Search This Blog

Friday, May 28, 2010

Havanita - Mother Cuba

Sweet deep Spring, me and Co. cruising the cultural circuit in Bastille on a crowded Friday night. Starting off with the final dress rehearsal, invite and press only performance of Wagner’s La Walkyrie at the Bastille Opera, a little Wagner goes a long way, so we weren't too depressed bolting after Act 1 and heading over to Café de la Danse. Tickets for the iconic Portugese musician Rodrigo Leão and his Cinema Ensemble group well in hand before getting hold of the opera ducats, so there we were, standing in the passage Louis Philippe, just off the well-trodden rue de Lappe, lingering before the doors opened a good 30 minutes late – probably should have stayed for Wagner’s Act 2. (By the way, at the snack bar at the Opera, I dropped a quick 10 spot on a thimble glass of red wine and a small bottle of water. I didn’t look at the price of the sandwiches.) On the way to the Café, I stepped into the long-standing, trendy Cuban restaurant & bar, Havanita and reserved for later in the evening – the place was already hopping at 7:30 pm.

After an extremely satisfying and impeccable performance of tango-infused Portugese
music by Leão’s ensemble, it was back to Havanita, slowly seeping through the madding crowd of trendy youth, doing their Mardi Gras thing on the packed rue de Lappe. Straight to one of the café-like tables, sinking into the deep leather chairs, we debated the merits of a

3-course meal with limited time before the last trains. Our dinner ultimately compromised by the hour, we still enjoyed a leisurely meal in the boisterous atmosphere of Havana, Paris style. This was our third, I think, visit to Havanita over the years, which I remembered more for its laid-back, casual atmosphere than its gastronomic offerings.

Barely able to comprehend the carte what with the conversations raging at a decible level just under screaming so as to be heard over the non-stop Caribbean music, we settled for an entrée split of crabe farci aux saveurs des caraïbes et son chutney de pomme (7.80€). This didn’t look nearly as good as whatever it was the guy to my left had ordered (which appeared to be some shrimp in a banana leaf or something to that effect), but better than what his date was having (guacamole d’avocat). It tasted pretty good, though, as crab should, accompanied with some greens. Maybe with all that racket in the place, it wasn’t surprising when our Iman lookalike waitress glided by and asked to be reminded of Co’s choice of plat, which happened to be pièce de boeuf grilleé d’argentine, sauce aux poivres de Jamaïque et sa pureé de patate douce (16.80€). This dish didn’t look as good as those to our left and right, and the disappointment on Co’s face told me everything I needed to know about Havanita’s beef dish. A big fan of Argentinian beef, it was evident that Co. had much better back in the day, including, coincidentally, during her trip to Cuba once upon a time. (When I mentioned to Co. how she may be the only person in Havanita to have actually visited Havana, she diplomatically corrected me – doing a quick study of the youthful clientele - by suggesting maybe not the only one, but definitely the first. Mmm, and I will probably be the last.) On a more upbeat note, I thoroughly enjoyed my main dish, the ceviche de dorade et gambas sur en lit de epinard (16.80€). This was a cold dish of marinated rectangles of dorade and, once I determined where they were (nope, not under the table), small morsels of marinated gambas. This on a bed of spinach leaves, dried tomatoes, and spidery red, white, and green sprouts. Accompanied by a side order of haricots noirs (4€ supplement), I was in heaven, not especially because the meal was so spectacular, which it wasn’t, but because it was just a nice change of pace from more typical French fare. There are many other dishes to choose from, but this is one I definitely recommend.

With time rapidly spinning by, we passed on dessert and café, despite Co’s temptation to swing for a croustillant de mangue (7.50€). That temptation was tempered when the aforementioned possibility showed up on the table to my right. Looked pretty good to me, but Co. wasn’t especially impressed. My meal was washed down with a few Cubanero beers (at 6.50€ a pop), Co. settling down to water after a long day. In short, for a post-Wagnerian tango-infused Portugese sort of late-evening meal, this was a good choice for laying back (no choice with those chairs – although there are normal tables for the less-spinally challenged) and slaking one’s appetite in a popular corner of Paris. Havanita looks like a good

spot for slaking one’s thirst as well, with a well-stocked bar and a plethora of cocktail choices on the carte. Alas, another time. For a restaurant that is more atmosphere than fabulously authentic Cuban cuisine (not even a bloody bottle of tabasco on the table! Sacre bleu!), it’s a little surprising that Havanita still packs them in after so many years, especially on a street where the neon signs change with such rapidity. It could be that Havanita has risen to the heights of a Bastille landmark, or that there are so few Cuban/Caribbean venues in Paris, who knows? But how I would love to see a truly authentic, cutting edge Southwestern American grille, Mexican cantina (though Celito Lindo next door to Havanita can be considered one of the better Mexican spots in town), Caribbean venue in Paris! Until that time, if it ever comes, spots like Havanita will have to do.


11, rue de Lappe
75011 Paris
tel: 01 43 55 96 42
Even the website is noisy!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Agapes – Pour the Wine, Hold the Kids

Agapes – sounds familiar, doesn’t it ? So thought Co. and I as we passed the restaurant at the intersection of rue Poliveau and rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel, on our way a few doors down to L’Agrume earlier this month. Sure enough, a search reveals some other Agapes in France, one higher priced with apparently high aspirations in the 16th and one in my old vacation stomping grounds down in St. Palais in southwest France. But Co. and I are pretty sure we’ve never stepped inside any of these. If you’re not familiar with the language, the French ‘agapes’ essentially means ‘banquet’ or ‘feast’, so it’s not surprising more than one restaurateur has glommed onto it as a restaurant name. And it starts with ‘A’, meaning you’ll be listed right at the top of whatever list your restaurant is likely to be listed on. Anyway, we perused the displayed menu outside Agapes in the 5th and decided it was worth a try.

I wouldn’t dub Agapes Restaurant either the banquet place or the feast place, but I would say after our visit last Friday night that it is a worthy spot for a traditional French meal with a small degree of creative flair, reasonably priced, and tres auberge-like. Yes, I could imagine this spot somewhere out in the countryside, maybe on the way to a weekend of ski, with its warm and comfortably woodsy interior and its laid back, pleasant servers. With a smile.

One of those aforementioned servers kicked off our meal with a mise en bouche – two simple, but interesting morsels of bread accompanied by a mustard sauce. I was tempted to order a 2005 Bourgogne Pinot Noir “Louis Gras” (27.90€), only to be informed by our server that it wasn’t available – too bad, it’s been a while for the Pinot. This, however, provided the opportunity for a useful tidbit of information – he explained that the restaurant was about to go on a short hiatus for renovations and redecorating, so when you go, you will go to the ‘new and improved’ Agapes. Which explains the light stock in the cave during our visit. I settled for wine door number two, a perrenial favorite, a 2007 St Nicolas de Bourgueil “Domaine de la Cabernelle” (24.50€) – it was available and it did not disappoint. (More than once, the bottle was delicately taken from my hand by an accommodating server as I went to pour.)

The Bourgueil effectively washed down a tasty but unspectacular three course menu, priced at 30€. (The restaurant also offers a market-determined 5-course ‘Menu Gourmand’ at 56€, including apératif and café). [No food photos, but I swiped a couple representative images from the Agapes website.] I started off with an entrée of rouget barbet, accompanied by a sauce vigneronne and épinard-moelle. I really enjoyed this, but I am not a big fan of bone marrow, which essentially is what the ‘moelle’ refers to. Nonetheless, it was an inspired complement to the rouget. I was busily contemplating the little ceramic bowl inside of which rested a small cluster of greens – uhm, nope, can’t eat that part - only to eventually discover it wasn’t a ceramic bowl after all, duh, but a hollow bone, thus reflecting on the rouget preparation. The eyes – after the knees, they’re the next to go. With a 5€ supplement, Co. went with the foie gras de canard rôti, en terrine, fruits marinés (tangerines, I believe), sangria réduite. Co. is a tough cookie to crack when it comes to foie gras, having been raised on the stuff, but she seemed satisfied with this preparation.

On to the plates – for a main course I threw caution to the wind and ordered what normally isn’t my preference – unlike rouget, which is always high up on my ‘I want that’ scale – rabbit! Auberge, France, lapin – I don’t know about you, but they seem to go together for me, so there it was, râble de lapin fermier (i.e., the meaty breast), ses abats au beurre d’escargot, amandes grillées. Bearing in mind I am not a lapin connaisseur, this did the job for me, even if it didn’t knock my socks off, or untie my shoes even. Co. opted for the poisson de jour from Brittany which, if memory serves me correct, was a cabaillaud. I had a couple tastes and it was fresh and well-pepared. For dessert, I had a diet deadly Le cacao, basically a chocolate pudding with tuile craquante. I admit it, I’m a sucker for anything craquante in a dessert, so just stick that word in the description (in this case, crème et tuile craquante, viennois au fruit de la passion) and I am hooked. Just take that ‘craquante’ out of the description and what happens? You don’t want it. Well, this turned out to be pretty tasty. Co. took the orange-kiwi (minestrone au marsala, biscuit pistache) and seemed, well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what she seemed. So there you have it, two 3-course menus, wine, and 2 cafés, for a total 92.30€.

Drum roll, please, it is now time for my monthly tirade. Having arrived rather early, we were seated in the roomier back room and it seemed like the place to be. By the main dish I was fully convinced how misguided our choice was, after glancing at the serene, calm atmosphere in the smaller and more somber front room. Directly behind our table, two couples who happened to bring along for dinner at a fine Parisian establishment – I hope you are sitting down – children! Two of whom were tamed, and the other, the young one dressed in a Batman T, untamed, with enormously distressing consequences. Now, one thing about eating out with Co. is that she always picks the seat facing the interior of the restaurant, leaving me contemplating activities on the street (if there’s a window) or the facing wall, where hopefully there is some artwork that I can memorize every fine detail of by dessert; otherwise, it comes down to, ‘is that an insect?’ So usually when we leave a restaurant, Co. will say something like, ‘hey Mort, you know that guy sitting a few tables away who…’ and I will respond with ‘there was another guy in the restaurant?’ Anyway, at first, I just assumed that those noises I kept hearing during my entrée were someone’s jungle sounds CD playing from next door, but by the time the little imp was lifting sugarcubes from the bowl accompanying my coffee, I
realized a ‘jungle music okay, but no kids allowed’ policy might not be misguided. True, I imagine most Parisian restaurateurs simply assume, what unthinking rubes would dare bring un enfant – a child, mon Dieu! – into my wonderfully French restaurant? Of course, this will not happen here! So in lieu of a ‘no kids allowed’ policy (which is not as rare as you might think in Paris), here is my advice to parents (choose one): (1) bring your kids to dinner, but sedate them first; (2) bring your kids to dinner, but keep them under the table, with a bowl of water (or milk); (c) on the way to dinner, drop your kids off at McDo; or (4) learn and apply the following term: ‘babysitter.’ I counted two or three moments where le petit Batman nearly tripped a server loaded up with plates. You know that look when a disapproving adult glances at a child - you know the one that says ‘I could strangle the little bugger’ – that’s the one I saw more than once at Agapes. Hey, you can’t fault Agapes – I doubt they fielded the reservation request with the addendum, ‘and don’t forget to bring your little monstres’! But it was a thorn in our side during the meal and the next time we think of Agapes I am sure we’ll be running for our Batmobile and speeding off in the other direction.


47 bis rue Poliveau
75005 Paris
tel: 01 43 31 69 20
Internet site: www.restaurant-agapes.com (with video)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

L’Agrume – Gracious Humility

Nice expression, ‘gracious humility,’ too bad I hadn’t thought of it first. No, that honor goes to New York Times Magazine food editor Christine Muhlke, describing L’Agrume as such in a recent article about some new, affordable hotspots on the Paris restaurant scene. Stealing that description for this installment’s review should make it pretty obvious that I agree. Nothing ostentatious or gratuitous in the delicate and inspired preparation of dishes at L’Agrume, which isn’t meant to suggest Parisian snobbishness. Quite the opposite, the atmosphere in the smallish gray/black modern two-room bistrot (one out of view downstairs) is laid back, comfortable, animated, and, of course, packed. And, as Co. & I were informed by under-40 chef/owner Franck Marchesi-Grandi’s conjoint/hostess, Karine Perrin, since that Times piece ran a couple weeks ago, packed more with Americans than French. And sure enough, the first table to fill after our arrival as the evening’s openers consisted of four vociferous Americanos, whom I overheard uttering ‘New York Times’ several times during their meal. When will discretion become the better part of valor so that some people—I’m not naming names—will remember my famous restaurant motto : you are not at home, so please…SHUT UP !

Power of the printed word – who says newspapers are dead ? The Times’ (that’s the fourth time, I know) mention of L’Agrume in toto comprised a mere 85cm (or 3.5 inches) – six sentences, yet enough to send hordes of English-speaking foodies off the beaten path to L’Agrume. Not that the restaurant needs any help – the word already had gotten out—yes, that’s right, hard to believe, even before my review—that L’Agrume’s 5-course menu dégustation represents one of the best deals in town, that town being PARIS. Of course, a little worldwide publicity doesn’t hurt.

Okay, down to business, bearing in mind that the 5-course meal—not the only choice, by the way, as there is an ala carte menu as well—is apt to change on a regular basis. No mise-en-bouche at the outset, but a nice little chat with the diminutive, black-clad Mme Perrin, got us settled comfortably into a nice little nook in the front by the window, but still in view of the open kitchen, where Monsieur Marchesi-Grandi was hard at work preparing the evening’s delicacies, aided by a young, female assistant. There you have it – two advantages to being the first to arrive : you have a non-harried hostess to chat up and you get your pick of tables. With two assistants handling the upstairs and downstairs rooms, service ran like a well-oiled machine late into the evening. First up was a finely prepared tartare de dorade grise lié à la chair d’araignée Pomelos et pomme verte. This is my kind of opener,
a perfectly constructed slightly salted mound of fish tartar with a sweet fruity counterpoint. My highest compliment : ‘More !’ Unfortunately, Co. smacked my hand and socked my jaw so that I wouldn’t bring undue attention to our table when I pulled out my phone and tried to snap a photo of the first course. But the accompanying photo (top) taken from the Paris Notebook blog’s review of L’Agrume bears a striking resemblance. (The other photo from Simon Says is of a L'Agrume fish dish not among those we sampled during our visit.) The tartar was followed by a dish consisting of vinegrette de pommes charlotte – asperges vertes et foie gras. Very French, very excellent foie gras. Next up, a small slab of bourride de Saint Pierre, the sumptuous fish accompanied by thinly sliced green peppers and chorizo. Fourth course consisted of extremely tender slices of basse côte de bœuf ‘Black Angus’ rôti, with carrots and red onions. Our hostess obliged without a moan, merci, when I asked to have the beef dish supplanted by a non-red meat offering. My substitute consisted of a satisfying piece of broiled dorade – more fish, true, but no problemo, bring it on. Our dessert brought the evening’s tally to a perfect five for five courses : fraises et coulis de pêches Blanches, crème fourettée vanillée et feuilletage. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong when you add a crusty feuilleté with fresh strawberries and cream, and if you are an impeccable chef like M. Marchesi-Grandi sneaking in a virtually invisible layer of white peaches, you really can’t go wrong. So to steal again from Ms. Muhlke, you can find fancier meals in Paris restaurants, but perhaps none so gracious.

If there was one drawback to the evening it was our wine. A tasty 2008 bottle of Bourguiel Gueil – Catherine & Pierre Breton at 32€ unfortunately had a very slight taste of cork throughout, but which really wasn’t immediately evident. So much for my finely attuned oenological sense of taste. The wine and end-of-meal espresso brought the bill to a 105€ total, almost criminal given the high quality of the meal. And there appears to be an even better deal awaiting lunch-goers.

In my research for L’Agrume, I was struck by this heading from the Simon Says blog: ‘La réponse au sadisme ambiant.’ Wait a minute, I know my French isn’t the greatest, but what the hell does ‘the response to ambient sadism’ mean? Please, someone, enlighten me. Well, the review itself also seemed a bit above my coherence level, so I turned, as most of us ex-pats ultimately do, to Google translator, recently rated by the New York Times (back again!) as the most accurate online translator to date. So here are just some English translated snippets from M. Simon’s unique tongue :

It is still accelerating Pretties narcissistic undergoing gastronomy. Here it is struck by a kind of unbridled exhibitionism with reality shows. This world is so peaceful unrecognizable in this new great dance agitated. Leaders and caring as if truculent Constant become Taras Bulba sadis young chicks to tears.

It is still far from what is really a chef: passionate but something a bit deeper than the dishes scraped with powdered ginger, yuzu and syringe sweatshirt with shaved Parmesan. Suddenly, there is something calm, velvety chestnut and plates subsided.

If this universe shines in big tables fly high, research and talent, it is inseparably associated with a more everyday, and closer to us. Long live the big names, but kudos to those working in the shadows, in neon! If they remain our favorite tables is that they want us closer, more friendly in their search reasoned. Here is an address and extra cut in the coupon so sentimental. It's called L’Agrume, a restaurant high to a grasshopper no bigger than a pancake.

OH-KAY….I’m sorry I just can’t compete with that sort of, ahem, eloquence. At the same time, I thank the restaurant gods that we were spared the syringe sweatshirt, and I am slapping myself silly for not having the acumen to recognize how L’Agrume is not unlike a grasshopper no bigger than a pancake. It is only fair, you can find Francois Simon’s words in their natural tongue at the Simon Says website. I must add M. Simon’s concluding assessment, which I think says it all: ‘You'll love this address simple, stark, it's like a javelin tasty. Yippee!’ Tasty javelin?! N’importe quoi.

15, rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel 75005 Paris
01 43 31 86 48
Métro 5 Saint-Marcel, Métro 7 Les Gobelins
Real Time Web Analytics