La Grille and Le Refuge du Passé
There are two remarkable Paris bistros which are often left out of the guidebooks, perhaps from a certain embarrassment. La Grille’s dining room is an extravagant fantasy that led me to expect an aggressively gay maitre d’ rather than a formidable grande dame with a venerable husband in the kitchen. Yves and Geneviève Cullerre maintain a unique culinary and ambient tradition which no one will ever be able to take over from them. The high camp décor has been gradually assembled over the years, not just installed in a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy overnight makeover.
But it’s not just the old lace, the hats and the memorabilia that make it remarkable. A blind diner would be equally moved by the beurre blanc alone, constructed to such an extraordinary standard as to make the rest of the carte almost superfluous. Chef Cullere combines butter from Nantes, wine vinegar, fish stock and shallots with a skill said to be unmatched in Paris today. If you are there alone in the fall, order it served over the best sea scallops you will ever experience, complete with coral. (I had scallops three times at different restaurants in one Paris visit and none came close.) If you are out of the scallop season and are accompanied, then persuade your partner – command if necessary – to join you in the Normandy turbot for two. If you are alone, then order it anyway and get through it somehow. Either will be accompanied by the finest Auvergne-style layered potato and bacon cake smothered in butter you will ever experience. You won’t think you can get through it all – but you will!
Yves Cullere’s Boeuf Bourguignon and Tête de Veau are also excellent, but don’t even think about them until you’ve experienenced his beurre blanc. It brought to mind Mme Alice Michel who started serving up her own marvelous version around the time that I was born. Chez le Mère Michel was still preeminent when Mary and I first went to Paris in 1973 and gobbled up beurre blanc made from Nantais butter generously slathered over pike. Years later I returned alone for the same memorable feast. I arrived early. Shortly after I was seated a Frenchman appeared and was greeted with a warmth reserved for regular diners. He had already generously lubricated his larynx and made his way to the table next to mine with the careful precision of a man intent on demonstrating his sobriety. He continued chattering away to the waitress and then turned to me, making a remark to which he obviously expected an answer.
“Pardon, monsieur,” I responded apologetically, “Je ne parle Francais.”
“Ugh!” he responded, drawing out the syllable in obvious disgust. He ignored me for the rest of the evening, easily anihilating another bottle of wine. Finally over coffee he turned to me again and addressed a civil remark in strongly accented but perfectly grammatical English. We exchanged pleasantries until he departed half an hour later.
Are Parisians rude? Perhaps only when they’re sober.
Le Refuge du Passé is a different kettle of fish. Passé indeed – it has a website as camp as its décor. When I went there in search of a decent cassoulet, I could see through the windows that the walls were covered with theatrical posters and curled photos of luvvies in eternal embrace. It would have made a perfect set for La Cage aux Folles.
That evening the restaurant filled up rapidly with several parties—all straight—who seemed to be anticipating an entertainment of some sort. The maitre de, who was as camp as his posters, greeted us all effusively. Ordering from a set menu, I started with a lentil salad topped with a lightly poached egg. Tasty. Then the cassoulet, which, as soon as it reached the table, was obviously superior to many passing under that name. The texture was creamy; the beans held their shape until bitten into and then dissolved; there was a generous proportion of confit; and the sausage was thick, juicy and well garlicked. No trace of crust, but that’s hard to manage when it’s reheated to order.
In the meantime our maitre de was chatting up the tables one by one, gradually pulling them together into a collective farce. The skill with which he played us off against each other suggested that he must have spent some years on the stage before retiring to front-of-house. My dessert arrived, an over-the-top dish of vanilla ice cream with syrupy mirabelle plums, flamed with eau de vie. Cloyingly rich, but delicious and appropriate to the occasion.
When everyone had been served, the chef came out and was subjected to a well-polished patter of insults from the maitre de. They did a Laurel and Hardy routine in which they slagged each other off, taking turns being on top. I was pulled in along with the other diners, unable to grasp the jokes but nevertheless having to respond with ambiguous pantomime that drew laughs which I couldn’t interpret. It was all rather surreal but lots of fun. Everyone went away happy. Decent, reasonably priced food, amusing entertainment. It wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
La Grille 80, rue du Faubourg-Poissonière, 10 th, Tel: 01 47 70 89 73, Mº Poissonnière
Le Refuge du Passé, 32, rue du Fer à Moulin (5th) Tel: 01 47 07 29 91, Mº Gobelin
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