As Val and I plan trips, there is always a bit of a tug between his approach to dining and mine. He thinks that serendipity is the best guide and I want advance reservations, carefully selected after weeks or even months of study and will plan whole days around a major meal. He always wants at least one Chinese meal on every trip and would be perfectly happy if all of them were Chinese. I want French—of any type, but mostly bistro—at least if we’re in France and particularly if we’re in Paris and that’s where we were when we participated in this little experiment.
Accommodation to each other’s styles over the years has finally worked into a pattern where we reserve for a few highly important meals and then agree to “wing it” for others—which means that I have to carry lots of notes and guidebooks to be prepared to instantly have a place appear wherever we might be when hunger strikes and he expects to just look around and find the perfect spot for lunch. Here’s how it all shook out on a trip we took to Paris in April 2008.
I hope the information helps those who wonder whether it’s necessary to reserve all meals weeks or even months, in advance, or just have the hotel call a day or two in advance, or just walk in. The answer is “all three” and even some variations on those themes but it varies by type and location of restaurant, what else is going on in town while you’re there and by how critical the meal is to your happiness.
Often we travel with another couple, and getting spur of the moment seating can be more problematic for four than for two. In the past we’ve even had all of our meals prebooked before getting on the plane. This time we left home without a single meal reserved in advance. Before we left however I combed my restaurant guides to develop a list of recommended places near our hotel and on our first day, we did a walk about to acquaint ourselves with our surrounds and seek the identified restaurants out, have a look at their menus and make some preliminary picks of ones we’d like to try.
I also kept my Zagat guide to Paris with me at all times to be able to check places we found along the way and to call ahead if I knew we’d be near someplace I wanted to dine when lunch time came upon us. That, and some honest to goodness serendipity, worked pretty well for us on this trip. Here’s how things shook out.
Day 1—a ThursdaParis, the best of the besty
Lunch at Rotisserie d’en Face, on rue Christine in the 6th
How selected—We wandered by (with some purpose and planning) as we explored the places I’d identified that were fairly close to our hotel. This looked good and we popped in. We were seated easily without a reservation. The place remained pretty well, but not completely, filled throughout our meal.
Results—This is one of the several places in town “run” by Jacques Cagna, many right together within a block of each other, not unlike the area in the 7th “run” by Christian Constant. It’s a cute, sort of provincial French place with a nice almost family feel and pleasant service. Val had smoked salmon with dill whipped cream, then the French equivalent of prime rib. I had frog legs swimming in butter and herbs (a good thing, honest) and an extra large portion of nicely done lamb chops with green beans.
Dinner at Les Racines, rue Monsieur Le Prince, in the 6th
How selected—As we performed some more explorations of places I’d identified close to our hotel, I dropped in an hour or two before dinner and asked if they’d save a table for us. Advance notice was more polite than necessary. The place was not full, not by a long shot.
Results—This place is both cute and dreary, if that’s possible. Cute because it’s the typical, old-fashioned French bistro with red and white checked table cloths and napkins that you keep hoping to find. Dreary because it’s seen better days and was frequented when we were there (admittedly dining early on our first day in Paris) by only three older persons (besides us), each at their separate tables, dining solo in a fairly dimly lit room.
The food, however, was good—and cheap. We both started with herring and boiled potatoes in oil and we shared a plate of jambon persille—ham in parslied jelly. Our mains were duck confit with sliced potatoes and Lyonnais sausage slices with pistachios and more boiled potatoes. We polished it off with tart with strawberries.
Day 2—a Friday
Lunch at Brasserie Lutetia, in the Hotel Lutetia, in the 6th
How selected—This was a “drive by” spotted from the bus. (A great reason to go by bus rather than metro.) I immediately pulled the cord for a stop and we got out and walked across the street in hopes that they could seat us without a reservation. Luckily they could.
Results–Plateau de fruits de mer, heavy on the oysters, was just what the doctor ordered and one of the better plateaus I’ve had including some directly on the sea. The place is also stunning, done over by Sonja Reikel, preserving the brasserie look but with a contemporary twist in stainless, mirrors, glass and black. Really exciting space that is the perfect spot in which to feature plates of grey and pink/red seafood.
Dinner at La Mediterranee, on Place de l’Odeon in the 6th
How selected–We reserved a day in advance as we’d walked by on our exploration of our hotel neighborhood (Odeon area), and selected this as the venue for our birthday/anniversary meal, though I’d never heard the place mentioned in guidebooks or foodie articles with any great regularity or emphasis.
Results—This joined Lutetia in becoming an all seafood day—and a very good one. Val started with carpaccio of sea bream with mustard seeds which he raved about. My tuna tartare was a thing of beauty perched in the center of the plate with condiments of various colors on onion slices also of varying sizes, placed around it to resemble an artist’s palate. As pretty as it was delicious. Our mains were seafood soup for Val (you’ll see a pattern emerging here soon) and roast monkfish with celery root pureed potatoes which enraptured me.
Day 3—a Saturday
Lunch at L’Ete en Pounce Douce (or something like that) in the 18th near Sacre Coeur
How selected–This was a truly serendipitous selection. As rain threatened and no other options appeared, we ducked in and they took us.
Results—In some respects this was an example of “you get what you reserve” and since we didn’t reserve, we didn’t get much. It certainly wasn’t a spectacular meal of any sort, and yet it really wasn’t a bad one. The place was quirky-cute in a bohemian kind of way with a beautiful painted glass ceiling and painted side mirrors. Service was slow because it filled up almost immediately upon our being seated and there were way more diners than servers to assist them—saying something about the popularity of the place since the rain abated fairly quickly.
Val wound up with a really interesting dish—Duck in a salt blanket. A half duck was completely covered in a blanket made of bread and salt and then roasted. It came to the table in its blanket which could be lifted off almost intact to reveal a somewhat unattractive but fairly tasty duck which Val proceeded to devour. I had pork rolled around meatloaf atop a bed of haricots verts, likewise tasty and incredibly plentiful with two thick cuts.
So maybe, on second thought we got more than we deserved for our or lack of reservations—a decent, good even, meal in cute if cramped surroundings but with slow service and a very reasonable one at that. I’ll admit, however, that I’d never make a point to seek this place out for a return visit—unless I find myself in the neighborhood and it starts to rain.
Dinner at Le Christine, on rue Christine in the 6th
How selected–We reserved by phone from the Zagat guide on the same day, based on the list of places in the hotel area that I’d compiled and upon the rather high food rating it gets in Zagat.
Results—This was a very, very good meal in a very, very nice dining room and I’m absolutely amazed that we were able to get a same day reservation. Zagat gives them a well-deserved 23 food score. We started with an amuse of mackerel mousse—light, airy, with just a little graininess and a very delicate taste of the fish. An appetizer of salmon tartare was respectable if not innovative, another of tomatoes and basil was exciting and the beef steak with roasted skin on potatoes and traditional béarnaise sauce was nicely comforting.
Day 4—a Sunday
Lunch at Le Petit Bofinger, on rue de la Bastille in the 4th
How selected—We were in the area as I had expected to be when lunch time rolled around. Our choices narrowed down to Bofinger itself, or Petit Bofinger across the street. Having been at the parent, it seemed time to try the offspring. Luckily we were there just as they were starting their lunch service, because within about a half hour of our arrival, the place was filled, presumably with families and even parties of people who most likely had reserved ahead.
Results—The décor is, of course, nowhere near the equal of the real thing. Still it’s a nice representation of the Paris bistro millieu with a nice mosaic floor and great old time posters on the walls.
The menu is pretty standard, which is what you want in a bistro. Val didn’t go wrong with his selection of oysters and fish soup (did I tell you that you’d see a pattern emerge here?) My main of magret de canard in raspberry sauce was respectable but I’ll admit that next time I am faced with the choice, I’ll return to the original. Dining here is, however, as you would expect, less expensive than dining across the street.
Dinner at Louis Vins, on rue de la Montagne Ste-Genevieve in the 5th
How selected—This was another situation where I called earlier in the day and made reservations for the evening. We’d dined here before (near the Maubert Mutualite metro stop) and found it agreeable, and so wanted to return, but not enough to reserve way ahead and require that we go on a certain day.
Results—The place is pretty with yellow tables and bouquets of yellow tulips. As far as I can tell, it’s newly decorated but made to look as if it has been around a long time. If you’re looking for a place that looks like what you’d want a Paris bistro to look like, this could very well be it. Tables are very close together which, if you’re seated next to a boor that you can understand—as we were, can mar the meal significantly.
The meal on its own, without the accompaniment of the boor, was quite fine. I had fresh white asparagus with mustard sauce—good but more than necessary—and a deconstructed tete de veau with ravigote sauce similarly deconstructed. Best was the dessert, a Camembert with balsamic and onions. This I’d have again and again and will try to make at home.
Day 5—a Monday
Lunch at New Nioullaville, Val’s obligatory Chinese meal for this trip in the Belleville area , 11th arrondissement
How selected–No reservations. Aside from weekend dim sum which can engender lines, Chinese restaurants, especially large ones, are seldom complet, and this one was almost empty. No problem. The place had come to my attention through the Zagat guide and in an effort to satisfy the hunger I knew DH would develop for a Chinese meal, I’d kept the place in mind and actually set out to find it.
Results—We had it all. Porc siu mai, crab boulettes, fish soup, grilled raviolis of pork, duck soup, steamed pork riblets with black beans, chicken feet—patte poulet etuvees, and even some other things—9 different dishes in all. Most were quite fine but no better than the dim sum we can get in our own neighborhood.
It dawned on me as I made this comparison that all of the people who prepare these dishes come from the same place. Some wind up in Bloomington, MN or Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Others wind up in Paris. No reason that those who wind up in the latter should naturally cook any better than those who wind up in the former, just because I enjoy the native food of Paris (of which I’m told there is none—only the native food of the French provinces) more than I enjoy the general food of Bloomington, MN.
Dinner at D’Chez Eux, ave. Lowendal, in the 7th
How selected—This was another lucky break. My call earlier in the day got us what was probably the last remaining table.
Results—This is the restaurant where Chirac took Putin and it’s been basking in that stardom ever since. Apparently it has, however, always been a well thought of, classic bistro of southwestern provenance cited on this board and other gourmet sites with some frequency. We were seated in the “front porch” area which is probably not the best place in the restaurant. I found the olive drab bench seats a bit off putting. And once again we had noisy English speaking neighbors who detracted from the experience.
I had duck fois gras and cassoulet—the typical order in a southwestern French bistro. The fois gras was good but not as melting as others I’ve had. The Cassoulet was, however, right up there with the best of them.
Day 6—a Tuesday
Lunch at Stephane Martin, on rue des Entrepreneurs in the 15th
How selected–This was probably the most serendipitous of all our selections. After touring the Parc Andre Citroen which seems to be in a culinary wasteland in a remote corner of the 15th, we got ourselves on a bus which promptly stopped for its end of the line wait. I used the time to study the bus route and check possible restaurants in my Zagat guide that we might sail by.
I became very excited when I saw that we’d be near Les Petites Sorcieres, the place where Ghislain Arabian, a rather infamous hot headed female Belgian chef has just begun sharpening her knives. I immediately called, but alas, no room for those sans reservations—so you see, it does happen. You can be shut out because you didn’t call ahead, in some instances, a long time ahead, which is probably the case with the volatile Ms. Arabian.
I began to resign myself to the most horrible thing I can think of in Paris—the potential for a bad meal. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear out the window of our bus but the sign for the restaurant Stephane Martin. It had been on my list of places to check out for several trips, and there it was, just in the nick of time. Again, I immediately pushed the arret button, and we walked about two doors back to the corner to inquire if we might be seated. The place is small, probably only 20 covers, and I almost hestitated to ask, but miracle of miracles, they had room for two and we were that twosome.
Results—The place is in very good taste, both from a décor and a gustatory perspective. The colors are maroon and a sort of burnt orange, so it looks understated with a bit of muted pop. Nice high backed chairs. All in all, a pleasing place for a meal and a really nice meal we had, all for just the effort of sounding the buzzer on the bus.
To wrap it up and analyze the “To Book or not To Book Quandry”
By the end of the trip both Val and I felt we’d been vindicated in our positions. It wasn’t necessary to call a month ahead to reserve all our meals. It wasn’t even essential to call ahead at all for several of them, though I have to think we’d been wonderfully lucky on a couple of the places that we were able to score without reservations. Nonetheless I have to concede the point. And clearly, it’s possible to eat in some very well regarded restaurants by obtaining reservations during the same day that you intend to arrive in the evening—at least on some days in April.
However, and because I’m writing this blog, not Val, it also must be noted, that none of the restaurants where we ate on this trip were among the highly popular, must get, places that we sometimes go to, e.g. we’re eating at Atelier Robuchon on an upcoming trip and I got reservations a couple of weeks ago for that meal. There are some things you just can’t leave to serendipity.
I hope the explanation about reserving in advance and how long, was helpful to some who, like I, obsess about such things. I also hope the information about the restaurants we ate at will help some of you planning yet more wonderful trips to Paris. Enjoy!