Dining Recap- Paris and London

I spent eight nights across the pond this October, and as you might imagine, I planned our days around the best and most authentic restaurants I could find in both Paris and London. I will highlight my two favorite meals in each city with vivid detail, but beforehand I thought I’d post a few pictures and notes at some other establishments that I also highly recommend.

PARIS

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Lauderee- Famous for its pastries, specifically macaroons, we enjoyed quite a nice lunch outside on the Champs Elysees. I opted for the roast duck which was quite good.

IMG_2952Chez Andre- Staying in the 8th Arrondisement close to our hotel on our first night in Paris, we were quite pleased with the food and service at this lively bistro, and were lucky to sit outside on the street again as the weather was uncharacteristically warm. I ordered foie gras and the loin of lamb with a nice Cotes du Rhone.

IMG_3038Le Precope- This is the oldest cafe in Paris, perfect for a long, leisurely lunch featuring authentic French classics and offering reasonable prices. I couldn’t pass up the Coq Au Vin, a rooster stew cooked with potatoes in a thick broth. It came out in a giant pot, and was to die for.

IMG_3102Au Pied de Cochon- Another famous bistro, the name of this restaurant literally means “the foot of the pig.” While I didn’t feel like being quite that adventurous, I did order a shin of pork, which was tender and gamey pink meat and quite a change of pace. Beforehand, we both enjoyed some of the best onion soup we’ve ever tasted.

IMG_3269La Petite Chaise- We enjoyed perhaps the best service we had anywhere in Paris at the bistro level, as our friendly waiters welcomed us early into this country style dining room. I ordered a rabbit loin in a cream sauce from a very reasonably priced three course prix fixe dinner menu.

The Top Two Meals in Paris:

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PIERRE GAGNAIRE

My choice for our most extravagant meal of the trip went to this lovely, modern French restaurant which sits just off the Champs Elysee in the Hotel Balzac. They offer a lunch tasting menu for 105 Euros, which seemed a bit more reasonable than some of the 250-plus Euro dinner tasting menus at other highly acclaimed establishments such as Le Cinq or L’Astrance. Still, Pierre Gagnaire boasts three Michelin stars and is the most highly ranked restaurant in Paris (#9 in the world in 2009, down from #3 in 2008, but we won’t get too picky).

As with any restaurant in this category, the service was virtually flawless. This was probably the only place at which we ate that I didn’t even attempt to speak French, as the waiters were fluent in English and more than happy to speak to us that way for the duration of the meal. The timing of the courses was executed to perfection, and we even enjoyed friendly conversation with our extensive wait staff; everything about the experience reminded us of the down-t0-earth but strictly professional attitude of the staff at our favorite restaurant, Gary Danko in San Francisco. Added benefits included meeting the proprietor Gagnaire himself, as well as getting a tour of the kitchen.

We began with a complex combination of amuse bouches, including a turnip ice cream in horseradish sauce, lobster, cucumber jelly with cod, infusion of leek and veal liver, and clams. The presentation was immaculate, and we followed the instruction to eat these appetizers in the proper order. All were amazing (below).

IMG_3295Our primary appetizer was an exquisite mushroom pasta with mussels. This initially disappointed me when I saw the menu, but the incredible concentration and balance of flavors in this dish rendered that reaction absurd.

IMG_3297The main course consisted of four perfectly cooked pieces of pork loin. Two of these pieces were light meat and tasted like the juiciest, most intensely flavored pork chop ever created, while the other two were darker and more tender, with a gamey nuance that I preferred above the lighter cut. I would come to learn that the lighter piece came from a French pig, while the darker cut was that of a Spanish pig- very interesting indeed! The meat was drizzled in a hazelnut sauce and accompanied by eggplant cannelloni and a red onion marmalade. On the side, a rich black pudding added additional complexities, and just as had been the case throughout the entire meal, I noticed an intense amount of focus on the balance between flavors.

IMG_3300As is often the case at the end of meals like these, the desserts seem to never end, and I rarely have the energy to take too many mental notes on them, and instead try to enjoy them for what they are. Simply said, the final three desserts posted below were mind-blowing, and finished the meal on a perfect note as we made our way through a St. Emilion Bordeaux and soaked up the elegant atmosphere of this fantastic restaurant.

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ALLARD

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While this tiny bistro which is tucked away off the beaten path behind the Notre Dame is certainly not in the same league as Pierre Gagnaire, this was easily my favorite of our many experiences with authentic old French cuisine. For lunch, they offer a 22 Euro two course menu that is plenty substantial and solely based on French classics. I loved the ambiance of this place, as diners walk right through the bursting aromas of the small kitchen area on the way to the very tiny but unique dining room. The service was quite polite and attentive as the staff tolerated my limited French-speaking abilities, and the food was out of this world.

I considered this to be the most truly authentic French menu I saw during my trip, and that being the case, I decided to go all out. For an appetizer, I ordered escargots, which arrived at the table steaming hot in a delicious pesto sauce.

IMG_3221The two main course specials of the day were both classic French dishes, Cassoulet Toulousain and Boeuf Bourguignon, and we each ordered one for our entrees. The Cassoulet, a rich stew of goose and duck meat and fava beans, arrived in a scalding cauldron, and was loaded with flavor. The Boeuf was as tender and flavorful as could be, like an immaculate pot roast. This was real French food without any frills.

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LONDON

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Porter’s English Restaurant- We went here for lunch on our first full day to get a feel for what real “British” cuisine really tastes like. Porter’s is famous for their pies, so I ordered one stuffed with steak, mushroom and Guinness, and ordered a pint of the latter for good measure. An Englishman nearby was able to talk my adventurous wife into ordering the ham pudding, which she enjoyed, but found very odd. It was all quite tasty and the portions were large for the reasonable price (about 10 pounds for each entree).

The Library at The Rubens at the Palace- We ate dinner here at our hotel’s fine dining room and were very pleased by the quality of the food and the service. After starting with a divine appetizer of red mullet, we both tried the sea bass entree (below), which was rich, lemony and cooked to perfection with just the right amount of crispiness on top.

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Fifteen- We made our way up to the Shoreditch neighborhood for dinner with a friend at this well-known foodie favorite, and ate in the restaurant’s Trattoria. My three course meal was delicious, as I started with a shaved pork appetizer before moving on to a delicious lamb ravioli and a crispy, flavorful belly of pork. We had such a good time that we forgot to take pictures, but this place is highly recommended, as the price is reasonable as well (about 10-15 pounds of appetizers and primi, about 20 pounds for secondi).

The Top Two Meals In London:

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ST. JOHN

Chef Fergus Henderson has been highly acclaimed for encouraging the offal movement and the use of all animal parts through a method he describes as “nose to tail cooking.” If this sounds scary, just close your eyes and take in the exquisite smells of this place as you walk up the stairs to the warehouse-like minimalism of the dining room, and your fears will dissipate in a matter of seconds. The restaurant is small but bustling for dinner, and the kitchen sits within plain view of the diners (we were witness to a a full suckling pig on the barbie, as you can see in the distance of the picture above). A foodie friend of ours joined us and we had a great time experimenting with new foods. Be warned: while there are a few “normal” dishes on the menu each night, if you aren’t in a little bit of an adventurous mood when you arrive, you should probably turn around. However, if you take pleasure in indulging in cutting edge, innovative cooking, the experience here, complete with fantastic and efficient service, is highly recommended. Reservations begin from four weeks prior to your dinner date, and they fill up fast since the buzz is at an all-time high for this restaurant after it was elevated to the #14 ranked restaurant in the world for 2009. Prices are reasonable as well, running from about 10-15 pounds for appetizers and 20-30 pounds for entrees. The menu changes daily.

The roast bone marrow course here is legendary, so we ordered one for the table to share (below). I had never tasted such a thing, but interestingly enough it tasted about how I expected it would, rich, creamy and milky with an almost nutty, tapioca flavor lingering long. It made for a great pre-appetizer for us, although my wife was too afraid to touch it.

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For our appetizers, my wife kept it safe and ordered the shrimp salad, which she found to be just average. I went in between and had the crabmeat on toast, which came out as a huge portion and was shockingly rich, salty and difficult to finish in one sitting (below, top). My friend hit it out of the park with his appetizer, the rabbit offal (below, bottom), which sounded scary, but was really mostly liver and was outstanding (thankfully, I was able to share a few bites!)

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The highlight of my meal was my main course, the venison with beetroot, which was prepared completely differently than any venison I have ever tasted. It seemed almost dry aged, with an intensity of flavor that was incredible; it took me what seemed like forever to finish my four delectable pieces. The finish of the peppery spice went on for minutes and was truly amazing. My friend went with the grouse, a full roasted bird with a gamey flavor that was also unlike anything I was previously familiar with. My wife ordered the plaice fish with chips and tartare sauce, and was of the opinion that she might as well try fish and chips at one of the world’s best restaurants. All of us were very pleased with out selections. I didn’t eat much dessert because I wanted the flavor of my venison to stay in my mouth until I went to sleep and had to brush my teeth!

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MAZE

IMG_3865This was probably my favorite meal of the entire trip from the standpoint of ambiance and pure overall quality of food. The restaurant features Chef Jason Atherton’s small but focused tapas style dishes, and everything I tasted here blew me away. The room itself is very upbeat and chic, with its darkly lit dining room adjacent to a large marble bar. Unfortunately, the service at Maze left a bit to be desired. This is one of those restaurants where you never know exactly who your waiter is, and between the five or six different servers that attended to us, it was quite clear that there was a breakdown somewhere in the communication process. All of our food arrived, but the lack of smoothness from beginning to end made it difficult to relax at times. I suppose this is what kept the restaurant down at a still impressive #91 in the world this year, because from the standpoint of the cuisine itself, this might have been the best meal I had in all of 2009. Maze is still relatively new, so I’m hoping they will work out the kinks, and either way, I would definitely return. Aside from the six course chef’s tasting menu for 60 pounds, Maze offers appetizers a la carte for 9-10 pounds each and entrees for 10-13 pounds each. Given that the price difference in ordering five courses doesn’t differ much from the tasting menu option, we decided we would rather be more flexible, and ordered a la carte.

Between my wife and I and the couple we dined with, we ordered way too many courses to cover completely, so I’ll try to focus on what I had to eat. I began with a Jerusalem artichoke veloute soup with duck ragout and Lincolnshire field mushrooms on olive toast. I was stunned by the complexities and foaminess of the soup.

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For my next course, I ordered the roasted sea scallops with textures of apples, butterscotch and bacon. I am a enormous fan of scallops, so it is no small deal when I say that this was probably the best scallop dish I have ever had anywhere. When I cook scallops I always attempt to balance the texture of the course with sweet flavors, and the preparation used here was an essay in that regard.

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Moving on, I couldn’t pass on the Cornish red mullet with cuttlefish garlic puree and rabbit bolognese. Yes, I said fish with rabbit bolognese. Self-explanatory I think.

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An intriguing menu option that caught my eye was the Scottish red-leg partridge with cob nuts in haggis sauce. Lightly gamey, tender and juicy, this really hit the spot.

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As good as all of that was, the clear highlight of my meal was my last entree, the Cornish lamb and tongue with salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie and mint jelly. The lamb chop was thick, juicy and bursting with flavor and balance, but I would argue that the shepherd’s pie actually stole the show, and I didn’t think that was even possible–but I suppose that is what happens when you make shepherd’s pie with lamb meat at one of the world’s greatest restaurants.

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