By the time the jetliner wheels raise their smoke puffs or the Eurostar emerges from its Chunnel rails, I have sifted through a very exclusive book of Paris addresses.
Mistresses? In a sense. These are the memorable restaurants that have proven so alluring over the years that I yearn once again to embrace their prix fixe. Yet it seems that on every visit, fickle diner that I am, I discover a new love. On my most recent stay in Paris near the Invalides it was the restaurant Au Petit Tonneau at 20 Rue de Surcouf (escargot de Bourgogne).
And each time I swear to them -- and them alone -- that their gibellote exceeds everything that came before in memories dating back a half century.
Ah, those names in my little book. How much did I love thee? Let me count the ways. Crème brulée with an entire pear showing below the thin pane of caramel ... Fricassee (gibelotte) of rabbit cooked with prunes, served over rutabaga fettucine and spiced with aromatic old-world chervil ... A salad topped with sautéed chicken livers and pickled black-radish slices artfully surrounding the greens ... Sea scallops and rice mixed in pastry with winter truffles ... Fresh-water perch, pan-fried in an essence of red wine, served with a mousse that weds potatoes and hazelnut oil ... Consommé of langoustine (small, delicate lobster) with winter truffles ... Considering French wine prices, a bargain basement '92 Pauillac exceeded in my memory only by a Margaux poured in extremely cautious portions at the American ambassador's reception for the singer Pearl Bailey in 1982.
In the villages of Paris, there are out-of-the-way streets, almost an alley, where residents relentlessly pursue their insular lives, ignorant of anything surpassing the wireless. Some villagers never venture off their redoubts such as Ile St. Louis where once upon a time, on a miniscule rue, a tiny restaurant luxuriated. This is an ode to all of those.
The tables are usually clustered as tightly as the lilacs in a Paris garden. What is it about French restaurants that allows intimate whispers in tight quarters? Where one can fall madly in love with the foie gras?
There at usually few frills. Comfort and serenity, of course, and the potted palm in the entrance. But these venues are dedicated to love – the love of food. Not to the vintage cognac nor the shelves nor the copper pans dangling on the wall.
The fixed-price menu often includes a choice between rabbit or perch. Chicken livers or gizzards (gesier) fried and dropped into the salad for a slight wilting effect. Crèpes flamed in Grand Marnier on the dessert selection ... crème brulee unmatched in my culinary experience; it is interesting here to note that American fire restrictions often preclude the use of a blowtorch to properly carmelize the surface of this dessert.
Molière, Racine and La Fontaine all lived this village life of Paris and gathered at the cafes. Molière read Misanthrope to his friends in the back room of the Auberge du Mounton Blanc immediately after he had penned it. Some say that this attests to the literary fame of the districts. I maintain that it attests to the culinary fame.
So au revoir, my loves. You were ravishing. You will remain in my heart forever. Or at least until a more alluring andouillette comes along.