Tasting Table: Paris City Guide

by Catherine Down


The more things change, the more Paris stays the same. Although many of the city's best restaurants now have young, foreign chefs shaking up the scene, French diners still expect them to respect seasonality and be dedicated to terroir even as they embrace more freedom and flexibility. There are classic silver platters heaped with oysters and shaved ice at the new L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer, but instead of serving them on a white tablecloth under a stained glass dome, diners stand at a bar filled with French rugby players and elbow their way to reach communal slabs of butter.

After a chaotic year in the City of Light, there's a return to foods that are anything but. Pot-au-feu, steak frites, frog's legs, escargots—these much-dreamed-about but rarely available dishes are no longer the stuff of Francophile fantasy. Newcomers like La Bourse et La Vie or Mensae have young chefs reviving lost dishes and turning their obsessive focus on sourcing great ingredients for Grand-mère's cuisine. In other words, put away the shaved vegetables and microgreen garnish. The bistro is back.

For my booze-and-butter-soaked guide to the best restaurants, bars, and shops in Paris, check out the full listing on Tasting Table


Paris by Mouth: Sculpture with Taste

by Catherine Down


The Rodin Museum re-opens today after a long renovation, its lobby featuring a sweet new installation: A copy of the sculptor’s famous Monument to Balzac, standing nearly 4 meters high, and made entirely from chocolate. With this new installation – entitled “La Sculpture a du Gôut”, or “Sculpture with Taste” – Patrick Roger, the French chocolatier most famous for his giant chocolate orangutans, will prove that he isn’t monkeying around. 

For more on the artful chocolatier, read the full article on Paris by Mouth


Paris by Mouth: Bringing Chocolate Home from France

by Catherine Down


The French have had a love affair with chocolate since 1615, when Anne of Austria (confusingly, actually Spanish) married Louis XIII of France and packed cocoa beans for drinking chocolate in her Paris-bound valise. 400 years later, French chocolates are some of the finest in the world and among the best souvenirs to take home.

Chocolate smuggling can be a delicate operation, but with enough care in selection and packaging, you’ll successfully be able to share your sweet Parisian memories over sweets with friends and family back at home… or not share. We won’t judge you.

For more tips on buying chocolate in France, read the full article on Paris by Mouth


A Snapshot of the Paris Cocktail Scene

by Catherine Down


Le Syndicat Paris bar

Trends I hope we’ll see in 2016: clear signage, preferably with neon letters, so that I can know whether I’m at one of the best bars in Paris or an abandoned crack den (I’m looking at you, Le Syndicat). Also, if one is forced to spend 15 on a single cocktail, one should not be forced to squat on a low bench or ottoman that feels like a birthing stool built for a dwarf. Tiny furniture is adorable, but who wants to drink with their knees pressed to their chest?

For more on cocktail trends we actually like, see the full article on Paris by Mouth


Paris by Mouth: First Look at Lobster Bar

by Catherine Down


I have a lot of sympathy for the lobster.

Walking through the door of Lobster Bar, a trendy new joint devoted entirely to the crustacean, was like being greeted with a fat, wet slap of steam. Waiting in a queue eleven people deep on a Saturday afternoon, it was not hard to reflect upon the similarities between my sweaty plight and that of the lobster destined for my plate.

The stylish dining room on a calmer weekday afternoon. Photo by Meg Zimbeck. 

The stylish dining room on a calmer weekday afternoon. Photo by Meg Zimbeck. 

This twenty seat restaurant had opened only a week earlier to great media fanfare. Although we had been invited to a pre-opening lunch along with virtually every other food writer in town, Paris by Mouth stays away from such cattle calls, preferring to arrive anonymously to get a better sense of what the experience will be like for our readers.

That experience might begin, as it did for me, with time spent crushed between well-heeled strangers. If my sympathies were not with the lobster during the hour-long wait, then they certainly were with a can of sardines. As the time dragged on and diners waited interminably for their dishes, I found myself wondering what could possibly take so long?  

Were they boiling and shelling the lobsters to order? It seemed like the only logical explanation for what could possibly take so long to get the roll from kitchen to table. They could potentially have skipped the boiling step entirely and left them to steam in the ambient air of the restaurant.

A lobster roll is, at its best, the essence of simplicity. There's a reason why the shellfish sandwich is a staple of packed summer towns. It's cold lobster, diced and dressed lightly with mayonnaise and perhaps a little celery on a toasted buttered bun. There are lobster roll partisans, naturally, who prefer the Connecticut style, served warm with drawn butter, but I’m from Boston which is mayonnaise territory, and where even the addition of a few herbs can be considered fancy.

When a sandwich finally emerged from the kitchen, I could see it was the size of a baby’s foot and snuggled between a handful of overcooked fries and 3 small wedges of lettuce. At this sight, the french foursome ahead of me left their place in the line, declaring that the frites were too fried.

The rest of the lingering crowd remained eager and jovial, even when owner Mathieu Mercier announced to those waiting that they had run out of over-cooked fries and were substituting Tyrell's potato chips. The crowd remained, spirits and armpits slightly dampened, but still hopeful. However, when Mercier returned thirty minutes later to announce that they were also out of lobster,  all hell broke loose. The French couple behind me were furious, declaring that Mercier should have known better and turned people away much sooner rather than let them stand there for over an hour. The rest of us shuffled out around 3pm, too late to get lunch anywhere else.

If I hadn't been assigned to review this restaurant, I can assure you I would never have returned after the first experience of leaving hangry (hungry+angry). But I was. And so I steeled myself for a return like the heroic eater that I am.

This is the tale of two lobster rolls. The first, as described above, was a horror show. The second, a mild redemption story.

Rillettes d'ormeaux (abalone) served as a starter

Rillettes d'ormeaux (abalone) served as a starter

On second go-round, we were seated within a few a minutes at a table by the fun and funny waitress. This late weekday lunch offered us the opportunity to see that the quirks were mostly worked out, with the sweltering room being noticeably the same. The feverish feeling subsided with a cool glass of Sancerre and our starter of a small dish of rillettes d’ormeaux, a pleasant enough paste of abalone with a zip of fresh lemon served with bread. The lobster rolls arrived shortly thereafter.

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that foods from different cultures are transmuted as they are transported. Quality and price generally suffer at the expense of novelty. This is nothing new and happens worldwide.  I generally find the current French fascination with all foods American (cupcakes, burgers, Tex-Mex) to be amusing and fun. But for me, there’s something about the lobster roll that's so representative of my home state that to see it done poorly would be a personal affront.

The signature dish a Lobster Bar

The signature dish a Lobster Bar

It wasn’t awful by any means. It just wasn’t what I am used to. I applaud the owner for his careful sourcing of local, French ingredients. In theory, I like the idea of using all-locally sourced products to recreate this foreign food. In reality, I found my expectations and desire for the real thing to be so high that I walked away slightly puzzled. Inherently, the flesh of the Brittany lobster has a different, chewier texture and a more pronounced sweetness. Beautiful pieces of chilled meat, where you could see the outline of the claw itself were larger and chunkier than I normally see. It was a welcome change. The sweet white roll however was another story. Even filled with claw meat, slightly soggy sweet bread just wasn’t gonna cut it. Here a slight but powerful smear of tarragon infused mayo on the inside of the bun takes the place of the traditional dressing somewhat to the detriment of the super fresh lobster.

As I took my lobster roll in hand and shoved it into my mouth like a hot dog, I became aware of the fact that I was the only one using my hands. Everyone else was daintily and preciously cutting up their roll with silverware. The delightful custom designed wet-naps sit on the table unused--a curious decoration.

If neither price (a lobster roll, which is the only dish on the menu, runs 26€ with fries and salad) nor authenticity were considerations, it wasn’t terrible. Truly. I had a nice meal. The flavors were strong and simple. The food arrived quickly. The mustard dressing had real zing and spiciness on the greens. The brownie we finished with was excellent--deep, dark with a rich cocoa flavor and served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

But Lobster Bar is serving nothing that compares to the lobster roll of my youth, or to the rolls that Mercier encountered along the Maine seacoast as a teen. I can’t recommend the place for anyone with knowledge of what an actual East Coast lobster roll can taste like. There’s something about consuming it in such a chic environment that takes away from the beauty of the lobster roll, which at its best is simply a crisp, warm buttery roll filled with cool, sweet salad, held in hand and shoved in face. I can, however, recommend it for the fashion set who might like to see and be seen in a beautiful space without consuming much.

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For practical information, including the address and hours, plus links to other trusted reviews, see the page on Lobster Bar in Our Guide to Paris Restaurants.

Originally published on Paris by Mouth


Paris by Mouth: Eating Oysters in Paris

by Catherine Down


In a half shell, here's everything you need to know about buying, ordering, and eating oysters in Paris

Oyster Season:

Oysters are in season (i.e. available and excellent) during any month that has an R in it (September-April), but you're not likely to see the best on menus until October. Oysters naturally spawn in April and will spend the summer fattening up their plump little selves, plus you're less likely to have bacterial issues with oysters in the chilly winter months. They feature  prominently in celebrations for Christmas and New Year's - roughly half of all oysters eaten in France will be slurped up between these two holidays.

Read more on Paris By Mouth


Paris by Mouth: Ordering Coffee in Paris

by Catherine Down


It can be a struggle to decipher the coffee menu before you’ve actually had your coffee. We get it. Want to understand just what exactly you are ordering at your neighborhood café? Or fancy specialty coffee shop?

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What You’ll Find at Every Corner Café:

Many places won’t even bring you a coffee menu because there is so little variation among these options:

  • Café/Café Noir/Espresso/Express: A shot of espresso, often very dark and bitter
  • Café Allongé: Espresso diluted with water
  • Double/Double express: A double shot of espresso
  • Filtré: Filtered coffee, also known as café américain. It will not be refilled, except if you go to Sugarplum Cake Shop.
  • Noisette: An espresso with a spot of cream. It derives its name from the French word for hazelnut because of its color.
  • Café crème/Cappuccino/Café Latte: Milky coffee, plain and simple. Your average café will rarely differentiate between any of the terms. These drinks will be espresso-based with a large proportion of milk, and the milk at your average place will be sterilized, shelf-stable, and slightly chalky. The price will be more expensive than an espresso. Cappuccinos typically cost slightly more than a café crème, will taste generally the same, and often come with cocoa powder or whipped cream on top. We’ve never seen a Parisian order one. It’s popular among visitors, and priced accordingly.

Read more on Paris by Mouth


Paris by Mouth: Beyond the Hotel Bar

by Catherine Down


“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares, if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars,” –Ernest Hemingway

Serious cocktail snobs, beautiful bobos, eager expats, and beer geeks alike are buzzing around the octagonal bar at Le Mary Celeste on a weekday night. Bright, airy, young, and fun, the bar is the hub around which the restaurant itself is organized.

I could just as easily come for chef Haan Palcu-Chang’s globe-trotting small plates like tamarind soaked endives as I would for Le Nord Sud, a tangy-sweet drink that combines apple brandy from Normandy with dry Spanish sherry, lemon juice and a homemade grenadine leagues above the radioactive red syrup you commonly find in a Shirley Temple. There’s a freedom and flexibility to ordering international small plates that was not easy to find in Paris until recently. Combined with an equal opportunity beverage program (fine wine, beer and cocktails) and staff who are seriously professional without being too serious, and you have a triple treat on your hands. It’s a harbinger for the revitalized craft cocktail movement in Paris.

Pisco Punch at Fish Club. Photo by Catherine Down.

Pisco Punch at Fish Club. Photo by Catherine Down.

Craft cocktails are made from fresh ingredients, conscientiously sourced products, thoughtfully prepared and served with special attention to glassware and garnish. They demand preparation and presentation that go beyond the slapdash cocktails available at your standard bar.

In direct contrast to the expensive, old, heavy-drinking hotel bars that were the only Parisian cocktail scene for decades, and the dark and claustrophobic speakeasies that have swept the city more recently, Le Mary Celeste is light, open, casual, and in a word, accessible. To be sure, it doesn’t feel particularly Parisian. If anything, it comes off as très Brooklyn, the New York City borough where one can’t throw a rock without hitting a suspendered bartender. You could just as easily be in Cobble Hill as the Marais, but that’s just the point. Paris has finally caught up with cocktail mad cities like New York and London in terms of creating world-class cocktails by embracing worldly flavors and influences, ones that lack clearly defined geographic or ethnic boundaries.

Read more on Paris by Mouth


Huffington Post: The Kindness of Strangers

by Catherine Down


The kindness of strangers. It's overwhelming. I'm seeing it in all the photos from the marathon, and hearing about it from friends back home, and I'm feeling it here in Paris.

I special ordered some tortillas last night from a woman who makes them in her apartment building. When I was there, I was explaining how they were for a friend who I was seeing that evening, how he is from Boston and it's his birthday. I wanted to bring him something that might taste like home.

I mean, don't even get me started on the Mexican food in Boston. It's terrible. But somehow tacos taste like America and it seemed like the right thing to do.

Read more on Huffington Post