The New York Times > Travel > Choice Tables: Quirky Spots the Locals Love But Don’t Reveal
NYT’s travel writing about restaurants in Paris.
WHEN visitors ask Parisians what’s new with restaurants in their city they usually mean haute cuisine, as in who’s the next Gagnaire or the new Robuchon. (With two relatively recent openings – La Table de JoÃ«l Robuchon in the 16th Arrondissement and L’Atelier de JoÃ«l Robuchon in the 7th – Robuchon is the new Robuchon.) Or they might want to know what’s the best little bistro in Paris, which, of course, depends entirely on who is asked.
But what many Parisians hesitate to mention are the quirky little places like the three below, which have become insider favorites. A visit to one of them – they’re in neighborhoods where tourists don’t usually venture – will take you beyond the clichÃ©s of culinary Paris, and into the heart of the city itself.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for the first time you visit Momoka, you’re likely to pass it by. It is just uphill from the Trinity Church, between the Gare St.-Lazare and the Rue des Martyrs, not far from Les Grands Boulevards. Like all of the neighborhoods mentioned here, it is in the process of gentrifying, so you’ll encounter bobos (bourgeois bohemians), actors (there are lots of theaters in the neighborhood) and prostitutes.
As big as an average souvlaki stand, Momoka seats – just barely – 14 diners at tightly spaced tables. There’s a counter and a kitchenette where Masayo Hashimoto, a slender, young Japanese woman who trained as a French pastry chef, is likely to be at work, calmly stuffing and crimping her absolutely perfect gyoza (pork-stuffed dumplings). Meanwhile, a young man with the gallantry of a bullfighter is either waiting on tables, answering the phone or squeezing lemons and shredding fresh ginger to make the sensational ginger lemonade that might make you forswear the restaurant’s rudimentary wine and beer list.
Masayo offers three set menus a night, all of them based around a soup (pumpkin, for example, sweetened with caramelized onions), a series of sparkling salads (curried egg and potato; cucumber and seaweed; pickled zucchini; and tomato dressed with basil and sugar), sometimes those super dumplings (grilled), both a fish and a beef course and, finally, dessert – plus lots of little extras in between, like a slice of succulent lacquered eel.
One knockout dish consisted of fried slices of lotus flower topped with cellophane-thin wisps of salty dried bonito that shivered from the heat of the cooked lotus flower. This was followed by delicately seasoned fried marinated tofu (perfection again) and then by tuna steak spiked with wasabi.
For dessert, the blanc manger – two shot glasses filled with the silkiest of puddings, one seasoned with vanilla, the other with black sesame seeds. On the side, there is a sort of petit four – delicate strawberry parfait rolled in green tea genoise. It is no wonder that neighbors stop in for pastry to go or that Masayo supplies the desserts for Azabu, a Japanese restaurant so resolutely trendy it had Philippe Starck design its bathrooms.
There’s nothing to panic about here. In style, in substance, in its unforced mellowness and laid-back amiability, CafÃ© Panique seems as though it should be in Berkeley. Or Budapest. Or Amsterdam. Anywhere but in Cartesian Paris. Yet here it is – open kitchen, huge skylight and all – in a loftlike space on the ground floor of an apartment building in a rapidly changing neighborhood in the 10th Arrondissement that the true urban pioneer would have “discovered” 12 years ago when the restaurant first opened its doors. Welcome to the New France.
The menu is short, stylish and appetizing. A recent offering included melt-in-the-mouth ravioli of foie gras in a broth seasoned with verbena. The soothing cream of white bean soup comes topped with a fistful of beautifully sautÃ©ed girolle mushrooms, real comfort food, as is a main course of hashed veal interspersed with layers of slivered potatoes and sautÃ©ed onions. Most restaurants serving magret de canard give you five thin slices of the duck breast. Here you get the whole breast, the poultry equivalent of the 16-ounce steak, roasted until it is perfectly done. It comes with red cabbage braised in wine and braised shallots spread across a pastry crust, a very satisfying and well-conceived combination.
Carambar, a cigarette-shaped caramel that’s a childhood favorite, is incorporated into a more or less traditional tiramisÃ¹. It’s delicious. And while the wine list could use some work, the ‘99 Grand Cru Bruderthal from GÃ©rard Neumeyer, an off-dry riesling from Alsace ($37, at $1.31 to the euro), is a gracious accompaniment to any meal.
What first drew me to this restaurant in the nearly completely gentrified neighborhood east of Bastille was its wine list, one of the best and most reasonably priced in Paris. Combine that with the Sunday lunch extravaganza, and Chez Ramulaud is an irresistible way to end a weekend, particularly for the nostalgic. On Sundays an accordionist, guitarist and singer (shouter, really) play French golden oldies from the era of Saturday night dances in country villages, tea dances at beach resorts and open-air cavorting in riverside establishments called guinguettes (cf. Renoir). “Le Denicheur,” “Reine de Musette,” “Quand On Se PromÃ¨ne au Bord de l’Eau”: everyone in the place knows these songs. Sometimes they sing along; sometimes they take to the floor and dance that speedy French waltz that’s like the American version played at 78 r.p.m.
Chez Ramulaud’s usual menu is abbreviated on Sunday and it’s good enough – succulent oysters, perhaps followed by a blanquette de veau on a bed of rice, the way grandma would have made it. And those wines! AndrÃ© Ostertag’s 2003 Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes, a scrumptious Alsace white for a mere $25, ChÃ¢teau de Villeneuve’s top-of-the-line Saumur-Champigny “Grand Clos” for $37. Prices like this induce splurges and so, on my last visit, my companion and I sprang for a 2001 CÃ´te RÃ´tie from J-M GÃ©rin, “Champin le Seigneur” ($65), luxuriated in its Burgundy-in-the-Rhone-elegance and sang along to “Pigalle.”
Ã€ la carte prices s listed are for meals for two, with a reasonably priced bottle of wine. All three restaurants accept Visa and MasterCard.
Momoka, 5, rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Ninth Arrondissement; (44-1) 40.16.19.09 (you must reserve, but it’s not always easy to get through; keep trying). Dinner only. Closed Sunday and Monday. Menus at $51, $56 and $72 (prices at $1.31 to the euro). Ordering Ã la carte costs about $130 including wine.
CafÃ© Panique, 12, rue des Messagerie, 10th, (44-1) 47.70.06.84. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Menus: $17 (lunch) and $38. Ã€ la carte, About $120.
Chez Ramulaud, 269, rue Faubourg St.-Antoine, 11th, (44-1) 22.214.171.124. Open daily but music only on Sunday. About $100 for Ã la carte Sunday lunch, not counting a tip for the musicians.