Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Fast Food Parisian Style

For a culture that reveres “slow food”, the French are becoming very au fait with the fast kind too - and I’m not just talking about the Mcdonald’s restaurants you will find scattered all over France these days. Although long, multi-course meals are still the norm there, two “fast food” chains that are way beyond burgers are now on the scene.

The first has been around for many years and, as frequent travellers to Paris, I have to confess it is one of our favourites. L’Entrecôte de Paris has branches all over Paris, but the one we return to most is at 29 rue Marignan, literally just off the Champs Elysées (the nearest metro station is Franklin D Roosevelt). Although there are many items on the menu, the most popular is their “Formule” – a set menu of walnut salad with a beautiful vinaigrette dressing followed by steak frites – steak with thin and crispy French fries. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have eaten here but the steak is always good – delicious and tender – and cooked to order. It is served on a metal tray with tea lights underneath so that the steak and frites stay nice and hot. If you run out of the latter, you can just ask for more. However the best thing about L’Entrecôte is their buttery, mustardy sauce. Its piquant taste has been the source of endless speculation, but the recipe is still a closely guarded secret. You will often hear the request “plus de sauce s’il vous plait” (more sauce please) from happy diners – it is quite indescribably delicious.

Tables at L’Entrecôte cannot be booked, and it is not uncommon for there to be a queue. If there is, I have noticed over the years that the host or hostess always says “cinq minutes” (five minutes) when you request a table. Sometimes this standard estimate is wildly inaccurate, but it is worth the wait. However as a diner, I have never, ever felt rushed. They have a super wine list and we have happily spent over an hour here even when it has been busy without so much as a sideways look from anyone. This is French fast food at its best, and the fact they are constantly busy is testament to this.

Sadly the second of the two restaurant chains is nowhere near as good. Bistro San Ferdinand at 275 bd Péreire in the 7th arrondissement (just near the Port Maillot metro station) is one of a number of restaurants conceived by Willy Dorr where the order of the day is “tout compris” or “everything included”. For 38 Euro, you are offered an apéritif, starter, main course and dessert along with a half bottle of wine per person. The premise of this is fantastic, and very good value indeed for Paris. However the reality is disappointing. We stumbled on this version of French fast food by accident, having eaten in a restaurant in the same location some years before, and thinking we were going back to the same establishment. We were wrong.

Although the décor in this location is lovely, tables are placed even in the hallway between the main and rear dining rooms, meaning that you are being bumped into by the waiters rushing back and forth constantly. The kir apéritif (sparkling wine with blackcurrant liqueur) was very nice, and the house wine was excellent, but things went downhill from there. The starters were unremarkable and the worst thing was the main course. The chef completely ignored our requests for steaks cooked to medium, and we were presented with steaks that were very rare indeed –in fact they were practically “blue”. We sent them back to the kitchen and they returned charred on the outside, but still far too rare inside. Accompanied only by three small boiled potatoes, the plate was pretty empty, and the meat was tough and virtually inedible. We felt rushed throughout the whole meal, and the atmosphere was one of “hurry up”, both for the staff (who literally ran through the restaurant at times), and for diners. When it came time for dessert, our crêpes Suzette were plonked on the table in front of each of us, without any sauce or explanation, and tasted awful. When a flaming pot of sauce arrived we were very relieved, and they did taste better after that. On the whole it was really disappointing, and we left stressed and frazzled by our second experiment in fast food Parisian style. Not only that, but the only consideration towards our uneaten main courses was the removal of the cost of a bottle of water we had ordered from the bill! We definitely won’t be returning.

I’m not entirely sure that I would want the French to embrace fast food too enthusiastically as part of the reason we travel there is to experience the marvelous cuisine and long, relaxing meals. L’Entrecôte is a wonderful bridge between the fast food of the well-known chains and the traditional Parisian eating experience and I am sure it will always be one of our favourites. I would skip the Bistro San Ferdinand entirely next time. Frankly I’d rather have a McDonald’s!