Friday, May 23, 2014

How to Avoid a Bad Meal in Paris

It's easy to find a great meal in Paris. It's also easy to eat a bad one. Surprised? So was I. But after one too many soggy croque monsieurs and stomach turning plates of confit de canard (a personal favorite when it's done right), I started to get suspicious. What was going on in those well-hidden kitchens? Was French cuisine not all I had imagined it to be?
                                                                       What's going on back in the kitchen?
You see, I'd long nursed a fantasy about French food. The ingredients were always fresh and seasonal, the chefs well-trained and meticulous in their methods. Alas, non. There's a dirty little secret hiding in many Paris cuisines: the food often isn't prepared fresh by a trained chef at all. It can be pre-made en masse then frozen and delivered in bags to restaurants and cafes all over the city. That tough-as-cardboard blanquette de veau? Most likely defrosted and slid onto your plate. How about that dry pave de saumon au beurre blanc? Boiled in a bag, I can almost guarantee it. Concerns about restaurant quality have even sparked a movement to publicly identify restaurants where meals are indeed prepared on site. But until that leads to a foodie revolution (or at least some helpful signs in restaurant windows), here are a few tips to help you avoid a bad meal in Paris.

                                                                  Keeping it simple: scrambled eggs & salad.

Check the menu. A restaurant's menu offers your best clue whether your meal was cooked by an actual live chef. If it's long (like multiple laminated pages) and looks like it's been around since the Mitterrand era, be wary. If it looks like the same menu you saw at the cafe down the street, it probably is (and that supreme de volaille has been supplied by the very same mass vendor.) Yuck.

                                                                             Crispy confit, done just right.  
English spoken here. Or German. Or Dutch. You get the idea. Any resto that offers pre-printed menus in multiple languages is to be viewed with suspicion. Ditto, international flags out front (or on the menu or stickered on the windows). Worse yet, a friendly "greeter" who stands outside and invites you in to dine. You know this, right? Of course you do. But still, it bears repeating. These places can be tempting after a day of sightseeing. (Oh, he seems so friendly! And he's smiling!) But just don't do it. These restaurants may look "charming" or even seem authentically French. They're not. They're just tourist traps and the food will be awful. Trust me, you can do better.

Service continue. This is a tough one. Visitors are often surprised (and deeply frustrated) by the limited dining hours in French restaurants. Lunch is usually served from 12 noon until about three o'clock at the latest. After that, there can be precious little to be found (if you're looking for a real meal) until restaurants begin dinner service at 7:30pm. Hence, the popularity of the boulangerie sandwich or sidewalk crepe. Increasingly, however, you will find restaurants that offer "service continue." Unfortunately, the food is often lacking. The reasons are obvious. If there's a trained chef working the kitchen, he or she needs a break after lunch to eat, rest and prepare for dinner. If it just needs to be thawed and plated, why anyone can do that! Opt for a crepe to tide you over and eat like the locals do at 8:30 or 9 o'clock.
                                                Salad with foie gras and artichoke hearts. Yum.

Look for a chalkboard. A chalkboard menu says two things: 1) The menu changes often and seasonally, reflecting what was fresh at the market that day, and 2) Someone took the time to develop the offerings and will likely present them to you with care. Now, not all chalkboard menus are created equal. I'm not talking here about the enormous printed chalkboards you find tented on sidewalks outside cafes. I'm referring to the little ones (that are often barely legible) propped up on your table by a server who knows their stuff. Brevity is your friend here. I always trust a menu with just a few items. Maybe three entree, plat and dessert selections each. The longer the menu, the more suspicious I get. A chalkboard menu won't guarantee you a great meal, but it does increase your chances.

Famous sights and excellent food don't mix. If there's one thing you should almost never, ever do, it's eat in a restaurant adjacent to a world-famous monument. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule (Le Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower being the most obvious) but generally speaking, it's a bad idea. Seek out your dining experiences in the lesser known parts of the city. Young, exciting chefs in Paris are opening restaurants away from the sky-high rents in the most visited areas. Get off the beaten path and try a little neighborhood gem. And if you must eat as you gaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, opt for dessert. After all, even mediocre mousse au chocolat is still pretty delicious.

                                                       Fondant au chocolat...with warm, oozing center. Divine!


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