Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dinner with Maigret

L and I treated ourselves--really, the whole trip was one long treat--to a proper dinner out on our last evening in Paris. She'd cut an article out of a budget travel magazine on a restaurant that turned out to be walking distance from our Charming Apartment in the Heart of the Marais. The article said it was an Authentic Neighborhood Bistrot with Regional Specialities from Throughout France, and featured a photo of the smiling chef standing in the dining room holding a few plates of plats, main courses.

Now, I imagine that there are some among you who would not dream of going to Paris without a list of restaurants to try. A list, maybe even cross-referenced with wines and the chef's employment history. We are not that kind of travellers. It's not that food is not central to our experience. Rather it's that the restaurants that turn up in foodie magazines often seem too cool for us, or too expensive, or too fancy, or too far from where we're staying and who wants to change metro lines late at night after a good dinner? Or all of the above. Anyway, the fact that this one was in a magazine aimed at the less wealthy traveler, and its proximity to our neighborhood, were both points in its favor. So off we went.

We walked through the door at 7.45. The chef--we recognized him from the photo--was sitting at a table in front of the bar with a glass of wine, looking at his fingernails. There was no one else in evidence.

C'est un peu tôt, mesdames, he said, barely looking up. It's a little early. We're not quite ready. Come back in, oh, maybe 15 minutes.

We backed out onto the street. We looked at each other. Early? 7:45? Dinner is sometimes but a distant memory by then. Go away? I know you are paying customers and all, but I need to finish my pre-opening verre?

We were impressed. This was taking the clash between American ideas of customer service and the profit motive versus French ideas of the dignity of labor and working to live to a whole new level.

We wandered around for 25 minutes. (No way were we going to be the first ones to be seated, and no way were we going to be turned away again.) Why didn't we go to a different restaurant? We thought that any chef with the presence of mind to send away customers--well, we thought it would be interesting.

And it was. There were two other tables of customers when we went back: a French couple murmuring to each other in the corner, and three Americans in sweatpants and logo tshirts sustaining a dull, but good-tempered, roar opposite them. We ordered from the chalkboard that the hôtesse brought. Asparagus in vinaigrette, ricotta flan with herbs for the first courses. Lamb cutlets and brandade de morue for the second. Then we looked around.

The restaurant was small--perhaps a dozen tables--and the walls were unfinished stone. White lace café curtains hung in the large front windows. A wooden partition four or so feet high divided the room, with a small bar on one side and a few dining tables, and the rest of the tables on the other.

At the back of the room, in the corner opposite us, there was a table for two in front of the partition that divided the dining room from the kitchen. A brass plaque hung over it. Dedicated plaque enthusiasts, we got up to read it.

Georges Simenon, 1903-2003, it said. And, below, in a smaller script, Ici vous êtes assis à la table d'Inspecteur Maigret. Here you sit at Inspector Maigret's table.

All the bistrots in all of Paris, and we walked into this one. We've been reading Maigret since we were kids, both of us, first in English (they had a whole shelf in the Reynolda Manor Branch Public Library) and, lately, in French (ooh la la). We toasted Simenon, and Maigret, tried to figure out whether it had been Simenon's table in reality or Maigret's in fiction, and, about the time the first courses came, decided it didn't matter.

The chef delivered the asparagus and the flan. He asked who was having which. We explained we were sharing.

In that case, he said, eat the asparagus first. Its taste is more mild, and the ricotta and herbs would overshadow it.

We took his advice. The asparagus was wonderful--what you imagine the asparagus wrapped in a purple rubber band that you buy at the grocery store is going to taste like, and what it never does. Chives figured in the seasoning--chives, which grow in our garden and go to seed because we never know what to do with them--both the stems and the flowers.

The chef asked us how we liked it. We praised his work to the skies, and asked about the chive flowers.

He responded with a two minute discourse on the making of the dish. While we couldn't recreate either--the dish or the discourse--we were moved by his passion. Anyone who can wax eloquent on the marriage of mustard, vinegar, and asparagus is someone at whose table we want a place.

The lamb and the brandade came out next. M. le chef offered a little extra olive oil with the brandade--we were getting to be friends now. Brandade is, by the way, salt cod mashed with olive oil and milk. It is so much better than it sounds. Really. Comfort food. I promise.

We ate away, watching as the restaurant began to fill up with regulars. We were pretty sure that the table opposite ours was occupied by a French film star of a certain age (and a certain amount of Botox about the lips) with her daughter. Next to them sat an older couple who had brought their own bottle of wine because I never know if you're going to have anything drinkable, monsieur joked with the hôtesse. When we were nearly finished, a photographer came in, bearing his camera bags and lenses, all in black except for his shock of thick grey hair. He made the rounds of the regulars' tables, shaking hands and air kissing, and then walked through to the kitchen. He met the chef, hands full of plats, and stopped him to discuss each one.

Then he installed himself at Simenon's, or Maigret's, table.

It was time to order dessert. The chef came to take our request: a moelleux au chocolat, a crême brulée, a tarte tatin, or a fromage blanc with raspberry sauce?

We took the fromage blanc. The chef nodded in satisfaction: we had passed this, the final test. We'd shared entrées that complemented each other. We'd ordered the brandade--something off the beaten path of most foreigners. And now we had passed up both the chocolate and the twin sisters of French desserts for the homely fromage blanc.

He brought it to us; in a flat soup bowl, with the coulis poured over it, it looked like a camellia blossom. You can google fromage blanc and get plenty of sites that explain what it is, but this is all you really need to know: fromage blanc is what God intended dairy products to be. When God made cattle, it was because he had a hankering for fromage blanc.

This serving was appropriately divine. The chef came to check on us again while we were eating it. We praised it and him and, really, at this point, the whole world. He nodded, accepting responsibility graciously. Comment dit-on fromage blanc en anglais?

On dit fromage blanc, we said. There's no other word.

You know, he said, they don't even have fromage blanc in England. He said it in a way that made it clear that that fact alone explained so much about the other side of the channel.

We don't have it in America, either, we said.

Ah, said the chef wistfully. He who brings fromage blanc to America, that man will be a billionaire.

We didn't take coffee afterwards, or a tisane. We paid the bill--it was, if not exactly budget, well worth every centime--and stood up to go. The chef appeared at our side.

Take these postcards, he said, and give them to your friends in America. He handed us each a half dozen postcards bearing the restaurant's coordonnées. And come back again, anytime. He opened the door for us. We turned to say goodbye and thank him, and he shook our hands.

Merci, monsieur, we said.

Mais non, mesdames, he replied, c'est à moi. Merci à vous.


  1. Now I have a craving for fromage blanc and there is none in Virginia- none!

  2. I have just learned from our family foodie authority that in face fromage blanc is available at Whole Foods, in the cheese case, under the Vermont Family Farms brand. So I stand corrected, and you can get your fix.

  3. I have friends with cows (here in the US) and they make fromage blanc. It's delicious. I have forwarded this post on to them.

  4. Your outing sounds heavenly and I am so pleased that you included the reference for the address. I am planning to drag Le F there in the not to distant future!