La Cuisine Schizophrène
La Cave Gourmande
A decade ago, La Verriere d' Eric Frechon in the 19th was everyone’s favorite bistro. At century's end, when Frechon was summoned into the stratosphere to take over the kitchens at the Hotel Bristol, his sous-chef Mark Singer took over and changed its name to La Cave Gourmande. The regulars already knew and trusted him, so it has just a matter of adding new faces. Singer, an American chef who had trained with some of France’s finest, including Joel Robuchon, was well qualified to make a splash.
Honors have been raining down on him ever since. Michelin gave him a Bib, Time Out a red star, and this year Pudlo Paris has awarded him a coveted Coup de Cœur. His food is as impressive to look at as to taste—the plates as they come from the kitchen could blessedly replace many a trendy museum piece. And so, when my old friends Frank and Barbara were joined in Paris by a Chicago restaurant reviewer, Singer’s much-plaudited bistro seemed a logical place for us all to go.
AS usual, we asked with threadbare optimism for seats in the no-smoking area. We were escorted through the front restaurant and bar into a crowded back room. Our hostess, Chef Singer’s wife, looked grim. There was only one waiter on duty and he was darting about in a misdirected frenzy—Basil Fawlty on a bad day.
Madame withdrew and we didn’t see her again until the end of the evening. Meanwhile there began a series of delays that made Waiting for Godot seem like the hundred yard dash. Most of the food was of a quality that would have made the waiting acceptable, if only our waiter had been less frenetic and more apologetic. His frantic surliness gradually permeated the room, until the diners were muttering among themselves and casting hostile glances at their neighbors. In the endless waits between courses, they followed the time-honored French custom of ignoring anything so petty as a smoking restriction and so, during every hiatus, out came the cigarettes.
Our conversation was no louder than the other tables’, but a couple of jeunes hommes were near enough to note our American accents and decided to take vicarious revenge on our erring President. When Frank, who is highly allergic to cigarette smoke, remarked that he might have to excuse himself and wait for us outside, the two lads ostentatiously lit cigarettes and blew the smoke in our direction. One down, three to go.
As a Spartan sybarite, I can put up with almost any discomfort for the sake of gastronomic pleasure, but when my breast of wild duck arrived so fashionably undercooked as to invite resuscitation, the last vestige of pleasure was shot down along with the unfortunate bird. On the way out I had a very polite word with Madame, suggesting that there should be more help in the dining room and that the service, even if slow, should at least be apologetic. When I also mentioned the caneton tartar, she summoned her husband from the kitchen, who proceeded to lecture me on why this particular variety of duck must be served exactly as I had received it.
It emerged that he was understaffed in the kitchen and had had to cook alone for some thirty to forty covers—no mean feat, particularly with such a complex cuisine. I felt sorry for him and said as much, suggesting that a word of explanation and apology from Madame to the dining room would have made a big difference in our collective attitude.
Meanwhile, one of the chauvinists had left his table and joined our private conversation, telling me in effect that I represented everything that was wrong with my benighted country. As our party left, his patriotic peroration followed us out the door. My only regret was that I hadn’t told my fellow-American chef that he and his entourage had succeeded in offending two restaurant reviewers at one go.
In the face of unbridled critical enthusiasm, I would write off our disastrous evening as a loud hiccup were it not for two reports that have appeared among the paeans of praise. The Time Out review begins with the author’s first experience:
We were ushered through the wonderful-smelling, welcoming front room of this restaurant and seated in a poky corner at the back, where a raucous family was playing jigsaws. The manageress was snappy, rushed us through our meal and we never saw the chef.
A report in the Paris Eating web site, dated last October, is more detailed and more indignant:
Yes, the food is excellent but the rest of the experience cancelled that out entirely. Mark Singer's wife was our waitress and she was sullen and rude throughout the meal…Mme. Singer scowled at our party of three all night and looked even more angry if we asked her for something. We will never go to this restaurant again…
The gory details are here.
If I were to return to this manic-depressive establishment, I might be treated as royally as the Time Out reviewer, who on a second (anonymous?) visit was given a rapturous reception as well as a glorious repast. The review generously discounted the first disaster as a case of “frazzled nerves”. Perhaps. But our visits to Paris are precious and we don’t gamble away our bistro hours. Chef Singer has no shortage of acolytes—let them carry the torch.
La Cave Gourmande - le Restaurant de Mark Singer 10, rue du Général Brunet, 19th, Tel: 01.40.40.03.30 Mº Botzaris
©2006 John Whiting