Honestly, the real reason I went to Paris this year was that I’ve always wanted to type “April in Paris” in a dispatch from France (it’s true!), and until recently, I’d visited the City of Light only in summer, fall or winter. Never spring.
By luck, I snagged a reservation at one of the toughest tables in town, coincidentally called Spring, a divine restaurant from the American chef Daniel Rose. The evening was full of highs, and how cool that Karl Lagerfeld strolled in at one point and left behind a fashion doodle on a cocktail napkin. Yet I ended up not writing about Spring because it wasn’t new, because I wanted a break from having to recall every morsel of a meal for public consumption and, well, it’s no fun being the 410th food writer to wax poetic about a transporting dinner. (Noma, you’re no longer my reason for catching a flight to Copenhagen. Not that you need my help.)
My second reason for going to Paris was to take the temperature of the bistro scene, but here’s what a handful of fair-to-pleasant meals in some of the newer places taught me: San Francisco is a more significant place to eat, at least as far as this dedicated eater and trend watcher is concerned. Indeed, one of my most exciting meals away from Washington, better even than at some of the four-stars in New York, was at Coqueta in San Francisco. Lusty food in the company of loved ones in a waterfront setting was a reminder that while food is important, it isn’t everything.
You know how some travel experiences are so vivid you just know you’ll never, ever forget them and you decide not to take notes or even a photo because you’re trying to live in the moment? And the free-flowing pastis/mojito/pisco sour/soju is only encouraging you to relax and trust your memory?
Banish those thoughts. Put pen to paper, even if it’s the butcher paper on the table. Tap Instagram, at least for a shot or two. Believe me, I’d love to tell you more about the pig roast I went to on a little island with a sunset view of San Juan, the one where local hooch was passed around in little paper cups and everyone danced while a grizzled butcher lovingly carved a mahogany porker into at least 10 different courses. Trust me, I also knocked back some pretty good chow during a nighttime crawl of food stalls in Seoul, where one of the stops included an edible fire show served inside a tent (a learning experience despite a young guide who seemed more dedicated to teaching us drinking games than describing what was on our plates). In those and other situations, I didn’t record my impressions because I wasn’t on a deadline — or an expense account — and I didn’t want to interrupt the mood.
Still, there are plenty of meals I dutifully remembered, and described in some length here and elsewhere in the newspaper, via dining postcards sent from Atlanta, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Richmond and Wilmington over the past 12 months.
As for those cities I grazed in but didn’t tell you about? Here are some of the highlights, retrieved from my iPhone, a kimchi-fragrant business card, the margins of a hotel map — and a frequent traveling companion with a much better memory than mine.
Hands down, the most joyous meal of my year was dinner in August at the youthful Coqueta in San Francisco. A waterfront address helps. So does a corner perch in a dining room where cowhide rugs pad the floor, the ceiling goes on forever and your first taste of the menu is a big board of skewered snacks, what the Basques know as pintxos, washed back with a gin and tonic that’s so beautiful, you want to take it home as a table decoration.
Michael Chiarello is the vision behind the fiesta, which might prompt head-scratching from followers of his Italian work, foremost Bottega in Napa Valley. The veteran Bay Area chef jokingly calls his switch to Spanish “my midlife crisis.”
There’s not a single dish at Coqueta, helmed by chef de cuisine Ryan McIlwraith, that I wouldn’t be eager to eat again.
Meatballs rich with duck and pork (anything with pig demands your attention here) get jolts of flavor from tart cherries and fried shallots. Shrimp gathered with shoestring potatoes and a gently cooked egg get a little wild when mixed with their chunky chorizo dressing. A sense of whimsy infuses other dishes, including the pickled mussels nestled with shaved fennel in a little tin. “Canned fresh daily,” reads the menu. And the reason the paella, cooked to splendor over a wood-fired grill, tastes as though you’re eating it on its home turf: “We spend a lot of time on the broth,” made with ham stock, lobster shells and sofrito, Chiarello says. Come dessert, there are more pintxos, and more surprises: tomato-basil jellies in summer and bite-size manchego cheesecake anytime.
Surveying the scene, I can’t help but feel at home; the faces of some of the overseers appear familiar. Chiarello lured so much talent from Washington uber-chef Jose Andres, the Italian says that the Spaniard told him that next time, “we demand first-round draft picks.”
Coqueta is “flirt” in Spanish. If this restaurant doesn’t make your heart beat a little faster, none will.
Pier 5 (on the Embarcadero, near Broadway), San Francisco; 415-704-8866. coquetasf.com. Dinner tapas $3 to $15; entrees $20 to $38.
Le 6 Paul Bert
The perfect start to a visit to Paris in April (or anytime, really): Le 6 Paul Bert. Awash in light by day, the trim storefront from the esteemed chef Bertrand Auboyneau opens with a picnic’s worth of jams, meats and cheeses and a fetching light fixture fashioned from old wine bottles. My companion and I are led past a cozy zinc bar and a communal table to a snug spot in the rear that initially feels like Siberia but turns out to be prime real estate. What food lover wouldn’t want to watch his meal being cooked in front of him? Indeed, the open kitchen is so close, we hear every high note sung by hot oil and smile with pride as we survey the kitchen’s reading material, including the “Momofuku” cookbook on a nearby shelf. The bread, delivered in a paper bag, is wonderful, and it comes in handy as a swab for the savory dishes that follow. Happy memories are soon made of crisp mackerel with a vivid green herb puree, tender chunks of pork scattered on a creamy puree of potatoes and sunchokes and an ethereal vanilla panna cotta made refreshing with grapefruit. And the price is right: $25 for a three-course lunch that’s as beautiful as it is luscious. Our server doesn’t know the food very well (the menu changes daily), but his lack of detail turns out to be a boon: We chat up the cooks instead.
Source: Washington Post