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For the love of food

Have you been to Paris lately?  Maybe you sat down for a meal and been thoroughly disappointed by the mediocre fare?  What’s happening ?

It is surprising in a country like France where a good meal is a subject of conversation and food a matter of pride, that restaurants have taken a bit of nose-dive in terms of quality.  French restaurants– especially Parisian ones– have been deteriorating for the last 10 or 15 years. I remembered visiting Paris few years ago and not being able to find a good restaurant. I had such bad luck that I finally had to get a recommendation from friends just to get a good meal. Since living in Paris I have finally discovered why many restaurants serve very mediocre food: they are taking shortcuts, buying frozen food and prepared meals to keep prices low and make bigger profits.

In Grand Seigneur, a French online food magazine, Claude Colliot, a self-made chef found that 90 % of French restaurants use industrial sauce bought in cans. There are no official numbers about how many restaurants serve (or use) industrially-prepared ingredients and frozen food. But the number is large enough to call for a legislative bill requiring restaurants to specify which menu items are actually made on premises with fresh ingredients.

But there is hope.

First, just last week Alain Ducasse and 14 starred chefs called for the creation of a label that restaurants which are cooking from scratch would put on their wall informing customers about their culinary practices.  This is a step in the right direction.

Secondly, a new wave of restaurants is appearing, these are the amateur ones. People who may or may not have been formally trained as cooks. Many with or without knowledge of the business end, but who have a true passion for excellent food. These amateurs, who are nonetheless connoisseurs, are opening their own restaurants for their passion for food.  These brazen chefs are presenting creative and delicious dishes, made from scratch in their humble settings with fresh ingredients.

Finally, and most importantly, there is a new generation of young chefs who are committed to elevating French cuisine through a commitment to the art of cooking.  Finding the right setting and backers is a difficult process, but when they are given the opportunity, they really shine.

One such chef is Frédéric Barette, of Les Coulisses Vintage, in the 9e arrondissement.  I had ventured to this restaurant one evening with a friend from New York. I was enthralled. It was exquisite, a truly unexpected experience. The quality of the food was above anything I had experienced since arriving in Paris a year and half before.

In December we came back again, when we met Frédéric.  He had been trained at Baudau (2 macarons in Michelin), and Shutton Glenn in England. He recognized us from our first visit and took pride in serving us. By the end of the meal, we had planned our entire Christmas meal, including his homemade foie gras, oysters (Gillardeau, the best ones according to him, I confirmed and our friends were thrilled), and a delicious smoked salmon.

Jean-Claude Gour, the owner, used to be a shipping expeditor. Two years ago, he helped back a friend who was opening a restaurant. After a few months, he took over as the sole owner. He saw it as an opportunity to explore his passion for great food and wine. Loving food, but not being a trained chef, he hired Frédéric. Together, they made the decision to work with small food producers. Fresh vegetables, meat and fish are delivered everyday. Everything on the menu is made in Frédéric’s kitchen, including sauces and even stocks. As a result, food is delicious. Some examples are foie gras with artichokes paste, blanquette de veau traditionnelle, pot au feu de foie gras and a unique Tiramisu made from Belgium biscuits called Speculos. Frédéric is known to make the best blanquette de veau in Paris.

Wines are Jean-Claude’s passion. His wines are often unknown and always reasonably priced. Les Coulisses is a real “foodie” experience and Jean-Claude told me that he has recently replaced the Gillardeau Oysters by the Tsarkaya ones, because they are raised in France. The Gillardeau are now raised in Ireland. This says a lot about Jean-Claude and his attachment to fresh and local products. Since my earlier experiences, the restaurant has been improving. The service is now at a professional level, and the décor simpler with softer lighting. Art exhibitions bring warmth and create an intimate atmosphere. Les Coulisses recently enrolled in an environmental protection program by serving water from Fresh Nordaq, a company that distributes water not using plastic or glass bottles.

This experience confirmed that a new wave of restaurants are coming into their own in Paris.  But it takes some looking.  Another one is Chez Vero.

Located in Belleville, the heart of Chinatown in Paris and filled with Chinese restaurants of varying sizes and quality, Chez Vero makes every dish from entirely fresh produce.

The owner is Veronique Bernardi, a tall curly-haired woman in her 40’s with a warm, generous smile and a big talent for cooking and sharing. Her family is Italian, and have been in the pasta-making business for years. She was born in Italy and grew up there and in France. She trained with Stroher, one of Paris’ most reknown pastry chefs, who has a business on rue Montorgueil. She later started her own pastry business, making cakes for her daughter’s friends’ birthday parties or catering for special events.  A year ago she decided she was ready to start her own business and bought a small former café on her street.

The place is simple and retains some oddities of its former days, but has WiFi and you are welcome to stay and browse. She built-in a small kitchen, making it partially visible to her customers; she painted the walls white and installed a mirrored old fashion counter, but kept the original Formica counter from the 70’s. She teamed with Alfredo Latelle, an Italian friend, who had managed a clothes design business. The team works and they create a laid back and friendly experience. Friends and neighbors drop by to say a quick bonjour as they get on with their day, making you feel as if you where in Amelie’s or some nouvelle vague’s movies. Actress Charlotte Rampling comes for lunch and Lambert Wilson, a well known French actor can also be found dining at Chez Vero. As the place is small it’s very easy to talk to people – even the famous ones.

Lunch consists of two choices each of appetizers, entrees and desserts.  You can have an appetizer + entrée, or an entrée + desert for 14 euros. One of the best deals in town considering the quality of the food served. The artichokes tatin and various rissottos are delicious.  She is the Mario Batali of Belleville. The celery root soup or the tiny little fried fish called eperlan are absolutely delightful. Vero is very creative and the menu is never the same.  All the food is made on the premises with fresh products. Chez Véro has a wide range of wines. Beside French wines, there are excellent Italian wines and few Georgian wines (Vero’s daughter was adopted from Georgia, so you may have a chance to try some typical Georgian dishes such as grilled chicken in a pureed garlic sauce).

The next time you are in Paris and want to find a restaurant that prepares its dishes from scratch and using the best fresh produce, I have a good rule of thumb: look for restaurant with short menus. Two choices for lunch and no more than five for dinner signal that the food is probably fresh and made on premises. The prices may be a bit higher in these restaurants (another good sign) but you won’t be disappointed.


Les coulisses vintage- Paris 75009

19, Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. Paris 75009
M°: ND de Lorette

Close on Saturday lunch time
Tél. 01 45 26 46 46
Menus (3 courses) : 32,50, 39,50 et (4 courses) 56,50 €
Carte : 45-60 €

Site : http://www.lescoulissesvintage.com/



Chez Véro – Paris 75020

33 rue Ramponneau

Metro :  Belleville

Tel : 09 82 32 68 07

Lunch : every day from Monday to Friday

Dinner : Wednesday, Thursday, Friday nights

Menu lunch from 14.00 (2 courses) to 17.00 €  (3 courses)

Menu Dinner 24.00 € (3 courses)

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Chris Simon can be found at www.ebookbychrisimon.com

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