I have two typically French restaurants for you this week: a fine-dining restaurant that calls itself a brasserie and a couscous restaurant anointed Best in Paris by Le Figaro’s crack team of inspectors.
The Brasserie du Louvre sits right on the Place du Palais Royal and is terrifically convenient for visits to the Louvre and probably, judging by the patrons, for the staff at the State Council and Ministry of Culture just across the way. It’s big, spacious and plush, but not daunting, unless classy tableware and white tablecloths make you quail. It may look like one of those hushed temples to the arts de la table, as some of the aspirational luxury brands call it, ready to separate you from your euros, but the buzz inside is that of your typical brasserie, minus the shouting and crashing of dishes that you get at, for example, Les Deux Magots.
It’s part of a hotel and has a plush-looking bar, too, whose dry martinis I have yet to try.
Earlier this year, it was taken in hand by Guy Martin of the double-starred Grand Véfour in Paris, who put in one of his own chaps to run the kitchen. The result is a very fine imitation of fine food: it looks like it, but doesn’t quite pack enough oomph to surprise your taste buds. My crème de courgettes (zucchini), which came with a perfectly poached egg, chorizo and a fashionable parmesan crisp, was pleasant to look at but fell short of tasting as interesting as it looked or sounded on the menu. The other starter, a circle of creamed smoked salmon and crab, came much closer to sight/sound/taste verisimilitude.
My genial lunch partner’s fish was solettes – prettily served tiny sole (a.k.a. dab) with roast endive and squash purée, cooked to perfection but lacking, he said, in the salt department, which of course can always be remedied. My slow-cooked knuckle of lamb came with the kind of gravy that only a real chef can produce, so full marks there. The little Paimpol beans were a tad crunchy – I like mine creamy. We skipped dessert. I could easily be tempted to go back for more, after an aperitif in that bar.
A week or so later, I went with another regular eating partner to try out the Zerda Café, only a few days after it had topped the Top 10 list of Paris Couscous restaurants. The staff was a bit dazed (but glowing) at the amount of interest that was suddenly being shown in the place. We were lucky to get in without booking beforehand.
I could never summon up the energy to test-drive 10 restaurants serving the same dish, so we will take their word for the ranking. Certainly it rates highly for the quality of the meat: we had roast lamb shoulder (méchoui) and merguez sausage and a kebab of grilled lamb. The servings were generous and the clearly high-quality meat was lusciously cooked, with a nice crispy crust on the tender méchoui.
The vegetable stew, the other key ingredient apart from the semolina itself, was also unstinting in the pleasures it afforded us. There was no lack of space in this restaurant with a pleasing Middle Eastern-style decor, the service was friendly and efficient, and a red Corbières set us back a princely €17. The total check came out at €54 for two – excellent value for money, as I took half the méchoui home with me and ate it cold with horseradish the next day, when it had lost none of its savor – Bertie the gastrohound hardly got a look-in.
Couscous occupies a very important place in the French psyche, and this one was indeed one of the best I’ve had not only in terms of the quality of the food, but also all the other trappings of the general gemütlich, steamy buzz you look for when you go out for a couscous.
Zerda Café: 15, rue René Boulanger, 75010 Paris. Tel.: 01 42 00 25 15. Métro: Strasbourg-Saint Denis. Open Tuesday-Friday and Sunday for lunch and dinner, for dinner only on Saturday and Monday. A la carte: around €25.