Capital Nourishment – Dining Around D.C.

Image(Perhaps you’ve heard of him?)

The District of Columbia has neither the history of Boston, the sexiness of New York, nor the cache of Charleston. It is a manufactured city, born of compromise, and possessed (as JFK once remarked) of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. It is an industry town where politics and media converge both to dominate the culture and take themselves way too seriously.

When it comes to restaurants, it may not be in New York’s league (or even Los Angeles’s), but I like to think of it as a large, provincial city with an inferiority complex, always trying to compete gastronomically with the big boys. Sort of like Chicago with better seafood.

My own relationship with Washington D.C. goes way back and is a fraught one. Despite despising politics, I have been strangely drawn here for decades. So much so that I’m just as comfortable noshing around Georgetown, the Penn Quarter, or Dupont Circle as I am navigating the Las Vegas Strip. The obligatory family museum visits when I was growing up led to interning for a Senator on Capitol Hill in 1971, where a big dose of Vietnam War debates inoculated me forever from the disease of partisan politics.

Thankfully it didn’t blunt my appetite for the town, which I think deserves to be more famous for its restaurants than it is.

When I’m in the District (every year for the past ten), I lean towards the tried and true. There’s a whole contemporary food scene with gastro-pubs aplenty, but when I’m there, I enjoy sliding into restaurants that fit like a well-worn blazer, run by decorated veterans who have honed their craft, like José Andrés and Fabio Trabocchi.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana - Eater DC(Let’s taco about how great Oyamel is)

If you hang around the Penn Quarter, you can eat very well and never leave the Andrés orbit. Our last trip found us popping into Oyamel for some exemplary tacos (above) and mouth-searing aquachile before we hit the National Gallery. Across the street is the amazing Asian-Peruvian mashup of China Chilcano  (the $70 Peruvian tasting menu is a steal) and down the same block you’ll find the original Jaleo, which, despite its age (circa 1993), remains one of the best Spanish restaurants in America.

Having eaten in all three multiple times, I can confidently state you can close your eyes and point on the menu and still be seduced by whatever shows up on your plate  – whether it’s a soothing huitlacoche quesadilla, a bracing Peruvian ceviche, or the liquified olives “Ferran Adrià.” A remarkable triple threat of authentic, in-your-face-flavors mixed with enough panache to keep us coming back for decades now.

The most popular of all is  Zaytinya — Andrés’ take on Greek, Turkish and Lebanese food, just a couple of blocks north from where it all started. All of his restaurants are busy, but despite Zaytinya’s size, age (circa 2002), outdoor seating, and multi-levels, it has become one of the toughest tables in town. One bite of the hommus ma lahm (with ground lamb and pine nuts), soujouk pide (spicy sausage flat bread), kebab platter or smoked lamb shoulder will tell you why. When they open a branch in Vegas later this year, you can expect it to be mobbed as well.

OUR TEAM — Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants(Fabio-lous chef)

I’ve never had a bad meal in a Fabio Trabocchi restaurant; indeed, I’ve never had a bad bite. He’s one of the best working chefs in America, and you could plan your D C. visit around each of his eateries and be assured of dining on cooking as polished as any in the country.

Fiola – DC is his flagship, and takes a back seat to no Italian, and        features menus  both traditional “La Tradizione” ($225) and more inventive Il Viaggio (“The Journey” $285). During the week (Tuesdays-Wednesday-Thursday), you can order a la carte and be assured that whatever appears (from the Pappa al Pomodoro to the mixed seafood pasta to the langoustine with stracciatella and limone) will compete with the best version you have ever had, both visually and in the mouth. The wine list is a dream (and full of trophy bottles, natch), and the waiters all look as good as the food. It’s sad that it isn’t open for lunch anymore, but snare a seat at the bar and you’ll see a parade of D.C.’s finest flock in for the unforgettable food.

RESTAURANTS — Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants

Moving to less formal waters, Trabocchi’s Fiola Mare (Italian seafood) sits right on the Potomac in Georgetown and wheels the catch of the day by every table for the discriminating to choose, while Del Mar (above) is located directly south of the The Mall at the District Wharf) is an eyeball-popping ode to jamon, tapas, sobrassada, and Spanish seafood. (Historical footnote: this completely gentrified, now-bustling multi-use riverfront was where we learned to gorge on Eastern Shore seafood back in the early 1970s, at the long-defunct Hogate’s.)

ABOUT OUR MENUS — Del Mar Restaurant

Del Mar practically assaults your senses with its primary colors, seafood motif, and endless array of fish and shellfish, both cooked and raw, and its jamon and paella presentations are José worthy. Both chefs now cast a wide net over the D.C. restaurant scene, and over two decades have done as much anyone to bring our nation’s capital into the big leagues of destination restaurants.

But man does not live by celebrity chefs alone, and D.C. remains the American capital of French bistros, even if their numbers have diminished over the years. One needn’t look hard in the NW quadrant to find Gallic gastronomy faithful to the haute bourgeois cooking of Paris. Here it is at its imported best, with more venues ready to provide satiety when cravings strike for ris de veau, steak au poivre, and moules marinière. Three old favorites are Bistrot Du Coin a few blocks from Dupont Circle (where the champagne list is legendary for selection and modest prices), Le Diplomate (a perfect facsimile of a Parisian brasserie, legendary for being packed at brunch), and the jewel box which is  Bistrot Lepic in upper Georgetown. Their menus are about as trendy  as boeuf bourguignon, but when you step through the doors, the warm embrace of wine-infused cooking permeates the room, the food, and your soul.

Image(Where the love affair began)

The oldest of the bunch — La Chaumière —  features a menu straight from 1976 and is none the worse for it. It had been forty-six years since we first ducked into the white, timbered dining room, and tucked into a Quenelle de Brochet Sauce Homard:

Image(Gefilte fish with a French education)

….and with one bite we were transported to that imaginary French farmhouse of our youth. When you cut your teeth on a certain type of cuisine you never forget it, and dishes like those dumplings, torchon de foie gras, Dover sole and crême caramel are what made me fall in love with food in the first place.

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As comforting as all of these are, even a nostalgic old soul occasionally looks for something new. Which is how, at the urging of a Filipino foodie friend we happened upon the Purple Patch in a not-exactly-tourist-friendly part of town.

To say we were skeptical at first is an understatement. Filipino has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of Asian cuisines. Fried, heavy and greasy, and dominated by flavors neither complex nor refined. To be fair, it is not a single culture, but more like a melange of regional foods (from over 7,000 separate islands) which are usually about as subtle as a  Manny Paquiao  right cross.

None of which applies to what Filipino-American chef Patrice Cleary is whipping up these days in the rapidly gentrifying Mt. Pleasant neighborhood — invoking  precise levels of seasoning and technique not normally associated with this cuisine.

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One taste of her vegetable slaw, papaya salad with cured pork (below), crisp, addictive lumpia, or hauntingly savory mushroom pancit announces that you have left the land of steam tables and greasy fried fish, and entered a new realm of sticky-rich lechon, lightly-fried tofu, and ginger-infused sweet-sour snapper, which command attention for their careful cooking, vivid flavors and balanced textures.

The restaurant itself is a confusing hoot: a tri-level maze of warrens, pockets, and hallways carved out of a Mt. Pleasant townhouse. I wasn’t sure we were in the same building when I took my seat in a subterranean skinny cavern of a space. None of which mattered once the platters of the shockingly fresh food start appearing.

Image(Atchara Papaya and Tocino Salad)

These recipes can hold their own with any Asian cuisine (again something not normally said of the Philippines), and were much brighter and lighter than anything I’ve ever tasted with this moniker attached to it.

It is something of a shame that a Las Vegan must travel 2000 miles east to find such a culinary celebration of this culture. Especially since Vegas is crawling with Filipinos: If all the them  exited tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a nurse left in Clark County.

But travel here we have, twice now, to what might be the best Filipino restaurant in America. An opinion our old friend, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema (@tomsietsema) probably agrees with, since he named Purple Patch his Restaurant of the Year 2023.

Mabuhay!

Image(We love to Tagalog with Patrice Cleary)

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Washington D.C. has come a long way since my days of dining at Kinkead’s (closed 2012), Citronelle (2012), Galileo (2006), Jean-Louis (1996), Duke Zeibert’s (1994),, and Sans Souci (1983). The power lunch crowd probably eats at their desks these days, and of-the-moment restaurants  (like Rose’s Luxury or The Dabney) are informal, chef-driven and aimed more at the Instagram crowd than the movers and shakers who once defined the dining scene.

While I have nothing against locavore-obsessed chefs and open-hearth cooking, much of the D.C. restaurant landscape now feels like any other big city  — where you can get everything from top-grade sushi to fabulous pizza to various world cuisines.  (West African or Laotian anyone?).

In 2024, you can dine as well in Washington as anywhere in America, but in the newer joints, you will feel like you’re eating anywhere in America.

Which is why I gravitate to time-worn bistros and old-school chefs. Give me classic Spanish, Italian seafood, or a French bistro any day (or an occasional envelope-pushing Filipino), and I am one happy Boomer, who still remembers the way we were, strolling the mean streets of Georgetown, in 1978.

Paris 2023 – Lunchtime in the City of Light

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(Ed. note: It seems half the people we know are heading to Paris this year (Can you say: “pent-up demand”?), so we thought we’d suggest a few places for them to eat, particularly for those looking for the classic over the au courant.)

DEJEUNER ALL DAY  – Lunchtime in the City of Light

Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half. – Charles de Montesquieu

I like to break into my Parisian tours de degustation slowly, first as a tourist, then as a persnickety critic, and finally as a unapologetic sybarite — the kind  who likes to bathe in hedonism like asparagus in Hollandaise. Before completely surrendering to unfettered omnivorousness, it’s fun to play tourist for a few days, and there ain’t a more touristy way to dejeuner the day away than floating down the river on a sightseeing boat.

After that it’s batten down the hatches and and all hands on deck as we stormed Paris’s cathedrals of fine dining like a sans-culottes at the Bastille. Finally, we visit an old friend who, at 123 years old, is more ravishing than ever, especially at midday when dappled with sunlight streaming through her magnificent windows.  hese four iconic experiences explain why we love lunching the day away in Paris these days, rather than dining ourselves into a stupor at dinner.

BANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

Our Bateaux Parisiens lunch cruise was booked by our staff (aka #1 Son), who wanted his family to get the full visite de la rivière checked off toute suite, before they settled into a week of museum-hopping and crowd-battling.

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Amazing but true factoid: despite being crazy about Paris (and this being our twelfth visit in thirty years), this was the first time we have ever been in Seine about it.

Ugh-eye-roll GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

The sights, as one would expect on a sunny, cool Spring day, were glorious. What was unexpected was how good the food was. For 109 euros/pp they served four courses (and unlimited wine) that would be right at home in an upscale bistro.

They keep it simple, but there was no faulting our four courses of chilled broccoli soup; pâté en croûte; beef cheeks (they offer multiple choices which change seasonally) including chicken supreme below, salmon steak with pilaf, buckwheat with pesto and desserts from Maison Lenôtre — each course demanding pleasant enough attention on its own (as did the more-than-serviceable wine) which is pretty hard to do when you’re competing with the world’s most eye-popping architecture.

Image(Chicken in Seine)

The staff even did me a solid when I, in typical ready-to-overspend clueless American mode, was ready to grab the wine list and throw down a hundred euros for a bottle.

“Monsieur, your wine eet comes with zee meal eet eez pretty guud; you might want to try eet before you order somezing else.”

Image(Chip off the old Bordeaux)

And we did, and he was right and eet was. So much for taking advantage of ignorant tourists. In Vegas, they would’ve up-sold you a bottle in a New York-New York minute and never thought twice about hosing you.

You can sense the pride the French take in their culinary heritage with meals like this. In almost any other country, on something so touristy it practically screams “fanny pack”, they would slapdash something onto a plate and call it a day’s gouge. Here, the meal would pass muster at almost any gastro-bistro. It may not be inventive, but it checks all the boxes for an introduction to the cuisine. And the sights are unbeatable.

IN GUY WE TRUST

At the top of gastronomy with Guy Savoy, in pursuit of the fourth star - The Limited Times

From the elevated to the ethereal is the only way to characterize lunching on the Seine one day and then heading to the warrens of Guy Savoy the next day in search of a seasonal tasting menu of the sort you only find in Paris. (Ed. note: my disdain for tasting menus is well-documented, but I make an exception in Paris, at Guy Savoy.)

You walk up immense stairs to the entrance to five separate rooms, each holding four tables and illuminated both by the sun reflecting off the river below and the luminescent modern art hanging from the walls — themselves worth a room-by-room viewing once the tables start emptying. The effect is one of dining in a private club, cosseted by muffled sounds, subtle but attentive service, and nothing to distract you from what appears on your plate.

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Savoy retains his excellent standing in the Paris pantheon of destination dining despite losing a star in the last Michelin Guide, and absorbing the occasional jabs from bloggers like Paris By Mouth, who found the food bland and boring. Meg Zimbeck’s palate is one we respect, and there is a back-story to her not recommending the restaurant, involving reservations, cancellations, and terrorism(!) which we won’t get into here. All we know is we’ve eaten Savoy’s food multiple times on two continents over twenty years, and with the exception of the iconic Parmesan-Truffle soup (above) and few standard amuse bouches (like the silver-skewered mini-burgers), we have never had a bad bite, or the same bite twice.

Having sung Savoy’s praises so many times before, it almost seems redundant to comment on the effulgence of his cuisine — such as sea urchin so bracing in its haunting, dusky salinity you feel like you’re eating it straight from the Atlantic floor.

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As if to guild the lily, Savoy then dresses the mahogany-colored organs of this echinoderm with scallops and caviar in a confluence of flavor which somehow merges into a single gestalt of ocean intensity:

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He follows this brininess with a slice of sweet, in this case a Daurade Royale (gilt-head bream), which is cooked and sauced as all seafood dreams of being:

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Each of our courses in the tasting extravaganza toggled between acutely focusing the palate and then soothing it. It’s as if you’re eating more of something than the thing itself. Vegetables were treated simply and given their due, and nods to seasonality were everywhere, such as in a spring lamb chop, no larger than the base of a thumb:

Image(Mary had a littlest lamb)

It takes a rarefied skills to make food like this work, and to our palate, Savoy never fails to hit the mark.

Lunch is the right move, because even after clocking in at three hours, you still have plenty of time for sightseeing, and walking off all those calories from tous les fromages, in the afternoon.

Image(Praise cheeses!)

Tariffs start at 250e for three courses (which is more like six courses once you factor in all the extra tidbits they bring you) but you can get north of that quickly if you opt for the full tasting Monty, or go nuts with wine.

The wine list is comprehensively French and full of bargains, if you fancy finding bottles in a restaurant for only double what they cost in a shop. In Las Vegas, the big Strip hotels think nothing of charging throat-clutching 4-500% markups, making every other wine list in the world look like a good deal to us. Be forewarned: if you’re looking for wines under a hundy in these Michelin-starred temples, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

This high-toned, exceptional cooking is perhaps not as innovative as it once was, but there is no faulting the recipes or their execution. And I’m still dreaming about the urchin and that lamb chop.

TALLY HAUTE

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Most temples of Parisian gastronomy are famous for their chefs, but Le Taillevent has always been known for its owners. The Vrinat family opened it in 1946, and moved to the present location (formerly a duke’s mansion, later an embassy) a few years later. For decades now, it has kept the gourmet flame alive as the most classic of sanctuaries — a refuge for those seeking the finest cooking in the most subdued of rooms.

People can be taken aback by the simple decor. At first glance, it is a bit tan on tan bland, but the welcome — from the smiling doorman to the maitre’d to the waiters — is so charming you quickly forget that you’re dining in what used to be a Paraguayan reception area.

You will also come to see your surroundings as a frame designed to showcase the cuisine, which is more modern than you might suspect from the oak-paneled rooms.

Image(Who gets the pepperoni?)

The ladies menu don’t have prices. Which is a throwback in all the best ways if you’re a traditionalist. If you’re not, I’m guessing they size you up quickly and let everyone in your party share in the sticker shock. But no one in the room looks like they’re taking in laundry to make ends meet, and most booths are populated by well-suited businessmen who know their forks:

Image(Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup? The backstroke, sir.)

Places this tony probably aren’t used to excitable Americans whooping it up over whatever they’re eating and drinking, but we were paying (through the nose) for the privilege, and the staff was more than happy to let us enjoy ourselves. So much for the supercilious French. A sprinkling of gastro-tourists completed the tableau, which was anchored by our corner — two couples out for a whale of a time who didn’t mind spending a house payment on lunch.

And the menu couldn’t be easier to navigate: three or four course lunch menus are offered (from 90-210-275 euros), or ordering a la carte from five starters, six mains, and five desserts, with unlimited cheese from the outstanding trolley being another 30e (more on this below). The simplicity is deceptive, because what seems straightforward soon becomes a lesson in kitchen choreography, as variations on a theme appear with each course, as dishes are bestowed and cleared with almost magical alacrity.

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Consider our appetizers: skipjack tuna with cabbage atop matelote sauce; langoustines “boudin” with coral butter; and smooth chunks of cuttlefish and small crispy shrimp suspended in a puddle of squid ink (above) — all of them accompanied by a separate riff on the same subject, calibrated to expand your thoughts about each ingredient.

This is high-wire cookery, and in less skillful hands might be a mess on the plate and a discordant assault on the senses. But in the hands of Chef Giuliano Sperandio every ingredient sings in harmony.

Image(Here’s a tip: eat more greens)

Almost on a dare, someone ordered the “green vegetables” — and what arrived was a melange of asparagus in an extraction of fava beans (above), served with another bowl containing a scoop of pistachio mousse floating in a sea of sorrel sauce — each bite a study in veggie intensity. The combination of greenery needed to achieve this level of chlorophyll-laden lusciousness is more than just a patronizing nod in the direction of vegetarians, it is a celebration of all that they hold holy, and a prime example of why vegetarian cooking is too important to be left to vegetarians.

Before we leave them, though, we would not be worth our gastronomic stripes if we didn’t mention food and wine pairings,  such as the aged Comté gougeres (of which we could’ve made a meal), sipped with a Henri Giraud rosé, while a fragrant, citrusy Didier Dageneau Pur Sang played the role of a complimentary sauce to those langoustines and shellfish. (None of these bottles was cheap — our wine tariff came to about $1,000 for four bottles — but on this side of the pond, our indulgences would cost three times as much.)

We stuck with the white wine theme through the mains, as a Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin ’17 married well with turbot with caviar sauce, roasted blue lobster, John Dory with peas and bottarga, and a rabbit loin and rack:

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…the lagniappe in this case being a stew of thumbnail-sized kidneys in mustard sauce:

Image(I kidney not, you mustard try these)

…from an animal so young it could’ve been frolicking with Guy Savoy’s preternatural lamb.

As mentioned, the kitchen loves to sneak in these little plates alongside the main event, each carrying through the theme: in the rabbit’s case with those kidneys, and with the roasted lobster, another helping of crustacean under a shell of charred coffee mayonnaise which genuflects to the classic Newbergs of yore:

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Each dish an example of the French art in making things taste like more of themselves. Which was also present with one of the most stunning desserts we’ve ever eaten, made from an ingredient we don’t even like. In this case baked grapefruit blanketed with a grapefruit gelee — giving this overly tart, often acrid citrus fruit a whole new dimension, and single-handedly changing our minds about it:

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Lest you think this stuffiness translates to the staff, consider my attacking the cheese cart with all the gusto of Homer Simpson at a doughnut shop:

Image(It doesn’t get any cheddar than this)

All of this is being served so seamlessly you barely notice the passage of time. The mood of the restaurant is convivial, but civilized. If you want to geek out over every plate, the bi-lingual staff is there to help. If your conversation whips from food to wine to whatever suits your Parisian fancy, I can’t think of a more luxe place to indulge. If you missed the point: none of this comes cheap (our final tab came to $1,100/couple with about half of that being wine), but experiencing food this perfect is an indulgence every galloping gourmand owes themselves at least once in a lifetime.

A final word about stars: In recent years both Savoy and Taillevent have been demoted to two stars from three by the famous Guide Michelin. Having eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants for thirty years, I am fairly conversant (at least for an American) in the distinctions which goes into these coveted awards. In France, these ratings are gnashed over with archeological precision. However, to customers (even experienced ones) the distinctions can be hard to parse. The difference between a one and three-starred establishments are fairly easy. A solid one-star experience (like the Burgundian Les Climats) the fuss and accoutrements are a little less fine, the cuisine isn’t as inventive, nor the techniques quite so bedazzling.

Figuring out what the inspectors look for in three-star establishments (and why they knock some off that pedestal), is much harder to discern, but my guess is a lot of it has to do with who is the most “modern” in their approach to cuisine. (Only one of the current three-star Parisian restaurants – L’Ambroisie – could be considered “traditional”.) In that vein, Savoy and Taillevent are traditionalists with a twist, with one foot in both worlds, and all the better for it, no matter what a bunch of trend-chasing arbiters say.

CHOO CHOO-ING UP THE SCENERY

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 Ah, understatement. The French are known for it. Such minimalists, dontcha know? Brutalist architecture, earth tones aplenty, all cinder blocks and right angles…sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in East Germany, circa 1972.

I kid. I kid.

But a point needs to be made here: modern restaurant design — all hard surfaces, exposed beams, and flat color palettes — is about as interesting as a barndominium.

Which is why we dine in Paris: as salve for the soul and to soothe our senses. For if there’s a cure for everything that is wrong with 21st Century decor, it is lunch at Le Train Bleu — the most spectacular (and Instagrammed) restaurant in the world.

Image(Toto, we’re not in Taco Bell anymore)

We don’t just go for the eye-candy, even though it is so dazzling they could probably get away with serving rancid headcheese and still be packed to the rafters.

The food — which has always been better than it has to be — seems to have gotten an upgrade. The tartare de boeuf, which used to be huge, is now is more hockey puck than small football, and garnished like there’s a micro-green aficionado in the kitchen. Thankfully, it has lost none of the beefy tang we remembered from a decade ago. Our bread was warm and fresh and served with Échiré butter, and even the side dishes — a bright green salad and thick-cut, creamy-crispy fries — were exemplars of the form:

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The Food Gal® — perhaps because her liver was rebelling from a steady diet of foie gras and pâté de campagne —  swooned over her tightly-composed Spring salad, and called it  a welcome respite from all the charcuterie we had been force-feeding her:

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And the staff surprisingly cheerful for a place that expects to turn your table over at least five times a day. All of this is happening in a huge restaurant in a bustling train station with a constant flow of famished travelers, curious tourists, and gawkers traipsing through — a place that could easily get by with thoughtless service and indifferent food, but instead seems to take as much pride in what is on the plate as in what is overhead:

Image(Work. Work. Work.)

One lunch for two is hardly a reliable sample size, but from our vin rouge colored glasses it looked like everything about LTB had been spruced up, both in and out of the kitchen, since our last visit in 2012.

Cuisine this polished from such a large operation, in such an overwhelmingly beautiful space, catering to thousands of people a day, is a mind-blowing achievement. Instagram, Tik Tok and the like have obviously been good for business (in years past, the place always felt slightly forlorn to us), but this grande dame of Parisian dining has come roaring back. As have all Parisian restaurants.

Vive la France! And Happy Bastille Day!

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April in Paris

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The trouble with Paris is the human body is only designed to eat 4-to-5 meals a day.

Such is the conundrum we face daily as we ramble down its rues, and contemplate the cornucopia before us.

Spring is the perfect time to provoke the appetite for this moveable feast. The air is crisp but not cold. It may rain a little but there is revival in the air, and spring in everyone’s step. Sun worshipers flock to the public gardens and you can literally feel the city stirring itself from months of slumber. April is too late for somber bleakness to blanket the city in its wintry cloak, and too early for tourists to harsh your mellow. You can dress up (or down) without fear of ruining your clothes through sleet or sweat, and walk all day without rising temperatures stealing your stamina.

Other than October, April is the ideal month to eat your way through Paris.

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So gird your loins and crack a bottle of your favorite fermented French libation, for here is another love letter to the City of Light, and why springtime is the best time to pursue its pleasures of the palate.

HIT THE GROUND EATING

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It was around my third bite of a tangy tartare de boeuf  at Ma Bourgogne — one of my favorite bistros in Paris — that I realized one of my dreams had come true: despite my pitiful failure to master all but the most rudimentary words and phrases, I have never felt more at home than when I am dining in a French restaurant in France. (Lest you think me delusional, I can claim a fairly rigorous command of menu French — in comprehension if not conversation.)

“My Burgundy” puts me at ease even before we’re seated. The greeting may be in French (and they easily peg us as tourists), but they still ask (in jovial, broken English) if we prefer sitting outside (facing the gorgeous Place des Vosges), or inside, where the view may not be as spectacular, but neither do you have a highway of pedestrians jostling your table. We have the usual foggy-headedness from fourteen hours in an airplane, so it is comfort food we seek when ordering and we head straight for the classics.

Image(Grenache v. Mourvedre…how interesting,,,)

The fresh-cut tartare and some gorgeous smoked salmon hits the table while I am bloviating on the virtues of the house wine (50 cl of dense, grapey St. Emilion for 24 euros), as the groggy Food Gal feigns interest through sleepy eyes and soaks up some wine, and the atmosphere.

She finds additional solace in a soothing oeufs en gelee (another impossible-to-find dish on this side of the pond), and even after we’re stuffed and sleepy, we can’t resist the gossamer charms of an île flottante:

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Less than three hours after touchdown, we feel like we’re right where we’re supposed to be.

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We then trek back to our digs at the Grand Hotel du Palais Royale — one of the best-situated hotels in all of Paris — before resting up and strapping up for, you guessed it, dinner.

Only a few blocks from our hotel is the candy store for cooks known as E. Dehillerin, which is a stone’s throw from Rue Montorgueil (below) —  a pedestrian-friendly street where scores of cafes/bistros/restaurants beckon for a mile.

Stroll another ten minutes south and you find the cacophonous wonders of Les Halles and the Marais in one direction, or the beginning of the trés chere shopping district along the Rue Saint-Honoré, in the other.

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Rue Montorgueil (pronounce Roo Montor-GOY-a) is filled with joints like this below, all of which tempt you to sit and watch the world go by, or plan your next three meals from a cozy table nursing a cappuccino:

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We’ll get to dinner in a minute, but first some oyster discourse …another reason to hit Paris in April before the season ends.

OYSTER INTERLUDE…or PLEASE EXCUSE OUR SHELLFISHNESS

Image(Marennes v. Belons)

France is the oyster capital of the world, and 80% of all oysters raised in France are consumed within the country. People used to American oysters — even the good ones from Cape Cod and Washington State — are in for a saline surprise when they slurp their way through these tannic-vegetal-metallic wonders, best described as licking a penny under seawater. April is the last great month of the year to get your fill of these briny bivalves, so consume by bucket-load we do.

They are sized by number on menus in inverse relationship to their heft: No. 6 being smallest, while 000s (nicknamed pied de cheval – horse’s foot) are big boys for those who love swallowing their fleshy/slimy proteins in tennis ball portions. We look for fines (small-to-medium) Ostrea edulis (called plates, flats or Belons, even though they don’t always come from Belon, yes, it’s confusing) usually in the No. 3-4 range, and always from Brittany, as these are the most strongly flavored (and usually the most expensive). If you like your molluscs on the sweeter side, look to Utah Beach.

Unlike America, oysters in France don’t travel far from seabed to table, so when you polish off a douziane at Flottes or Le Dôme, you will be so taken by their intensity, you’ll forget about how silly you sounded trying to order them in French.

undefined(JC’s Senior trip pic)

One does not live by oysters alone, so at Le Dôme Café one orders them solely as an entry point for a seafood feast amidst an old-school, brass and glass decor that would make Pablo Picasso feel right at home. The look may be classic, but it has aged like a soft-focus painting from the Belle Époque, and the service could not be better. The Dover sole is the standard by which all others are measured. Its firm, sweet, succulent nuttiness puts it on a level worth flying an ocean for:

Image(Hand-modeling by our staff)

TAKE A HIKE

The language of France may have defeated me, but the streets of Paris have not. Various map apps have turned the city from intimidating into a walkable wonderland.

In the past, we thought nothing of taking cabs or the Metro between sites and neighborhoods. Now we hoof it everywhere. Most of what a tourist wants to see (and eat) is within a three-mile radius of the First Arrondissement, and if you dress for urban hiking (thick, comfortable soles are a must), you will walk off those croissants in no time. And if you like to toggle between the Left and Right Bank (as we do), you’ll become as familiar with the Tuileries as your own back yard:

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Exercise is but a side benefit of all the sightseeing done much better on foot. Cars move too fast, and the Metro shows you nothing but your fellow sardines. Walking is the best way, the only way, to properly absorb the mood of a city. Even the ugly walks can be worthwhile; schlepping from the Trocadero to Saint-Germain-des Prés (if you don’t walk along the Seine) is one stolid grey block after another, but you get a feel for everyday Parisian life that you will never see if you stick to the tourist/scenic routes.

Five-to-ten miles a day is a snap for us these days, and a necessity when calories entice at every corner.  In my younger years (when ostensibly I was in better shape), I wouldn’t have considered walking from the Eiffel Tower to Les Halles. Now, as an aging boomer, I see that it is less than three miles (2.8 to be precise), and take off without a second thought.

The equation is simple: Urban hiking + bigger appetite – fear of gaining weight = more restaurants to explore.

SO MANY CROISSANTS

Our croissant quest began one morning at Stohrer — the oldest patisserie in Paris — and another at Ritz Le Comptoir: two ends of the pastry spectrum: one as traditional as they come; the other, a modern (perhaps too modern) take on puff pastry as you’ll see from the not-very-classic pain au chocolat below:

Image(Old school, actually, the oldest school)

Image(Croissant log au chocolat à la Ritz)

Neither of the above was the best croissant we had in our 17 days of patrolling the streets of Paree. We went high; we went low. We even went to a so-not-worth it 170 euro brunch at the Hotel Le Meurice which featured a tsunami of small plates aimed at the Emily Shows Off In Paris crowd.

Image(That’s a brunch of plates)

The meal had more moving parts than a Super Bowl halftime show, and like whatever the f**k this is:…was more concerned with choreography than harmony.

To be fair, its croissants were mighty fine even if they were linebacker-sized. (Any mille-feuille aficionado will tell you what you gain in girth, you lose in finesse — sorta like football players):

Image(Yeast favorite croissants)

Side note: the Meurice was one of the few places we encountered women as servers. Waiting tables in Paris (from the lowliest cafe to temples of haute cuisine) remains a valued profession very much dominated by men. Which is one of the reasons service is so good.

Oh No You Didnt GIFs | Tenor

I kid. I kid…

As for our best crescent roll we tried, that honor goes to an award-winner from La Maison d’Isabelle — which won best in show at some hi-falutin’ bake-off a few years back. In our contest, it was the compact, pillow-soft butteriness (encased in a delicate, easily shattered shell) that separated this laminated beauty from the also-rans.

Image(Crustomized croissant)

People were lined up every morning for them, as they were taken directly from the baking sheet to the oven to your hand: the kind of only-in-Paris experience that spoils you for French pastries anywhere but here.

Image(These are a pain to make)

THE OFFAL TRUTH

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The offal truth is you can’t find “variety meats” hardly anywhere in America. Americans have no compunctions about inhaling hamburgers by the billions, or polishing off chicken breasts and filet mignons by the metric ton, but put kidneys, sweetbreads, or brains in front of them and they recoil faster than a vegan at a hot dog stand.

This is where the classic restaurants of Paris come in to sate you with pleasures of holistic animal eating. As in: if you’re going to slaughter another living thing to keep yourself alive, you should respect the animal’s sacrifice and make the most of it.

Europeans are much closer to their food, both geographically and intellectually, and that relationship broadcasts itself on the menus of Parisian restaurants older than the United States.

Image(La Rive Gauche)

To give you an idea how old Le Procope is, they have a plaque out front (just above The Food Gal®’s noggin in the above pic) celebrating customers going all the way back to Voltaire, who, as you recall, died in 1778.

Whatever fat he and Jean-Jacques Rousseau chewed here is lost to history, but no doubt one of them was rhapsodizing over Procope’s blanquette or tête de veau when they did so. Three hundred and fifty years later, this 18th Century artifact (the oldest café in Paris) still delivers the goods, with cheery, old world panache, to regulars and tourists alike, at remarkably gentle prices.

Our “calves head casserole, in 1686 style” was about as hip as a whalebone corset, and all the more delicious for it. Besides being the most wine-friendly food on earth, it is also the most elementally satisfying. No tricks, no pyrotechnics, just foods to soothe the savage breast.

Image(Calves head, circa 1686)

Having successfully tackled a veal head, it was time to go scouting for lamb– at a cheese shop/restaurant perched atop the tony Printemps store near the Palais Garnier, of all places.

Laurent Dubois is reputed to have the best croque monsieur in all of Paris, so we escalated to his cheese-centric spot for a jambon et fromage, but ended up swooning over the navarin (stew) loaded with tender morsels of lamb napped with electric green baby peas in a mint-lamb jus sharpened by jalapenos:

Image(Ewe won’t believe how peafect this was)

On the cuisine bourgeoise level, this was the dish of the trip.

As good as the stew was, we were hunting bigger game. So we strolled through a spring drizzle to Le Bon Georges, a temple of bistronomy which combines classic technique with terroir-focused creativity, hyper-seasonal ingredients, a killer wine list, and very informal but informed service — all squeezed into a cramped, casual space. Like all in the bistronomy movement — the food was simple but surprisingly intense.

Service is by kids who may look like teenagers (with big, patient smiles), but you can tell they are no strangers to dealing with out-of-town gastronauts with all kinds of accents. The chalkboard menu tells you all you need to know (they will happily explain a poussin (baby chicken) from a poisson (fish) to the clueless), and the wine list is Michelin-star worthy in its own right, at prices far gentler than what you’ll find at tonier addresses.

The noise level is tolerable (we were in a back room closer to the kitchen) and the chairs were actually comfortable (not always a given). Describing the food as gutsy doesn’t tell half the story.

Image(Just getting started)

Clockwise from above left: duck paté en croûte with foie gras and prunes; smoked trout with orange sauce; morels with grilled onions, napped with Comté cheese/vin jaune sauce; and white asparagus smothered in vinaigrette, just the way we like them. And these were just the starters.

From there we proceeded to roast duck with carrot puree, sweetbreads over potatoes, and daurade royale (sea bream) with a citron/saffron sauce. We finished the meal with baba au rhum, soaked with booze drawn with a pipette the length of your arm from which you suck just enough libation from a humongous bottle (containing your spirit of choice) to bring it to your glass. Over the top? Of course, but also effective in sending everyone home with a happy glow.

We also got quite the show from chef Lobet Loic as he broke down a cow udder to include in a vol-au-vent concoction he was working on for the next night’s dinner.

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“Just when I thought I’ve tried every part of the cow,” one of our social media followers observed. Us too. This was a new one for even an all-animal appreciator like yours truly.

Even our very French waiters told us it was a part of the animal they had never seen broken down for consumption. They were just as amazed as we were.

LISTING DU PORC

Our hunt for oddball animal parts was hardly over after Le Bon Georges and Procope, so to Le Comptoir du Relais Saint Germain we trotted the next day to make a swine of ourselves over Yves Camdeborde’s crispy, rib-sticking pied de cochon:

Image(I suffer from foot in mouth disease)

Then there was a trek to the far reaches of Montparnasse to try what many call the best cassoulet in all of Paris. (An honest cassoulet being harder to find in America than an authentic choucroute…or a toothsome lamb stew on top of a department store for that matter.)

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L’Assiette (“plate”) has received this accolade from Paris by Mouth, who knows her way around a Tarbais, and the version we had in this non-descript spot was so dense with meaty/beany flavor all we could do is quietly thank her in between mouthfuls.

Image(Cassoulet a L’Assiette)

L’Assiette is the ultimate neighborhood gastro-bistro, so small (we counted 24 seats) and so far off the beaten path that nudging your way past Instagrammers will not be a problem. Even as strangers, our welcome was as warm as those bubbling beans, and as soothing as the Languedoc-Roussillon red wine (Domaine Les Mille Vignes Fitou Cadette) that hit the spot on a chilly night.

Choucroute can go stuck rib to stuck rib with cassoulet, which is why this apotheosis of pork beckons us like a holy grail, and why we usually make a beeline to old reliable  Brasserie Lipp  to demolish a platter at least once every trip.

We’ve always been in Lipp’s thrall — from its 19th Century vibe to the burnished wood and ever-present cacophony — it is a restaurant where time seems to stand still.

We even enjoy the narrow, elbow-rubbing two-top tables that are so cramped, they make flying coach on Spirit Airlines feel like a private jet.

And we’ve always found the service to be the opposite of the bordering-on-rudeness reputation of the place. Even now, they gave our brood of six the best table in the house for a late lunch without reservations, and our aging waiter couldn’t have been nicer. (At Lipp, “aging waiter” is a redundancy, since some of them look like veterans of the Franco-Prussian War.)

This time, we loved everything about it…except the food.

Image(Not a naked mole rat)

Lipp’s jarret du porc (above) used to be de rigueur on every trip. This time, like most of our meal, it was disappointing, The portent came from a too-cold house pâté, then succeeded by a slapdash Dover sole and then the chewy pork knuckle, Everything felt perfunctory. Even worse, this “Alsatian” restaurant had but four wines from Alsace on its list. Wassup with that?

Perhaps it was an off day, but the food looked and tasted like no one in the kitchen cares anymore….which is what happens when social media ruins your restaurant.

Luckily, good ole Flo restored our faith in the flavors of Alsace.

Image(Not on menu: lots of falafel)

If Lipp is getting worn around the edges from over-popularity, Brasserie Floderer is holding its own in the sketchy 10eme Arrondissement. — perhaps for the opposite reason. To get there on foot, however, you’ll have to pass some pretty dodgy blocks and trip over lots of kebabs. You know things have taken a turn for the worse, we thought to ourselves as we surveyed the chickpea-strewn streets, when the falafel stands start popping up.

Against this backdrop of littered streets and skewered food, Flo shines like a beacon from days gone by:

Image(Toothsome time warp)

The interior feels like a movie set (above) and the menu is as no-nonsense as the 1909 vintage decor.

As the most stubbornly Alsatian of the remaining brasseries, the Franco-German classics check all the boxes: celery root salad (here cubed not shredded), textbook onion soup, and a “Choucroute Strasbourgeoise” of tender pork belly (poitrine fumée), spicy kraut, smoky sauccisse cumin,  a second sausage (Francfort) – because a single sausage choucroute is akin to sin when “garnishing” this cabbage.

Image(Choucroute is kind of a pig deal)

In case you haven’t had enough pork, there’s also a big hunk of shoulder (échine) to finish you off. How something so fundamental can feel so fresh for so long is a secret known only to Alsatian cooks. They also do a seafood choucroute here, named after Maison Kammerzell — the venerable brasserie in Strasbourg — but we were too busy pigging out to try it.

Brasserie Flo wasn’t the best meal of the trip. It wasn’t even in the top five. But there was something deeply satisfying about returning to a restaurant, far from the madding crowd, where locals still value out-of-fashion recipes for their pure deliciousness.

Which is why we never tire of Parisian bistros, brasseries and cafés —  places with deep roots in country cooking, which have withstood the test of time, and stand in proud opposition to the cartwheels-in-the-kitchen gymnastics of fusion food…and so much falafel.

This is the first part of a two-part (perhaps a three-part) article.

Image(Jardin des Tuileries)