29 January 2014

why we dine out: come a casa, 75011

I still read Pitchfork. But since it now takes less time to download albums than it does to parse reviews, I usually just peek at the point score and make the call myself. I find it's a good way to avoid the publication's increasingly boosterish take on certain handpicked darling bands, a trend that began with Deerhunter and has reached self-parodical peaks with coverage of Savages and Perfect Pussy.*

This past December, Pitchfork cited Perfect Pussy's slight 4-song demo as among the Honorable Mentions for Albums of the Year. When I played it for my friend C, a young gallerist from New Zealand, she wrinkled her nose. "Yeah Bikini Kill blah blah blah, we've heard this before." We agreed that Pitchfork was having an NME moment, a paroxysm of hyperbolic hype about something totally unproven, deriving from the writerly impulse to say things messianically.

Editors are supposed to throw cold water on that sort of thing. The task is arguably more important in food and wine journalism, since readers can't (yet) choose to simply download a meal. It always costs money and time. Quite a few Paris food writers recently had their own NME moments over a shoe-sized Tuscan restaurant by Voltaire called Come a Casa. I duly dined there and came away slightly disappointed - not by the meal, which was basically as advertised, but by Paris food writing.

27 January 2014

feed the captives: freddie's deli, 75011

One of my pet causes is holding writers accountable for use of the words 'hipster' and 'bobo.' Both words are blanket terms that absolve a writer from the responsibility of considering individual subcultures, or whatever it is that unites them at a given address. 'Bobo,' the portmanteau of 'bourgeois' and 'bohemian' that has attained an alarming currency in modern French usage, is all the more egregious for having been coined by NYTimes columnist and malign pseudo-sociological waffler David Brooks.

I mean this as preamble to a discussion of Freddie's Deli, the sandwich joint (not deli) opened last summer on a ripely disused Oberkampf side street by Kristin Frederick, the inspired marketeer behind Paris' first burger truck, Le Camion Qui Fume.

I could blame Paris' "hipsters" and "bobos" for the quasi-ironic glorification of street food that pervades culinary discussion and rewards concepts like Freddie's and Le Camion Qui Fume, which by objective standards produce pretty mediocre product. But what I'd really mean is "young people and Americans and Australians and Brits," and what these demographics share is a dearth of culinary heritage. So rather than dwelling on Frederick's slapdash appropriation of regional US sandwich themes, it seems more worthwhile to note that our attraction to them identifies us as captive victims of agro-industrialism. Sentimentality for cheesesteaks and burgers - recipe-memes that thrive under mass production systems - is our collective Stockholm Syndrome.

13 January 2014

hidden in plain sight: willi's wine bar, 75001

I should clarify by explaining that Willi's Wine Bar, the pioneering Paris wine destination founded in 1980 by British expat Mark Williamson, is only hidden to people like me. For the past four years I've worked a few blocks away from the bar, and until the other week, I'd never been tempted to step inside.

I am, it turns out unreasonably, disinclined towards restaurants known for tote bags and wine-art posters. The children's-book storefront font alone is enough to turn stomachs. Willi's, from the outside, appears to be a wine bar for people who only drink wine when they visit Paris.

Actually, it looks a lot that way from the inside as well. Williamson's decades-long indifference to cool is reflected in the clientele, which I'd wager consists primarily of Paris' least-informed Anglophone tourists and expats, family vacations and business trips whose organisers may have breezed, once, through a Lonely Planet guide from 1997. So upon finally dining at Willi's the other night, I was fairly gobsmacked to discover that Willi's' regulars are, if anything, more informed than me. All this time they've been enjoying, in a friendly, unfussy environment, Paris' greatest Rhône list.

07 January 2014

native success story: pierre sang in oberkampf, 75011

The social media trajectory of Newsweek journalist Janine di Giovanni's recent France-bashing has been far more interesting than the article itself, which was basically a list of right-wing talking points disguised in a beret. Many otherwise liberal friends shared the piece on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps before reading it all the way though. A day later the French press reacted with predictably pedantic and humorless outrage. (Le Monde went so far as to explain the French etymology of the word "entrepreneur," having completely missed the gist of the cliché di Giovanni quoted.) Now the same friends who shared the article in the first place are sharing its rebuttals, having belatedly recognized the article's utter vacuity.

There are two jokes embedded in the kerfuffle surrounding di Giovanni's article. The first is that no one ever reads Newsweek. The second is that French people and expats living in France are utterly irrelevant to the agenda behind the piece, which would appear to be deregulation and further demonization of social security in the USA.

If we nonetheless get roped into the discussion, it's because, by golly, there does seem to be something fundamentally unworldly about contemporary French culture. A journalist like Janine di Giovanni can airily declare that France is prone to navel-gazing, and most expats here - myself included - will instinctively think, "Right on!," only later remembering to scan for rational argumentation, factual accuracy, journalistic scruples, etc. Partly this is what every foreigner living in a foreign land feels, because in traveling to said foreign land one has necessarily become a bit more worldly than its natives who stayed put. But partly this is the fault of self-congratulatory cultural institutions, among them the news outlets that laud restaurants like 11ème arrondissement quasi-gastro outpost Pierre Sang In Oberkampf.

02 January 2014

the decline of : la régalade, 75014, 75001, and 75010

I recently called Nicolas Lacase's 10ème Bistro Bellet "a giant defibrillator for the bistrot genre." So it behooves me to explain why I felt the bistrot genre needed resuscitation. Handily, recent visits to the three locations of chef Bruno Doucet's atrophic La Régalade empire have furnished me with exhibits A, B, and C.

The original La Régalade was founded by chef Yves Camdeborde in 1992 at the far border of the 14ème arrondissement. In its day it was ground zero for the bistronomie movement, in which disaffected young chefs were leaving Michelin-starred kitchens and opening simple bistrots where their gastronomic talents could shine at lower price points.

In America, where we tend to class eating establishments all together as restaurants, encountering gastronomy in a bistrot doesn’t scan as such a big deal. The closest American analogue to the shock of “bistronomie” in French culture is probably that moment in the mid-2000’s when, in certain US cities, it became possible to dine very well from food trucks. But where, just a decade on, most savvy diners I know have all grown quite tired of food trucks (except when drunk), Paris after two decades continues to unthinkingly congratulate any classically-trained chef who deigns to cook without the aid of chandeliers. (C.f. the overrated Restaurant Pierre Sang Boyer in Oberkampf.) The still-successful La Régalade restaurants, collectively, comprise the sacred cow of a bistronomie nostalgia cult, whose membership includes throngs of uncritical diners as well as most of the city's established food critics.

So let's get the knives out, shall we ?