La Fontaine de Mars

Finding a good restaurant in Paris should be easy. After all it is the home of fine dining. Every top chef tends to have some form of classic French training in their arsenal. It’s all Michel Roux Jnr harps on about on MasterChef. And yet my last 3 experiences of Paris have consisted of over-priced and extremely average meals. TimeOut Paris doesn’t offer much help, nor does TripAdvisor as ever is completely erratic in its ratings. And so unless you are going to stick to the established hotel and Michelin starred restaurants, you’re best bet is to stumble across somewhere yourself. But the problem with this is that when hunger kicks in, you almost always end up in one of those crappy tourist traps with the menu board outside in every language. As soon as you see spaghetti bolognese alongside snails, you know you’re in trouble.

But every now and then you find a real gem. A restaurant you don’t want to tell anybody about out of fear that next time you go it will be overrun. Well La Fontaine de Mars is a real find. It’s hardly unheard of given that no other than Barack and Michelle Obama ate there on their last visit to Paris. But tucked away in a quiet street in a chic French neighbourhood, it’s out of sight from the passing tourists. I feared that every American would be flocking there now, and that the walls would be plastered with photos of the President. But thankfully there was no sign of any photos. And even better, no Americans. Instead, all I could hear was the soothing sound of classy French diners knocking back red wine and good traditional cooking. The dining room is extremely homely, making it slightly strange to imagine somebody as important as Obama tucking into steak frites here.

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After a bottle of Billecart-Salmon rose (€95- half the price of the same bottle at Le Meurice) it was straight into the starters. The Escargot de Bourgogne were drowned in buttery garlic sauce. This is only the third time I’ve had snails, and my last experience was in Balthazar in Covent Garden, but they were no comparison to these. At Balthazar the snails were small and a little tough, these were much juicier, almost like they had only been cooked for a short time and this allowed the earthy flavour to come through.

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I had eggs poached in red wine with bacon and shallots. What could be more French that that? It was incredibly rich, so much so that I have no idea how the French haven’t all keeled over if this is the food they eat. The sauce was almost as rich as a Port and although it really complimented the creaminess of the egg yolks, it was a little too indulgent for me.

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The Blue Lobster salad was the special and given it was in season it was hard to resist. It was a simply put together salad, with the nice addition of grapefruit giving a sharpness. With lobster of this quality that’s all it needed.

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The cow’s head stew was another dish packed with big flavours. Again this was a big old starter. It was heavy on the vinegar and capers, something I love, but a little too sharp for my partner who forced me to swap with her.

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For main the steak frites was more fillet of beef with chips, and although it was fine, it was hardly a cut of steak I’ll remember.

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The daily special was lamb cutlet with potatoes gratin. Again the meat wasn’t the best I’ve had, but with the garlic creaminess of the potatoes, I really didn’t care. There’s just nothing better than potatoes gratin. Cheese, garlic, cream. Putting these together will make you like any plate clean.

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The black pudding with apple was a classic combination and was simply and effectively done. There was enough spice and depth in the black pudding so that the sweetness of the big mound of stewed apples didn’t overpower it.

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For dessert we shared 2, and I have no idea how one person would have managed them. The chestnut Mille-feuille was a gigantic slice. I always expect them to be dainty things, but this was a British sized slice. The chestnut cream worked really well as it wasn’t as sweet as the traditional custard or cream.

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The floating island dessert was again huge. It was really light and again not too sweet.

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The meal was just over €80 with a bottle of champagne and a good Malbec. Throughout the service was excellent, although given the language barrier the waiter couldn’t chat to us too much. I like this though. It made it feel even more authentic. The food wasn’t groundbreaking, but you don’t expect it to be at a neighbourhood bistro. It’s very much like L’Absinthe in Primrose Hill, one of my favourites, in that it just keeps things simple but uses good ingredients and serves good wine. This is a real gem, one that I only hope stays this way. It’s a 10 minute taxi ride away from the touristy areas, but well worth the trip.

Food: 7.5/10

Service: 8/10

Atmosphere: 9/10

Value: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

129 Rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris

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Balthazar

When I tried to get a table a few weeks after Balthazar’s eagerly anticipated opening last year, I felt like Patrick Bateman trying to get a reservation at Dorsia. Not a chance was the response I got. Not this weekend, and not for any of the weekends in the foreseeable future. They might as well have let out that shrill laugh down the phone. Well almost a year later with the hype having cooled off, or rather people realising it really didn’t deserve half of that hype in the first place, my perseverance has paid off and I managed to land myself a table.

With it’s huge premises just off the central arcade in Covent Garden it has the feel of a destination restaurant, and so it was the ideal place to take visiting family from Newcastle who wanted a taste of somewhere grand in London. Inside it is easy to see just where that £14 million investment went. A lot of effort has gone into making this feel autentic. Whether that’s authentically French, or authentically New York’s imitation of French, it is difficult to say.

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The clientele reflects the location, as it seemed to be filled up predominantly with people attracted to the area rather than actually caring too much about the restaurant. This is obviously a wining formula given the endless stream of people who pass through Covent Garden, and given that the competition isn’t strong, it was no surprise to find the restaurant full on a Sunday night.

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Once we were seated in a booth with a great view of the dining room it was hard not to be seduced by the place. The warm glow of the lighting, the French jazz playing and the infectious buzz of diners really gives it an infectious and romantic atmosphere. Our waiter was quickly on hand to bring us wine, and throughout his service was professional, without ever really being personal. Many grand brasseries have a similarly impersonal approach, with the staff rushing between tables giving it the feel of a well-oiled machine. It is the top brasseries like The Delaunay that can work on this scale whilst still offering perfect service.

To start things off a plate of Langoustines (£24 for 6) served on ice with a Marie Rose dipping sauce, reminded me why I don’t usually go for langoustines. They are the Russian Dolls of the crustacean world- they seem so big to start with but as soon as you start to peel away the outer shell, you end up with a tiny little bite. And £4 a mouthful is a little on the steep side.

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The Onion Soup (£9) was as rich and fattening as you could ever wish for. It quite easily could have been labeled a cheese soup, which is only a good thing.

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The Escgarots (£10.50) were not overloaded with garlic butter and this allowed the lovely nutty earthiness of the snails to shine through.

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The Saffron Risotto with Scallops and Roasted Courgettes (£11) was cooked perfectly and a generous portion for this price. More saffron would have been appreciated though, as I was hoping for that lovely burnt red colouring in the rice.

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For main course, the Duck Shepherd’s Pie (£19) took French food being rich to the extreme. It was so rich that it was difficult to enjoy more than just a mouthful.  The sauce was had the darkness and sweetness of hoisin sauce. A side of Pommes Frites (£5) were criminally soggy and under-seasoned.

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The Beef Fillet Stroganoff (£19) was also incredibly rich, but there was enough saltiness from the bacon to cut through and give a balance to the dish. It was a good stroganoff, although admittedly there was a lot more sauce than beef.

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The Grilled Var Salmon with Spinach and a Walnut and Lentil Salad (£18) was easily the most disappointing of the mains. Firstly, it didn’t come pink as asked for and instead was cooked right through. The main problem was the sauce/salad dressing that it came with, which was far too sweet and didn’t work at all with the fish. It tasted like a sweet honey glaze and wasn’t at all pleasant.IMG_1943

The Moules Frites (£15) were another let down. A dish this simple and this much of a French classic should be routinely good. The fries were again soggy and the real disappointment was that the sauce which was in desperate need of some more garlic and white wine. The best part of this dish should always be mopping up the sauce at the bottom, but this was just too bland to even tempt me.

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For dessert, the Apple Tarte Tatin and Vanilla Ice Cream (£8) looked boring and flat sitting in the middle of the plate. The caramel had a lovely richness, but there just wasn’t enough apple or pastry to really call this as a Tarte Tatin.

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The Profiteroles (£7) had vanilla ice cream wedged in the middle instead of cream. The chocolate sauce came on the side and and there was no denying its dark intensity, but it was just a shame that it was cold, as a hot sauce here would have worked brilliantly with the ice cream.

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After eating here it is difficult to see just what all the hype was about. It certainly couldn’t be about the food, which after the strong starters, was all a bit of a let down. And it isn’t exactly the most impressive of grand brasseries in London, I’d leave that to The Delaunay which is only a few minutes walk away. I had expected this to be a really high-end meal, but instead I saw it for what it really is, a fairly solid restaurant in Covent Garden that is a step-up from the crap tourist traps surrounding it. This isn’t enough to merit going back, and at over £60 a head for three courses with wine, it rules out nipping in for a quick fix if you are in the area.

Food: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Atmosphere: 8.5/10

Value: 6.5/10

Overall: 6.5/10

4-6 Russell Street, London  WC2B 5HZ

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

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