Doug Crowell is the owner of Brooklyn, NY restaurant Buttermilk Channel, where he’s impressed critics and Carroll Gardens residents alike with Americanized bistro fare and a Go USA wine list that pulls bottles exclusively from the Lower 48. He writes about a recent trip to Paris.
For our recent 10-year wedding anniversary my wife and I spent six beautiful days in Paris, a city we last visited on our honeymoon. Of course, as a restaurant owner, I was out to visit as many of the city’s top restaurants as I could fit. Yeah, it’s a tough job.
Paris was as lovely as ever but, for an American traveler who earns American dollars, it has gotten a lot more expensive since our last visit. Fortunately for us, the Paris scene these days is all about the neo-bistro—casual, less expensive spots helmed by talented chefs who decided to leave high-end fine dining behind. These are restaurants often serving dishes that are warhorses of the traditional cuisine but with a level of finesse that shows you how great this bistro food can be. Some other observations:
The French can eat! In America, the standard line I hear about the French diet is that they stay skinny by eating reasonably sized portions of their rich, fatty food. This is not the case. The French eat things like cheese and charcuterie in staggering quantities. The charcuterie plate from the amazing Le Comptoir du Relais is fantastic…and huge! The French actually stay skinny by eating in restaurants infrequently. By my observation, the majority of their meals seem to consist of dainty little prepared seafood salads that they get at the Monoprix. That will keep your weight down.
When they eat out, Parisians are having fun I think that this also comes from not dining out too frequently. In all the restaurants we ate at, there was this great feeling that everyone was really excited to be there.
The French eat French food I once heard the great French chef Andre Soltner say something to the effect of “Look, we [French people] are not flying to the moon or curing cancer. We have the best cuisine in the world. This is what we do.” Fair enough. I was nevertheless surprised to see a real lack of quality non-French restaurants. I think Paris could use some fried chicken, or real pizza. Seriously, someone should do this.
You can eat very badly in Paris I don’t know where this idea came from that all food in Paris is good. There must be three cafes on every block and 90% of them are disgusting. That said, there is no reason to ever eat a bad meal in Paris because good food is all over the place. See below.
Someone introduce these guys to the dimmer switch They don’t call it the City of Light for nothing. As a restaurant owner, I spend half my life tweaking my lighting. Paris restaurants are bright! Also they have no music—which goes against everything [BR Guest’s] Steve Hanson ever taught me. Pierre Jancou at Vivant said to me “your restaurants are all so dark and loud!”
Parisians eat and 12 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Period. I was amazed by how regimented their eating times are. We arrived at restaurants at 8pm and they were empty. By 8:45 they were full and by 10:30 the staff was breaking down the bar. I could not get any restaurant owner to explain to me how anyone makes money in this single-turn world. Overall waiters, chefs and owners seemed pretty content, though, so I’ll have to assume they do ok.
Paris restaurants all take reservations Isn’t that nice? As the owner of a reservations-for-parties-of -5-or-more Brooklyn joint, this made me feel kind of guilty. How civilized. But I did witness a lot of no-shows and tables that sat empty all night. They may have some kind of government subsidy for this kind of thing.
“Vin Nature” is the password Nearly every restaurant we visited was committed to serving these “natural” wines which are made in a very traditional, un-manipulated style. Many are sans souffre, made without the addition of sulfites—which the winemakers believe preserves the integrity of the wines but which leaves them very susceptible to spoilage.
These wines are a tough sell to U.S. drinkers, who may be turned off by their general funkiness. They catch even more flak in France, where everyone has a strong opinion of what wine should be. So, like bacon and whiskey in Brooklyn, vins natures are all the rage with the bobos (hipsters) of Paris. The best of them are some of the most exciting wines coming out of France right now and they will turn upside down your ideas of what wines from the Loire, Beaujolais, Northern Rhône and others can be.