’s pet interests: staff outfits. Here there does not seem to be any uniform policy. Some outfits are even a bit racy.

Wholemeal bread is on the tables, a welcome change from other Parisian restaurants, where bread quality is often disappointing. My first course from the 36-euro lunch menu soon arrives, a nicely presented filet of duck served with endives and a potato cake. The meat is tender and tasty and will be the highlight of the meal, for the dessert disappoints a little. It is a chestnut tiramisu that is a little bit too creamy. Other European guests have opted for the Opéra cake, made with coffee, chocolate, almonds and, I am told, local honey from the industrious bees which live on top of the Opéra itself. For once, there seems to be a general European consensus that desserts were the weakest point of the meal.

Coffee is also good by European standards and served with original petits-fours: shortbread and roses des sables.

On the whole, I would say this was a fairly good meal for a slightly high price, but still reasonable. However, I would be more cautious about dining there (at least €150 for a meal for two with wine).

L’Opéra restaurant

Place Jacques Rouché

75009 Paris

01 42 68 86 80

http://www.opera-restaurant.fr

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