Have Fork, Will Travel
Le Nouveaux Mexique
A Duke City food critic in the land of milk and butter
An Albuquerquean foodie visiting Paris for the first time could find himself justifiably intimidated by the city’s fabled cuisine. If that’s you, I suggest you begin with a visit to one of the many restaurants in Paris that belong to the chain called “Indiana Café.”
But let me be clear: Do not eat there. This is only for educational purposes.
Hunger pangs in Paris are a precious commodity that can’t be squandered. I only brought you here so you could gaze in confusion at the “Tex-Mex” menu, replete with burritos, nachos, enchiladas and fajitas. Walk inside and view artwork depicting noble and stoic Indians doing their thing, often on horseback, and you’ll begin to understand why a restaurant called “Indiana” tries to serve “Tex-Mex” food, with appalling success.
My hunch that Paris might not be the place to find a kick-ass bowl of posole or green chile was supported by a trip to El Chuncho, a humble-looking place in the Latin Quarter. I gave El Chuncho a shot because the menu advertised things like barbacoa, turkey in mole sauce, “Aztec tamal,” and perhaps most enticingly: the “Las Fajitas” plate that came with “red and green chili sauce.”
The interior was adorned with Mexican blankets, old leather cowboy hats, chaps and saddles, a lariat, some fire-blackened kettles, and a picture of Pancho Villa. The place was packed, which is hard to believe considering how disappointing the food was. But as I learned at the Indiana Café, it’s the image of cowboys and Indians that sells Southwestern food in Paris, not the food itself. The barbacoa was a rump steak with onions and bell peppers, not the slow-cooked beef cheeks we expected. The tamal wasn’t available, and neither, apparently, were the red and green sauces that were supposed to drench Las Fajitas. Gobby flour tortillas came in a familiar-looking tortilla warmer, but they weren’t warm and had obviously spent too much time in a plastic bag. The pico de gallo was little more than chopped tomatoes. And the coup disgrace: Doritos instead of corn chips.
At least the mole was OK. Though it was clearly from a can, at least it was real. The drinks represented better than the food—a Margarita had the right equation of sour, sweet, salt and tequila, and the Sangria was wonderfully fruity and perfumy. But what the heck was Sangria doing on the menu?
While the lameness of Southwestern food in France may be cause for a little smug satisfaction here at home, it’s hardly much of a surprise. So here’s a shocker: In many cases, Albuquerque has better French food than Paris.
To be sure, I had some incredible French meals that romanced my taste buds and challenged my imagination with dishes I’d never heard of. But in terms of classic dishes—many of which are stubbornly ubiquitous on Paris menus— I was unable to find sole meunière, beef bourgogne or a crepe that surpassed what I’ve eaten at Café Jean Pierre in Albuquerque, in terms of both flavor and presentation. So, bravo to you, JP.
Perhaps the most intriguing line of inquiry, in terms of the Paris/Albuquerque connection, can be found in a bowl of pho. Few cities outside of Vietnam boast the Vietnamese population and caliber of Vietnamese food that Albuquerque does—and Paris is one of them. France, theoretically, could have a leg up on the rest of the world in terms of Vietnamese cuisine because, thanks to the French colonization of Vietnam, Vietnamese food has a lot of French influences. The very national dish of Vietnam, pho, is thought to have been influenced by the French pot-au-feu. Feu, pronounced kind of like pho, means fire. And one of the best things about pho is the sweat-jerking effect it has on a hot day. Fighting fire with fire, pho cools you down.
Here’s a shocker: In many cases, Albuquerque has better French food than Paris.
Since French food helped inspire Vietnamese food, I was curious what Vietnamese food transplanted in France would look like. Would the mixing of French and Asian influences persist? Would the evolution of Vietnamese food continue?
There’s no shortage of restaurants advertising pho and Vietnamese cuisine. But many of them also sell Chinese, Thai and Japanese food as well. My first attempt at one such pan-Asian restaurant, called Rose of Summerard, was a major whiff. My small bowl of “faux” had no herb salad and contained only noodles, some off-tasting slices of beef and a few slivers of basil floating in it. That I ever ordered another bowl of pho in Paris is a miracle.
I’m glad I did. Next came a decent bowl at Chex Trang, a Vietnamese-only restaurant near the Bastille. The bowl was big, with tasty meatballs and sliced cooked beef. The hoisin sauce was homemade, the herb salad big. In an interesting contrast to Albuquerque, not once in Paris was I ever given the option to choose what beef parts ended up in my bowl, and not once was I given tendon.
My next bowl came at Muraille de Jade, in St. Germain de Pres. It was one of the more fragrant bowls of pho I’ve had, heavy on cinnamon and anise, and the side salad came with saw leaf, mint, lemon and a spicy red chile that the waitress cut up for me at the table. Basil leaves had already been added to the soup. Muraille de Jade, though primarily a Vietnamese restaurant, also serves a few Thai dishes on the menu, including one of the best bowls of tom yum I’ve had and a green papaya salad with amazing grilled shrimp. I also tried the “Vietnamese Fondue,” which turned out to be mixed seafood and veggies in a mild, clear broth. This was disappointing, given the name—I thought I was finally going to get some Parisian Franco-Indochine fusion.
While the cream, milk, butter and cheese typical of French food was absent, more coconut milk was in use than what we usually see in Vietnamese food—as if the chef was attempting, Asian-style, to appeal to the cream-craving French palate.
I found what I consider the crème de la crème of Paris Vietnamese restaurants in the Le Fooding guide (see last week’s column): a tiny restaurant called Le Palanquin.
Tiny might be an understatement—I’ve seen closets that are bigger than the dining room. It had the warm, cozy feeling of a French bistro, the soft murmurs of diners muffled by walls painted warmly in red and orange. My water came in a salmon-colored recycled wine bottle.
With the exception of an extensive list of wines, aperitifs and digestifs, the food didn’t show any overtly French influences. But the overall experience reflected French sensibilities. The plating was beautiful. The service was elegant, attentive and proud. And while the cream, milk, butter and cheese typical of French food was absent, more coconut milk was in use than what we usually see in Vietnamese food—as if the chef was attempting, Asian-style, to appeal to the cream-craving French palate. The mildly spicy house soup, with grilled shrimp and sweet barbecued pork, had coconut milk, as did a dish of pork with lemongrass that was slightly pungent with ginger and bamboo shoots.
The pho, as is often the case in Parisian menus, was subtitled “Tonkinese soup,” after the Tonkin region in North Vietnam that’s considered the birthplace of pho. At Le Palanquin, the pho did not come with a side salad, only a lime wedge. The chef, taking control as French chefs are wont to do, had already added bean sprouts, cilantro and mint. There was no basil.
The presentation was gorgeous. Raw slices of beef had been folded into what looked like roses floating in the bowl. That beef turned out to be the creamiest, most tender and most fresh-tasting I’d ever had in pho. Spices in the broth were perfectly balanced to blend seamlessly, and among the added green herbs the mint was dominant. The noodles were wide and flat, and the hot paste I requested was homemade, and it meant business. I was sweating and happy.
Vivien Soneaud, the boisterous son of Chef/Owner Isabelle Soneaud, is an ethnic Vietnamese born in France. While being clear that his mother is one of the best cooks in Paris, he was eager to tell me about some of his other favorite eateries, like “Hide” (“hee-day”), a Japanese/French fusion restaurant where he goes “when I want to eat some fuckin’ foie gras—I get the appetizer and main course.” Vivien says Bangkok is his favorite city in the world for eating. And having spent some time in California, he has strong words for the Mexican food available in Paris.
“Whatever you do, don’t go to Indiana Café,” he said. “It’s crazy. They use no seasonings. But people are filling up those restaurants to eat shit, and they’re doing very well.”