Of all the restaurant reservations we had in Paris, Le Chateaubriand was the hardest to get, and the one I was most looking forward to. It’s the darling du jour in the food world: Anthony Bourdain called Basque chef Iñaki Aizpitarte a “genius” on “No Reservations”; any Paris article from the New York Times in the last year mentioned it in the first few sentences; and the restaurant was ranked 11th in the world in 2010 (skyrocketing up from 40th the year before), beating New York’s Le Bernardin (15) and (say what?) Napa’s the French Laundry (32). Adding to the fever pitch was the general consensus that Chef Aizpitarte is part of a new food movement among French chefs who are looking to cook Michelin star–quality food, but in a relaxed bistro environment. We were reserved for the first night we arrived. And then it started to snow in Paris. And then the airport started canceling flights. And, yes, then our flight—sob—from Los Angeles.
As I mentioned, living in Italy for three years made me captain of Team Olive Oil, not Team Butter, so I wanted to seek out some experts to give me a crash course on Parisian food 101. Enter Context Travel, a collection of specialists in food, architecture, history, and culture who lead groups on walking tours throughout Europe (and a few U.S. cities, too). We were paired up with local food writer Barbra Austin, who had cooked at NYC’s Prune, among other places, and made the move to Paris to pursue pastry studies. From the Seine, we traveled south on the posh Rue du Bac toward edible temptation.
Just as Taillevent lost its third Michelin star in 2007, so did Le Cinq, the 10-year-old crown jewel at the Four Seasons George V hotel. A few Paris insiders told me they thought the food had declined recently. In fact, in the months leading up to this trip I’d heard about a movement by young French chefs who were trading Michelin Guide ratings and hard-wired traditions for (arguably) equally great food served in a more relaxed environment; perhaps it was having its effect. Plus, given the economy, how many people are putting places like Taillevent and Le Cinq in their restaurant rotation? But enough chitchat; let’s eat!
If you think I’m foodcentric, you should meet my family. Discussions about where we should eat in Paris and who would make the reservation went on for months beforehand. Some woke up at ungodly hours to catch a hostess who would (maybe) answer the line before service started. Some wrote countless emails to hotel concierges. But, finally, here we were on Christmas Eve (just barely, after flight cancellations due to snow) and we would enjoy our first proper French dinner.