Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Asian Restaurants in Paris

This is a report of five different restaurants in the two Asian sections of Paris. Representative countries are Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of Asian restaurants in Paris, most of them terrible. However, if you land upon an authentic one (usually discerned by the length of the line outside), you have hit upon a jewel.

The first photo you see represents a luncheon offering of the soigné Lao Lane Xang 2 which is one of the few restaurants in the 13th arrondissement (the main Asian section of Paris) that has a pleasant decor, a Bib Gourmand, and elevated prices. It is not expensive, however. My friend; Françoise ordered the luncheon which consisted of three dishes and jasmine rice for 10,50 euros. She had a spicy Thai salad with shrimp and shredded green mango, a sausage dish in a lovely sauce full of tiny corn, an excellent dried beef salad and the rice. I ordered à la carte, and was not sorry. For a few euros more, I had a wonderful spicy angel hair noodle salad with luscious bits of chicken and whole shrimp. My main course was a Thai red curry with coconut milk and duck. Both of our dishes were truly delicious. The ingredients are fresh and of very high quality and that is reflected in the flavor of the dishes.

At this point in my life, I have been to several cosmopolitan Asian cities, and once outside the restaurant, I was struck with how much the street theater resembles the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Hanoi or a city in China. People are milling about, selling their food wares on the street and moving in and out of the zillions of restaurants of all Asian nationalities that you can imagine. We went into Tang Frères which is the giant Asian grocery store chain to look at the food. I thought to myself that an Asian family could live in Paris and never eat French food--ever. For me, the myriad of things that we could buy was tantalizing and we made a mental note to return when we had more time for another lunch and a trip to Tang Frères.

With my new enthusiasm for the 13th arrondissement, I suggested to my friends, Pascale and Suzelle, that we try a place known for Dim Sum. Pascale had read about Tricotin 2 (Tricotin 1 is Vietnamese and Thai, whereas 2 is Chinese and larger), the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city and known for its steamed fare. I was game. It was a great meal. The three of us shared three types of dumplings and buns (i.e. bao and baozi), and although they were good, they don't hold a candle to the real thing that you can only get in China. We had pork buns, raviolis with shrimp and pork, and delicious duck and shrimp crepes with bamboo. The latter, with their interesting combination of ingredients were the best. Tricotin 2 is known for its soups and noodle dishes and my friends each ordered crunchy noodle dishes with various pork combinations. Later in the month, I went back and had an excellent sauté of seafood on the crunchy noodles.

The restaurant is huge and lacks for decor, but this is par for the course in most of the restaurants of this ilk. People go for the food and not to hang out in the surroundings.

I actually learned about the next restaurant on You Tube when a French chef in Paris was asked what places he really likes in the city. As soon as I heard about it, I had to try Wen Zhou which is on the rue de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement. This is an area that has a more varied ethnic population with Chinese and North Africans living side by side. After the famous morning market where one can get very cheap produce, fish and meat, we walked up the hill to look for the restaurant.

While on the quest to find THE Wen Zhou, someone told me that the word means Paris in Chinese, and several restaurants next to one another have the same name. The one we chose, Restaurant Wen Zhou at 24 rue de Belleville, seemed to be the place we were looking for. In any event, it was very good and very cheap.

I am on the quest for the perfect buns (baozi) after having fallen love with these delicious items when I was in China. The ones here, filled with spicy pork, were fantastic!! The place was a real find. People come in off the street just to pick up a baozi or two. At the tables, there is a full menu. I ordered hot and sour soup (known as soupe Pekinoise in France), and that was great. However, we were most taken with the dumpling-bun bar and so shared steamed shrimp dumplings (great) and steamed raviolis stuffed with pork, ginger and celery. Who could resist the enormous crèpe stuffed with vegetables and pork? It was folded in a triangle and big enough for three. A copious lunch for us all came to 20 euros. I can't wait to go back.

One of my friends recommended a Chinese restaurant near to Tricotin 1 and 2, called Hao Hao. This place is also very popular and serves authentic Cantonese food. That cuisine is my least favorite of the Chinese regional cuisines, but it is the most popular as it is not spicy. However, I was game to try it as I was told that real Chinese people love it.

Roland and I decided to share three dishes the night we went to Hao Hao. The menu is very long with lots of choices and when you are there you wish you were a regular and knew what the specialties are. I adored the salt and pepper fried softshell crabs. They were not at all greasy, beautifully seasoned and just delightful. Less successful was the mussel dish with a sweet and sour sauce, and Poulet Si-Chuan (Szechuan chicken) which was lightly breaded chicken served in a brown sauce. I think the thing I like least about some Chinese food is the fact that when cornstarch is added to the sauce it gets thickened in a way I find unpleasant and artificial. There are other dishes at Hao Hao which would not suffer from this phenomenon but the mussels and chicken were not those. Roland, however, liked everything.

On the way home, I walked along the main Avenue de Choisy and made mental notes of the places that had long lines at 8 in the evening. I was very curious about Pho Banh Cuon 14 which was very crowded, and asked my friend Sayaka if she would join me there. She told me that this place is truly authentic Vietnamese and has the best Pho in the country if not in Western Europe. I could not wait to try it.

I had a lot of Pho in Vietnam and it is a dangerous soup for me indeed, as usually there is a lot of cilantro in it. However, I never had a problem there, as I knew how to say "no cilantro please!" and had a card with instructions in Vietnamese. Here, I speak French and the staff was eager to help me out. The wonderful noodle soup is so authentic that I could not eat it. I can see that for a cilantro lover it is superb, but there was not just cilantro as a garnish that they could leave off (which they did), but the broth was totally flavored with that herb. I had to content myself with enjoying the other dishes we ordered, like the made-to-order egg rolls (without cilantro and safe) and the squid salad. Everything in this restaurant is of a high caliber and if you close your eyes, you are in Vietnam. I would go back there for any of the other things on the menu.

Japan is noticeably absent from this report but that is because it is the Asian cuisine I know the most about and one I have written about in this blog several times. I am always discovering new and wonderful places in Paris and will write about those at another time.