This week, I happened to eat at two very different Paris restaurants recommended by friends who live near them. These are the kinds of places you would probably never find on your own but that offer a pleasant meal if you happen to be in the area.
The first was Chez Dong, in the 13th arrondissement, Paris’s largest Chinatown and often a mystery to outsiders lacking in guidance when it comes to choosing among the dozens and dozens of Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants there. Chez Dong, a Szechuan restaurant, is one option. Ignore the sign on the facade, which bears a different name, and find it by the address (82 rue Baudricourt). We had to ask to make sure we were in the right place, even though one of my friends had already been there.
We started with a few tasty pork and leek dumplings, which were clearly homemade, not the frozen variety you will find in most Chinese takeout places in Paris. They were followed by
“poulet pimenté,” a dish of small pieces of chicken cooked on the bone and fired up with plenty of chili and other types of pepper. None of us enjoyed the way the chicken was chopped up with sharp bits of bone sticking out, and I found the meat itself to be rather overcooked and a tad greasy, but I loved the crunchy, hot seasoning with chopped peanuts, which left a kind of cool burn in the mouth. I think this dish is done better at Chengdu in the 10th arrondissement.
The favorite dish at our table that evening was indisputably the eggplant with yu xuang (or yuxiang) sauce, made with garlic, scallions, ginger, sugar, salt, doubanjiang (a paste of fermented beans, soybeans, salt, rice and spices), soy sauce and chili peppers. This
unctuous and flavorful dish is usually made with pork here, but we asked for a meat-free version so the vegetarian among us could enjoy it, too, and the kitchen willingly complied. We also liked the fillet of fish (what kind? not specified on the menu) sautéed with chou de Shanghai (bok choy), but I found the mystery fish to be overcooked. We also had some liserons d’eau (water spinach) sautéed in garlic, which were fine but not garlicky enough for my taste.
The specialty here appears to be the lamb brochettes, but my friends didn’t want them because they had been too greasy the last time they ordered them. I felt a slight regret, however, when I saw them being delivered to nearly every other table in the restaurant.
As you may have guessed, this was by no means my all-time favorite Chinese restaurant, but it’s a good bet if you’re in the area.
A few days later, I had lunch one arrondissement over, in the 14th, this time at L’Alexandra, a tiny (seats 24) French restaurant run by a kindly woman who speaks excellent English and offers reasonable lunch menus at €12 (main course and coffee), €14 (two courses) and €17 euros (three courses).
Two of us began with the grilled fresh asparagus, nicely cooked but in need of a little salt, on a bed of meaty gésiers (gizzards), a pleasantly homely start to the meal. For my
main course, I had the special of the day, a duck’s leg cooked “tagine-style.” It was tender and tasty, but little about it reminded me of a tagine. The potatoes accompanying it looked suspiciously like those that come in a plastic package in the refrigerated section of the supermarket: small and perfectly white and smooth.
This is a meat-and-potatoes kind of place (there is only one fish dish on the menu), and my friends stuck to the program. One of them had the lamb chops, which were fine but not quite as blue as he would have liked them, served with an unusual concoction of creamed
leeks on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes. I thought it was rather tasty in an unsophisticated, homemade way, but he was not impressed. My other friend had the magret de canard (duck breast) with a honey-rosemary sauce and mashed potatoes. She was pleased with it, even though the skin of the duck had been seriously oversalted.
We all agreed that the desserts were most successful course at L’Alexandra. The rice pudding flavored with orange-blossom water and topped with toasted almond flakes was
luscious, and my unlikely combination of apple tart and crème brûlée with a salted-caramel sauce, which I was skeptical about, turned out to be a success. The other dessert was my friend’s first affogato, hot espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which he loved.
A meal at L’Alexandra is kind of like Mom’s Sunday dinner, hearty and comforting. This is another restaurant I would recommend to friends living in the neighborhood, although I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to go back there.
L’Alexandra: 6, rue Pernety, 75014 Paris. Métro: Pernety. Tel.: 01 83 96 25 98. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner. Fixed-price lunch menus: €12 (main course and coffee), €14 (two courses) and €17 euros (three courses). A la carte: around €29.Favorite