Hail, Britannia! Part One

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For a Francophile like moi to admit he was enchanted by London is quite a leap.

“London? Really?” numerous friends smirked, questioning my sanity.

“Somehow I can’t see you hanging out in a Hugh Grant movie, quaffing down warm ale by the pint,” one of them scoffed.

“What are you gonna eat? And drink?” others intoned with eyes narrowed (and a concern usually reserved for discussing chemotherapy).

So strong are the biases against British food, I can’t say I blamed them. But anyone who knows me knows I could find a good restaurant on the moon. And London, my foodie friends, is full of them, if you know where to look, and if you have a secret weapon. And I had both.

Knowing where to look is easy. Stick with the classics, is my mantra. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In London, that means booking tables that have been around since the 19th Century (at least). Spice things up with a modern meal or two, and luxuriate in some old-school imbibing, and you’ll almost forget there is more refined cooking, and much better wine, 300 miles to the south.

Not to dwell on the differences between London and its gastronomic neighbor, but as a casual observer, I would say the Bulldogs are less food-obsessed than the Frogs, but that doesn’t make their grub inferior, just less in-your-face. Paris assaults the senses with its eating and drinking options. London, like the British people, takes a while to get to know.

Perhaps it is because the catechism of classic British diet (from meat pies to mushy peas) is so boring that the really good stuff (seafood, astonishing veg, cheese, and superb beef) get short shrift indeed. This is not the place to explore three hundred years of English eating habits, but I can say with confidence that (most of) the cliches are all wrong, and classic Brit cuisine will knock you over with its simplicity and succulence. Leave the frou-frou to the French — London will bring out the trencherman in you.

Knowing my proclivities for the ancient and iconic (restaurant-wise), my secret weapon (Marina O’Loughlin — for five years the restaurant columnist for the London Sunday Times) — weighed in with a baker’s dozen suggestions, of which we hardly scratched the surface. One week, as intrepid gastronauts know, is barely enough time to sample the hors-d’oeuvres of a country’s cuisine. But we did our best for eight days and here’s what we found:

Image(Tiny tables, quality cooking)

“Unmissable” is how Marina described The Quality Chop House, so to it we repaired for our first evening’s repast. The Food Gal® and I have become ardent urban hikers over the past decade, so the 2.5 mile stroll from our hostelry on Trafalgar Square to the Clerkenwell neighborhood was a breeze, even if we were a bit wooly-headed from ten hours on Virgin Atlantic.

Described as a “19th Century ex-working man’s eating house revamped into a modern British dining room,” TQCH will put you more in mind of a pub than restaurant at first glance, until you see the menu and discover you might be in the coolest little meat emporium in all of London. That revamping is purely menu-focused, as the stiff, narrow benches in the front room look like they are only fit for the emaciated physique of a chimney sweep. The second room boasts actual bentwood chairs (above), but also tiny, over-matched tables barely up to the task of containing  the wave of tasty vittles soon to be crowded upon them:

Image(Small table, big flavors)

As we came late, and were exhausted from both the flight and the walk, we were interested in comfort food served quickly, and the restaurant came through. Service was extraordinarily friendly to a couple of strangers wedged into the last table of the night. The wine list was the very definition of “eclectic” and we loved perusing every odd-ball bottle.

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The setting may be old school neighborhood eating hall, but the menu has new-school gastropub written all over it. Marina had raved about the steaks so we dutifully tucked into a Hereford sirloin and found it mineral-rich, fatty, tender, and flawless — even after our weary bones had already polished off half a loaf of tangy sourdough with good butter, pâté de campagne, salt cod brandade, pastrami-cured salmon, and chicken liver/foie gras parfait hidden blanketed with shredded black truffles.

Image(British spuds, French technique)

Our waiter chided us for forgetting to order the layered, buttery potato confit (resembling a mille-feuille of shaved spuds), and set them down on the table (with a wink and without charge) as soon as the steak appeared. He also insisted we end our feast with the olive oil ice cream and it was a show-stopper as well. I was too exhausted to drink much, but dimly remember a couple of glasses of a recommended French red I had never heard of going splendidly with the steak, and a bill that clocked in at around $200 American for small meat-fest fit for the gods.

If the test of a great restaurant is whether you can’t wait to return and try everything on the menu, then The Quality Chop House qualifies in spades.

Image(Tastes like hazelnuts, not salty, stale fish)

If the Chop House felt like the grooviest steak pub in London, Caviar House and Prunier represents the other end of the spectrum: a posh champagne and fish egg boutique where its nutty, subtly saline sturgeon eggs are a far cry from the fishy and salty stuff they throw on everything in America from desserts to Doritos. We couldn’t resist dropping a bundle on these and some smoked Balik Norwegian salmon — accompanied by warm blinis and tangy creme fraiche of the sort we can only dream of on this side of the pond.

Gird your loins if you wish to wallow in sturgeon eggs, because quality this high doesn’t come cheap. A few small bricks of salmon, two glasses of house bubbly, and the tin you see above set us back a cool $275. And no, our hunger wasn’t cured but our lust for quality oscietre was.

From the toniest seafood digs in St. James it was back to workingman’s London — specifically the Smithfield Market — where Fergus Henderson’s St. John has held sway for three decades. No self-regarding epicure travels to London without putting this notch on their belt, so here we marched, thirty years late to the party, to the holy grail of nose-to-tail.

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For the uninitiated, Henderson was not the first chef to serve tripe, headcheese and kidneys, but when he took over this bare bones, inauspicious space (in 1993) next to London’s famed meat market, and converted a former smokehouse into a whole animal-focused restaurant, his influence was felt world-wide. In effect, he discovered a market no one knew existed: boomers in their prime, eager to break out of the steak, fish and chicken template that had defined western menus since the 1950s. The success this restaurant saw in the mid-nineties (and the publicity it garnered therefrom) is partially responsible (or to blame) for why you see pork belly on every upscale restaurant in the world.

You can also lay the ubiquity of short ribs and bone marrow at his doorstep. So far though, despite the best efforts of Henderson’s acolytes, no one has been able to do the same with sweetbreads, pigs ears, and kidneys. Hope springs eternal.

Fergus deserves further credit, or opprobrium, for foisting the inexplicably popular industrial restaurant look on the world — defined by hard seating, minimalist decor, and lighting less flattering than a hospital waiting room. The look may be overdone elsewhere, but in its original incarnation it works, since the food is as spare and uncompromising as the surroundings. There is nothing fancy about the joint, from your first bite of crispy pig’s foot, to the bare bones oleaginous marrow to be spread on the exceptional house-baked bread, to a mountain of deviled lambs kidneys that would defeat all but the largest lover of “variety meats” as these organ innards are often called.

Image(Quite the pisser, these bad boys were)

“It’s quite a lot of one thing, isn’t it?” our sympathetic waitress observed as she laid the outcropping of offal before us. James Beard once wrote that kidneys derive their appeal from the “faintest tang of urine” left behind as one masticates through the rubbery morsels. Anyone describing the flavor notes on these bad boys as containing “undertones of urethra” though, would be guilty of serious understatement. The uric acid tang was there all right, side-by-side with enough rough-hewn wild gaminess to stop any carnivore in their tracks. And we loved it. Not enough to eat the entire batch, mind you, but sufficient to give us bragging rights in any organ-measuring contest in the future.

Like everywhere we ate in London, service was friendly, informed and fast. I’m at the age where almost all waiters look like teenagers to me, but in every place we tried, from the fancy confines of the Connaught Hotel to an industrial borough like Smithfield, we had nary a complaint to make. Our bill– lunch for two with a couple of glasses of cru Beaujolais — was also the cheapest of the trip: around $150 at the current exchange rate.

Straightforward food, served without adornment, is the mission statement of St. John. It no longer needs to proselytize about whole animal butchery and cookery because the whole world has picked up the chant. Or at least part of it. When lamb kidneys start showing up on American steakhouses, Henderson’s revolution in how we eat animals will be complete…but I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet.

Image(No humbuggery here)

Compared to St. John, Rules is positively antediluvian. Some may call it ossified eating, better suited to Victorian tastes in haunches of venison and fresh-killed birds (which come with a warning to watch for buckshot), but at Christmastime the place is magical. We met Marina and hubby David there, and truth be told, the conversation was so lively we paid scarce attention to the food.

What no one can ignore is the gorgeousness of the place. The walls could double as a mini museum, with portraits, cartoons and articles spanning 200 years of catering to the carriage trade. The wine list isn’t much (“If I’m going to drop 200 quid on wine, it won’t be here”), but the leafy, Victorian second floor bar (you have to be escorted upstairs) is so captivating you’ll be tempted to while away your mealtime sipping on good British gin or a Pimm’s Cup. Resist mightily these imbibing urges, pilgrim! Because a meal at Rules is timeless and one for the ages, and unlike any other in London.

Image(If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!”)

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Consider for a moment that you are eating in the same restaurant where everyone from Winston Churchill to Benjamin Disraeli once sat. Then concentrate on your food more than we did.

What you’ll find is a menu of rib-sticking standards that have withstood the test of time. What we did notice was Marina’s gorgeous Devon smoked eel, and David’s pheasant disappearing quickly, and once we broke through the suet crust on our steak and kidney pudding (above), we discovered the most meltingly toothsome of beef stews, enriched with the flavor of (you guessed it) more kidneys (urine tang not included). This bastion of ancient Englishness has been around since 1798, and how you take to it will depend on your taste for no-nonsense dishes like potted shrimps, Dorset crab salad and whatever game is in season. But no matter what you order, you’ll find a kitchen not resting on its laurels, but deeply-steeped in the classics and doing them proud.

Quote of the evening: “Sancerre is the U2 of white wines.” Yes, we are soooo stealing it, and henceforth, intend to claim proprietary rights to this juicy putdown — humiliating white wine sheeple on both continents with David’s all-too-true bon mot.

Also too true was this sticky toffee pudding — the last word in English desserts:

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Rules is a splurge, but not as dear as you might think. Even with two bottles of wine (one champagne and one Burgundy, natch) coming in at around 300 pounds sterling, the food bill was about the same, meaning we ate like King Henry VIII for under $100/pp American.

Like St. John, Rules is a place I had always wondered about, and longed to try for decades. Would it be as good as its history and hype? Is English food going to be one big blandburger? And what’s the deal with all the meat? And so few sauces? Do they even know what seasoning is, or what a green vegetable looks like?

Seek and you shall find, the saying goes, and what we found was straightforward cooking with little of the cartwheels in the kitchen invoked in American gastronomic restaurants, where the chefs seem duty-bound to strut every trick they’ve ever learned in culinary school (or have seen on Instagram). There was an unapologetic honesty (and a purity of flavors) to the food we encountered that only comes from confidence. Confidence in oneself as a cook, confidence in your ingredients, your culture, and in what the restaurant stands for — be it a small, modern steakhouse in an antiquated setting, or an icon of British gastronomy.  Most of all, these places evinced a trust in their customers to appreciate the labor and the traditions behind the food being served. Aside from Marina and I doing our duty as serial restaurant chroniclers, I didn’t see a single person snapping pictures of their meal in any of them.

Hail, Britannia, indeed.

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This is the first part of a two part article on my recent eating adventures across the pond. Part Two will drop in a week or so.

 

Letter of the Month – So You Want to be a Food Writer…

Anton Ego and Jesse Eisenberg: some notes on the presumed objectivity of critics | MZS | Roger Ebert

Ed. note: Every week we get e-mails, DMs, texts, etc. asking for our favorite (fill in the blank) __________, steakhouse, sushi, dim sum parlor, high falutin’ French, you name it. We’re always happy to send advice along, but none of those make us think the way Jessica recently did:

Dear Mr. Curtas,

For the last 10 years I have followed your works. Dreaming of the indulgent, and exquisite food you have been blessed to eat. Now, at just shy of 30 years old; I have finally decided on a career change. From being the youngest person in the state of Indiana to get my cosmetology license. To then being a stay at home mother. I have finally decided,  after decades of loving food, cooking and eating. I want to write about, and share my food experiences, like yourself.
 After doing research on how to start, it seems quite daunting.
At this point you must be wondering why I am even bothering you. I would like to ask your advice. What is a good way to start out in the field? Should I go straight to social media? Should I be blogging? Should I make Tic Tok and YouTube videos? Do I need a shtick  (like I only eat at certain types of places)? Any advice you are willing to bestow upon me, would be more then welcomed!
Sincerely,
Jessica
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Dear Jessica,
I’m going to give you two answers – one short (sort of) and probably along the lines you are looking for, and the other, another in a long line of my logorrheic lamentations on my alimentary ascriptions.
Answer #1:
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The first thing I would coach you to do is look around and then look inward. What are you really passionate about? Is it cooking? Eating out? Do you love something about your family’s food history that you’ve always wanted to share with others? Do you have family recipes you are proud of? Are you an avid baker? Does the thought of hunting down a great food truck quicken your pulse? Or do you dream of gourmet meals in dressed up settings?
This is a long way of saying yes, to get followers and be successful at this (however you define success) you will need a point of view and a shtick….but that shtick should always be an extension of who you are.
Then, I would look around where I live and check out who is covering the food scene. Check local magazines. Google local food bloggers. Check out TikTok and Instagram and see who is posting a lot in your area. And podcasting. Hell, even check out “elite Yelpers” and find out what they’re talking about.
Like any worthwhile endeavor, you have to start small. The greatest chef began making bread at his grandmother’s knee. The Hall of Fame ballplayer was once in Little League. Search for a niche in an area you love and see what unique voice you could bring to the subject.
Define what is special about your love of food and approach it from that angle. Use others for inspiration but try to find what makes your love of food unique to you and then figure out the best way to share it with others.
As for social media, I’m all for it, even if, for writers like me, its explosion has been more akin to what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. TikTok is for youngsters (sort of) and those with the time (and skill) to produce short videos. Nothing against gloppy cheese pulls and humongous tacos, but there’s a gazillion TikTokkers and YouTubers out with whom you will be competing. Distinguishing yourself is going to be mighty hard. But if videos are your thing (and for those under 40, they seem to be), have at it. The learning curve isn’t that steep, but you have to do whatever you do consistently. The food landscape is littered with people who wanted to blog, or podcast, or post about food on some site, and then flamed out after a few months. The only way to build a following is to be a constant presence on whatever venue you choose, and hope that word of mouth increases your visibility.
Instagram is simpler, and becoming easier (either for still photos or videos), with the added bonus of now being more realistic and less concerned with professionally-polished content. As a recent article in Eater put it:
“The things that I see in photos now are really more of that photo dump style,” says Maggie. “It’s less of the perfectly curated marble studio and more interest in my actual kitchen that I actually cooked in.”
All of which bodes well for klutzy amateur food photogs like us, who simply want to get people excited about the foods we love.
To summarize: Find a shtick you love and shtick with it. Pick your platform and go nuts. But always be yourself.
If you truly want to write about food, the climb is much steeper and the audience much smaller, as you can read below…
Answer #2:
Best Galloping Gourmet GIFs | Gfycat
(Let’s discuss our days as a galloping gourmet)
Before I begin doling out the infallible, inspiring, and unerringly erudite advice for which I am known, let me begin by noting that the landscape has changed dramatically since I began my career in food, no more so than in the past decade. The following is a much longer overview of my food writing trajectory (over ground which has been plowed before), to give you a little history on the subject of food writing, and perhaps some guidance.
I do not know how well you write or how much you intend to do it. I used to say that to be a good food writer you had to cook a lot, eat a lot, travel a lot and read a lot. The past ten years have relentlessly, systematically dismantled each of those (supposed) pillars of knowledge. Now, all you have to do now is know how to manage a social media account, none of which have anything to do with the written word. Cooking knowledge, eating adventures, and traveling experiences have also taken a hit, since with the swipe of a finger, a person can sound like they know all about Hong Kong dim sum parlors, or the best pastrami in New York.
Back in the Late Cretaceous period, you had to put in the work. Now, all you have to do is…
Fake It Till You Make It Emily GIF - Fake It Till You Make It Emily Emily In Paris - Discover & Share GIFs
(No passport? No problem.)
….which seems to be the motto of your generation (sorry).
Writing is rapidly becoming a lost art, right down there with toad doctors and drysalters, Though it may be an endangered species, for forty years of my life, the written word was the only way to communicate about food. In cooking, home cooks used to have to decipher impenetrable prose to learn a recipe from a printed page. This was how people were taught for over a century. Now, you can learn everything from mille feuille (puff pastry) to how to butcher a whole pig from a YouTube video.
Writing is hard. A real pain in the ass. (The classic saying is: writers hate writing but love having written.) Writing is its own reward, but you have to be driven to do it, and do it all the time. You can no more be an occasional writer (about food or anything else) anymore than you can be a good part-time violinist.
If you want to write about food, it helps immensely to be a good writer first. One can learn to write well, but as with music and sports, it helps to have a facility for it, and to start young. I knew I could write about food before I ever started doing it. I knew it in the way a good athlete knows from the beginning that they can play their sport. But as with golf (my favorite sport), even if you’re good, you have to keep at it, and even with constant practice, it can be frustrating.
Reading and writing are exponentially harder than talking and listening, which is why there are 2.4 million podcasts out there, and also why so much food media has taken to visual and spoken word platforms. Posting videos beats the pants off of slaving away for hours at a keyboard trying to think of entertaining ways to describe a dish or a meal. This is not to say producing YouTube content or podcasting is easy, but it ain’t as hard as churning out a thousand entertaining words about a restaurant.
Precious few people now want to read about food anymore than people want to write about it. The internet has created a race to the bottom, with both media and customers feeding off each other (PUN. INTENDED!) by demanding less and less in the form of thoughtful content — the triumph of unbridled narcissism over gastronomic rumination.

Well That Didnt Go Well Julia Child GIF - Well That Didnt Go Well Julia Child Julia GIFs(Mr. Curtas’s less-than egg-cellent TV career hit a snag when they discovered he had a face made for radio)

In the beginning, there was nothing insidious about social media platforms. They were convenient and free and immediately brought millions into the world of good food, nutrition, and better eating. In the space of this century they made more knowledgeable consumers out of an entire generation. I called this the Age of the Blogs (2002-2012) and what others have called the “good internet” or the Golden Age of the Internet — when people sought out websites and in-depth information about everything from pizza to politics.

Once Facebook took off though (around 2010), followed in short order by Instagram (in 2014 ) most blogs got plowed under by the sheer mass of two sites where everyone could get their news, info, pictures, and friends without ever having to leave a web page (cf. search engine optimization).

The rise of social media further combined to (almost) obliterate the mainstream food media where I made my reputation. Ten years ago, you could find me all over old school venues and some social media. Now it is just the opposite. I made my name by writing — first with radio commentaries (about food and restaurants), and later in print periodicals, which led to this website, TV appearances and eventually to my book (shameless plug alert!): EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants…
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The big national food magazines now exist only as a memory. Most local periodicals have either thrown in the towel, or gone completely to the free internet (with content that appeals to those with the attention span of a housefly). Food TV (what is left of it) has been reduced to ridiculous competition cooking shows. What has been buried under this avalanche of information are pearls of  wisdom. (MIX! THAT! METAPHOR!) Expertise is no longer valued. Now people want short, sweet and sexy — easy-to-digest info better at grabbing attention than making you think.
It is into this world you will step, Jessica:.
Tomato food pizza GIF on GIFER - by Feloril
Thus is the food media world now paradoxically saturated with content and starving for substance. Most media is either pay-to-play (advertorials disguised as journalism), or the kind of “influencer” nonsense (pretty pictures and gooey videos) designed to advertise to Yelpers.  Getting paid to write anymore is a pipe dream. The few of us who still get freelance gigs are doing it for peanuts. The number of food writers in America who actually draw a salary they can live on would probably fit around my dining room table. The days of Anton Ego are long gone.
So, whatever you do, dear Jessica, do it for yourself and no one else. The best a young person can hope to do in this climate is to develop an audience through social media, and then cultivate some kind of content-creating gig that will pay enough to subsidize your culinary appetites. But keep in mind, you will never be good at what you do, if you are only doing it for the clicks, or the $$$, or  the free food.
Final Thoughts:
Best Anton Ego GIFs | Gfycat
In his excellent essay on the essence of criticism, H. D. Miller writes:
Anton Ego has a pure soul. He is someone who cares only and exclusively about art (in this case cookery). He knows what is good and suffers enormously from what is bad. This is close to what I mean by “critical sense”, that the critic knows, deeply knows, the difference between what is good and what is not and is emotionally affected by it.
The job of a good critic is to educate, not simply appeal to the lowest common denominator. You must be in love with what you are writing about, and you should want to relentlessly share you passion with others. Without that level of emotional commitment, you will most certainly fail. With it, you will always find the devotion to keep going, no matter how large or small your audience.
I have always written for me, or someone like me. Every word — going back to my first radio scripts of 1994 — has been aimed at an avid home cook with an insatiable love of restaurants, travel, food and drink. I write for someone who gets as excited by a good cheeseburger as they do about a life-changing gourmet meal. Most of all, I have written for that person who wants to eat the best food, in the most authentic places, wherever they find themselves. Who wants to know why this taco is better than that taco, or why some famous chef isn’t worth your time or money, while some unknown cook, slaving to make the rent, is worth a trip — sometimes across town, sometimes across an ocean.
This is the best advice I can give you: think about who you are and what you love. Write, blog, podcast or produce something in whatever format for the person you are, and for an imaginary person just like you, who gets as excited as you do about whatever it is you are talking about. Do that and you will find an audience who appreciates you for all the right reasons, no matter what its size.
Best and bon appétit,
John Curtas
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Free Man In Paris

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I was a free man in Paris

I felt unfettered and alive

There was nobody calling me up for favors

And no one’s future to decide Joni Mitchell

American writers have been rhapsodizing about Paris since Ben Franklin’s powdered wig was peeking down some bustier. There’s not much I can add — literary-wise — to the musings of everyone from Henry James to Ernest Hemingway, but I can share a few pointers on what to see and where to eat, along with some musings of my own about what makes the City of Light so compelling, one-hundred years after Ernest & Friends fell in love with it.

The culture of Paris insinuates itself into your soul if you let it. Americans love to talk of snooty Frenchmen and various un-pleasantries, but those are the carpings of the intentionally uncomfortable — the sorts who arrive in any foreign environment looking for something to bitch about.

All you have to do to enjoy yourself in Gay Paree is give in to the Parisian vibe (by turns energetic one minute, and insouciant the next). Leave your American expectations at home, relax, stroll around a bit, and say “bonjour!” and “s’il vous plait” about thirty times a day. Do that and they are almost as nice as Italians.

As I was somewhere over the Atlantic, coming back from ten days walking the streets and haunting cafes from Montparnasse to Montmartre, it occurred to me that this might be my writing future: travelogues for those who might wish to follow in my footsteps in the coming months/years. My covering the Las Vegas food scene has reached its natural end; there are no more mountains for me to climb here, and frankly, it’s more fun these days to see the world rather than wander around (again and again) in my own backyard.

(If you’re dying to hear my mellifluous tones pontificate on where best to exercise your palate in Sin City, tune in Fridays to What’s Right with Sam & Ash — where we whoop it up about food while recapping my eating week.)

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Unshackled by the bonds of servitude to Sin City, I am thus free to eat the world, where, quite frankly, the food, wine, and scenery are better (and often cheaper). Consider this a combination of food diary and love letter to my favorite city in the world, where the sights and smells never fail to astonish me, and where eating and drinking well is as easy as rolling out of bed.

But before you can embrace all the picturesque wonderfulness, you first have to get there, and sad to say, that will be more annoying than anything you encounter once you arrive.

News flash: Flying remains a pain in the ass.

Air France is a shell of its former self. A country’s airline — be it SwissAir, Lufthansa or whatever — used to tickle you with anticipation (“As soon as you board, you feel like you’re almost in the country,” I used to tell my kids.) Now you’re on an airbus in more ways than one. They throw some cardboard food at you a couple of times and wheel a shitty beverage cart up the isle twice (first, an hour into your eight-hour transatlantic haul; then again six hours later), and that’s it.

No cans of soda, no mixers, nothing but water, crappy coffee, tepid tea and supermarket wine. Pro tip: load up on snacks and beverages at the airport. What’s become an insult to passengers has been a boon to SmartWater and SlimJims. None of this applies if you fly business- or first-class, which we never do, preferring to save our $$$s for the food and wine which lie ahead.

Enough negativity, let’s get to the fun stuff.

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Traveling is living intensified. – Rick Steves

Paris the “Being John Curtas” way means you literally lose yourself there; park your worst instincts back home and drink it all in, every waking moment. I become more sanguine, taciturn even (about everything but the ubiquitous dog shit).

Every time I see Paris’s low profile and history-drenched boulevards, I feel like I’m an awestruck ten-year old seeing a big city for the first time. Rick Steves’ quote is no more true than on the streets of Paris, where your senses are excited on every block, and awesome architecture defines every corner.

The French invented blasé (the word and the mood), but no matter how many times I’m in the city (this last trip was my tenth), that’s the one feeling I never have. I’m too busy picking my jaw off the pavement…when I’m not using it.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. – Ernest Hemingway

Image(When I’m in Paris, I’m on a seafood diet: when I see food I eat it.)

The Food. The wine. The seafood! (sea above) The size of the brasseries and the sheer number of cafés means you’ll never go hungry, no matter what the hour.

It’s really one of the most impressive things about Paris: the mind-blowing number of places to feed and refresh yourself. They’ve always been in abundance, but the patisseries/boulangeries (technically not the same thing, but often combined) seem to have doubled in number over the past decade.

The Style: men in snappy coats and women being worn by heroic scarves.  No t-shirts or cargo shorts, please. Someone asked me what the French don’t like about Americans and the answer is simple and understandable: the way we dress.

Finally: awesome architecture and history envelops its iconic restaurants. The sheer beauty of them should not surprise (the French invented the modern restaurant, after all), but the stunning interiors (and how well they’ve aged) are still enough to take your breath away:

Image(Le Grand Colbert)

If you can’t enjoy yourself walking around Paris, you need to have your pulse checked.

My advice to anyone traveling to France or Italy is to always find a café to call your own, preferably close to your hotel. Stopping by every morning will start to make you feel like a local, and by your third visit, even the frostiest waiter will start to smile when he sees you.

 Walking, smelling, sitting, sipping cafe au lait. “Encore, s’il vous plait” we say.(“please bring another”)…and your favorite waiter will let you sit there all day, diddling your phone, reading a book, or planning where next to eat  — which is the surest way to make you feel like a Frenchman.

Amazingly though, we actually lose a few pounds on every visit. Five-to-ten miles of walking each day will do that, no matter how many baguettes or soufflés you inhale. Sage advice: use your mornings to plan your pre- and post-dejeuner walks.

If The Food Gal® is lucky, I occasionally agree to a little shopping, just to buy some marital harmony. (Poor thing has always operated under the illusion there is something to do in Paris other than eat and drink.)

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Breakfast, you ask? Fuggidabadit. In France, breakfast (aka “petit dejeuner”) is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch. Some coffee and a croissant is all you’ll need to fuel you for the first few hours of the day. From then on, it’s Katy bar the door/calories here we come, as temptations await on every block.

THE RESTAURANTS

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Straight off the plane, still groggy from jetting the ocean, we staggered into L’Ami Louis (above) perhaps the toughest bistro ticket in Paris. It was worth the wait, which for me had been twenty-five years — a quarter century of hearing about its allure to ex-pats, celebs, and galloping gourmands, followed by a revisionist decade of how gauche and “not worth it” it was. It is the one bistro critics love to hate. Especially British critics, as you’ll see below.

Founded in 1924, they only things that have changed in ninety-seven years are the prices and the dress of the patrons. Some have called its interior “museum-like”, others, like the late, great, splenetic A. A. Gill described it as a “painted, shiny distressed brown dung…set with labially pink cloths which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository.”

All nasty Brit-lit gymnastics aside, what you find when you enter is a classic, narrow, well-worn bistro that feels as comfortable as a pair of well-worn Wellingtons. Where Gill found “paunchy, combative, surly men” waiting tables, all we saw were affable-if-brusque, seen-it-all pros.

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Gill (who died in 2016, and whose hemorrhoids must’ve been acting up in ’11 when he wrote those words) also savaged the food. As much as we were a fan of his knives-out style, we found ourselves silently pleading with his ghost throughout our two-hour lunch. Au contraire, mon frere, we muttered continually. From an ethereally silky slab of foie gras to our deviled veal kidneys to the famous roast chicken (above), this was Parisian bistro cooking at its most elemental and satisfying. True, the recipes probably haven’t changed since Bogart was wooing Bergman, but that’s part of the charm. 

Where Gill found the foie to be “oleaginous and gross”, our bites were of the smoothest, purest duck liver. A mountain of shoestring fries came with our oversized bird, and better ones we had trouble remembering. Ditto the escargot, brimming with butter and electric green parsley — shot through with garlic in all the best ways.

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No fault could be found with the wine list either (pricey for a bistro, but not off-putting), or  a baba au rhum the size of a human head.

“Brits love to bag on the Frogs,” is what we thought as we were paying the bill and thanking the staff. The prices (for solids and liquids), are high but not enough to put you on our heels, especially if you’re used to Las Vegas. (Our lunch came to about 400 euros/couple, with about half being wine.) 

Gill concluded his hatchet job by calling L’Ami Louis the “worst restaurant in the world.” It may not be the best, old-fashioned bistro in Paris, but it’s a long way from deserving such opprobrium. I’d call it a must-stop for our next visit, for that terrine de foie gras alone:
 
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As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans. – Ernest Hemingway

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Le Dôme remains le ultimate seafood brasserie in a neighborhood swimming with them. All gleaming glass and brass, it has become a de rigueur to stop for oysters whenever we get to town. Montparnasse is chock full of good restaurants, many of which, like Le Select (1925), La Rotonde (1911) and La Cloiserie des Lilas (1847), are haunted by the ghosts of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Henry Miller.

These cafes formed the social hub of Roaring Twenties Paris, and, amazingly, continue to hold their own today, one-hundred years after they became American-famous.

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Like many of its equally famous neighbors, Le Dôme is huge, so don’t think twice about dropping in on a whim for a douziane plates and a glass of Sancerre.

Classics like Breton lobster and Dover sole (above), are prepared so perfectly they remind you why these dishes became renowned in the first place, and if you want to hunker down for a full meal, LD dazzles with best of them. The freshness of its cooked seafood is legendary, even in a town known for legendary fresh fish and shellfish.

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For dessert: don’t miss the mille-feuille Napoleon (sliced from a pastry the size of a rugby football) — which elicits ohhs and aahs for both its appearance and taste.

A note about the supposed insufferable French: this was our third visit to Le Dôme in the past four years, but we are hardly “known” to the management. On each visit, whether as a walk-in solo or with reservations and guests, we have always received a friendly welcome from the solicitous staff — who couldn’t be more helpful in either guiding us to the best oysters of the day, or which wine to pair with them. You get out of restaurants what you put into them, and if you walk into Le Dôme with happy heart, it will only make you happier.

A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life. —Thomas Jefferson

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From Montparnasse one day, we trekked up the hill to Montmartre the next, to visit Le Coq et Fils (formerly Le Coq Rico) — Antoine Westermann’s paean to poultry.

Climbing up to Sacré Coeur and exploring the nooks and crannies of cobblestoned streets of this “village inside a city” puts you in a mood to take down an entire yardbird accompanied by a variety of other Westermann signatures like poultry broth “shots” (perhaps the most intense chicken soup ever made), duck rillettes, and egg mayonnaise “Westermann’s Way” (a gorgeous puck of the best egg salad ever tasted):

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But the undeniable stars of the show are the whole birds, and we opted for a four pound Bresse specimen of unsurpassed flavor:

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From the crispness of the skin to the fineness of the grain to the richness of the flesh, these are flocks which put to shame the universal putdown of “tasting like chicken.” Of course the olive oil-drenched pommes puree and straight-from-the-fat frites don’t hurt your enjoyment of this beautiful bird, either.

The birds are sized and sold according to how many you want to feed (e.g. a guinea hen and smaller birds are sized for two). The wine list was modest in scope but interesting and reasonable, and the service couldn’t have been better.

For dessert we took down an Ile Flottante (“floating island”) — a lighter version of this classic — with a softball-sized meringue so airy it seemed to be floating above the creme Anglaise beneath it.

I have been in Paris for almost a week and I have not heard anyone say calories, or cholesterol, or even arterial plaque. The French do not season their food with regret. Mary-Lou Weisman

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Watching your calories is the last thing you want to do at L’Ami Jean — the au courant favorite of Parisian foodies  — a bistro which resists mightily the Brooklynization of casual Parisian dining

As with L’Ami Louis, its slightly older cousin across the Seine, you enter something of a time warp when you cross the threshold into a crowded, narrow room — whose general appearance hasn’t changed since Maurice Chevalier was breaking into talkies.

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Cheek-by-jowl everyone sits, the crowd being a mixture of internet-educated gastronauts and local trenchermen who’ve been expanding their ample bellies since the 70s. (From the vantage point of our sole, round six-top along the wall, the diners seemed to be running at about a 10-to-1 men-to-women.)

The effect is one of a raucous eating club in a cramped space where appreciating hearty, rustic food is the coin of the realm.

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Having taken serious umbrage to Gill’s evisceration of L’Ami Louis, I must raise an exception in the other direction  — in this case to the lavish praise universally heaped upon Stéphane Jégo’s ode to excess. We have nothing against wild boar stews and roasted pigeons drenched in wine. And we are hardly one to quibble with rough-hewn bricks of paté de campagne or nutty/puffy lobes of sweetbreads roasted with thyme. But when we considered our meals as a whole at this temple of bistronomy, what stuck with us was the textural, taste and visual sameness of our multiple courses — more  cuisine bourgeois-than restaurant cooking — finesse-free food heaped into bowls…which is probably the point. Nothing wrong with any of it, mind you, but no standouts, either.

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Service was the definition of “harried” but also almost preternaturally fast. They screwed up our white wine order, but brought the “wrong” bottle that happened to go beautifully with the food at the same price.

For dessert, get the signature rice pudding with caramel sauce, even if your ribs are pleading for something less to stick to them.

In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria. – Benjamin Franklin

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If food is the body of good living, wine is the soul. – Clifton Fadiman

The same advice I gave about cafés above applies to wine bars. There is wine aplenty in the area — Juveniles, Le Rubis, A L’Heure du Vin — so calling the First Arrondissement a “target rich environment” for oenophiles is like referring to Le Louvre as a nice art gallery.

We’re more Right Bank than Left Bank these days, so it’s a no-brainer to make Willi’s Wine Bar our home away from home.

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Oh Willi’s, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways:

Your wine (of course, specializing in Rhones both new and aged), either by the glass or bottle, always interesting at a fair price; the food (classic bistro fare but made with flair and good groceries by chef Francois Yon); excellent bread; exceptional cheese; and best of all, a friendly welcome (whether you are known or unknown).

English is freely spoken (it’s still owned by the Brit – Mark Williamson (below) – who founded it in 1980) and your staff is cheerful and knowledgeable, and their patience (with idiotic Americans who can’t decide what to order) is as long as the bar (above). 

And then, of course, there are those iconic posters: 

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And finally: the location — just a block from the Palais Royale — in the heart of where-it’s-happening Paris.

In other words, Willi’s is just about perfect, whether you’re hungry for a full meal, or seeking a simple sip. It’s as much restaurant as wine bar, but no matter what you’re looking for, it will send you away smiling.

Paris nourishes the soul, is how Victor Hugo put it, and Willi’s nourished us, in more ways than one on this trip.

We always returned to [Paris] no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. – Ernest Hemingway

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As the sunlight fades over the distance of the Left Bank, a Parisian day always seems to end quietly, but regretfully, like a sigh.

There are few magic spells left to be woven in the world and this city still weaves one of them. How many cities on earth can you say that about? 

When good Americans die, they go to Paris. – Oscar Wilde 

Something else occurred to me 36,000 feet over the Atlantic: I am my best self in Paris — engaged, entranced and relaxed like nowhere else on earth. Perhaps it will be where I end my days. Who knows? There are worse ways to go.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Next month we go big game hunting among the haute-est of the haute cuisine temples of French gastronomy. 🥂🍾🇫🇷