The Best and Worst of French Food

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The Best and Worst of French Food
A few weeks ago, Emmanuel Rubin in Figaroscope rated the MiniPalais, Saturne and Arnaud Daguin Au Café Pleyel as his three top-rated places of the week (with Philou coming close behind), each meriting 3/3 hearts; the following week he said four places got his most unenthusiastic rating (1/3): La Table de Botzaris, Le Square Marcadet, Vingt Heures Vin and Modjo. How can it be that in Paris, owners, investors and chefs open four restaurants every week and they are so dramatically different? (FYI: I trust Rubin and the merry crew at Figaro/Figaroscope). Here are some thoughts. Let’s take the best first – and I’ve taken the liberty of dropping Arnaud Daguin’s spin on the Café Pleyel for Philou because I think for a rare instance, Rubin mixed up their grades. First, the best is clearly Saturne, where the winning combo from Les Racines had opened an edgy-looking and exciting place in the 2nd a few weeks ago. The food has maintained its traditional style. While there was a semi-forced choice “menu” at lunch (I haven’t had dinner where it’s usually rigidly enforced), the choices were not only very different but they all sounded appealing. For starters, we began with a browned outside/raw inside white tuna with a thin leek and subtle mushroom sauce and calamari accompanied with nicely coriander-dressed, incredible heirloom tomatoes and subtle eggplant sauce with a kick that the grilled skin added. For mains, cod with clams, a chunk of well-cooked pintade, a wonderful, properly undercooked (without asking) thick lamb chop. Both dishes were accompanied by various greatly sourced and perfectly cooked veggies (the carrots and beets were first-rate) and three aged cheeses: a nutty Gouda, tasty Comté and thinly-shaved hard Normand one, and I had a bottom of chocolate, center of caramel and top of milk mousse concoction that was very, very good. Our bill, including a bottle of bio/natural/etc. wine and coffee was 96 E. Next, the MiniPalais, where Eric Frechon’s influence on the kitchen is clearly evident and the ambiance was great. But, the cooking was even better. For starters, another food-knowledgeable person and I began with a clafoutis of cèpes and called snails with tomatoes (and roasted garlic). Both were the stuff of three-star kitchens, which Frechon is; our main dishes consisted of a tempura of gambas and a friture of merlan with a lovely tartare sauce and (herbed) chips. The chips were the only disappointing part this meal. The finisher was one of the best desserts of the year: what was called a sabayon (semi-freddo/mousse/ice sort of) with chocolate and beurre salé caramel – heaven. Again with a bottle of wine and coffees our bill came to 92 E. Finally, passing over Arnaud Daguin Au Café Pleyel, we come to Philou, which, while it doesn’t come with the pedigree of our first two mentioned, very much holds its own.  Here for instance, the first courses ordered were a pumpkin soup and cèpes sauteed in fine olive oil on a bed of lovely greens, green beans and nuts; seconds were leg of lamb which I, a leg of lamb expert, thought was the best I’d had in years (albeit not raw and dripping blood as I prefer); the perdreaux rouge with cabbage and other veggies were sublime; the desserts included a classic baba, which I loved. The bill was right: 76.00 E with good bread, no bottled water, two coffees and two supplements. How about the worst?  La Table de Botzaris, Le Square Marcadet, Vingt Heures Vin and Modjo? I dunno. You’d think I’d trust Rubin when he says restaurants are stinkers? But I did go to another of his top places (before he’d written it up). I’d had Arnaud Daguin Au Café Pleyel on my list since summer and took two trusted-palated friends and we bombed, or I guess they did. This restaurant has a fine pedigree – Arnaud Dauguin (son of Andre of the Hotel de France in Auch and brother of Ariane of D’Artagnan fame in NYC/New Jersey) is someone whom we’ve followed since the 1970s. But his team’s firsts were simply not great and the mains way too dry and overcooked.  Here, I have no idea what the bill was because my friends were probably too horrified by my choice to share l’addition. The restos discussed here are : Saturne 17 rue Notre Dame des Victoires in the 2nd, (Metro: Bourse) T: 01.42.60.31.90 Closed weekends Lunch menu 35 €, dinner, 37 € for 4 courses, 59 € for 6 courses   Le MiniPalais Grand Palais (SE corner), ave Winston Churchill in the 8th, (Metro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau) T: 01.42.56.42.42 Open 7/7 Lunch formula 28 €, à la carte 40 €   ©by John Talbott 2010 If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe.
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