Food critic and writer, Alexander Lobrano, whose blog Hungry For Paris and book by the same name, is the steadfast source for travellers and Parisians alike trying to navigate Paris’s constantly evolving and (often) prickly restaurant scene. Leaving aside Lobrano’s deft prose-like musings on mouth-watering meals -- replete with gossip and fascinating digression -- it is his withering critiques that really entertain, revealing his razor-sharp wit, indispensable in the face of po-faced Parisian pomp and circumstance. A recent searing example from the archive:
“This is a restaurant that you come to in Ouija Board homage to that so-long-ago happy-go-lucky back-backing trip during which you let someone give you dread locks on the beach, smoked so much dope one night that you actually ended up having a good snog with the handsome but impossibly poseur Australian surf dude you’d taken an instant dislike to as the caps were being clicked off the first bottles of Tiger beer at the sundown beech party, slept with someone who’s name you don’t remember today, and picked up a minor social ailment that was the source of excruciating embarrassment when you went to the doctor after getting home to Paris.”
In person he is charming. Unfaltering in his elegiac descriptions of Paris -- delivered in an impeccable New England accent -- he invites comparisons with fellow American writers Tennessee Williams and Edmund White. He certainly shares their irreverence for the city. He begins the interview by summing up Paris in a few concise words: ‘I read a brilliant article in the FT by Simon Kuper who wrote: “after having lived in Paris for 10 years I’ve realised why everyone says that Paris is a snide and unfriendly place to live, because it is.”’ He affirmatively adds: ‘one persists for reasons of one’s own.’
A quick read through one of Lobrano’s sumptuous restaurant reviews is evidence enough of his motives for persisting. However, his continued love affair with the city is not just driven by its incredible food culture, there is the intrinsic beauty of ordinary life, which still fascinates him, even after 29 years.
‘Even if you don’t know anyone it’s a good city to be lonely in because the beauty is such a constant consolation’, he says. ‘Uniquely for a western city, there’s still great art to all the small tasks of daily life, such as the wrapping of the cake into the form of a paper pyramid and placing a little bow on it.’
I ask him how food culture has changed since he moved to Paris?
‘Food has been changed by life-style habits. Industrialisation of food production, purchasing power, and the introduction of the supermarket have changed how the French eat. I think the city suffered very badly when they ripped the market out of the city and sent it to the suburbs. I had a grandmother who used to live in Paris as a young woman. She used to talk about how she spent hours wandering around the market. She didn’t have any money but she was very pretty and people would give her a punt of raspberries or a slice of ham.
She would remark on how the market created a densely woven tapestry of relationships that connects the city with the countryside around you. She said that the food was so beautiful because you could see that the carrots had been pulled from the ground a few hours before arriving at the market. Today the concept of locally sourced food is beginning to gain momentum here in Paris. It’s an idea that’s been put forward by a new generation of really talented bistro chefs who are renewing Paris gastronomically.’
At the mention of talented bistro chefs I ask him what he thinks of the bourgeoning neo-bistro food scene with restaurants like Chateaubriand leading the pack?
‘I love what Inaki Aizpitarte is doing at Chateaubriand . When I first met him, a friend of mine, who was living up in Montmartre, called me to tell me that there was a restaurant next door that was amazing and I had to come and try it. And it was amazing. I went and knocked on the kitchen door to see who was doing the cooking. He came to the door and I remember he looked like a crusader. Have you ever seen him? He has this long thin face and black hair; he looks like an image you might see in a Cistercian church. He described his food as “cuisine de vagabond”. I found that very poetic. He never had any formal training. Instead he travelled all over the world working for stretches in restaurants in Latin America and the Middle East.’
Lobrano sadly remarks on the gentrification of central Paris -- the central core becoming a real estate investment for the rich. But on the upshot this has given birth to new exciting destinations like Oberkampf in the 11th Arrondissement.
‘When friends come to stay they often stick like limpets to the centre of the city, near to the big monuments. And then they complain that there are no French bistros. I tell them they need to travel to the outer ring where the real Parisian have moved to, such as the 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th. That’s where all the chefs have migrated to also because the rents are cheaper which also means they are less constrained creatively.
I ask Lobrano if he has any Valentine’s tips for those visiting Paris?
‘It’s a pretty horrible night to go out. I can’t imagine anything more hateful than going to a restaurant where they try to force an overpriced fixed menu down your throat with some sort of heart-shaped dessert at the end. In such a beautiful city as Paris you don’t need other people to frame that for you. There are all kinds of things you can do. You could put a half bottle of champagne and two glasses in a rucksack and go down to the banks of the seine.
Often romance isn’t found in the grand romantic settings but rather in the absurd and improbable. For me the most romantic places in Paris are the train stations. I love the stations, and each station is a sort of avant-gout of the provinces that it serves. If I were to do something for Valentine’s Day I think I would go to Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon. The food is all right but the restaurant is beautiful. Great décors don’t register with me so much. That being said, Le Train Bleu is a most magnificent restaurant. If you go there you should order really very simply, such as some oysters and roast lamb and a nice bottle of wine.
If you were to do something on the Left Bank then I would say go to Huitrerie Chez Regis, 3 Rue Montfaucon. It’s a tiny place and the owner is a bit of a character and the oysters are delicious. You should order a nice bottle of white wine from the Loire Valley. And what the hell, if you’re in the area go to Café de Flore for drinks afterwards. If you want to do something chic that won’t cost an arm and leg then go to the bar at Le Bristol for a cocktail. Afterwards, walk over to the basserie, the Mini-Palais , for dinner. It is situated at the southern end of the Grand Palais.
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