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.
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.
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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