Paris Restaurant Musings at the End of a Decade

I promised to continue my tour of the rue Oberkampf restaurant scene and, as far as I’m concerned, a promise is a promise. A couple years ago, Le Café Charbon, a Paris institution and one of the oldest cafes in the capital, was beginning to do some interesting things with the food, although this has always been more of a drinking establishment than restaurant, hovering somewhere in-between neighborhood and trendy. I remember some decent lunches and a fairly understated but eclectic dinner menu, as I fuelled up before concerts in the groovy back room (the chandeliered Le Nouveau Casino). My last visit, sometime last Fall, suggests that they’ve given up on the food. Casual reigned, with burgers, salads, and the like ruling the day. Too bad, but I still consider it my first option in the area if I want to while away some hours chatting with a friend over drinks. Not the greatest selection of single malts, but what can I say, sometimes you have to slum it. And despite the comments online about Le Charbon being snobbish or apathetic or cold, well, if you can’t handle what often passes as Parisian warmth, there’s always Cleveland.

At any rate, a couple weeks ago, there I was in Le Charbon musing over the state of the world, humanity, and other sundry topics, with my Jamaican friend, Rastaman. I was in a Jack Daniels kind of mood and R-man was in a hot chocolate sort of mood – you can’t account for tastes – and so on we mused, both of us gradually warming up in our own idiosyncratic ways. Before the clock hit 8:30 p.m., we both realized that we had warmed up enough to start thinking about other needs, such as food, and with the words ‘casual’ and ‘cheap’ and ‘no reservation on a Friday night’ entering into our musings, we headed out the door and straight ahead, across the street to another Oberkampf institution, L’Occitanie. Only when I took a gander at the façade and awning did I have the odd impression of the something was happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones variety. There was the old reliable next-door neighbor, Chez Justine (oddly, all closed up for the evening!), and viola!, the name L’Occitanie up there in the upper right corner of the front wall. Not exactly the bright neon variety, I nonetheless felt assured that I hadn’t taken a wrong turn in Denmark, or something like that. As I later learned, this was L’Occitanie no more, having been replaced by a third Au Pied de Fouet location in the city during the Spring of 2008. Am I out of the loop, or am I out of the loop? Originally installed in in the 7th (45, rue de Babylone) some 150 years ago, a second Au Pied was inaugurated in the Latin Quarter (3, rue Saint Benoit) in 2007. And then there was a third, all specializing in southwest cuisine.

We squeezed through the body-challenged entrance to find a boisterous, packed room of Parisians doing what packed rooms of Parisians often do, happily eating, drinking, and conversing. Sans reservation, Rasta and I stood in the front for a short five minutes at which time a tiny square of a table suddenly materialized amidst the others and we squeezed in. I’m sure I’ve already commented about the close seating in many Parisian restaurants. Well, Au Pied gives new meaning to the word ‘close.’ Think intimate, think people at the next table sitting on your lap. But no one seemed to mind, so why should we? This is the sort of place that positively reeks of old Paris. Think simplicity, authenticity, cheap. My shrimp appetizer, for example, consisted of a half dozen whole, peeled shrimp lying naked side by side on my plate next to a glop of mayo. Not exactly creative, but with the Chinon and bread, guess what? This did the job. I followed this with a confit de canard ‘Maison,’ (10.50€), which arrived with the duck sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes, pieces of duck perfectly cook, falling without effort off the bone. Simple but hearty. Rastaman went with the supreme de volaille and had good things to say about the sauce (as in ‘this sauce is really good’). For dessert, we continued with the tried and true, a tarte Tintin and a daily special rhubarb tarte. All for the ridiculous price of 48€ (wine, one appetizer, two plates, two desserts, one café). No wonder they are packing them in like sardines.

It wasn’t much more than a week or two before the aforementioned foray along Oberkampf that I was back with the Moose for an impromptu dinner at L’Estaminet, about a block further along rue Oberkampf. This is another establishment that can best be described as friendly, young, and packed. So packed that, after a ten minute wait at the bar, we were reluctantly guided downstairs to a room that the waitstaff had hoped to close off for the rest of the evening. This was the first time since the smoking ban that I had been in the cavelike rooms in the restaurant and the first time I could actually breathe as I ate my meal. At L’Estaminet, there is more of an effort than you find at Au Pied to add a little creativity to the preparation of dishes and my verdict on this occasion was that the results are hit and miss. The hit was my risotto aux cepes et magret fumé entrée (7€), a big surprise, given that this dish has often been a big disappointment elsewhere (Oslo being the most recent I can recall). This was tasty and warming, with copious slices of magret and I would go back for that dish alone. My main dish, however, the nage St. Jacques et rougets, coulis de langoustine vapeurs et legumes (17€), was the reverse – a big disappointment for a highly anticipated dish. The sauce and diced vegetables overwhelmed the scallops and rouget, and by the time I was halfway through, I was bored.

Now just a hop, skip, and jump away from the new decade (the 10s?), out of curiosity I pulled out my old agenda for January 2000 to find out how I started the decade eating-wise. There it was, clear as day, one of my favorite bistrots in the 11th, not far from Oberkampf, but closer to Parmentier, Le Villaret. This is a restaurant that I sorely neglected this year, with only one visit since the new ownership arrived. This is definitely on my list to review for 2010.

Before ringing in the new, my hat (if I had one) is off to the meal of the year, personally speaking, at Ze Kitchen Galerie, during a recent dinner with Co. and our pardners from Texas, J. L. and Tina ‘Brigitte’ Marie. Unfortunately, without notes and without an updated menu at Ze’s website, I can’t provide a description of my entrée that would do it justice, but it was a slightly cooked piece of dorade with thinly-sliced pieces of ginger and mango. Intriguing, creative, delicious. For the plate, I opted for the canard de ‘challans’ and foie gras grilles, jus betterave, and ginger. Wow. One last time, year of the beet. And, of course, the white chocolate, wasabi, pistachio sauce, and green tea epic dessert. I almost forgot what a killer dessert that is. Almost.

A dinner with Co. at the Mark Singer restaurant La Cave Gourmande, came a close second. With my notes long since having disappeared (new year’s resolution no. 1: keep notes!), it is literally a meal beyond description. The restaurant with two names, two large rooms, and one petite waitress (Mrs. Mark Singer?), the meal was creative and pretty close to perfection. Details to come, after next visit, I promise. But that dinner at Ze Kitchen was at that level beyond perfection. I can’t wait to go back. Bring on the 10s, I’m ready.

109, rue Oberkampf
Tel: 01 43 57 55 13
no website

96, rue Oberkampf
Tel: 01 48 06 46 98

116 rue Oberkampf
Tel: 01 43 57 34 29
no website

10, rue du Général Brunet
Tel: 01 40 40 03 30
no website

4, rue des Grands Augustins
Tel: 01 44 32 00 32
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