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Thursday, January 31, 2008

L'Ourcine: Is That My Mussel Soup, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

On the basis of a recommendation from a friend who had never been there and a quick subsequent Internet search, Mortstiff & Co. ended up last weekend at the small gastro-bistro, L’Ourcine. We were not disappointed. This is one of those typical French bistros, somewhat off the beaten path in the 13th, that tourists would love to find, but more often than not, end up missing. Casual and sparsely decorated, what makes this spot worthy of a detour is the occasional creative surprise served up by Sylvain Daniere, one of Yves Camemborde’s protégés.

Following a tasty amuse bouche—a veloute de carotte with croutons and cumin—we selected from the blackboards posted on each wall. L’Ourcine offers a 3-course menu for the reasonable price of 32 euros, which can’t be beat given the quality received.

Before getting to the food, I’m afraid I have to digress briefly on the matter of blackboard menus, which seem to be more and more common in the restaurants we tend to frequent. I don’t mind the restaurant slate as a concept—after all, it conveys a frequently changing menu—a chef who isn’t afraid to experiment or benefit from serendipitous discoveries in the local markets. What bugs me, however, is that in more cases than not, I can’t read the bloody things. I don’t know what it is about French handwriting—from my point of view, not having been trained in the art of calligraphy in a French ecole—it all looks like chicken scratch to me. Co., who was trained in French schools, begs to disagree. Nonetheless, my recommendation for Parisian restaurateurs: PRINT! Okay, back to the subject at hand, I must admit, I could read about 75% of the blackboard at L’Ourcine, which for me is well above average.

For the first course entrée –and if you’re not familiar with the French menu, this is not a mistake. Entrée::appetizer as Plat::entrée. We started with a poelle de encornets (small, thinly-sliced squid) with Breton risotto in ink. Very tasty choice, but it paled in comparison with the soup of moules, prepared with a feuilletee covering. Let me try to describe this – you know what one of those grand dessert souflees looks like, a big bloated cake that appears as if it would pop with the prick of a pin? Well, that’s what the soup looked like when it arrived. Once you break through the flaky dome, it slowly crumbles and begins to soak into the soup, mixing with a plethora of mussels lurking around the bottom. Let me tell you, Mortstiff, who rarely orders soup in restaurants, also rarely uses the word ‘exquisite’ in casual company, but the word definitely applies in this case. I always have to laugh when friends visit from the States and choose to pass on the entrée in order to watch their figure or budget. This is hardly a well-kept secret, but in many Parisian restaurants, it is in the preparation of the entrees where the creativity and imagination of many local chefs are most likely to shine through.

On to the main dishes and desserts. For the plats, we opted for a plate of noix de Saint Jacques (scallops) in their shells, prepared with endives—a combination I had never seen attempted before. Not my favorite combination, mind you, but it was an interesting attempt on the chef’s part. The roasted dos de cabillaud (cod) a la plancha, prepared with mushrooms and chestnuts also drew no complaints from either Mort or Co. For dessert, the blanc manger aux amandes supremes d’oranges aroses de grand mariner didn’t knock Co.’s socks off, but it did the job. Co., as is known far and wide, is pretty, pretty tough when it comes to dessert, even when it takes ten words to name it. On the other hand, I was extremely pleased with my decision to forego sugar for cheese. I had never tried the hard Breton cheese, Laguiole fermier, but this is just the sort of fromage that I could eat well into the night, or until the wine runs out. Oh yes, the wine. Our selection for the evening’s festivities was a Cotes de Luberon – Domaine de Font Leale 2005, a satisfying red, but a bit too light for your’s truly’s taste.

Overall, a satisfying visit to an interesting little bistrot, worthy of a return visit. Apparently, the menu is in flux, which is always a good thing for those of us who value variety.

L’Ourcine - 92, RUE BROCA, 75013 PARIS
01 47 07 13 65
Mº Les Gobelins

Overall note (out of 10): 7-
Ambience: 5.5 (sparse, but comfortable room, although the small size makes it difficult not to follow the conversations of your neighbors. Co. suggests that a few well-chosen b&w photos on the walls could transform the place.)

Food: 7
Price (over, under, average): Just right
(dinner for two with wine tallied up to 101 euros, a perfect price/quality balance).
Service: 6 (3 young females worked the room, with one behind the bar in the front of the restaurant - they certainly seemed to enjoy their own company, but were unobtrusive enough to draw no complaints from these quarters)
Definitely worth a try.

Note: When I called for the reservation I was informed that our table would have to be vacated shortly after 10 pm to make way for the next wave of diners. But not a word was mentioned around that time, as we finished and paid up, nor did we feel any pressure during the course of the evening.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Smoking/No Smoking - part 2

The new ban on smoking in cafés, bars, restaurants, etc. has now been in effect for more than two weeks. So, what about it? Is it working? Surely, the ‘moi d’abord, après les autres’ arrogant French attitude would prevail and the recently enacted restrictions would merely be scoffed at or ignored by the legions of rebellious, tobacco-obsessed Parisians and their fellow compatriots. All of a sudden these people are going to give up the routine in their god-given pursuit of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and lung cancer?

Believe it or not, the answer appears to be ‘oui.’ Opinion polls in France suggest that 70% of the people support the ban. I can’t speak for what’s going on in deep France, but throughout the Ile de France early reports and personal observations confirm that the French have shrugged their shoulders, thrown away their café and restaurant ashtrays, donned extra heavy scarves in order to keep warm when smoking outside (not just the skimpy wool ones that mummify their sensitive necks during summer months, but really heavy ones), and apparently have learned to grin and bear the new restrictions. Now, when passing cafés in Paris, when I look through their windows, no longer is there the customary smokescreen that prevents my ever knowing what is going on inside – there actually are people! Only not too many of them.

Yes, the typically sardine-packed neighborhood cafés—where getting to the bar to order an un espresso required a ridiculous amount of pushing, shoving, and ‘pardons’—appear to be a thing of the past. Now there is something called ‘elbow room,’ and plenty of it, as previously loyal patrons apparently have deigned the possibility of drinking a demi without a filterless Galouise just too unbearable a thought, and that it’s just easier to stay home and do it in the comfort of one’s befogged living room.

I am already waxing—or is it ‘waning’?—nostalgic for the good ol’ cough-inducing days. We have a bar down the street, one of those places that has those fascinating horse races playing on TVs all day long, and if you entered without yellowed fingers and a cigarette dangling from your puss, the place suddenly would grow quiet and you would draw foreboding stares. I must walk past the place at least a couple times a day and pre-ban, the smell coming out of the place from the smoking and the rotgut liquor the patrons were drinking was mind-bogglingly putrid. On the rare occasion when I’d enter to buy stamps or a telephone card at the counter, I’d find that smell lingering on my clothes for hours. I must admit, I sort of miss the pitiful reek emanating out of the bars and cafés of Paris. I mean, isn’t that what Paris is all about?

One drawback that I've noticed to the smoking ban. Outside the cafes, a new phenomenon--mountains of ashes and cigarette butts, the discards of patrons who stepped out for their tobacco fix, the mounds like cairns of death or monuments to a woebegone time of innocence, cough.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

La Criée - Barracuda, Anyone?

Things have started off pretty quietly in 2008 for Mortstiff & Co. – still recovering from the holidays and without an opportunity to check out any new restaurants. Also, the weather in Paris is currently a total downer, which tends to diminish one's enthusiasm for experimentation. The other night, with a desire to go casual, simple, and cheap, we revisited our local La Criée, of the self-professed ‘Restaurants de Poisson’ chain. La Criée is one of those places that is pretty predictable. We don’t go there to be surprised. So it’s rather easy to discount the place when considering options, unless, of course, you hadn’t previously reserved anywhere for the night and are looking for a quick restaurant fix.

Point of fact: our recent visit was surprisingly satisfying. I’m not talking haute cuisine, but the meal was certainly better than some of the higher priced bistrots in town. As is our usual policy, the aperatif was taken at home: this time the choice was one of my favorite single malt whiskeys – The Balvenie – a more than adequate lubricant to ease one’s movements into the windy and rainy gloom of the Paris night. The Balvenie – aged 12 years in two casks – whiskey oak and then sherry oak – strong and perfumed, with a hint of rich honey in the taste (and believe it or not, you can find a bottle at Carrefour for under 40 euros).

The blackboard specials included barracuda - I admit, that was a surprise. Sorry to disappoint, but I can't tell you if it was any good. I've never tried barracuda before - at least that I'm aware of - and I decided that La Criée wasn't the place I wanted to start. Instead, I began with a plate of croustillant crevettes (8 shrimp with a breaded coating) and salad leaves conducive to dipping nems-style in an interesting sauce (a kind of spicy sweet & sour). Co.'s entree consisted of 12 moules farcies a L'Espagne (Spanish mussels).

For our main dishes, I went with a choice of a dozen oysters (Marennes d'Oléron, Fines de Clair petits no. 4) and Co. chose the requin curry vert (shark with green curry). The seafood was fresh and tasty; again, nothing special about the preparation, but did the job. A nice touch - rather than the traditional sliced, stale baguette in a bread basket that one finds on the tables of too many French restaurants, at La Criée we were brought a basket of fresh, whole grain square rolls. All accompanied by an embarrassingly cheap pichet of vin rouge. Co. took a cafe gourmand for dessert - coffee with a plate of four small servings of various concoctions - creme brulee, a brownie, and a couple other things I can't remember. The price for the evening, and this isn't a misprint - 61 euros cheap.

The La Criées are big and expansive restaurants, drawing clientele from all walks of life. Best to arrive early when you can get the attention of the servers and before your table is surrounded by people whose portable phone conversations you'd rather not hear. At least you won't have to worry about the cigarette smoke getting in your oysters anymore.

There are 34
La Criees across France, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one near you

Overall note (out of 10): 5
Ambiance: I'll say 5, but at this place, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Co. always mentions how it reminds her of seafood restaurants in New England (US). TV monitors in each room, no, not showing rugby matches, but rather videos of idyllic settings, waterfalls, jet skiing, surfing, etc. Pretty unobtrusive.
Service : 4.5 (young, temporary servers) - worse as the place fills up because of the poor server to customers ratio. Our young, male server flirted with Co., but in a pretty low-key way. Anyway, it is difficult not to flirt with Co., so I excused his faux pas.

No Surprises (but you could do worse).

Monday, January 14, 2008

Smoking/No Smoking - part 1

Pity the poor Parisian smoker! The great French smokeout officially began with the passing of 2007 (with a 24-hour grace period, of course – the French never give up easily – they must have their period of grace). As has been widely reported, it no longer is legal to smoke in bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels, or nightclubs anywhere in the country. Decry the ban all you want, dear smokers, but as far as I’m concerned the new restrictions represent the greatest advance to French civilization in modern times. Don't get me wrong - I have no objection to people wanting to smoke themselves to death – feel free to indulge! I certainly have no interest in standing in their way, especially if it means that it is easier to reserve in restaurants because there are fewer people alive who need to eat out. Believe me, I am as much a great proponent of individual freedoms and personal rights to liberty, fraternity, and equality as the next guy—just quit blowing your fucking smoke in my face (excuse my French, svp) and I’m sure we’ll get along fine.

Let me begin with a few statistics about the French love affair with tobacco. These statistics vary greatly by source, but I will clear up the essential question with one precise fact. How many cigarettes do the French smoke? Answer: A lot.

  • despite recent declines, about 12-15 million French are still dependent
  • 60,000 French die each year linked directly to tobacco consumption and 5,000 deaths linked to passive smoking
  • average consumption = 14 cigarettes/day
  • one French person out of three is a smoker (40% males, 27% females)
  • passive smoking kills about 13 people a day in France (according to ex-PM de Villepin)
  • contrary to popular belief, the French are not the most enthusiastic smokers in the European Union - they are eclipsed by the people of Greece, Cyprus, and Portugal

A non-smoker myself, I have reached the age where I can’t spend more than thirty seconds in the presence of a smoker without beginning to hack my guts out. To date, this rarely posed much of a problem when dining out. For the most part, restaurants were pretty sympathetic in actually adhering to the (then) law to provide a ‘non-fumeur’ section in their establishments. In some cases, this did not quite compute – I remember having lunch at a Leon’s (of mussels fame) and finding myself sitting at a table in the no smoking section, which was located on a slightly elevated terrace. Just below at ground level, patrons were smoking to their hearts content. Unfortunately for me and my fellow compatriots on the terrace, we received ample evidence of a well-known fact: smoke rises. Rises right onto our plates and into our mouths.

Okay, that was one isolated incident. But there are many other cases I can recall in which the smoking/no smoking demarcation was marked by nothing more than an imaginary line on the floor separating one row of tables from another. I remember an incident several years ago, not long after I had relocated to France, when my grasp of the French language was even more rudimentary than it is today. I was interrupted during my deep meditation on the contents of the largely incomprehensible menu by a nattily appointed gentleman sitting at the next table. Our tables resided in the non-fumeur, fumeur sections, respectively. My fellow diner was holding an unlit cigarette aloft, gesturing with it as a kind of exclamation as he asked me a question that I incorrectly assumed to mean 'do you have a light?' What he actually had asked was 'do you mind if I smoke?' My 'no, no monsieur' thus was understood as an assent, and within seconds the nattily appointed gentleman was blowing smoke rings across my table and into my face. At least he asked.

In the past, the non-fumeur requirement essentially served to reduce non-smokers to the status of second-class citizens, shunted off as we were to claustrophobic, drably decorated, moldy and mildewed rooms off in the back of restaurants or across the street, around the corner, and deep into the gray, but smoke-free, heart of darkness. But, mon ami, the times they are a’changin.’ Not only can one breathe again while dining out, one can also sit at a table in the good room!

To be continued. . .

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bests of 2007

First, a caveat. This is by no means a true 'bests of' list. That would require Mortstiff & Co. to have sampled a wider range of restaurants, both new and old, and then used some sort of scoring scheme to ascertain a true top 10 list. Whatever 'true' means anyway. Afterall, the restaurant experience is pretty subjective. Instead, what I share here is more a list of favorites for the year, extraordinarily satisfying restaurant visits that keep popping back into my consciousness, raising the desire to relive the experience.

Paris and Beyond (in no particular order)
(No comments for now - I'll have separate reviews in subsequent blog installments.)

1. Les Magnolias (Le Perreux-sur-Marne)
2. Taira (Paris 17th)
3. La Cave Gourmande - Mark Singer Restaurant (Paris 19th)
4. Le Bistrot Paul Bert (Paris 11th)
5. Le Villaret (Paris 11th)
6. La Dinee (Paris 15th)
7. Fogon (Paris 6th)
8. Les Enfants Terribles (Dijon)

Way Beyond

Buenos Aires: Cluny, El Mirasol, Crizia, Gran Bar Danzon, Farmacia (lunch), Filo (lunch)
Reykjavik: Vin & Skel, Vegamot (lunch)
Valencia, Spain: Casa Salvador (Estany), Calypso (Cullera)
Baltimore, USA: Mari Luna Mexican Grill, Bonefish Grill, Sushi Ya

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

L'O a La Bouche, R.I.P.

The recent visit to Natacha reminded me how fallible even the most prestigious restaurant guides can be. In the case of Natacha, the recent print editions went to print well before the change of ownership, so they get a pass in this case. But there's no excuse for websites that aren't updated, which is why you have to keep coming back to this blog! At any rate, I can quickly follow this up with another example, which happens to pertain to a restaurant that used to be located just around the corner from Natacha on Bd du Montparnasse, L'O a la Bouche.

For Mortstiff & Co., L'O a la Bouche was our old standby bistro in the 14th. Always dependable for a carefully-prepared meal at reasonable prices (three-course, fixed price menus for under 100€, including a bottle of wine). Not very trendy, but comfortable atmosphere and a thoughtful chef, so who cares about trendy? No sense going into details regarding the carte because, alas, L'O is no more. The restaurant closed early last May, replaced by L'Auberge du Montparnasse.

Whatever happened to L'O? I have no idea. It seemed to have a pretty good flow of customers, and was consistently highly rated. Our last visit a few weeks before they shut their doors, it was evident that something was amiss - we were informed that the manager earlier had taken a nasty fall down the steps on the way to the wine cave and had to be rushed to the hospital. A recently hired waitress was a disaster, bringing plates to the wrong tables, forgetting silverware, etc. But no clues that a closure was in store.

So what does this story have to do with Natacha and restaurant guides? I leave it to you to do your own checking - inevitably you still will find many recommendations online for L'O. In fact, to date, I've only found one indication online that L'O has shut down operations, at the French site, LesRestos.com. Irritating, especially for tourists who have it in their planning to visit a restaurant that is no more. I don't care what restaurant it is in Paris - call first to reserve.

As for L'O's replacement, L'Auberge - this is a spot that specializes in grilled food, especially meats. So far, the reviews suggest this is a place worth checking out. Which is exactly what Mortstiff & Co. intend to do sometime this year. And once we do, you'll be the first to know.

124, Boulevard du Montparnasse
75014 Paris

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Natacha - Forget About It

Mortstiff & Co. never walk into a Paris restaurant tabula rasa. We know better. So we pore through our restaurant guides (a topic for later, don't worry!) and then pick a likely winner. So Friday night, our guides led us to the Restaurant Natacha in the 14th (Montparnasse). Nary a negative comment online or in our guides, so we expected some high quality cuisine. What we got was exactly the opposite. The food was uninspired. No let me correct that, Uninspired, with a capital U. Other than a complete absence of creativity or imagination, here are some additional gripes:

  • the ever-present music, how shall I say, sucked. Pop rock about as uninspired as the food - the sort of music you might hear on a tacky French radio station - need I say more? (Another topic for later, restaurant background music - if not carefully chosen, why bother at all?)
  • when asked whether we wanted our coats checked, I muttered, 'nah, it's OK'. The next thing I know, we were brought English menus - an embarrassment to one avidly trying to speak the local language. And French is Co.'s first language!
  • an entree of 4 gambas (large shrimp), on a bed of lettuce. So what?
  • my main plate (magret de canard - duck slices) arrived; Co.'s fish did not. With much consternation, the waitress and server returned to our table and informed us that the fish was not ready and would take 10 more minutes. They were nice, they took my canard to keep it warm. Two minutes later, here it all comes. Despite their warnings that my plate was flaming hot, the duck was tepid at best. In this corner, a carrot puree. In that corner, a few cubed potatoes. In that corner, some salad. All bland, bland, bland. Ditto for Co.'s fish.
  • average dessert for Co. My coffee arrived with three little cakes - free dessert, can't complain.
  • Wine: I was quite impressed with an initial page on the wine list - reasonably priced and a decent selection. When brought to the table, our 14 euro selection was a half bottle! No wonder the prices were reasonable, I hadn't seen the 37,5 liter indication at the top of the page. The first time I've seen a restaurant devote a page to demi-bouteilles, but I should have looked more closely. Returned it for the full bottle - twice the size, twice the price.
  • This uninspired meal clocked in at 108 euros. For 20 more euros we could have had a Michelin meal at the always imaginative Les Magnolias in the 'burbs.
So why are all the guides and online reviews so praiseworthy for Natacha? The answer, chef/owner Alain Cirelli, who revitalized Natacha about 3 years ago with his good taste and creativity apparently sold the place a few months ago. So throw away your Zagat, your Michelin, your Pujol, whatever the hell you use. They're out of date.

Note of interest: Some scenes from Jean-Luc Godard's famous film À bout de souffle (Breathless) were filmed in the street where one finds Natacha.

75014 PARIS

Overall note (out of 10): 3
Ambience: 7 (nice room, but like I said, the background music sucks)
Food: 3
Price (over, under, average): Way over for the quality
Service: 5 (young, attentive, but speaking English at the outset blew it for us)
Forget About It

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