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You have only two days in Paris and you want to get it right.
You want the best food that Paris has to offer, the bounty, the real deal and, above all, an insider spot.

Ahead lie two dinners, and a lunch. The three choices that follow take you from a bistro classic to the zenith of culinary art.

New York has the Carnegie delicatessen and Paris, thank God, has Le Gourmets Des Ternes, offering the greatest hits of French bistro cooking. The atmosphere is bright, bustling and loud, and the service, importantly, is Anglo-friendly. Family style is the order of the day as simple but sensational bowls of hors d’oeuvres are delivered to your table. I recommend you start off with the following: potato salad, an oil and mustard dressing cradles waxy potato and flecks of onion, everyone I know who tastes this cannot stop; lentil salad, coarse and earthen with a smoky, silky finish; and beef salad, moist chunks of meat that melt in your mouth.

The next must have here is the Pièce de Boeuf. The meat is what Americans call a Chateaubriand cut of ‘pre-sales’ beef. More specifically, this is beef from cows that have grazed on salty marshland, giving the meat an extraordinary flavour when grilled. It is typically served with an almost burnt crust and warm, rare centre. The owner knows a thing or two about meat as he was originally a butcher and is fanatical about quality. The steak is served with several sauces on the side, bone marrow, wild salt (Gros Sel) and mountains of hand-cut pommes frites. The braised endive with its bitter aftertaste is always my vegetable of choice.

Crowning the meal is the Rum Baba. Unlike anything you’ve tasted before, it is basically a do-it-yourself strawberry shortcake. A brioche-like cake is accompanied by a jar of freshly crushed strawberries and a similar jar of crème fraîche. Alongside, two bottles are presented, one of old rum and the other of sugar syrup. From here on, you’re on your own; free to assemble and indulge as you please. The fairly priced wine list is long on Burgundy and Bordeaux.

For your lunch, I propose you go to a distinctive Alsatian brasserie located in the 4th quarter, close to the Bastille opera, the Picasso Museum and the Place des Vosges. Imagine a classic French brasserie and your vision will be realised at Brasserie Bofinger (pronounced bofahn-jay). Dominating the rue de la Bastille, this 135-year-old eatery has a wonderful interior with characteristic trimmings including banquettes, brass and polished wood, all of which are eclipsed by a crystal dome in the central dining room. Seating 300, and serving as many as 1,000 people a day, it is open late with last orders at 1.30 in the morning.

The fruits de mer, seafood platters are iodine-laced feasts, with tables piled high with as many as three brimming tiers of the bachanal of Brittany. Lobster, mussels, clams, crevette grises, langoustines, prawns, periwinkles, crabs, sea urchin and oysters are all laid out on the crushed ice. Oysters rule here with six different varieties usually available, including the famous Gillardeau variety with its hazelnut after note, and my own favourite, the small #4 Fines De Claires.

The other must-try here is the choucroute. Steaming plates of sauerkraut and pork, smoky sausages, knuckles, frankfurters and belly. Truly delicious! For the no-pork-for-me diner, they offer the same dish made with fish fillets, salmon, cod and smoky haddock coated in a beurre blanc sauce. Begging for Riesling or a Gewurztraminer. The wines marry the food perfectly, but make sure you don’t overlook the wonderful flavour of the Mutzig draft beer. Desserts are equally marvelous. Try the simple, silky dark chocolate mousse with candied orange peels hidden at the bottom. The service is very good and attentive and, above all, the
atmosphere at Bofinger screams Paris.

For the last meal, you will have to plan ahead. Six weeks is a minimum and book at least three months in advance for a Saturday night. Doing so will prove a true reward. Pascal Barbot is one of the best young Chefs in Paris today, and his 25-seat restaurant L’Astrance pushes the envelope to the apogee of taste.

Once you figure out how to be one of the lucky daily diners, the next part is easy. There is no need to choose for yourself, simply ask Christophe Rohat, the maitre d’, to feed you. I have been to L'Astrance some twenty times but I have never eaten the same dish twice. So, whilst what you read about here might tempt you, it is really more of a virtual ‘mise en bouche’ to whet the appetite.

One night we ate an all tomato menu, including langoustines steamed over a broth made of tomato vines and stems. The sauce was pale green, and the flavour robust. In addition, they served a mystery broth for people to try and guess its ingredient. I had never tasted anything like it before. A deeply extracted velouté, with a slightly gritty sediment, and a familiar earthiness that comforted at each sip. Could the grittiness be ground coffee? Did I taste mushrooms or bacon? I just couldn’t nail it down. What transformed this innocuous liquid into a harmonious soaring new taste? To my great surprise, it was toasted pain de Poilâne soup, serving as a beautiful example of the marvels that await beyond L’Astrance’s kitchen doors.

Another Barbot signature is crabe en fines raviolis d'avocat, et huile d'amande douce. Technique-defying avocado slices are finely mandolined, cradling a tablespoon of white crab meat that has just been seasoned with warmed almond oil. A vegetable enthusiast and lover of unusual herbs and spices, Chef Barbot's love is the texture foil; cold with hot, rough with smooth and raw with cooked.

The desserts are no let down. Cherry stone sorbet was the most extraordinary success with the tannic nuttiness of the pits rounding off the red cherry notes, and pineapple tarte tatin served with piña colada ice cream was simply superb. Lastly, as a chaser, he served a small cardboard egg crate in which two open eggshells contained home-made eggnog. Clever touches like these are L’Astrance’s calling card.

© 2003 Steven A. Saltzman.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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