Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Might Have Dreamed This

But I'm pretty sure I didn't.

I landed in Paris Tuesday afternoon, and found the hotel I'd reserved with a service I'd never used before. Pretty dingy, as was the neighborhood, which was close to Barbes, the largely African quarter. If I'd had more time, like another day, I'd probably have gone in search of the place where a man who claimed to be "the spiritual leader of the entire Senegalese community here in Paris," told me, in perfect English, of his training with the French Air Force in Oklahoma and Texas. They had great fish baked with lemon there, and I bet they had other good stuff, too.

But I knew that in 24 hours I'd be back in a place which, next to California and Texas, would have extremely limited food options, and I wanted to celebrate the possibility of gastronomic greatness one more time. Which, considering I was in Paris, shouldn't have been too difficult.

If only. Well, okay, when I woke up from my jet-lag nap and splashed some water on my face and decided to get out of the nasty room and go look for something to eat I left my indispensable Michelin Map 11 behind, not the smartest move in a city I only know in bits and pieces.

I figured, hey, I didn't have a lot of money, so I should just find some brasserie or cheap joint with a blackboard out front with some appealing choices, go in, and enjoy myself. I was tired, I'd go back to the hotel, read a little, and pass out. Seemed like a plan. Surely the neighborhood, so close to the Gare du Nord, would have plenty of places like that.

So I walked down the street the hotel was on, the rue du Faubourg du Poissonnier. After a few blocks, I saw a tiny place that looked like it hadn't changed in fifty years, but the prices -- no "menu," or multi-course, single-price meals, a la carte only -- seemed a bit high. I glanced at it and moved on. And on.

I walked down the rue des Incredibly Fat Prostitutes and wondered whether the forty-ish men who were striking poses in Calvin Klein yuppie wear on the same block were in the same business or the girls' "business managers." I made a turn and found myself on the rue du Wholesale Clothing. I found a sign which said I was in the Marais, a neighborhood I not only know, but which is stuffed with restaurants, but I couldn't figure out where I was. An hour had passed, and I was now officially hungry, not to mention somewhat lost. But luckily, I almost always have a compass in my head, and it wasn't like I'd never been in this general neighborhood. It's just that except for kebab houses and the occasional designer sushi place, there didn't seem to be anything at all to eat.

Further walking brought me to République and loads of dining options: Quick, Mac Do, Kentucky Fried... This was getting ridiculous. I decided to head back to the hotel and hit someplace by the station. I found myself on the rue du Château d'Eau, which is one African barbershop after another, men's and women's alternating, with the expected amount of socializing. Even on a Tuesday night, it was churning. But nothing to eat.

All of a sudden, I was back on the rue du Faubourg du Poissonnier. Now, that place I'd seen hours ago -- well, 90 minutes ago -- didn't seem so intimidating. I hesitated over the menu, then said to hell with it and walked in.

The front room was very small. A tiny bar was off to the left, as well as a spiral staircase pitched so that I was praying they didn't seat customers up there. A very morose middle-aged Indochinese woman (I use the word because you could tell that the country she'd left behind when she first got to Paris was French Indochina) was bringing out some panniers of raspberries. An old woman sat on a banquette to the right wearing a fawn cloth coat which one could say had seen better days except that it was also evident that it had never been anything but drab. Next to her sprawled a large dog, boxer-like but with a graphite-colored coat. She held its head in her lap and was stroking it. Between her and the bar were the entrance to the dining room and a table loaded with stuff to be served cold: some sort of terrine, something jellied, and the berries.

A stout, no-nonsense woman with pixie glasses emerged from the dining room. "Are you still open?" I inquired. She stared at me, giving me a top-to-bottom assessment. "Of course," she said. "What are you afraid of?" Huh? Was my French that bad? "Well," I said, "I'm hungry," and she smiled and led me into the tiniest restaurant dining room I've seen. Part of the problem was a huge party of perhaps 15 people against the back wall had taken up a lot of the room. I wound up wedged over by the silverware and bread service, scrutinizing the same menu that had been posted outside. The prices were still stiff, but it seemed that you could do okay if you were careful. And surely there was a house wine so I didn't have to order a whole bottle of one of the three on offer.

So: from a very basic menu, two very basic choices. Rabbit terrine and beef Bourgignon "a la ancienne," made the old way. Like I was aware there was a new way. The stout woman's male counterpart was a short, busy man who was obviously her husband, and it was he who took my order. "No, no rabbit terrine," he said. "Poultry. Even better." His eyebrows shot up when I ordered the beef, and I asked him if there were a house red I could have a pichet of. The eyebrows went up again, and he said "Of course!"

The wine and a basket of excellent bread appeared right away. I have no idea what the wine was except I suspect it was a Bordeaux, and it was better than any house wine I'd ever had. The terrine appeared next, and it was perfect: lots of elements mixed in, pistachios and peppercorns, organ meat and meaty bits, the whole thing finishing with a slight tang of alcohol which I suspect was marc, the grape-skin liqueur. As I was savoring it, I was presented with a crock of cornichons, a touch I've never really gotten, and one I'd never seen before which was perfect: sweet-sour pickled cherries. You don't want to eat a lot of them, but they do wake up your tongue.

Monsieur appeared again to take the empty plate, and informed me, gesturing at the long table, that it would be several minutes before the next course arrived. That was fine with me. I sipped the wine, ate a bit of bread, and looked at my dining companions. I couldn't make sense out of the long table, and in fact the only definite impression I had was that I was going to bop the kid who was sitting nearest me, who took to leaning waaaay back in his chair to the point where his arms, which were behind his head when he did this, almost touched me. The group was mostly young, mostly very square-looking, and utterly forgettable. Not so the woman who was at one of the tables directly on the other side of the room from me, dining with a male companion who was impeccably dressed. She looked to be in her mid-40s, and her unlined face and high cheekbones bespoke a sense of humor and an intelligence which was telegraphed by her facial expressions on occasion as she talked with the man. She was wearing a ring with a stone which, if it were a diamond (and how can you tell from across the room?) would have kept me alive for a year. It was big enough that I wondered if it were real. Next to her were two guys, one young, one old, who were just finishing, and right by the entrance to the room was another pair of men who were always taking out hand-held devices and running figures. Both were speaking English, one with a notable French accent, one with the kind of accent native speakers get when they've been speaking another language for a long time. I never did figure out what kind of business they were in.

The Bourgignon appeared at last, and with it a round white thing with brown bits showing which turned out to be made up of potatoes, onions, and bacon, all molded into the shape of a cake layer. As for the stew, it was perfumed with the wine, cooked long enough that the bits of meat could be cut with a spoon, the whole thing topped with a few pearl onions and tiny carrots. I cautioned myself to go very slowly; this was too good to eat too quickly: the stew, the potatoes, the wine. It was, I began to realize, ridiculously old-fashioned, as was the decor. There was a shelf which went around the room on three sides. One part had ladies' straw hats, the one above me men's top hats, and the long wall against which the large party was seated was a hat miscellany which included a pilot's helmet and a diver's rig.

The two English-speaking guys were presented with a cheese plate and a new bottle of white wine, which they insisted on sharing with the hosts. Madame politely took a bit in a glass and they talked for a while. Finally, the American said something in French which ended with the word "mistress," and Madame straightened up, grabbed her glass and stalked from the room. I could see her, though, as she staggered up to the bar, finally able to let loose the laughter she hadn't wanted to let go in the dining room. She was laughing and gasping for air so loudly that the American wondered if she were okay. She eventually got herself under control, walked back in the room with a few tears still leaking out of her eyes, said something concise, and everyone laughed some more.

Even with the uptight bourgeoisie splayed against the back wall, I felt right at home in this place, which was inexplicable because I wasn't really interacting with anyone. But there was nonetheless a feeling of being guests, not customers, and it was a groove that was easy to fall into. Before long, though, I was finished, and being uncertain of the eventual bite, I declined dessert or cheese. Monsieur presented the bill, a whopping €44.40 -- 14 more than I'd wanted to spend, and just about half the money in my pocket.

I knew I was returning to extreme financial uncertainty, the possibility that I'd be completely out of money when I got back to Berlin. I knew I didn't have any work ahead of me, and only one magazine owed me money and was so overdue that I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see it. I had no ideas what bills would have come in the mail while I was gone. I suspected I'd have a letter from my landlord waiting -- he hadn't heard from me since December, after all -- and as it turned out I was right.

But none of that mattered right at that moment. I'd had one of the best meals of my life, in surroundings that were eccentric and redolent of an age that's definitely past. I'd felt at ease and happy to be alive. That's what I'd paid for, and you can't put a price tag on it.

Monsieur had opened the front door and was standing outside on the sidewalk. What, I asked him, was that potato thing? "Gallette Lyonnaise," he answered. "Potatoes, onions, bacon. You put it on the plate to look like a cake, which is why the 'gallette.'" "And the potatoes make it Lyonnaise," I said. "Exactly." The air was cool and bracing. "You are at a hotel?" he said, pointing down the hill. "The hotel," I said, pointing up the hill. "Ah, rue Lafayette," he decided. I didn't disabuse him. He extended his hand. "Well, my friend, thank you very much. Come again." I told him I would and he went back inside. I started the climb to the firetrap I was going to call home for the night.

* * *

Post script: In writing this, I pulled out my bill for the first time since I'd paid it. Weirdly, it looks like the wine, at 19.80, was the most expensive thing on the ticket, since I remember the terrine at 7.80 and the Bourgignon at 16.80. Clever trick, although I can't prove anything because Monsieur's handwriting is totally unreadable. And this Frommer's review confirms that this wasn't just a lucky find -- if nothing else, the award from the French tourism folks confirms that there may be some calculation in what I saw. Still, the chef's credentials from places like the Cordon Bleu were genuine, and showed. It was a great way to end the trip.

Restaurant de la Grille, 80 rue du Faubourg Poissoniere, 75010 Paris. Reservations: 47 70 89 73


Anonymous said...

great post ed; good to know too that such discreet doorways can still lead to such tasty, traditional (and proudly finessed) fare. similar to what we stumbled upon, twice, wandering around the marais cold and hungry back in the fall of '02, yet unable to replicate anywhere in berlin... those diners in the marais had big slabs of roasted meat (lamb, pork) in corners of their tiny dining rooms, carved up in front of u just like in ye olden days ;)

Anonymous said...

Ed, you paint the picture so beautifully and your walk, while quite a trek, and on an empty stomach, seems to have taken you through half of Paris. And that place sounds like a real find, so money well spent. Hope it's not TOO bad being back in Berlin. Have you bumped into Brangelina yet?

Anonymous said...

a delightful tale, and so nice to hear you having a spot of enjoyment as well! it is for just these sort of unexpected pleasures that i love paris. but welcome back to berlin - we've kept the Gammelfleisch warm for you!

Ed Ward said...

Y'know, BiB, I don't think I'd know Brangelina if they bit me.

And yeah, William: Paris is beef Bourgignon and Berlin is Gammelfleisch. That's it in a nutshell.

rkarraker said...

Ed, that's a wonderful story. Yeah, prices are a bit up in Paris, but when the food is good what can you say. Twenty Euros for pichet does seem pretty high.

Be sure to tell us what's next in your saga. I'm sorry I didn't get to see more of you at that dinner in Mill Valley.

daggi said...

I'm hungry and I want to hop on the next train to Paris. Now.

Olaf said...

My thoughts exactly, Daggi. I just had dinner and now I'm starving.

Jeez, Ed, your description of the food and scene had me smelling, hearing, and seeing the place, even to the look of the front step as you turned uphill to that "firetrap." Wonderful post.

And while Berlin is no Paris, be glad you're not trapped in the land of Applebee's and Red Lobster. It's hell on earth. Thank god my wife likes to cook.

Anonymous said...

All I can say to the above comments is moi aussi.

What I'm dying to know is: do you know of any good polar bear recipies?

pat said...

Nice one,Ed. I love those moments where you don't know what sort of a hole in the wall you've landed in, then it turns out to be a hole in the wall with an aesthetic. They make one want to keep traveling, hmm?