June 05, 2008

What is an authentic French brasserie?

After a downturn in the nineties, brasseries are gaining a new popularity in France. They constitute a new trend on the American restaurant scene. 

 Your comments on the great dinner we had last month at the very good “Old Town Brasserie” in Chicago, as well as your doubts that this restaurant is typical of a French brasserie were right on target, Stéphane. As you correctly noted in your post that restaurant, although a very good one, was not at all a typical brasserie neither in terms of decor and ambience or of the type of food served in a French brasserie. It is too fancy, the atmosphere is a bit too cozy, and the composition and presentation of the dishes are closer to what you would find on your plate in a 2 Michelin-star restaurant than in a brasserie. But we should not be surprised knowing the enormous and proven talent of its executive chef Roland Liccioni, who, as you rightly mentioned, authored so many marvelous dishes at both Carlos and Le Français in suburban Highland Park and Wheeling and more recently in Chicago at Les Nomades. It has become trendy over the last 10 years in several large American cities (like New York, Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia) to try and recreate French brasseries. But quite often they are either too fancy, to "Americanized" , too sophisticated or too eclectic in the formulation of their menus to qualify as real brasseries. I am thinking of places like Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas, Brasserie Ruhlman in N.Y.C and Chicago, “ Mon Ami Gabi” in Chicago and Las Vegas, Brasserie Perrier in Philadelphia, or French-American brasserie in Atlanta You told me that you were not very excited about “ Left Bank” in your own area of Silicon Valley. But I have to admit that the menus of the Left Bank restaurants that I read on their web sites do look a bit similar to the menus that you would find in a brasserie in France. Also, I've not been there but it seems to me, again from visiting their websites and reading comments on Gayot, that Balthazar, in New York , and the Brasseries Les Halles in NYC, Washington and Miami are probably, in terms of menus, wine lists, decor, and continuous service from morning to evening, the closest you can find to the real thing. In the early eighties, Un Grand Café in Lincoln Park in Chicago, where we used to celebrate your birthday for several years, had a decor and an atmosphere that in some way tried to imitate those of a French brasserie or “grand cafe”, with its leather banquettes, and racks for hats and umbrelllas, as well as hanging newspapers. And a few of its dishes, like pâté de canard, leek terrine, duck confit, moules marinières, oysters, steak-frites, grilled salmon, and roasted chicken, were of the same type that you would find in any French brasserie. For the last 13 years Brasserie Joe has been the closest to the real thing you will find in Chicago. No wonder: its menu that includes the most traditional French brasserie dish, “choucroute garnie” (sauerkraut cooked with white wine, and served with various sausages, salted pork, ham, and boiled potatoes) was created by the famous chef Jean Joho (Everest in Chicago, The Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, Brasserie Jo in Boston ) who was born, educated, and trained as a chef in Alsace, where the first brasseries started. He was a sous-chef at the celebrated Auberge de l’Ill, in Illhaeusern, a temple of haute-cuisne and one of the best restaurants of Europe, whose founder Paul Haeberlin passed away a few weeks ago. But as you also noted, none of these American restaurants,except for Les Halles and Balthazar serve food all-day and that peculiarity disqualify them as true brasseries. From what I read, I have the feeling that the new Haussman Brasserie, that just opened a few days ago in Northfield, even though it is the creation of Jacky Pluton, a French chef with a long experience, will not ressemble a traditional French brasserie either and that it’s menu is designed to please a typical Northwest suburb-type of client base.

So what is a real French brasserie?

First of all, let me remind you that that word means “brewery”, a place where “brasseurs” (brewers) brew beer. And by extension it became before the French revolution, a place where you could drink beer. The main regions of beer production have been Alsace, and Lorraine, in the Northeastern part of France near the German and Swiss border, and in the North near Belgium and Luxembourg. Paris was also a zone of production. No wonder then that the first large brasseries at the end of the 19th century in Paris were created by wealthy Alsatians, many of them not very eager to become German after their native province was once again taken over by the Germans at the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. They emigrated to Paris and launched with an enormous amount of success, this new type of restaurants that served Alsatian specialties as well as fish, steaks, and good desserts. Their names became synonymous of brasserie: Wepler (a large brasserie on Place Clichy, still famous nowadays for its seafood and shellfish), Dreher (closed), Runtz (rue Favart in the 2nd), Zimmer (beautiful recently redecorated brasserie on the Place du Chatelet), Zeyer (still very popular, Place d’Alesia in the 14th arrondissement), Bofinger Place de la Bastille (with its spectacular art deco glass dome), Flo (with its very impressive art-nouveau decor in a picturesque alley in the 10th arrondissement) Lipp in Saint-Germain des Prés, where generations of politicians, celebrities, and just regular French and Foreign tourists are still flooding the place to eat a relatively mediocre choucroute, marinated herrings with potatoe salad, stuffed pig trottters, and drink their famous but not that great beer. Lipp is typically one of these places where you go to see people and be seen, or because you are on a nostalgia trip. It is nevertheless a great place to visit at least once in your life, but if the Maitre D’ does not recognize you you will have to show some clout or inventive cleverness, or to be with a very well-dressed companion to be seated downstairs.

Other famous brasseries were started (and are still in operation in 2008) by French businessmen from other regions, principally Auvergne. La Coupole, the largest and to me the most beautiful of Parisian brasseries, was open on Boulevard Montparnasse in 1927, and completely redecorated to its original splendor in 1997. So many famous artists, writers, musicians, draw sketches. wrote pages or scores, did some wild partying there that you could create a museum with all the memories and photos attached to this lively place. The food is O.K. but nothing to write home about. Le Dôme, the other “grande dame” of Boulevard Montaparnasse, well known for its seafood and shellfish. But since it is very expensive I prefer it’s smaller sister-brasserie Le Bistrot du Dôme, in nearby rue Delambre. L’Européen next to the Gare De Lyon train station. Impressive room, but I believe that nowadays the food is just O.K. Charlot Roi des Coquillages (well-known for its shellfish) on Place Clichy. I never ate there. La Brasserie Lorraine (an overpriced and over-rated fancy restaurant Place des Ternes in the 8th), Chez Jenny in the 3rd, Julien in the 10th, (used to be good but I believe it is no longer the case although the decor is still spectacular) La Closerie des Lilas in the 5th (a very charming restaurant and bar that welcomed a wole world of famous artists and writers, including Hemingway). Thoumieux, rue Saint-Dominique in the 7th is a traditional meeting place, with lots of wood and a comfy decor. But I was told by some friends that the quality of the cuisine is not what it used to be. Also Brasserie Balzar in the 5th where I used to drink beer and eat croque-monsieur and wieners when I was a student at la Sorbonne. It is still one of my favorites and when I used to go there often in the early sixties was at the time owned by Brasserie Lipp, of which it was sort of a more democratic replica. Later on, it was taken over by the FLO group in the nineties. but is still a pleasant place.
The FLO Group,(200 restaurants in the world) recently acquired by a Belgian equity company, owns and manage some of the best known brasseries in Paris and in several cities: Brasserie Flo, Bofinger, Julie, La Coupole, Le Boeuf sur le toit, Le Vaudeville, Terminus Nord, Balzar, Brasserie du Théatre, Les Beaux-arts, Brasseries Flo in Nancy, Metz, Reims, Nancy, and Barcelona. I love Brasserie Flo-L’Excelsior in Nancy, and had a few decent choucroutes over the years at Bofinger, Flo, and Terminus Nord. Another, but less important restaurant group, also sold recently to a financial company, is Les Frères Blanc, that owns Le Procope, Charlot Roi des Coquillages, and La Fermette Marbeuf, near the Champs-Elysées. I have not eaten in any of these for years.  

Some other brasseries in Paris:  

Au Chien qui Fume in the old Les Halles district , remains one of my favorites. They have fixed price menus offering a good quality-price ratio Vagenende, a beautifully appointed old brasserie on Boulevard Saint-Germain, a couple of blocks from Rue de Seine, where you spent the first 6 months of your life, is a perennial favorite of American tourists. The food can be very good, especially during the winter months, or quite mediocre during the tourist season from June to September. So is Le Grand Colbert Rue Vivienne near la Bourse, in part because of the famous restaurant scene between Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in “Someting’s Gotta Give”. I never ate there, but I love the environment of that place. And they have an attractive menu In the same district two other brasseries have their strong regular supporters: Gallopin and Le Vaudeville, but I never ate at Vaudeville and I’ve never been too impressed by the food at Gallopin. La brasserie of Hôtel Lutetia in the 6th, at the heart of one of the best fashion district (ready-to-wear) is very pleasant for lunch and is usually full of very elegant people. The menu is a bit more refined than in most brasseries. Terminus Nord, a great but expensive brasserie in front of the Gare du Nord train station is a favorite of travelers who want to have lunch or dinner before boarding the Eurostar train to London. Very good shellfish and foie gras. Chez Georges, Boulevard Pereire, in the 17th . I used to love this place and they had a superb “pâté en croûte’’ and a very good “gratin Dauphinois”. But let's not ignore the many more modest cafés-brasseries in various neighboroods of Paris, like my dear Café de la Tour Eiffel rue du Commerce in the 15th, where we ate last summer. There, you can order typical “mets de brasserie” (brasserie dishes) for less money than you would spend in the above-mentioned “grandes brasseries”.

Some typical mets de brasserie

 Very often large brasseries offer a good selection of oysters and other shellfish. Usually an “écailler’’ (a person in a special type of uniform and wearing a fisherman cap who opens the oysters with a special short knive, his hands protected by heavy gloves and prepare them for you on a platter in a special booth outside next to the entrance of the restaurant. Poireaux vinaigrette (leeks with a vinaigrette sauce) Oeufs durs mayonnaise ( hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise) Céleri rémoulade (shredded celeriac in a spicy mayonnaise) Harengs Baltique (marinated and pickled herrings) Escargots de Bourgogne ( snails baked in a garlic and parsley butter) Pâté en croûte (baked minced meat in pastry) Charcuteries variées (various cold meats, pâtés, terrines, saucisson like dried sausage, rillettes, hams, etc) Assiette anglaise ( Assorted cold meats with cornichons, sliced tomatoe and a leaf of lettuce) Foie Gras frais de canard (fresh duck foie gras with toast) Smoked salmon Soupe à l’oignon (onion soup) Various omelettes Various types of steaks with pommes frites and possibly sauces (béarnaise, peppercorn, mushrooms, marrow) Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne (sauerkraut cooked in Riesling wine or beer, with various types of sausages, salted pork and chops, bacon, ham, and served with boiled potatoes) Andouillette grillée AAAAA (grilled sausage made from finely chopped chitterlings or tripe) AAAAA means : Association Amicale des Amateurs ‘Andouillettes Authentiques Foie de Veau poêlé (pan sauteed veal liver) Blanquette de veau (veal stew in a creamy white sauce) Boeuf Bourguignon Coq au Vin (chicken in a reduced wine sauce with bacon and mushrooms) Pavé de thon (sauteed tuna steak) Sole ou Truite (filet of Dover sole, or a whole river trout, served with a lemon, parsley, and hot liquefied butter. Coquilles Saint-Jaques (sea scallops) Salades composées ( mixed salads with ham, gruyere cheese, eggs, croutons, olives etc) Frisée aux lardons ( chicory curly lettuce topped with a soft boiled egg and pieces of fried bacon) Plateau de Fromages (assorted cheeses on a platter) Tartes aux fruits (fruit tarts) Mousse au chocolat Poire Belle Hélène (chilled pear served with ice cream and hot chocolate sauce) Crème brulée (vanilla creamy custard topped with burnt sugar) Sorbets  

Brasseries de Province

Of course most major cities in the French provinces have their own famous brasseries. Some of my favorites are: La brasserie Excelsior-Flo in Nancy, whose decor is an architectural landmark. La Cigale , that you can see in “Lola”, the beautiful film by Jacques Demy shot in the early sixties, in Nantes. La Brasserie André in Lille. La Brasserie Georges in Lyon. And of course Le Boulingrin in Reims (where we had lunch last summer),and its great Art-Déco decor.

What are the main differences between a restaurant and a brasserie?

Contrary to most restaurants and bistrots that are closed at least 2 days per week, and sometimes closed for lunch on Saturday, brasseries are open 7 days a week and, except for a few that are not serving food between 2:00 and 6:00 PM, usually offer continuous service from breakfast time to late at night. In Paris several well-known brasseries like La Coupole, Brasserie Lipp, or Le Grand Colbert,serve dinner until 1:00 AM. Most brasseries are open 365 days a year. In provincial cities brasseries are often located and concentrated around busy point of passage like a railroad station, city hall, post office, main church, or more generally speaking on the main drag of the town. Their lighting is usually much brighter, and the sound level higher, than in regular restaurants and bistrots. Sometimes, especially in old-fashioned brasseries, the waiters still don a long white apron, a black jacket, and a black tie. In newer brasseries their attire is more contemporary but always include a white dress shirt with a black tie and a black or white waiter jacket. The brasseries have a less extensive and less expensive wine list than in traditional restaurants. But they often offer interesting regional wines in carafes or by the glass that you don’t find in regular restaurants. In most brasseries, you do not need a reservation, (not true anymore for the most famous ones in Paris) but sometimes you have to wait for a table. Not all brasseries have bars, but some have a counter where you can grab a sanwich and drink a glass of wine while reading your paper. Contrary to most restaurants, you can show up at any time and order a simple dish, or sandwich, and a glass of wine, beer, mineral water, a coke or a coffee, without having the waiter making a face at you... It is not uncommun to see people ordering only an omelette, a croque-monsieur (grilled sandwich of ham, cheese and bechamel sauce), or a hot dog with fries, or a simple ice-cream with a coffee at 11:00 AM, 3:00 PM, or 11:00 at night. But sometimes you can also observe whole families, usually visiting from some province, having a full lunch in the middle of the week, starting with oysters, foie gras, mussels marinière, melon and prosciutto, or smoked salmon. This would be followed by a chateaubriand (a thick piece of filet of beef) with béarnaise sauce, or a “steak tartare’’ (freshly knife-chopped raw beef mixed with a Worcester sauce, chopped shallots, capers, lemmon juice, finely chopped parsley, and a raw egg yolk), or an andouillette A.A.A.A.A. (chitterlings sausage), or sauteed veal liver, or a filet of Dover sole meunière (in a light butter sauce), or veal kidneys in a mustard sauce. The desserts would often consist of poire Belle Hélène, mousse au chocolat, crème brulée, fruit tart, or sorbet. Some members of the family might also order cheese before or instead of dessert.
Like restaurants brasseries generally offer a couple of plats du jour (specials) that can run from coquelet au Riesling (cornish hen in an Alsatian Riesling wine sauce), carré or gigot d’agneau aux flageolets (leg or rack of lamb with beans), or Cassolette de Coquilles Saint-Jacques (baked scallops in butter and wine reduction). But usually the selection is less sophisticated than in regular restaurants. In Brasseries, dishes are most of the time traditional and do not require long cooking time and elaborate preparation. The average brasserie customer wants to have a tasty but relatively fast lunch or dinner. Me, I love to have a slow leisurely lunch in a brasserie with friends, eating some of my favorite dishes: Pâté en croûte, terrine de lapin, or poireaux vinaigrette, followed by confit de canard et pommes sarladaises or bavette aux échalottes, and cantal cheese as a dessert. All of this washed down with a good bottle of a small Bordeaux or a carafe of a good regional vin de pays, red of course. Bon appétit.


  1. Anonymous11:43 PM

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  2. Alain: E-mail me and I will tell all.