The good, the bad and the hipster: The Paris face-off
FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - October 3, 2013 - 12:00am

Lucky, lucky me, in the past three months I have been to Paris three times. I never get tired of that magical moment when the flight attendant whispers breathily into the PA system, “Welcome to Paris.” It doesn’t matter the weather, I’ve experienced cool, late-spring dreary rains, hot summer sun and cold fall winds … the excitement of landing in the City of Lights remains the same.

I never come as a tourist but often like someone returning home. Resourcing, absorbing all the energy, that je ne sais quoi spirit that electrifies the air — from the smell of freshly baked croissants and rich black espresso to the small surprises that lurk around each corner offering special unique moments. It could be wall art, a new café, a picturesque moment of nostalgia that only Paris has to offer. 

In terms of food my sojourns in Paris are often very different if I’m traveling with my husband or alone. My husband is a true-blue classic diner. Having being born and raised there, we often go back to our favorite haunts, eating in old-school bistros indulging in the artisanal cheeses and patés.

We were walking down a street right next to our studio, in the same quarter where he lived and we used to frequent, and we stumbled upon a gorgeous little boutique. A stunning hodgepodge of old moldings, vintage tiles and chandeliers, bottles of wine lining the wall like an elegant audience in a beautiful culinary opera house. Velvety cheeses on display, gnarly ropes of saucisson hanging and glimmering glass pots of homemade terrines. “Open for diners from Monday to Friday from 12 noon-1 p.m. And Saturday from 11a.m. to 2 p.m.” How French to have such minimal hours. The establishment sets the rules and one must simply live by them. We asked the one sole staff member how long had it been open, they must be new, we’ve never seen them before. “Oh, I’ve been here eight years but the store has been around since the 1800s.” He responded nonchalantly with that iconic Parisian shrug. With flushed cheeks we relished crusty poilane bread, a cognac rabbit terrine that was to die for, a board of charcuterie and a tangy rich fresh goat cheese smothered in this splendid apricot and saffron jam. Wine with lunch, a happy cool Brouilly, it was the epitome of French simplicity. Wonderful products in an authentic setting with a no-fuss attitude. It simply is.

Then, when I visit alone, I’m a little more adventurous. I want to try new places, scope out new trends, be a little more experimental. My second trip there this year was to take part in the marriage of a dear friend. I was a bridesmaid, how could I say no? A lush week of festivities drowned in ample rosé and the rare summer sunlight capped off by a memorable cruise down the Seine, blue skies and the Eiffel Tower plus a heartfelt wedding full of love, laughter and friendship. One thing missing? Good food. Yes. Impossible as it may seem, I didn’t have a true exceptional meal in Paris at that time. My next trip, I hoped, would be better. And yet, except for one (thank goodness!) redeeming dinner at Le Verre Volé, it was a lot of fancy bells and whistles and all just ho-hum or downright terrible.

Allow me to explain. There seems to be a very distinct movement in the City of Lights right now of breaking with tradition. First of all, the food trucks have cropped up all over town, most of which have only two options on the menu: burgers or a large, plain salad. Go figure. Even Guy Martin has bitten the burger bug. So sorry but even if your bun has curry powder and some fancy form of mayo, I’m not sure I want to be eating this in Paris.

The next trend is something that, of course, was started by the likes of Frenchie, these anti-Michelin-star joints run by young ’uns offering fancy degustations (at not necessarily low prices, mind you) with obscure wines and a cuisine that is classic in technique with some modernist elements, seasonal in produce and borderless in flavor. When executed properly it makes for a spectacular experience but most of what I tried fell flat and you get caught up in their overly convoluted recipes.

Verjus is one of these overly hyped examples where dinner looked pretty but had these strange combinations like duck breast cooked rather well but served with fresh citrus and pickled cabbage, which just made everything taste horribly gamey and bitter. A sad day for the duck. Or chanterelles with trout and a soup of corn — three elements that when separate were actually all right, but a fishy fish like trout with something as earthy as chanterelles swimming in a sweet corn soup — it’s more than enough to wrinkle your nose. I love experimenting with flavors but when it’s not an outstanding result, I believe it’s best to go back to basics. Creating new flavor pairings just for the sake of it — oh, well. Service? The room was packed, the servers went through the motions like robots explaining the dishes and pouring us terrible wines for the pairing without ever asking once if we enjoyed our meal, despite many of us leaving substantial amounts of food on our plates. At more than 100 euros per person, I left angry and couldn’t even console myself with the wine, which is hard to mess up in France.

On another trip to France I tried another restaurant called Le Six Paul Bert. Same setup, relaxed atmosphere, serious (perhaps too serious), handsome-looking tattooed cooks and at least this time, honestly pleasant and affable young servers. The octopus was quite good, the others ho-hum and some downright strange. A hot plate of cheese that was defended by the judgmental statement “One mustn’t eat cheese cold.” Yes, but not straight from the salamander, either. Our orders were messed up and fortunately they were very kind about everything. The experience also cost us a pretty penny. Or, should I say, centime.

I had honestly resolved in my head that Paris was becoming overrun with this paradoxical reverse-snobbery pretension. Out with the white tablecloths and in with grit and grime. Out with the perfectly good sole meuniere and in with the pastis-braised Swiss chard with air of tonka bean, just-poached sweetbread and home-pickled organic carrots from some remote farm. Out with the toques and bring on the tattoos. But then I ate at Le Verre Vole and hope was rekindled.

Beside Canal Saint Martin, one of the few areas that are alive on a lazy Parisian Sunday, is a cute little resto run by hipster sommeliers. Serving only organic wine, wearing that checkered rumpled shirt, scruffy beard and hair that hadn’t been washed for at least three days, I discovered a place that got this trendy-movement formula right.

A simple menu that makes no apologies for being simple, using only the freshest produce (still from obscure farms) executed to perfection with wine pairings that truly hit the spot. Razor clam ceviche in a gloriously fresh tomato water. Smoked monkfish liver with a fresh fennel salad. A persillade of buttery-soft calamari. An alien-esque plate of goose barnacles served with Bordier butter, lime and crusty bread. Paired with a crisp Mersault chilled to perfection, quirkily named Le Petit Têtu or the Little Hardhead.  A cloudlike broiled hake with eggplant caviar. Flavorful, perfectly seared steak and a luscious, tender adobado marinated pork loin. And my main dish? A homemade boudin noir with caramelized onions that was out of this world. The homemade black sausage was heady with rosemary and thyme. Soft like a flan inside and crisp on the outside offset by a welcome sweetness from the onions. A nice, spicy Syrah anchored my confidence in this new generation of restaurateurs: passionate, slightly know-it-all (we’re in Paris!) and dedicated to achieving palatable nirvana. Service is efficient but not necessarily friendly, with that standard look of boredom that matches unkempt looks so well. It was, in fact, borderline abusive. I had been gruffly told to come back exactly at 7 p.m. (I was there at 6:50) and we were told to leave by 9.

“Would you like dessert?”

“We thought we had to leave at 9.”

“You still have 11 minutes.”

It all didn’t matter. The party in my mouth was happening and I was happy. I’d gladly be a masochist for such wonderful food. Vive les hipsters!

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