Saturday, 2 April 2011

A Hidden Jewel in Bohemian Paris: Caffe dei Cioppi

A tiny hole in the wall where they serve spectacular Italian food

Just four months after Federica Mancioppi and Fabrizio Ferrara opened their tiny Italian lunch restaurant, it received the coveted Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. Fast forward two years and the restaurant is always filled at lunch and is going to start serving dinner as well.

I was thrilled to get one of the 17 seats in this tiny place with an open kitchen and a relaxed atmosphere. That day, Federica was at the stove and paused to talk to me and, yes, to have me taste some of her wonderful creations.

This is an authentic Italian trattoria with creative takes on old faithfuls, like the wonderful sausage and zucchini-filled lasagna. The artichoke risotto was spectacular: perfect consistency to the rice that had been stirred in an extremely flavorful broth.

The menu changes daily and there are several appetizers including interesting bruschetta, soups, salad plates; several main courses such as risotto, a few pasta dishes, and meat or fish offerings. The day I was there, Federica was serving a delectable Penne à la Norma with slowly cooked eggplant and tomatoes and garnished with ricotta salata--which is ricotta in its hard form. I had the perfect seat at the counter, and was able to see each dish as it passed from the open kitchen to the server's hands. The thick piece of tuna served on a beautiful bed of spring vegetables was greatly appreciated by the two men who sat at the counter with me.

There is a nice Italian wine list with whites and reds coming from all over Italy. You can also order wine by the glass.

I couldn't decide among the four wonderful desserts: a gorgeous strawberry tart, panna cotta with pistachio and blueberries, a bitter chocolate fondant that I know I would have loved, and the house specialty: Sbrisolana with a marscapone cream. I went for the house dessert and was transported to seventh heaven. The Sbrisolana is a large pie-shaped cookie made of almonds, sugar, flour and corn meal and after it comes out of the oven, it is broken into pieces. The "cookies" are crunchy, rustic and not too sweet. Served with the luscious marscapone cream, this makes for a wonderful end to the meal.

Come spring, they set up tables throughout the Passage de Saint-Bernard (where the restaurant sits--just off the rue du Faubourg St. Antoine) so it is easier to get a reservation. I was told that in the evening, Maurizio is the chef.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Three Japanese Restaurants: Sous les Cerisiers, Lai Lai Ken, Taeko's Restaurant

Very different restaurants in conception and cooking style, Sous les Cerisiers, Lai Lai Ken, and Taeko's Restaurant are three of my favorites. In order, you can expect fusion cuisine, Japanese "Chinese" cuisine and home-cooking or katei ryouri.

Sous les Cerisiers means "under the cherry trees" and the name of the chef/owner, Sakura, means cherry blossom in Japanese. For about two years, she has successfully run this lovely restaurant that has all the touches of a small Japanese inn. The tableware is stunning and of the type you would see in some of the best kaiseki establishments. The room is beautiful and spare with a second room decked out with chairs that are decorated with costumes from the Opera! In addition, there is a cooking school.

For lunch, there are two menus. I went with my friend, Noriko, and we immediately found ourselves back in Japan. I had a lovely noodle salad with wasabi and wakame (a delicious seaweed) with fresh fèves (lima beans) and arugala. So delicate and well-balanced. Next came a steamed piece of succulent bass on a bamboo leaf with cherry-blossom salt. I don't know what that is, but it is good! It was garnished with musubi au gingembre or rice patties flavored with fresh ginger.

Noriko had shrimp tempura with arugala salad and tamari (soy)-sesame sauce: light and lovely.

We chose different desserts. Noriko had the Fromage blanc, sucre à la crème de marron et au thé vert and I had Sorbet orange et passion: that is, creamy fresh cheese mixture with chestnut and green tea cream; orange-passion fruit sorbet.
The atmosphere is refined and the prices are reasonable. At dinner, the menu is more complex and they have delicious sushi au foie gras as a specialty.

I love Lai Lai Ken. It is the first restaurant you come to when you leave either metro Pyramides or metro Palais Royale on the rue St. Anne. Unlike other popular restaurants on the street, this one is large enough to accomodate many people and there is rarely a waiting line. The restaurant serves Japanese "Chinese" food: gyoza, ramen, soba, curry dishes, etc. The menu is very long with many wonderful choices. The staff is efficient and pleasant.

There are so many possible ramen choices and my current favorite is 13b: miso ramen shisei--noodles in a miso broth flavored with ground pork in an extremely spicy sauce. It is red and gorgeous and if you like spicy food, is the thing to order.

In the summer, they have hiyashi ramen shisei which is a dish of cold spicy ramen with assorted vegetables. They also have curry ramen and even curry yakisoba (sautéed soba noodles with curry and vegetables). Before I discovered the spicy ramen dish, I went for ebi yakisoba--sautéed noodles with vegetables and succulent shrimp. Other restaurants on the street serve this dish but theirs is the best: not greasy, full of shrimp, sprouts and vegetables. Sublime.

They have fresh crab in a salad and cha han (Chinese fried rice) with vegetables and shrimp or crab. And there are many sorts of donburi--hot dishes served on a bed of rice. But as I said, the menu is long and you are sure to find something that will tempt you. Most of the dishes are not spicy--I am just particularly fond of spicy food.

Lai Lai Ken
is open for both lunch and dinner and closes between 2:45 pm and 6 everyday.

After years of hearing about Taeko's restaurant, and walking by it, I finally had lunch there last week--wonderful. This was a stand in the Marche aux Enfants Rouges in the 3rd arrondissement off la rue de Bretagne. In the early days it was quite small, and you could get katei ryouri (family style cooking) and look for a place to sit. Now you will find that it has expanded with both indoor and outdoor tables. There are many choices and all are lovingly prepared by Taeko-san and her staff daily. The restaurant is open from 12-6 everyday except Monday.

You can choose your own main dish for the bento (box lunch) which comes with rice and a variety of fresh and salads and beautifully prepared vegetables such as eggplant with chopped pork, glass noodles with tofu, spinach with sesame seeds (ohitashi).

There is a sashimi plate and maki with either fish or vegetables. Moving down the menu choices, you will find about 8 donburi listed. Donburi are cooked dishes traditionally served on top of a bowl of rice. Taeko-san offers the savory grilled mackerel, sardines in a light spicy sauce, wonderful sautéed tofu in a tempura sauce, for example. All the donburi come with small portions of the day's vegetables. For desserts there are a variety of Japanese-flavored ice creams and green tea cake.

I chose boulettes de tofu aux crevettes in a bento and it was excellent. These were two fat tofu patties filled with fresh shrimp served along with the variety of vegetables I described and rice. I also ordered hijiki salad (a type of seaweed that I particularly enjoy) and had that as another side dish. Next time I will get a different bento or a donburi. (Can't wait!)

If you want to eat in the restaurant, Taeko-san will seat you and take your order. Everything is simple and authentic. For basic delicious Japanese food served in a picturesque locale, run, don't walk to Taeko's restaurant.

Some new bistrots in Paris: Philou and Le Petit Pontoise Aussi

After a prolonged voyage to SE Asia and Shanghai, I settled in to my life in Paris with a bang: the discovery two new bistrots--one in my neighborhood and the other a new annex of an old favorite in the 5th arrondissement.

I read about Philou in Télérama, the Parisian weekly culture magazine and then saw that my favorite food critic, Gilles Pudlowski, named it "best bargain" of the year. It was precisely that and more. I took my cousin, Alyssa there for dinner and she said that it was one of the best meals that she had had in a long time.

The bistrot is very plain, cozy and full of activity, as it fills up quickly with an enthusiastic crowd. The service is friendly and the food just fine.

We both chose the same menu, so it was truly like we were dining as guests in someone's home. We had Saint Jacques marinés au citron et pomme, Magret de canard, aubergine confite au miel, and shared a fondant au chocolat, granité au thé. The first dish, cold scallops that had been marinated in lemon were served with a lovely apple purée. Next came the duck breast, cooked to your liking and served with slow-cooked eggplant flavored with a bit of honey. Both of these dishes were prepared in inventively classic ways by which I mean they were not so far out as to be more complex than good, but also not prepared in the old-fashioned way.

Philou (the name of the owner and chef) recommended a wonderful Gamay Coteaux d'Ancenis 2009 and this went well with both our dishes. One can order wine by the 1/2 carafe or by the bottle.

Coming from the same family of die-hard chocolate lovers, Alyssa and I had no choice but to order the dessert I mentioned: the molten dark chocolate cake. Nothing fancy but it was served with a dish of tea flavored ices.

The three-course menu at Philou is 30 euros and it is a steal!

Every year, Eric and I celebrate each other's birthday by with one of us treating the other (birthday person) to dinner. It was Eric's birthday and he was in the mood for a nice atmosphere and a French bistrot that was open on a Monday. That is not the easiest thing to find so I decided to go back to Le Petit Pontoise which is open everyday. I wrote about this restaurant last fall.

"Lucky" for us, they got mixed up about the reservation so there was no table for us when we arrived. I say that we were lucky because we got to try their new annex, Le Petit Pontoise Aussi: same direction, different menu--the best of all worlds for me as I am always on the lookout for a new place.

We were seated in no time, and to make up for their gaffe, they offered us a lovely apérif and then we settled in to reading the menu. The Salade Océane was spectacular: lightly cooked scallops, grilled and de-shelled shrimp, smoked salmon and gravlax on a bed of mesclun. It was quite a copious appetizer.

I chose Filet of Sole Meunière for my main course and that is a wonderful and simple dish that never disappoints.

Eric had Tournedos--the best cut of beef--classically served with a sauce aux trois poivres--a sauce made of three different types of peppercorns. The meat was excellent, but oddly enough for France, a bit overcooked and not rare enough for Eric. It was, nevertheless, delicious.

The Tiramisu au framboise (raspberry) was creamy, not too sweet, and lovely: a wonderful finish to an excellent meal. Both Le Petit Pontoise and Le Petit Pontoise Aussi have a la carte menus and are both authentic and classic bistrots that I highly recommend.