If you are fortunate enough to have lived in Paris as a young man—as Ernest Hemingway didn’t write—then good for you, because the city has sadly gone downhill.
I’m sure it has much to recommend for itself to young men experiencing it today, despite its Eurozone homogeneity; but it’s a far cry from just a little over 10 years ago, when prices were in francs, everyone still smoked in cafés and waiters refused to speak in English.
It also used to be the center of the food world, when Michelin’s guide rouge was the ultimate arbiter of the best restaurants, and most of them were in France, and of those a disproportionate number in Paris.
Today the scene has moved elsewhere, some say further south to Spain, where the current No. 1 restaurant (at least according to the Diners’ Club List), El Celler De Can Roca is located, as is Mugaritz, Arzak and formerly El Bulli.
A trip to Paris for a gastronome is no longer as a Hajj is to a Muslim. This can be considered good or bad; I don’t like it at all.
On its way out
In the meantime, having a 3-year-old daughter in tow means that the 10-course degustation dinners that used to be a nearly nightly marathon activity for me and my wife whenever we visited has become difficult to sustain. I’m not sure whether it’s the new brisk pace of family life or the feeling that the concept has run its course, but my own sentiments are that the degustation is on its way out.
Even at its height, at a restaurant like Pierre Gagnaire, one could have three out of 10 dishes as truly transcendent, the other four quite interesting, and the rest a waste of time. A long, multi-course dinner stacks the odds in favor of the chef, whereas as a snappy three-course lunch gives him one shot in each category to impress you.
This is what Frederic Simonin, chef of the eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in the 17th arronidissement conspicuously failed to do. Like many haute cuisine restaurants that are not centrally located, it offers set lunches at a modest price for extra revenue, and as a sampler for its more expensive main menu.
The décor, service and presentation were flawless. But an entrée of blanc de seiche (cuttlefish) was rubbery and puzzling, with too much going on in terms of flavors, with too little fish to go around. The main course my wife had, the lieu jaune, or pollock, was unassuming and drab.
Simonin acquitted himself with the Scotch beef, though I have a feeling this was a triumph of the quality of the meat, rather than of his craft. The dessert was a brave attempt to make yogurt more than it could be, but garnish can only go so far.
After this rather cold start to come to terms with the new Paris, we decided to revisit old touristy haunts. I’m pleased to report that La Rotisserie du Beaujolais, the sister bistro of La Tour d’Argent, is still doing what it does best: throwing large haunches of perfectly roasted meat on the table: an entire duck, a rotisserie chicken, a side of beef. Escargots to start with and île flottant to finish.
On the other hand, I can say for certain that Au Pied de Cochon, now one of the many historic brasseries taken over by the Frères Blanc chain, has gone from being bad but nostalgic to
truly awful—its speciality of breaded pork trotter deep-fried and served with fries and béarnaise sauce a sodden mass of grease.
On the sweets front, what was once one of the old, dignified salons de thé in Paris has now become an annoying global brand, as much an accessory as Louis Vuitton. I speak of course of Ladurée, where the queue snaked 140 persons deep. We went instead to Angelina’s, which has so far repudiated attempts at global domination and remains a discreet little room on the rue de Rivoli.
They’ve now opened the dusty upstairs and added an extension at the back, but it’s one of the places where the food seems to have actually improved. They’ve gotten rid of the cranky old matrons and installed svelte, fast-moving waitresses who dish out the hot chocolate, steak tartare and montblanc (chestnut purée on a meringue base with whipped cream).
It’s hard to pass judgment on a city one has known fairly well from a few days’ stay after an absence of 10 years. The coffee at the local café across from the hotel was hot and strong, the croissants at the bakery were buttery and flaky, and perhaps some of the best food we had the whole time was a last-minute take-away of a slice of soft, white cheese and a baguette from a random shop at a street corner.
This is how one comes to make a city one’s own. We spent a lot of our time chasing ghosts, and not enough time making friends with the new Paris that was a stranger to us: Some ghosts turned out to be impossible to recapture, while others were comfortingly corporeal despite the intervening years.
With the rate of unemployment at over 10 percent in France and creeping up to 30 percent in the suburbs of the capital, Paris as an example of a city that is beautiful yet thriving and functioning is no longer as assured. In terms of food, it’s not that it has gotten worse, but that the rest of the world has gotten better, and that French classical cuisine no longer holds the primacy it once did.
My 3-year-old, though, loved it. After eating an escargot with bread and a large dollop of butter, she exclaimed: “I love Paris!” So, perhaps the city still holds its sway, and my daughter will have that indelible experience of going there as a young woman when she and the city are ready.
Frederic Simonin is at 25, rue Bayen, Paris 75017; +33 01 45 74 74 74. Angelina is at 226, rue de Rivoli, Paris 75001; +33 01 42 60 82 00. La Rotisserie du Beaujolais is at 19, Quai de la Tournelle, Paris 75005, +33 01 43 54 17 47.