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.
Passage 53 was our last major reservation of the trip. We had been buttered, basted, and foie gras’d the past week and thought we had seen all the tricks. But we were about to be blown away. As mentioned, it was all hands on deck with my family making sure we found the best eateries in Paris. We sifted through magazine top 10 guides and newspaper write-ups, consulted friends, compared notes, and honed the list (you may have realized food is a blood sport in my family by now). This one came highly recommended by my brother’s colleague working in Paris: “A Japanese chef who has worked in France for many years; in one of Paris’s most charming covered galleries; one of the city’s best-kept secrets.”
Besides the fancy French landmark restaurants we had on our radar, we also hit up some good (and not so good) casual eateries in Paris. Here, two of my favorites: Le 404, a cozy Moroccan place recommended by my Paris-based friend and her Moroccan husband; and Café de l’Alma, recommended by our hotel on New Year’s Day (hair of the dog, anyone?)
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.
Nomiya, an art-meets-food installation on top of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, is one hot ticket. My sister-in-law, Yuko, had Jeopardy-button-pushing dexterity in order to secure this lunch reservation from—of all places—eBay. Availability was gone in less than a minute. Meant to be a temporary exhibit by French artist Laurent Grasso (hence the “limited-time fever”), it has been extended indefinitely: 12 strangers dining at one intimate table dangling above the Seine. It is most certainly more stunning at night, when Paris is illuminated beneath, but lunch had its artistic intrigue as well.
As mentioned, I am but one of the food-obsessed people in my family. My older brother, Matt, and his wife, Yuko, regularly explore great restaurants in Tokyo, where they live, and have come to befriend a 2-star Michelin chef there. On his recommendation, we lunched at the lovely Frederic Simonin. The easy-to-miss eatery on a side street in northwestern Paris debuted less than a year ago, but word has it that Chef Simonin—who worked at Taillevent, Le Cinq, and opened a Joël Robuchon restaurant in London—may be receiving some stars of his own soon.
If there were a high-end French chain restaurant, Joël Robuchon’s empire would be it. From Taipei to Las Vegas, Robuchon’s outlets have perfected what many foreigners have come to regard as contemporary French cuisine (though ironically he draws on Japanese simplicity as inspiration). A mentor to chefs like Eric Ripert and Gordon Ramsay, Robuchon aimed to pare down the excess of French cuisine, and offers modern menu items like dorade carpaccio and king crab and avocado salad. The décor is a blatant rejection of tradition as well: Etoile (and L’Atelier Saint-Germain, across town) are a sleek shade of black with bright accent colors.
ONE The French aren’t rude. Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I think I like the French. (Cue the gong.) I lived in Italy for three years. Let’s just say I was Team Olive Oil, not Team Butter. Plus, everyone’s heard the stories of notorious French snobbery, especially toward uncouth Americans who don’t speak the language. I was prepared for a throwdown by Day 2, but it never happened. Taxi drivers doubled as tour guides, waiters were friendly and dutifully answered any menu translation questions, and even when we stopped into cafés for a quick coffee (obvious strategy for using their bathrooms) we were welcomed.