Putting The French In Fast Food
Quality matters even if you want to eat-on-the-go, and pay less. Paris is putting its touch on fast food by improving offerings like kebabs, as well as handing out haute cuisine for the masses.
PARIS — No matter how many hungry stomachs it has satisfied, that rotating vertical grill has caused so many cases of indigestion that it is now usually approached with caution. But outside the Grillé restaurant, on rue Saint Augustin, an upper-class artery of the French capital, people are lining up with different expectations in front of the meat cylinder for a different kind of döner kebab.
In a restaurant made up of blue and white tiles, office workers and merry hipsters drool over the wheat and spelt bread spread out and baked under their eyes, while the carving of the veal on the rotisserie marks the beat, before being grilled again and deglazed with lemons. Herbs, spices, raw vegetables, cream and horseradish or tomato sauce, sweet onions and hot peppers all complete the warm bread pocket, rolled-up to be eaten on the spot.
More expensive (8.50 euros) and not as copious as the “gyro,” which is dear to teenagers, this sandwich brings refined gustative pleasures that the Ottoman specialty is not accustomed to providing. If Grillé is the first to experience the gourmet kebab, this small restaurant, which opened in July 2013, is part of a fledgling movement in Paris to change the approach to fast food.
Long a synonym of urban stress, tight budgets and junky ingredients, fast food is now part of the general obsession to eat better. “I got the idea after eating delicious kebabs in the Middle East,” remembers Fred Peneau, who co-founded Grillé with Marie Carcassonne and the famous French butcher Hugo Desnoyer. “Why not have the same in Paris?”
At the time, Peneau was the associate of the chef Inaki Aizpitarte at the Chateaubriand, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a pioneer restaurant specialized in a new generation of “bistronomy.”
“What I kept from the Chateaubriand is the desire to bring a chef's touch to the kebab,” he says. Before the long assembling of the grill (five hours’ work), the slices of veal breast are first marinated in a mixture of lemon, rosemary, garlic, olive oil and tamari sauce (traditional Japanese soy sauce) that helps the meat caramelize.
“Contrary to tradition, we splay the kebab like a roast,” he explains. Grillé will soon offer a pork version.
Food truck influence
Before this high-class kebab, the burger was probably the first fast food star to undergo a revolution. Two years ago, a first wave of Parisian food trucks (such as Le Camion Qui Fume and Cantine California) had infused new values into this symbol of the food-processing standardization.
Because Paris' city hall restricts food trucks’ activities, these McDonald’s competitors have largely shifted to fixed storefront locations. The hysteria for burgers has faded quite a bit, but the grounds for a successful business are solid, according to the long lines outside newcomers such as Bioburger (in the 9th and 2nd arrondissements) or young institutions such as Blend (2nd arrondissement) or Big Fernand (9th arrondissement).
The latter, where the welcome is as warm as its hamburgers are flavorful (such as the Alphonse and its milk-fed lamb, Savoyard tome cheese, grilled eggplant, coriander and slightly sweet sauce), is set to launch a spacious restaurant in Neuilly, a wealthy suburb just west of Paris, and may even take on New Yorkers on their own turf. Let’s just hope Big Fernand will have resolved the problem of the irregularity of its fries: sometimes crunchy, other times greasy and soggy. This crucial flaw is common to so many of these restaurants (including Grillé), that their cooks might want to spend some time in Belgium to gain experience where fries originated.
But for now, the small Big Fernand headquarters (and its branch, Little Fernand, specialized in hotdogs) will remain along the rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, which has become a sort of “quality fast food lab" in Paris. Not a week goes by on this long street without a new restaurant opening and aiming to quickly give tasty food at relatively low prices that the neighborhood’s employees and yuppies are looking for.
Bagels, sandwich shops, ravioli bars, pizza counters, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Vegetarian or Jewish-Tunisian snacks (for the past 32 years, the picturesque Bob de Tunis, in the rue Richer, 9th arrondissement, has been devoted to serving fricassees, sandwiches, fritters and fish balls of an unbeatable quality/price ratio).
The menu lists are endless and original, often high-quality, like at Lo Zio’s, who offers his own version of the piadina, a specialty from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, relatively unknown in France, made up of a flatbread (almost like a Mexican tortilla) stuffed with a mix of cheese, cooked meats and grilled vegetables.
Pizza is also undergoing a fresh rejuvination. Pizza di Loretta is one of the best of the new by-the-slice trend, known as "al taglio." The owner, David Azoulay, pays tribute to his Roman mother, because it is in the Eternal City that these large grilled rectangles, sliced and sold by weight (from 4 to 5 euros per slice), were popularized.
The base is deliciously thin and crusty, yet somehow soft. As for the toppings, the quality of the products makes the difference once again. A must-taste: the surprising potato-pizza, flavored with rosemary and truffle oil.
This commitment to simple dishes, easy to make, carry and eat, often mean these restaurants are devoted to a single product. The Sunken Chip (10th arrondissement) is one of the rare fish & chips in Paris, opened last year by the Englishman Michael Greenwold, a young chef from the “neo bistrot” Le Roseval.
Often launched by restaurant novices, these businesses’ menus are often richer when they are managed by confirmed cooks. It is the case with the Frenchie To Go, which belongs to Gregory Marchand, who was the head chef of the restaurant Frenchie before launching this American-inspired diner-deli. Here, customers can devour on-site or take-away hotdogs, pulled pork, lobster rolls, fish & chips, or pastrami sandwiches until they are licking their lips and fingers.
It is also the case with the Pointe de Grouin, which belongs to the chef Thierry Breton, who is colonizing the rue de Belzunce (10th arrondissement) — as Gregory Marchand is colonizing the rue du Nil (2nd arrondissement). Between his two restaurants, Chez Michel and Chez Casimir, which are deeply rooted into the Parisian “bistronomy” history, the chef succeeded in opening a “hors d’oeuvre bar,” as a response to the stakes set by the renewal of fast food.
Thanks to tokens (“snouts”) obtained in an automatic distributor, the customer can walk up to the huge counter of an open kitchen and order a heap of French-style tapas and eat them at any pace he likes, in a very friendly atmosphere. The homemade bread guarantees amazing sandwiches (from 4 euros), but the customer can also savor, seated or standing, with his fingers or a fork, the chef’s delicatessen, salads, sausage rolls, seafood, snouts coated with breadcrumbs, grilled lamb or woodpigeon, that Thierry Breton prepares in front of everyone. Just like a kebab chef would do.