Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in "The Leopard" (1963)
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Blowing The Euro On Paris
New York Corner: Alfama
Man About Town: GENTE
BLOWING THE EURO ON PARIS
by John Mariani
"Paris Streets" by Camille Pisarro
Whatever the euro is trading at today, it's not likely to meet parity with the once formidable US dollar for a while. Yet this disparity simply hasn't stopped Americans from flying over and taking rooms in the priciest of hotels, even with coach airfares above $1000. Of course, the likelihood of seeing a Russian billionaire or Middle Eastern family trudging through grand hotels like the Meurice, Le Crillon, and Plaza-Athenée is far more likely than spotting Midwestern industrialists or New York book publishers in their lobbies. That said, these hotels do have their high and low seasons, dependent upon when a big convention is in town (yes, just like Vegas). One of the biggest of all, I'm told, is the Paris Air Show held in June, when buyers and sellers of fighter jets, bombers, and jetliners fill every hotel room and restaurant in the city for a week.
But now it's August, the doldrums for Parisians who, if they are still in Paris, don't want to be there, and those who are en vacance are lying cheek to sweaty cheek on stony beaches in the south of France. For us poor Americans, who once quite literally traveled to Paris on a copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day, now arrive with our ATM cards, hoping they don't get rejected after a week abroad. But in the slower times of the year, Paris does in fact get cheaper, and there are always small boutique hotels you can find on the Internet where you can stay cat very decent prices, even comfortably. I've found what appear to be very pleasant rooms in centrally located neighborhoods for as little as $98 per night.
If, however, you are up for blowing the euro on a truly sumptuous Parisian holiday, let me say that the grand hotels are worth the money in terms of sheer, unbridled luxury, perhaps more than ever; Parisian restaurants, on the other hand, at the two- and three-star level have gotten so outrageously expensive that it becomes almost a moral imperative to avoid places charging $80 for an appetizer and $150 for a main course, even if every one contains foie gras, caviar and truffles. Which is one reason why those restaurants now accept anyone in any form of dress whatsoever, just to fill 45-seat dining rooms. Where once guests knew enough to dress well, that is, men in jackets and ties, a hip hop singer may now wear an NFL team shirt or Nike sweatsuits, and the maître d's don't bat an eye, though their stomachs may be churning inside.
On a recent trip to Paris, I happily stayed in some of the finest of the renovated or new hotels but stayed clear of the hyper-expensive restaurants, knowing that I could eat at least as well for less money elsewhere. I was certainly happy to return to the Hotel Meurice (above) on the Rue Rivoli, across the street, more or less, from the Louvre. The Meurice has been taking guests since 1835, and its décor, renovated every now and then and looking impeccably fresh, is still very much in the 19th century style, all rooms different, rich in ornamentation, not least its splendid dining room (left), with its expanses of marble and mirrors and gold. As much as I would have loved to dine there, I did not this time around.
It is useless to give room prices because they depend so much on the time of the year, but the Meurice always offers special packages,: one, for January and February 2012, is 390 euros, for a classic double room, overlooking either the street or the courtyard.--those are NYC and London rices most times of the year. For 730 euros there is a family package that takes the kids off the parents' hands and offers a treasure hunt, stuffed toys, a carousel ride, and breakfast. That's comparable to what you'd pay in Rome or Berlin and half of what a hotel in Moscow will run.
I've always found the staff at the Meurice among the most cordial in Paris, this in a city where hospitality at the highest levels is considered an art form, and I truly believe that well-traveled Americans are still treated best of all, not because our wallets are so fat any more but because our own sense of good manners--hip hop stars aside--is more engaging than that of so many now pushing through the revolving doors like rhinos in gold necklaces. The competition for high-end business has, to be sure, taken out the stiffness and chill that an older generation of concierges and managers once felt requisite to greeting customers. No more.
I did not stay, but had a chance to dine, twice, at the newly reopened Le Royal Monceau Raffles (right), a historic address near Étoile that has, since 1928, entertained everyone from invading German officers to liberators like Dwight D. Eisenhower, from Winston Churchill to Walt Disney, from Josephine Baker to Madonna. Designed in a very modern but effusive style by the seemingly ubiquitous Philippe Starck, the hotel wants very much to attract the entertainment business. There is a guitar in each room, and the Ray Charles Suite (below) is spectacular, all white and wood, with a magnificent modern bathroom of a kind and size unique to Paris hotels.
There are two restaurants at the Royal Monceau, one indelibly French, called La Cuisine, the other stylishly Italian--quite a surprise in one sense but now becoming very chic--named Il Carpaccio. They are very different in design and cuisine. The hotel's Executive chef Laurent Andre has, in both dining rooms, aimed at taking away some of the fuss from French cuisine, and while the prices are high, they are not as dear as at comparable hotel dining rooms. Appetizers run from 26 to 36 euros, main courses 36 to 45 euros, with a seafood prix fixe at 90 euros and vegetarian menu at 39. The 35,000 bottle wine list, overseen by Burgundian sommelier Manuel Peyrondet, is very strong for a young restaurant and growing; prices are haute reasonable, with some good wines under 60 euros; the 1991 La Tâche, at 1,600 euros ($2,300), is a downright steal: if you can find a bottle in a USA wine shop, it's running about $3,000; in the UK, between $3,400 and $3,700 a bottle!
The cuisine at La Cuisine, by chef de cuisine Gabriel Gapin, has a refreshing focus on ingredients rather than mere presentation for its own sake, and while you'll find the requisite foie gras and truffles, they are not spread like plaster over everything. The medallions of Brittany lobster (below) come with a vegetable salad and a silky mushroom marmalade. As at all contemporary French restaurants these days, there is the inevitable pasta, and on the night I visited it was done with lobsters and sweetbreads, very rich, very creamy. Parisian gnocchi, piped from a pastry tube, were very good, with peas, wild mushrooms and a julienne of ham.
I liked the fact that brill was roasted on a spit (not easy to get right and keep intact), with a tasteful artichoke barigoule, carrots, mildly flavorful sea urchins, and a spiced jus. For meats, we enjoyed a roasted rack of well-fatted lamb from Lozére, with summer vegetables and garlic butter, while the best dish of the evening was a spit-roasted, succulent squab, which got the "Rossini" treatment of foie gras and truffles.
It is very difficult these days to justify ordering both cheese and dessert, so go with someone willing to share both. We were delighted by the variety of perfectly ripe cheeses, breads, and condiments, no less than the exquisite desserts that includes a delicate rendering of millefeuille pastries. The montebello is a pistachio dacquoise biscuit with pistachio mousseline cream, and seasonal berries. There is also a citron tart with lemon cream and candied lemon, and an entire page devoted to macaroons, which have become the sweet rage of the moment in Paris.
The room itself (above, right) is cunningly, softly bright, even in the evening, with crystal chandeliers and 1960s mod colors throughout, so you can see all the well-dressed people who have been flocking here since it opened. There is a communal table with aluminum chairs, the open kitchen faces the dining room, and there are pillars scrawled with graffiti-like messages. Service is extremely friendly. (Gentlemen, dress nice.)
Il Carpaccio (right) is the tented Italian restaurant of Tuscan chef Roberto Rispoli. Before the renovation of the hotel, this was a very stuffy place, with Roman statues at the entrance, very high prices, and a place for Berlusconi types to meet Ukrainian girls. Now the new Il Carpaccio is intimate, with just 64 seats, sunny and absolutely charming during the day, with a pastiche of shells, and tall windows overlooking the interior garden. The waitstaff is affable, with a cordial mix of Italians and French, all of whom speak English.
By all means begin with the namesake dish, Venice's famous beef carpaccio, with the finest virgin olive oil, asparagus, and pecorino cheese. True scampi are simply grilled and come out sweet and wondrously tender, served with zucchini, preserved lemon for tang and acid, and a coral sauce. Pastas are lustrous, like the taccole with eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella and a touch of basil--very simple, dependent upon first-rate ingredients for its appeal. Ravioli are stuffed with shredded beef shank, with pan-fried artichokes and borage, while fat-bellied panzotti are pumped up with seasonal vegetables, with Sicilian tomato sauce, and basil pesto.
For a main course, I recommend the medallions of monkfish tail with peas, onions, potatoes and stockfish, but my favorite dish was baked rabbit, of good size and very juicy, with broad beans and morels, crisp bacon and toasted almonds in a sauce of Aglianico white wine--homestyle cooking raised to alta cucina.
You may not want to skip the Pierre Hermé desserts, which range from classics like tiramisù and a baba au rhum to signature fruit tarts, but there is also an array of fine, regional Italian cheeses with housemade jams.
Those used to Italian restaurants in the U.S. will find 30-euro pastas (as a main course) rough going, though here they are offered as appetizer portions at 20 euros or so. There is a prix fixe of many courses of the chef's favorites at 120 euros, with wines 170 euros.
The wine list is very strong, particularly in Italian bottles rarely seen in Paris. Il Carpaccio is, I believe, the only Italian restaurant now set within a Parisian hotel, and it is clearly the loveliest and one of the finest in this city where cucina italiana is making fast headway.
Photos of Le Royal
Monceau courtesy of Le Royal Monceau /Philippe Garcia La Societe
I also had dinner at the Plaza-Athenée's less formal, and less expensive, restaurant, called Le Relais (left), which is sparkling, gleaming, with lipstick red carpets and art déco appointments that date back to 1936 and evoke the design of the French liner Normandie. The room is always enticing in its perfect balance of sophistication and casual bonhomie. You hear it in the kind of laughter you don't readily find at the more formal and subdued deluxe dining room here.
Both restaurants have, for ten years, been run by the Alain Ducasse Groupe. For lunch or an easy dinner, I prefer the glamor of Le Relais. At the signature deluxe dining salon across the lobby, main courses run up to 175 euros, with a four-course 360 euro menu, without wine. At Le Relais main courses top out at 56 euros while a three-course menu is fixed at 48 euros.
The menu sticks to the classics, but Chef Philippe Marc does it all with great finesse. My meal began with duck foie gras from Les Landes with a Port aspic and toasted brioche, very silky, just the right texture between firm and creamy. A filet mignon of veal swam in a lush reduction of morels and jus, with gnocchi and chopped olives. The Dover sole à la meunière is one of the fattest in a city that debates such issues with passion. The French fries are thin and addictive, though no more so than the potatoes whipped with what must be vats of butter. And butter in Paris is like butter nowhere else.
For dessert they will roll over a trolley piled high with luxuries extremely difficult to choose among. Ask about the "L'Oréade," a prize winner at the World Pastry Cup championships.
The Plaza-Athenée is clearly a place for a celebration, and Le Relais is a good place to meet old friends and reminisce about the days when you'd get 20 French francs to the dollar.
Over the last decade I've dined a few times at the Grand Hyatt Place Vendôme, whose oddly named Pur' restaurant was originally a Parisian version of an American grill, and it was very good at the time. But now, under Chef Jean-François Rouquette., the menu is far more diverse, and seafood is excellent here. The dramatically lighted dining room, with glassed-in kitchen, is built around a rotunda (left) with a modern peristyle. Parchment paper Chinese drawings hang on mahogany walls. There is also a Table du Chef, where a menu will be created by Rouquette and served on chrome-yellow porcelain plates, with Baccarat glassware. He culls tastes and techniques from his own travels, geared to the seasons, which he calls his "Carnet de voyage."
The à la carte menu stresses more seafood than meat these days, though there is still grilled wagyu beef with onions and crispy potatoes; sweetbreads "au sautoir" (which really just means sautéed, so I'm not sure what's special about the process) with rhubarb, beans and summer savory mushrooms, I very much enjoyed pink morsels of lamb with Kalamata olives and lemon gnocchi as a main course--the kind of ingredients Parisian chefs once eschewed. This was preceded by ravioli of foie gras in a ginger bouillon with citronelle and herbs and tomatoes (note how the French cannot leave pasta alone on a plate?). This was followed by one of the finest fish dishes I can remember in Paris--bar de ligne (sea bass) cooked in sea salt, emerging succulent to the bone, with artichokes poivrade, sea algae, and miso sauce--a triumph of modern seafood cuisine. Delightfully sweet Malaga strawberries ended off this splendid meal, with a fennel cream. Desserts are extraordinarily beautiful like this remarkable caramelized apple tour de forc in the photo.
Prices at dinner at Pur' run 25 to 70 euros for appetizers, and 36 to 110 euros for main courses.
By this time, I'm sure some readers have thrown up their hands at the prospect of dining so high on the hog, praying that there is somewhere in Paris that is still affordable. The answer is, quite simply, of course there is, and one only has to consult the Michelin Guide for a long list of restaurants that serve prix fixe meals at 35 euros and less. Or you could read the recent article on modestly priced restaurants by Edward Brivio in this newsletter. It should be obvious Parisians do not often dine at the restaurants I've focused on above; they always have their favorite bistros in every arrondissement where they can indulge in steak frites, escargots, charcuterie, and crème caramel, or regional dishes from Alsace, Auvergne, and Provence. But there is also an array of very reasonably priced restaurants, some run by the haute cuisine chefs, including Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Michel Rostang, and the ever-inventive Pierre Gagnaire.
"Trust me," a journalist colleague of mine in Paris said, "and I'll take you to the best restaurant in Paris and I can put it on my expense account." Knowing his taste, that's just what I allowed him to do, and we arrived, via his motorcycle, on the Left Bank, at the Rue du Bac, where a sign out front of a small facade read "Gaya," Pierre Gagnaire's tiny, cozy, very modern, and extremely well priced seafood bistro, where nothing on the menu tops 48 euros, this last the pick of the day. (At his namesake flagship on the Rue Balzac lunch costs 105 euros; at dinner, expect to pay 300 euros per person.)
The small, tidy room (left) is opened up by a mirrored wall, and the colorful marine décor evokes the waves of the sea. Simple settings on the tables and a very friendly young staff make it easy for anyone to dine here, especially at lunch. My friend sat down and ordered five oysters with artichoke hearts and mustard, fresh goat's cheese, and grapefruit pulp. I had lovely, translucent carpaccio of dorade royale with cauliflower cream. Crabmeat with fava beans and jellied herbs was about as summery as a dish can be. We then shared slices of white tuna with amontillado sherry, ratatouille and apricots, with olive toast, all of which hung together beautifully. Also, grilled brill perfumed with Sansho peppers, a little pâté of ginger and lemon, and a fondue of watercress--this last too intense for the delicacy of the fish.
For dessert we had a delightful caramelized mousseline of black currants and almonds splashed with pear Williams marc, and a raspberry tart with chocolate ice cream.
I'm still happy it all went on my friend's bill but it showed that food of this very high caliber of invention and unstintingly fine ingredients can be had in Paris at a price comparable to that in other world cities. Let's all still pray the euro takes a beating and the dollar rises again, but in these volatile times, if you're sitting on cash, it's better spent it on the luxuries of Paris than anywhere else I can think of.
. . . And remember: Restaurant bills in France already contain both the VAT tax (5.5%) and the service charge (15%), so there's no reason to leave more than a few euros on the table.
is not as easy as one might think.
Indeed, Alfama, which was much beloved for a decade when it sat on
tidy corner of the West Village, is the only Manhattan option I know
of, now in
sleeker midtown premises on East 52nd Street. Fortunately, it is
option that not only rings true to authentic, contemporary Portuguese
cuisine but exhibits it with the same enthusiasm by which it build up
faithful following downtown.
There is a smaller dining room up a few steps, ideal for
private parties, and downstairs is another room (left), in view of the
kitchen, where this fall Alfama will again have live fado
performances. The famous blue and white tiles of Lisbon are arrayed
on walls along with fine modern paintings by Portuguese artist Isabel
Pavão. As you enter,
on your right is a shelf of baskets brimming with Portuguese
breads you may well want to take home for dinner or
Try not to eat too much of that wonderful bread--save it for sopping up the sauces on the plates. Sailing from Lisbon, Portuguese mariners were among the world's finest and most daring, and seafood has always been crucial to their food culture. Chef Francisco Rosa incorporates dishes and flavors from former colonies like Brazil, Goa and Southern Africa. For starters, shrimp turnovers mad codfish cakes with a chickpea puree will be gobbled up fast, maybe the pipis--chicken gizzards with tomato sauce--less so, but they are just as tasty and very tender. Grilled octopus is some of the very best I've had in NYC--a city that seems to adore this odd sea creature, here served with fingerling potatoes, crispy pork belly (great idea), leeks, shallots, roasted garlic and olive oil.
The bacahau espiritual has a good name: it's an ethereal dish of salted cod gratin with shrimp, carrots, onions and potatoes, a lustier version of France's brandade. Camarão com Açorda is a casserole full of tender shrimp with savory country bread and ample cilantro. Sautéed red snapper comes with delicious lobster-riddled rice and fried leeks. In every case, layer upon layer of flavors and textures make these dishes very special to Alfama; indeed, I find many of them more enticing than similar dishes I've had in Portugal itself. And Chef Rosa's frango no churrasco, a hot-spiced piri- piri barbecued chicken with French fries and salad is a classic dish done impeccably here.
For dessert there is the tradition little custard cup with cinnamon called pastéis de nata (right) which you may want to gobble up in one messy bite. Serradura is a cream mousse layered with a crumble of cookies with lemon curd and Madeira-poached prunes, while sericaia com molho de bauniha is a kind of Portuguese flan. With these you can enjoy a glass of Port from a winelist of Portuguese wines Mr. Costa is delighted to guide you through.
I was one of those who loved Alfama when it seemed just right where it was in the West Village. Now, in midtown, it is an even better restaurant and deserves a new crowd of regulars who love authentic Portuguese cuisine or want to know how good it can possibly be.
Alfama is open daily
for lunch and dinner; dinner appetizers run $4-$16; entrees $19-$32.
To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
A thief stole
a 7-foot, 100-plus-pound lobster statue named Kobe Lobster (left) from
Banzai Burger in Amagansett', NY, which does not serve lobster.
The statue held a
sign that read, "Eat Beef." The restaurant is offering a $1,000
reward in food and drink to anyone providing information that
cracks the case.
NEVER IN THE HISTORY OF RESTAURANTS HAS
SO MUCH BEEN OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW
During this month's street riots in London, rioters smashed in the front door
of the Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill, only to be met with a kitchen
brigade wielding rolling pins and fryer baskets, while managers
ushered guest to safety into the wine cellar.
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