October 6, 2009By Richard HesseArchive

razowski’s restaurant, paris

The lunchtime crowd waits outside Razowski’s for what is supposed to be Paris’s best burger.

Pros: Pleasant, apologetic waitress

Cons: Dreadful music; distressed furniture; bad wine; slow/nonexistent service, etc.

What is it about the French and ethnic food? Why can’t they do it as well as other countries? I’ve moaned about this before in connection with Indian and Chinese food that is a dumbed-down shadow of its homegrown self. But now we come to the greatest ethnic food phenomenon of them all: the American hamburger.

I was tempted into my latest disastrous foray into the murkier depths of the French restaurant industry by a story in the newspapers about plans to open up a McDonald’s outlet in the food forum at the Louvre. Outrage is a mild word to express the response. You can hear them now: America’s worst overwhelms the best of French… Will that be fries with your Mona Lisa? The people expressing such misplaced outrage are as a drop in the ocean compared to the 450 million McDonald’s meals served last year at over 1,000 outlets around France, McDo’s biggest market worldwide after the United States. And we French, as the denizens of the country with the world’s greatest fine food tradition, can’t be wrong about food and drink, can we? (Yes, I have French nationality – in fact, having taken it in 1978, I have been French for longer than half of my adopted countrymen.)

Well, yes and no, I suppose. What we can get wrong, however, and very, very wrong, is the great American hamburger.

According to the puff I saw in the trade magazine L’Hotellerie Restauration, Razowski’s, itself not a million miles from the Louvre, is an “homage to American delis,” “one of the few places in Paris where hamburgers and true cuisine come together,” “an original concept inspired by New York.”

Wrong: it’s a cramped, noisy French bistro that just happens to churn out burgers, salads, sandwiches and a few unsurprising desserts. There would be more space in New York, for starters. And the arm fell off my chair when I squeezed around a tiny corner space to get into it. They have even tried to do weird French things to the burgers: mushrooms and avocado? served in a cut-out from a slice of white bread (they leave the rest of the crust so you can see how they did it)?

Wrong: the pastrami sandwich my hapless girlfriend Katherine ordered was three inches high and had three measly slices of pastrami; the rest was bulked out with high-value-added lettuce and a bit of dill pickle. My memories of pastrami on rye are somewhat different.

Wrong: a New York hamburger joint would probably be more ecologically aware. My Razowski’s special was served on a large square plate, with three other pottery items on it: one for a microscopic spoonful of red cabbage, one for a similar-sized ditto of shredded carrot, and one for the sautéed potatoes. Sautéed? YOU MEAN THEY DON’T EVEN DO FRIES? Nope, they don’t even do fries. And then the mustard I had to ask for also came in one of those weeny little pots. Think of the dishwashing all that tableware entails. Think of all the wasted food. And you have to eat the hamburgers with a knife and fork – they are the wrong shape to pick up, unless you want to make your dry cleaner’s day.

Wrong: a New York deli would make it a point of honor to serve up a decent glass of wine, I’m sure. The glass of Chinon I was served (but hardly touched) was the worst I have tasted in a long time outside of a greasy spoon. We were the only ones drinking wine that I could see: all the other tables had either water or Coke. Either they knew something I didn’t about the amount of care that went into the wine list, or else, more likely, they were all of the McDo generation who grew up (450 million meals last year remember – that’s seven and a bit for every man woman and child in France) blissfully unaware of the delights of a well-made bottle.

Wrong: In New York, I doubt that I would have been kept waiting 35 minutes at the end of the meal for a coffee that never came. To the great credit of our truly nice waitress, it was graciously deducted from the bill.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that, while the owners of Razowski’s know a thing or two about cost accounting and portion control, and have sussed out the average French luncher and his or her luncheon vouchers perfectly, they have a very odd idea of what people eat in New York. Quality food and service is something else altogether.

Richard Hesse

Razowski’s: 38, place du Marché Saint Honoré, 75001 Paris. Tel.: 01 42 96 53 20. Métro: Pyramides. Nearest Vélib stations: 2, rue Danièle Casanova; 4, rue de Ventadour. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Brunch on Sunday. A la carte: about €25. www.razowski.fr/

More reviews of Paris restaurants.

Reader Panama Red writes: “There is nothing so rare as the Great American Burger, and you won’t find it in Mickey D’s, nor will it be in any deli, New York or otherwise. Somewhere in some greasy spoon in the Rust Belt, maybe Pennsylvania or Ohio, is the GAB. And those lucky enough to live there or to pass through know it when they find it. And it cannot be described in prose or poetry. I am somewhat worried though, that in his quest for the GAB, Mr. Hesse bitches about the wine. Nobody I know, in the land of rocknroll and the great American burger, would ever water down the experience with un verre de vin, no matter how good.” October 8, 2009

Reader Catherine Penn Williams, of Tucson, Arizona, writes: “One of the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever had was at Chez Prune (36, rue Beaurepaire, 75010 Paris). It wasn’t ‘American’ but it was delicious!” October 8, 2009

Reader Judy Knestis, of Seattle, Washington, writes: “My husband and I have had some truly wonderful biftecks hachés at Hippo (usually our first meal after a long, tiring flight). I adore boeuf tartare, which I cannot eat comfortably in the States, so we always head the next day to Julien for that. Why would anyone bother with a New York-style deli in Paris? French burgers are so wonderful, why mess around with a good thing!?” October 8, 2009

Catherine Penn Williams
Tucson, AZ

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