If you’ve read me at all, you doubtless know that my thing in restaurant food is NOT the glitzy stuff that grabs 99% of the food-world buzz: all that itty-bitty three-star preciousness, tortured to death on the plate, rarely served at the proper temperature, far too clever for its own good. Sure, I’ve had divine experiences of that ilk. Yes, take me to Michel Bras (in the center of France). Take me to Eric Fréchon (at The Bristol in Paris). Take me to Ferran Adria (as soon as he lands, post El-Bulli). Take me to César Ramirez in Brooklyn, for chissake. But don’t take me to places like this too often. Odds, my man. Odds.
It has long been my assessment that when I get taken to high-end buzzy places, I can expect disappointment. 95% is my depressing number: about 95% of these restaurants with star-reaching chefs don’t provide the kind of satisfaction I want in a restaurant. The food is often all in the head. Sure, when a guy like Ferran is brilliant, he’s brilliant. But most other chefs are either copying what’s out there, or forging their own, misguided cuisine. I don’t see the deep soul in the base. Creative restaurant cuisine in the 21st century has become the modern equivalent of spiritless “fancy” food in the 20th century.
Well, I’ve always had my remedies, to be sure. If you’re in New York, and you don’t want to go to Per Se…you just walk right over to the Carnegie Deli! Or, in New York, you get a slice. Or a dirty hot dog. We all know they’re out there, and we all know where to go.
But the latter kind of food was always unspoken, underground kind of food. Buzz? Crashing silence was more like it. If a foodie arrived in NY, met a New York foodie at a party, started asking for recommendations…ten years ago, for sure, the fancy recommendations would have flowed. Top of mind.
Today, I feel a big shift in the wind. In my recent journeys to France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy…
I find informing foodies stepping up to the “real & local” plate much more often! Now, I discover, before they tell you about the three-star buzz…they’re likely to mention a great local place that preserves the local food traditions…and provides a tidy, pleasurable dining experience.
It has happened too much in the last 3 years for me to ignore it as a major trend.
I can give you just a few vignettes from my last trip to France, in late January/early February 2014.
I was staying in Paris at the very glamorous, insanely plush Mandarin Oriental–I’d go back in a heartbeat!–but none of my Parisian foodie friends seemed to be recommending the two-star restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. Instead, I was getting a wave of bistros that, I was assured, were “top-notch…none of the crap that used to parade as bistros.” I had a wine meeting one morning with a guy who finds French wine producers for people like me to import into the U.S. We had lovely wines, then he said: “I made a reservation at Le Griffonnier,” a simple place, though not far from the Elysée Palace. “All my friends are talking about it.”
I had never heard of it. Now, I shall never forget it.
It is small, pretty (lots of wood), jammed with upscale Frenchmen at lunch (and, bizarrely, it is open mostly for lunch, except Thursday night dinner).
I saw the á la carte menus. My heart leapt. This seemed to be exactly the kind of old-fashioned, un-messed-with French food that could demonstrate that the man in the kitchen has an awareness of and regard for his heritage.
Then again, it could break the other way,
Sacre bleu…it broke MY way! OUR way! Those of us who revere the traditional French restaurant experience! Le Griffonnier is now my dream, go-to, Parisian bistro spot!
I loved that their versions of everything were excellent…and that “everything” included classics both well known and recherché!
On the recherché side was tripous de naucelles, an amazing stew of braised tripe packets, something I’d only tasted in the center-southwest of France. But here was the best version I’ve ever tasted, right in the heart of Paris…
It is gamy, of course, barnyard-y, floating in a light and lovely long-cooked sauce that screams “France! 1935!”…and makes your lips stick together in any era.
Representing the well-known side of Le Griffonnier’s classics is one of my fave fave fave regional French dishes…choucroute garnie!
And it is marvelous here, one of the best ever…either in Paris or Alsace! One secret may be how rarely they make it; it gets all the love on Thursday, when you can have it either at lunch or dinner. The sauerkraut is in that perfectly cut-and-cooked state that I call “angel-hair choucroute;” you’ll never believe how light and fluffy choucroute like this can be. And the meats that “garnish”–each one distinctive, full-flavored, juicy, just ideal for this dish.
So I’m now part of the “buzz” chain myself; though I had a wonderful three-star meal on this trip to Paris (you’ll read more about that later on), the first words out of my mouth to Paris-bound foodies are “Le Griffonnier!”
A few days later I was visiting the Champagne house of Michel Gonet, in Epernay…my sole Champagne import, and a house I love. After a morning of tasting Champagne…one is ready for lunch! I asked Sophie Gonet to pick a good restaurant and, despite the wealth of fancy restaurants in the Champagne region, she knew I would like La Cave à Champagne, in the heart of Epernay. Once again: restaurant question in France, and the “buzz” goes to a very special local place with the traditional food of the region.
My mind was blown by all the options open to me…and then blown again by the quality of the food. Oh, I guess you could say that my escargot dish had a little creativity in it–but was based on the old tradition of combining some pork or pork fat with the snails.
The combo was terrific. And the quality factor was so high…for these were wild, local snails from the Champagne region. The chew of a canned snail (what we almost always get in the U.S.), compared to the chew of a real snail is like the chew of a canned pea combined to the chew of a bright, fresh, green one.
The tête de veau is also outstanding here–creatified a bit by its particulars on the plate, looking more like a stew with vegetables than the normal slobbering jowls. Yes, let it be known…tête de veau is a long-cooked calf’s head, cut into congruent pieces, served up unapologetically for those (like me!) who love it.
I love it, of course…and I have to say…this was one of the best ones I have ever had!
Finally, I have one more testament to funky buzz from my short trip to France last month.
I was in the south, at a wine fair in Montpellier, and a group of producers offered to take me to dinner in the seaside town of Palavas, about 30 minutes from Montpellier. I went with them…to a very strange town, with a sort of Riviera-meets Las-Vegas feel! They brought me to the restaurant of a young chef they knew well, who had just opened in Palavas, cooking his creative “French” food, which was a lot like creative food everywhere.
I’m sure he needed the business…because when I went for a breath of air, I found a jammed restaurant next store…Le Bellevue…
…and spent moments in front of its storefront window, looking over the old-time France options…
Gratinéed oysters. Pig’s feet with vinaigrette. Marrow with a local garlic from Lautrec. Cabbage stuffed with goat cheese. A creamy stew of salt cod. And on…
I didn’t get to eat here, but I could tell from the crowd and menu…despite the very slightly “creative” touches in each dish…that this place probably fits into my “buzz for real food” category.
May the movement soar! And, no matter where you are…don’t forget to tell your foodie friends about “real food” restaurants when they ask for local recommendations!
P.S. Yes, I know, you could explain my intuition in other ways! “No one recommends expensive restaurants anymore.” Or…”Well, sure, they all know YOUR taste now, so they back off the creative ones.” Just wanted to say…though those things may be true…I STILL believe heavily that the times they are a-changin’!