Food & Travel

An American in Paris - Part I

My friend, Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, often reminisces about early morning culinary escapades following late night philandering. In the 1960's Jean-Louis was a mischievous apprentice at the majestic Plaza Athene in Paris, the images of which are often conjured up on late nights, hungry after service. With a gleam in his eyes, he recalls Gruyere crusted crocks of steamy onion soup at Le Hall's <strong >Pied de Cochon restaurant; glistening, bountiful platters of freshly netted fruit de mer at Le Coupole in the Left Bank's Montparnasse; the rich and gelatinous pied de Cochon melting in his mouth at Bofinger near the Bastille.

An invitation to meet and sample the eclectic cuisine of super-star chef Pierre Gagniere, Paris' recent St. Etienne transplant, provided the perfect opportunity (and excuse) for us to explore the new and revisit the old. In this, the first of a two-part column, we begin with the old.

The concierge assisting with our reservations cautioned that the chosen establishments were not as they were during the glorious "City of Lights" era. Changes in ownership, clientele and priorities were cited as contributors to the decline. Notwithstanding, we would see and taste this for ourselves. Each night, we awaited the stroke of Midnight before venturing out to bask and soak in the late-night "Gay Paris" atmosphere that accompanied our food and drink.

At 12 O'clock am, on a cold January night, Pied de Cochon still enjoys a 30 minute wait and a line stretching out the door and into the streets that once lined the infamous market of Les Halles. Along with Japanese tourists, well-to-do generation "X"ers and French Aristocracy clad in pink Chanel suits, we awaited our entry, as patiently as possible. Roughly the size of a city block, the enormous edifice, lit by neon pigs, held in its confines the secrets of late-night Paris. As we were seated (practically in the lap of the couple beside us), we wasted no time in ordering each of the brasserie standouts.

This fete de cholesterol et lipids would be justified to my cardiologist in the form of a promise that within 24 hours, I would be indulging in pristine, virtually unadorned shellfish of every type. Le Coupole did not disappoint.

When it comes to a plat de fruit de mer, half of the pleasure is derived from the preparation for and anticipation of its arrival. Firstly, you must choose the most expansive offerings. Next, you must make room for the tall, metal stand placed in the center of the table beneath which lie crocks of beurre, mayonnaise and mignonette. At last, an extravagant tray is lined with shimmering ice shavings before being ceremoniously topped with the bounty of the sea as the participants' ooh and ahh in unison. Several shiny instruments and utensils are provided to enhance the picking, plucking, prying and coercing of the succulent meat from the creatures' resilient shells. Along with a cold bottle of _______ we slowly and painstakingly delved into a time consuming melange of 1 Brittagn lobster, 1 spider crab virtually bursting with roe, 6 Etrille crabs, 6 Belon oysters, 6 Finci oysters, 6 clams, 6 muscles, 4 pink shrimp, 5 langostines and three large scallop shells loaded with tiny gray shrimp.

We enjoyed our late-night visits to these restaurants, and now, I too will conjure up similar images. My advise to those of you who visit these restaurants is to stick with the uncomplicated preparations, the basics that are both tried and true, for these are the finest Paris has to offer and these will rarely, if ever disappoint.

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