Jackie and I used to visit our dear friend Richard in Paris at least once a year. Every evening, we'd have a drink at his apartment then go to dinner. After his death a couple of years ago, Paris had been pretty far off our radar, but we planned a four-night visit in March. We clearly had some dining out to catch up on and wanted to visit a couple of restaurants that had opened since our last swing through town.
Looking at the website of Mini Palais, I was ready to be impressed by its dining room (and the vast outdoor terrace with a view), in the late-19th-Century exhibition hall the Grand Palais. It's even better in person: buzzing but not ringing with conversation; grand, airy, spacious, its very up-to-date flesh laid over impeccable Beaux Arts bones.
In its newest incarnation -- it was revamped in 2010, when it reopened under the culinary guidance of the wonderful chef Eric Frechon, of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Epicure in the hotel Le Bristol) -- it is open every day from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., though a reduced menu is available during off-hours and they stop serving solid food at midnight. This means you can go in for something like a charcuterie plate and a glass of wine (or dessert and coffee or a cocktail) whenever you're in the neighborhood: not an impossible scenario for a traveler, because the Grand Palais is just off the Champs Elysées and often has interesting exhibitions. The lunch-dinner menu (you'll need a reservation at meal times) is a canny mix of classic but updated French (duck with turnips, the meat jazzed up with a blend of spices and the turnip with honey and rosemary) and international (ibérico ham; artichoke-arugula risotto; squid cooked Basque-style; prawns in ginger-lemongrass sauce): something for every diner, I'd say.
Our dinner was certainly appealing. Those prawns were almost uncannily tender: very briefly cooked under a broiler, then finished when the prawn shell-based sauce was poured over them at the table. The ginger-lemongrass element was present, but in a restrained way: the impression was of wonderfully deep bisque-like flavor, enhanced. A basically simple open sandwich of cold foie gras was presented with tremendous élan, each thin slice a fine-textured cylindrical curl.
Main courses (that duck breast; and rich-tasting ibérico pork "pluma," a newly popular shoulder cut) were precisely cooked too, though I might have asked for more punch in the garnishes. In both dishes, seasonings were used as part of a palette that can seem under-saturated if you are used to bolder colors.
One dessert called out to us from the menu: a "giant" baba au rhum served for two people (but ample for three). It was as good as it promised to be, soft but not pulpy cake totally soaked with rum syrup, piles of whipped cream, orange and vanilla aromas swirling as we ate. The shortish wine list offers a number of unexpected bottles; the sommelier was full of knowledge and excellent advice.
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In all our decades of visiting Paris we'd never eaten in an Italian restaurant, which in the old days was probably wise. But now, at least some Parisians know what the real thing is like and appear to demand it. Sassotondo, which opened in 2011 in an almost village-square-like corner of the 11th arrondissement, is a small, two-roomed trattoria that delivers a meal with a lot of Italy about it in its choice of products, its simple, clear flavors and its lack of superfluous culinary fireworks.
The kitchen is led by a Tuscan chef (born in Pisa), and our prix-fixe menu (La scelta di Michele, as the menu has it, Michele Dalla Valle being the chef and "scelta" meaning selection) started with a platter of excellent salumi from a source in San Gimignano: prosciutto, guanciale and salami. This is worth mentioning because we in the U.S. do not see hams from regions other than the most famous (prosciutto di Parma or di San Daniele, for instance). I remember from Italian travels that Tuscan prosciutto can be particularly fine, with gentle sweetness and lots of hammy flavor. It was a treat to eat some here, served with home-made bread, focaccia and notably good bread sticks.
This was followed by lightly marinated, barely cooked sardine fillets -- beautiful to see, with their silvery skin -- set on a good salad of pearled farro (the look and feel of big pearl barley), crumbled fresh cheese and herbs. The acidity of the fish and the mildness of the grain made for a balanced dish. Then, a plate of spinach-ricotta ravioli with a light, fresh-tasting tomato sauce with sweet crab meat: this grew on me with every bite, and it would have been tempting to yell "Stop the menu!" and have another portion or two.
The meat dish was veal piccata with tiny artichokes (how lucky they are in France and Italy to get these in March) and potatoes, in a simple pan sauce containing a few capers. I might have liked a squirt of lemon, or perhaps more capers, to add zest, but I didn't ask for either because I was concentrating on something not to be taken for granted: the veal itself was delicious, juicy, succulent. Nice meat, well prepared and skillfully cooked.
The Italianate simplicity continued with a homey presentation of tiramisù: a single big, coffee-soaked ladyfinger topped with a cloud of the usual mascarpone-egg cream and finished with chocolate. Those are the only flavors that a great tiramisù ought to have, and serving it this way rather than layered in a pan made a great deal of sense. It is how I will make this dessert at home from now on.
Here too, the wine list was brief and interesting.
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Mini Palais. In the Grand Palais; entrance on avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 75008; +33 (0) 1 42 56 42 42; www.minipalais.com. Dinner for two, wine and service included, €140 (about $185). Open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, though the menu ebbs and flows as the day progresses.
Sassotondo. 40 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris 75011; +33 (0) 1 43 55 57 00. Our lunch was the €40 (about $53) prix-fixe menu option. There's also a shorter €34 menu and à la carte choices. Interesting wines start from €26, or a wine "menu" of three different glasses is €15. Open for lunch and dinner; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.