Fresh seafood and oysters have been part of the Paris restaurant scene since Frederic Bofinger opened his eponymous brasserie in 1864 near the Bastille. It was a time when railroads were new and were just beginning to bring fresh seafood to the hordes of awaiting Parisians. BOFINGER STILL STANDS.
In the 1920s, after World War I, Rue Montparnasse was the trendy playground of Paris and folks were packing the bars, cafes and restaurants every night. It was then that the seafood restaurant LE DOME stood ready to welcome the new kid on the block: LA COUPOLE, which on opening night in 1927, is said to have popped the corks on 1200 bottles of champagne and shucked thousands of fresh oysters. Remarkably, LE DOME and LA COUPOLE flourish to this day.
After recent visits to both, LE DOME seems to be a whole lot more serious about their food. Yes, it’s a tourist spot…but I also see loads of tables that appear to be occupied by locals.
Joanne and I have had the pleasure of sampling a host of Parisian seafood places over the years: LA MAREE…MARIUS ET JANETTE…PRUNIER…all old school, but good old school. HUITERIE REGIS in the 6th specializes in oysters as well as towers of fruits de mer, including lobster, langoustine, clams, whelks and anything else that may have been caught or harvested that morning. It’s TINY, TINY TINY and I don’t think I’ve ever had any of their cooked dishes. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing a kitchen – just a pantry, with no stove.
Totally out of the tourist zone, In an unremarkable neighborhood , several blocks behind the Tour Montparnasse is one of our favorites: LA CAGOUILLE. The dining room shouts bad design from the 1950’s, but kitchen seduces with the best seafood from that morning’s haul. The menu here isn’t meant to impress, simply to bring you joy. Thank God, it does both.
All of which brings us to a new discovery – a fantastic seafood spot on the Right Bank in the 8th, not too far from the Arc de Triomphe: RESTAURANT HELEN (its tagline is “Le Culte du Poisson” – “the cult of fish”]. Now, I searched in vain to find out just who in the heck HELEN is…or was. The most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy? Or the Greek meaning, “shining light?” I just do not know.
What I do know is this….the chef/owner is an incredible talent by the name of SEBASTIAN CARMONA-PORTO. He was born in France but grew up in Spain and moved to Paris to become chef at Le Duc before moving on to HELEN.
Joanne and I first had lunch there a couple of years ago and have been back twice, both times for dinner and most recently for our anniversary. For us, it’s a special occasion restaurant – an anniversary or birthday place. Helen can be expensive, but it’s also a lifetime memory. Note: a prix fixe menu is offered at lunch for a fraction of the cost of an à la carte dinner.
The dining room is tasteful – done up in understated shades of blue and grey. The tables are nicely spaced and, if there are two of you, I’d recommend table #’s 1, 2 or 3, all near the window. That’s Joanne at table three.
OK….on to dinner. The all-seafood menu is PURE and HARD…..only stuff that swims.
I’m always tickled and frequently raise an eyebrow at restaurants’ “amuse bouche” offerings. At HELEN, by the time the third amuse bouche arrived, I didn’t just raise an eyebrow….I dropped a jaw!
Among appetizers that we have enjoyed are the Razor Clams, Char-Grilled Octopus, Raw Tuna Slices with Yuzu and Jalapeno, Langoustines with a Souffle Cap and Garlic Aioli as well as a host of Carpaccios and Crudos, depending on the day’s catch.
Mains have included Steamed Clams with Chorizo, Sole, and a minimalist block of soft ivory Halibut. However, the star of the show is the nightly selection of WHOLE FISH FOR TWO, presented and filleted tableside. While we’ve never had the Scorpion Fish with its massive head and fierce-looking, very wide and toothy mouth, we have had the seabass and, best of all, the flounder.
EVERYTHING IS VIVID, EVERYTHING IS FLAVOR!
Of course, desserts were wonderful. An all-out-assault on the dessert menu rewarded us with three chock-full-of-chocolate treasures: the millefeuille, a chocolate tart, and all-chocolate profiteroles.
I thought HELEN was our special little find, a place that might be off the radar screen, not populated with the glitterati.
But as I was exploring the delights of this restaurant, I came across this…..
Check it out. It’s the last image.