An invitation to a two-night New Year’s celebration that included dinner on a yacht while cruising past a glittering Eiffel Tower and dinner and dancing at the posh Hotel Lutetia – who could say no to that? – was a perfect excuse to head back to Paris. Here are some of the culinary highlights.
Our flat was on Rue Rambuteau, one of my favorite market streets in the city, with bakeries, a cheese monger, wine shops, a butcher and a grocery store just steps from our front door. And directly beneath one of our balconies, just across the street, was one of several cafes, this one called Le Oken. Because we had arrived later in the day and knew that jet lag would be creeping up on us, we decided to give it a try. And what a delightful experience it turned out to be.
I learned early on in my career to avoid superlatives, but the steak tartare was perhaps the best I’ve had – and I’ve had many. What made it special was smoked mayonnaise, which gave it a barbecue-like note. Egg yolk confit and crispy fries made it a feast.
Almost as good was the appetizer of crispy frog legs, fried and topped with parsley and garlic butter a la bourguignon.
And the poitrine de cochon, a huge slab of pork belly served on chopped greens with sauteed lardons, was like being in pig heaven. Gracious service and a comfortable, if compact, atmosphere rounded the experience out.
Le Grand Vefour
Le Grand Vefour is, as Julia Child wrote, “one of the most famous of the old Paris restaurants.” (If you’ve watched season two of “Julia” on Max, you’ve seen Child and her husband, Paul, dining there.) Just to be in the ultra elegant dining dining room, whose decor harkens back to 1784, is a treat. Located under the colonnade of the Palais Royal, Vefour has a menu that rises to the address.
I chose to order from the daily prix fixe menu, which offered an extraordinary value of two courses for 56 euro. I had an appetizer of wild boar terrine with walnut and juniper berries, red onion marmalade and prunes. The terrine was dense and wonderfully gamey.
My entree was sea bass, pan seared so that the skin was crispy and as delicious as the white flesh beneath it. I could have done without the mango vinaigrette on top, but I loved the eryngli (king trumpet) mushrooms that served as a platform.
Rick ordered a la carte, selecting the smoked salmon starter, served with blinis and crême fraíche.
Followed by stewed pork cheeks with pureed potatoes and a sauce of oranges and cranberries with pork jus.
Before arriving at Vefour, we stopped at the Ritz to visit the Hemingway Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail, so it was quite a grand evening.
On our last night in Paris, we dined at L’Escargot Montorgueil in Les Halles, and it wasn’t until we were seated that I realized that just a couple of months before that our last meal in Barcelona had been at Los Caracoles, which also translates to the snails. So a pattern is developing.
I had passed this restaurant dozens of times over the many trips to Paris and assumed it was a tourist trap. But I was wrong.
The restaurant opened in 1832 and, like Le Grand Vefour, it retains much of its Old World charm and Second Empire decor, with mirrored walls, red velvet banquettes, dark wood coffered ceilings with gold leaf etchings, and a spiral staircase leading to a second floor dining room.
The restaurant specializes, of course, in snails, a dish found on hundreds of menus throughout Paris. But what’s different here is that the preparations go beyond the usual garlic butter.
The escargot bourguignon are referred to here as traditional recipe, and they’re delicious. But the smart thing to do is order a mixed plate, which will get you a couple of the traditionals as well as snails infused with foie gras and truffles. If you’re feeling really slug-ish, go for the Big Degustation, which will get you those plus the cheese & walnut and soft chili recipes – 36 snails in all. They’re served in shell and each diner is equipped with snail tongs and a tiny fork to coax the meat out. Use some of the soft doughy bread to sop up the remaining butter.
For my main course I had the beef bourguignon, the traditional stew with carrots, potatoes and chewy bits of bacon.
The duck breast pie, listed on the menu as an original recipe from L’Escargot, featured full flavored duck meat baked in a flaky pastry.
It was a nice meal to say goodbye…for now.