Travels with Bittman

A guide to Paris, by the bistro.

Chris Gall

Travels with Bittman

A guide to Paris, by the bistro.

My wife Jessica and I brought Mark Bittman with us on our 25th wedding anniversary trip to Paris. In case you don’t know Bittman, he is The New York Times food critic who also makes three-minute cooking videos you can watch online.

His unruffled calm and optimism even once got me—a non-recipe-follower—to attempt coffee-braised short ribs. My version could have lit up the Eastern Seaboard for a week. But it was okay. Bittman would have smiled and continued dining, like I did. It doesn’t always have to be perfect.

Okay, so we didn’t bring Bittman along in body. But we did have him with us in a bit more than spirit. Last April, he wrote a column on neo-bistros in Paris. He described four in some detail and listed three runners-up.

Jessica and I decided we would have a culinary theme on our five-day return to Paris, where she had once spent a year as a graduate student in painting at the École des Beaux Arts and I had courted her while working elsewhere variously as a farmhand, a room service waiter and a tie salesman. We wouldn’t revisit the Louvre or the Rodin Museum or even l’Orangerie, where Monet’s water lilies had engulfed and dazzled us. Armed with the yellowing column, we would explore sensual pleasures of a different sort.

Staying at the Relais Christine in the 6th arrondissement, just down the quay from the École and near the Pont Neuf, which the artist Christo wrapped during our earlier time here, we were well situated for Bittman’s picks, all oriented by their walking distance from nearby Notre-Dame.

When we arrived, we asked the concierge to book us a table at Semilla, one of Bittman’s main picks. He raised his eyebrows and said we’d be very lucky to get in. Turns out we were. They had a table at 8 p.m. We then scooted off around the corner for tea at Mariage Frères. Jess ordered the afternoon tea, and as it was 5 o’clock and I am a light sleeper, I ordered the 5 o’clock tea. It was light and fragrant and washed down a madeleine and a piece of pistachio cake very well. Still, to prevent any deleterious affects on my sleep, I suggested we visit the Champagne shop across the street devoted to boutique Champagne makers, something you just won’t find anywhere else. We bought a bottle of Aspasie, a rich honeyed wine, tasting of ginger and cooked fruit. Our culinary adventure was off to a fine start, and we hadn’t even passed a mealtime yet.  

However, Semilla burst the Bittman bubble. The trendy spot’s veal tartare was too chewy. The unusual vegetables that Bittman had raved about were nowhere to be found. My bonito, which was evidently in season, would be just the third best of our visit. But all was not lost, thanks to a wonderful carafe of 2001 Mont-Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which went superbly with three ripe cheeses (Cantal, Camembert and a bleu) before a dessert of cherry clafoutis and pistachio ice cream.  

We found two of the neo-bistros closed on Sunday but stumbled on a neighborhood café, Chez Paul, in the 4th, where my duet of rascasse and bonito was worthy to take on the Bittman contenders.  The next day we called to book at Le Pantruche, in the 9th, but they could only offer us a table next to the WC, which we declined. In the three minutes it took us to reconsider, the table was gone. We decided to take our chances and kept walking. We got lucky again and smiled at each other as one of the waiters led us to a nice table for two—with no WC in sight.

My appetizer of skate (to me, the most underrated seafood), tasting of backfin crabmeat but more tender, and the veal au jus, the daily special, were worth the journey. A Grand Marnier soufflé with salted caramel sauce capped Bittman’s redemption.

We wanted to try one more of his selections, Le Sergent Recruteur, on the Île St.-Louis, on our last day. The four-course chef’s bar menu, which we ate at a marble-topped wine counter near the outdoor ice cream window, started off with a raw amberjack with cassis berries, horseradish and arugula, and finished with peaches roasted in thyme served with elderflower ice cream and raw almond slivers. Although Bittman praised everything but the food, we found the whole experience to be on par with Le Pantruche.

The bistros, brasseries and cafés were all fine, but we had also reserved an evening for Lapérouse, a classic restaurant on the Quai des Grands Augustins, where 27 years earlier we had celebrated my admission into graduate writing school. That’s a long time for a restaurant to stay in business but a drop in the bucket for this one, which was founded in 1766. We opted for the chef’s tasting menu with wines paired with each of the five courses. After several amuse-bouches, we ate foie gras, roasted octopus, lamb rubbed in cumin, cheese and strawberry soup. This grand old dame of restaurants showed an attention to detail that no bistro is geared to match.

In between the meals, we ran, of course. Our jaunts took us to the Tuilleries, Luxembourg Gardens and the Promenade Plantée, the model for New York City’s High Line. The most scenic of all was along the Left Bank of the Seine, up from the Pont Neuf, along a stretch that has been reclaimed from auto traffic and is being transformed into a revved-up pedestrian avenue complete with bars, restaurants and walkup hotel rooms in designer pods. New life after all these years.

New life after all these years.


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