. . .it is not chic to dine in August
A La Bonne Table
August is not the best time to come to Paris for a bistro marathon, but that’s the month that our old friend Frank was going to be there. It was also the month of Mary’s and my ruby wedding anniversary, thus making two good reasons to accept the challenge of finding a week’s worth of good meals when most of the independent bistros close their shutters.
With nearly a thousand restaurants listed in Pudlo Paris, there had to be enough still open to cross MacDonald’s off the list. Sure enough, we were to have ten good meals in six days—good enough, in fact, to pass on the names to intrepid fellow-travellers choosing to explore Paris when the natives are away on holiday.
The first priority was to find a bistro for the first night within walking distance of Frank’s pied-a-tere near the south edge of the 14th Arr. Even those not identified in Pudlo as August no-go areas kept answering my phone calls with long recorded messages in which the words fermé and vacances gave ample evidence of their content. In the process I learned that the restaurant holiday schedules as listed in the guide books are about as useful as a 1914 Balkan Railway timetable. Finally I got a live voice at the other end who was able not only to understand my franglaise, but to assure me of a reservation. First hurdle surmounted—would our luck hold out?
In the event, A La Bonne Table proved to be an old-fashioned bistro with old-fashioned prices. During this Tuesday evening its pink linen-laid tables were gradually filled by a clientelle that made Frank and me feel—how shall I put it?—not conspicuously aged.
The first remarkable thing that the carte revealed was that the 29€ menu was for four courses, not the usual three. After we had made our selection, a bit of simple arithmetic told me that what Mary and I were getting for a total of 64€ would, if ordered a la carte, come to 112€. The difference, I told myself, would more than pay for a decent bottle, and so I happily ordered a 2005 Gisselbrecht Gewurtztraminer at 29€, an excellent wine currently offered online by one American distributor for about the same price in dollars. Gewurtz is remarkably versatile and is often suggested as an accompaniment to oriental meals of varying ethnicity. With a menu degustation, I find that it can work as well as switching wines with every course. And Mary prefers a sweeter wine than I do; Gewurtz makes us both happy.
Our meal began with a Salade de crevettes aux fines herbes [left] and a Salade délice de foie gras dè canard maison [right]. There’s not much to say about simply dressed prawns or foie gras. It’s easy not to spoil them, and unspoiled they make their own statement; I never tire of them.
We both chose fish as our main course—for me, Filet de Daurade royal, sauce à la Tapenade [left]; for Mary, Filet de Bar poêlé, épinards [right]. Mary’s sea-bass was done to perfection, as was the fresh spinach. (We're used to it out of our own garden, and this did not disappoint.) My bream was a bit dry but the tapenade was nicely judged in strength and quantity and the fresh pasta was a welcome complement.
The Plateau de fromages was a genuine cheese board, not just a few wedges served up on a plate. The three that I sampled were not fully mature, but the chef redeemed himself with the Soufflés chaud aux Mirabelles that followed. All three were risen to perfection and showed no trace of flour having been added to the mixture to delay their collapse.
How often do you encounter a genuine hot soufflé as a dessert option in any but the more expensive establishments? It was just one more hint that this entire experience had taken place in a time warp. As if to emphasize its esoterity, the maitre d' displayed a serious demeanor in spite of any attempts to make him smile. I started watching his exchanges with other diners, many of whom were apparantly regulars, and he maintained a Jeevesian sobriety—not once did the corners of his mouth twitch upwards. (This might have been related to the fact that he was covering the whole room unasisted, and without unseemly haste.) But no matter; we had come for food, not for laughter. Among establishments at this level of formality it is a bargain and a very Bonne Table indeed.
A La Bonne Table 42, rue Friant, 14 Arr, Tel: 01 45 39 74 91, Mº Porte-de-Orléans
Even before we had eaten here, this bistro had very special associations for Mary and me. It shared its name with one of the very first places in Paris at which we had dined together thirty-five years before [left]. Located in the rue Seveste, a street running south from the bottom of the stairs that climb up to the Sacre Coeur, it gave us a simple but generous four-course luncheon for approximately ten shillings each, a pound in total. What a bargain! But it's easy to forget that in those meagre days a school teacher took home around eighty pounds a month. As for the bistro itself, the corner was long ago taken over by one of the cheap fabric shops that now dominate the area.
©2008 John Whiting