Notes from Paris and London

May 3, 2012

Walking down the rue Mouffetard in the early Paris morning is a completely sensual experience.  This time of year the street is perfumed with strawberries and the fat white asparagus are everywhere, poking up with a curiously aggressive air. Meanwhile the cauliflower curl shyly into their protective green leaves, as if reluctant to emerge and face the sassy herbs in their bold bunches.

You pass Androuet and the doors burst open, sending the scent of ripe cheese dancing out into the street. Farther up, at the Fournil du Mouffetard, people are lining up for buttery croissants and proud pouffs of brioche.  You go on, to the fish market, where the shrimp line up in a dozen different sizes, and great floppy turbots practically beg you to take them home.

Such wonderful abundance. And yet….   When I look back at the meals that we ate last week, it’s London that I remember with the greatest fondness. 

In Paris we ate fabulously at L’Arpege, where Alain Passard, a vegetable magician, manages to make meat seem redundant. I remember every bite there with complete clarity.  We began with gorgeous vegetable sushi, the rice draped with a thin slice of turnip, fresh horseradish and chervil. Photo (4)

An intense broth of smoked root vegetables, almost medicinal in its clarity, offered four tiny ravioli, each containing a different vegetable puree.  A thick fennel and garlic veloutee came topped with a whoosh of speck-infused milk, so rich it was almost impossible to believe the waitress when she insisted that it was not whipped cream.  A sweet onion gratin, the color of marigolds, had the haunting taste of candied lemon threaded through it like a musical note.  "Merguez” of vegetables was peppered with the taste of harissa to create an improbably imposter that resembled the real thing.  White asparagus, the fattest that I’d seen, were dotted with an unfamiliar spice that had the bite of Sichuan peppercorn and the taste of grapefruit.  And that was just the starters: it was a stunning meal.

So was the meal at Frenchie, where we ate silken smoked trout with cucumbers and the best sweetbreads I’ve ever encountered, each one so soft and tender it was like biting into clouds.  There was fabulous foie gras.  And Fera, a freshwater whitefish from Lake Genva, delicate and perfumed. The sommelier, Laura Vidal, was wonderful, the place intimate, fun – and inexpensive.

There were other great meals in Paris too.  We had  beautiful dinner at the elegant and extremely trendy Spring where a young American chef, Daniel Rose, is doing us proud. We spent an extremely fun night at Minipalais, a big beautiful room filled with chic people and enormously likable food.  Dinners there begin with enormous popovers and  terrific charcuterie and go on to a menu of pick hits of everybody's favorite dishes. 

But there were many disappointments.  The biggest was Le Comptoir, which I’ve always loved. This time, however, we were treated to a sloppy meal of overcooked chicken, watery pommes purees, and one of the saddest salads I’ve seen in Paris.  “What happened here?” I found myself asking, as I thought back to the meals we had in London.

The answer, I think, is that too many Paris restaurants are resting on their laurels, as if they’re so convinced of their own superiority that they aren’t trying very hard.  Meanwhile London is still striving, still excited about food, still thinking of how to do everything better. Strange that the croissants we ate at Ottolenghi beat anything we had in Paris – and on a rainy day!

I think back to lunch at Quo Vadis – an old-fashioned place where Jeremy Lee (who was at Blueprint Cafe), is pumping out simple food with enthusiasm and energy.  We began with spears of asparagus, each wrapped in a crisp sheet of brik pastry and dusted with parmesan. Warm and extremely sexy, I could have eaten them forever. But I stopped when great piles of langoustines arrived (with wonderful mayonnaise), and platters of oysters, fragile as orchids with an elusively coppery tang.  Rabbit and chicken pie made me think how well the wealthy in Charles Dickens’ novels must have been eating, and a grilled mackerel made me remember the pure pleasure of simply cooked food. 

And that is, for the most part, the strength of the new English cooking. Almost everywhere we went they were serving local farm food.  We had piles of Jersey Royals – little steamed potatoes served with butter, and English asparagus, buttered cabbage, lovely little peas.  Fluffy salads of tender greens.  Simply grilled fish – turbot, mackerel – or hefty chops of farm-raised pork.

But the two most memorable moments?  A thrilling dinner at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant overlooking Regent’s Park.  We ate at ten, our sixth meal of a very long day, and I walked in with no appetite at all.  But the service was spectacular, and the food so exciting that at one in the morning, all torpor vanished, I was tucking into roasted pineapples with great joy.  Blumenthal has researched English food of the past to create an edible history lesson; many of the dishes sound both strange and awful, but every single bite was a revelation. 

Photo (5)
Beneath it’s disguise this “meat fruit,” this little tangerine, turned out to be an airy chicken liver mousse. “Salmagundy” paired intensely tasty little rounds of chicken “oysters” with tiny disks of bone marrow making the textures shoot through your mouth like rockets. Buttered crab came with a a long rectangle of bread that looked modest. Then you took a bite and tasted roe, becoming aware that it was a kind of shellfish pain perdu, and totally delectable.  The vegetarian braised celery with smoked confit cauliflower and apple? It turned out to be a rather royal relative of  macaroni and cheese.

Desert was tipsy cake made with roasted pineapple that brought the meal to an end with astonishingly alcoholic intensity. We went out into the rain to strolled slowly through wet deserted streets, intoxicated with London.

It was still raining the next morning, and we ran through the raindrops to the Towpath Cafe, which sits on the edge of a hidden canal in Islington.  It’s a casual little outdoor cafe, more Spain or Italy than England, but if there’s a more perfect place to sip a cup of coffee, I have yet to find it.  I sat there, wrapped in a blanket, watching the ducks paddling on the canal. And as I ate a tender little omelet dotted with ramps, this is what I was thinking: “I could sit here quite happily for the rest of my life.”

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  • Thank you for the timely tips, Ruth, as my partner and I prepare for four days in London together before he spends four in Paris and I four in Wales.

  • No1LadyKay says:

    Sounds heavenly! You always make me feel hungry:-)

  • Ruth,
    thank you for your tips.
    It was thrilling seeing you at Frenchie on Friday night. The sweetbreads made my trip, the sauce was divine. And the strawberry sorbet? Sherry vinegar in it to season it (I wrote and asked Greg), providing that awesome pop with every swallow. Now I need to go to London!

  • Found you and your writing..your style is just so perfect for need to write a new book for your fans..I also follow David Lebovitz his Paris oriented books..we went in October this year on a PBS cruise..I miss it and obviously you have the know- how and maybe more time since gourmet magazine is gone..sob.sob..really I was a huge fan..just an idea!or what about writing a movie like Judith and Julia only bout yourself…you have had a very exciting recipes! Mary Kay in northwest Indiana close to Chicago!your fan!

  • You are amazingly blessed.

  • Randy Diaz says:

    First and foremost, want to let you know I’ve always been a big admirer of yours. I love your blog. I especially love your comment above, “I think, is that too many Paris restaurants are resting on their laurels, as if they’re so convinced of their own superiority that they aren’t trying very hard. That seems to be happening alot lately in Paris with all the new “flavor of the month” restaurants that become so popular that people becoming blinded by the hype! or as you say “laurels.”
    While there’s no mistake Frenchies makes incredible food, the dining experience has to be about the whole experience, from the time you make the reservations to the time you leave the door. Yes, those types of restaurants exists in Paris, more so than not! Maybe because you’re known, but the customer service or lack of is unacceptable. They have an “I don’t care attitude” as it concerns reservations. And, the front of the house staff can be rude and unruly. If Chef Marchand would give half his attention to the customers as he does the food, then that restaurant would be great. We locals stay away. I think François Simon says it best in his recent write-up on this restaurant, calling it a “phantom restaurant” and easier to get into prison.

  • Like the others, I’m a huge fan of your writing (one of your books convinced me that I would change my mind and try brain if I can ever find it on a menu again, because your description was so mouth-watering!). Reading this post made me curious, though, as to what the difference in price was for your London meals vs the Paris meals… I know there has been a great renaissance in UK cuisine over the past decade or two, but the last few times I was in London several years back, you had to pay a small fortune to get delicious food, whereas in Paris (and France in general) I find that unforgettable meals are available at much more reasonable (relatively speaking) prices… but I’m fortunate enough to live in France so perhaps I get more “insider information” on where to go for the most bang for your buck… Is London/UK gastronomy now more accessible?

  • FergusMiller says:

    Hi Ruth,
    Just been to Paris my self and ate at Arpège – The “Merguez” of Veg uses an animal casing, kind of defeats the point really, but Passard never claims to be a Vegetarian and mainly shied away from using red meat because of made cows back in 2001 – Next time you are in Paris make sure you go to Agapé Substance, David Toutain is one to watch. I have posts about the two above places on my blog.
    Best regards

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    Cathy, you’re right about the price difference between London and Paris. London is much more expensive. But it’s not just food: everything is more expensive there. I stupidly took a taxi from Heathrow to the hotel and it cost $140. A ride on the London tube costs more than $4. And although we stayed in modest hotels in both cities, our London hotel cost four times what our Paris one did.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    I’m sorry to say that we did go to Agape Substance, and I was not a fan. I thought it was an extremely uncomfortable place to indulge in a long (three hour) meal, and much of the food struck me as silly. Sorry.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    Randy, I agree that it’s punishingly difficult to get into Frenchie; after calling them for almost a week and finding that I couldn’t even leave a message, I finally begged a friend to walk over there and try to get us a reservation. But I have to say that once there, the service was impressive. I couldn’t take my eyes off our waitress (and sommelier) Laura Vidal; a total pro. If i had a restaurant I’d be begging her to come work for me.