A la Tour de Monthéry
A la Tour de Monthéry (Chez Denise) is l’Ami Louis without the celebrities, the hype, or the extra zero tacked on to l’addition. It’s not exactly cheap, but what they regard as a normal portion would feed at least two healthy appetites. On the single occasion when I was able to empty a pot of Tripe au Calvados, I got a round of applause from the waiters.
Like everything else about this venerable establishment, the enormous quantities date back to when they were feeding the forts des Halles, the burley porters who shifted the huge food carts around the market. It’s been a restaurant for more than a hundred and fifty years, replacing an old coaching inn. Cyrano de Bergerac (the real one) was born just up the street; if he were still around, the smells from Chez Denise’s kitchen would give his king-sized nostrils something to work on. The market is long gone, but the opening hours remain the same – all day and all night, Monday through Friday, and closed at week-ends. It’s in all the guide books, but if it were removed tomorrow, the tables would still be full. Publicity is superfluous – they don’t even bother to maintain a website.
For years I’ve wanted to take my tobacco-phobic friend Frank there, but the dark walls didn’t get that way from paint; the smoke was so thick that you needed a stick to feel your way to your seat. Now the tables have turned, so to speak. In the new era, if you want clean air you eat inside; out on the sidewalk you’re surrounded with an olfactory cyclorama of tiny conflagrations.
You enter Chez Denise past one of the few remaining old zinc bars in Paris (above). Inside is a long double row of tables so close that you are likely to come away having made new friends (or enemies) on either side. We were brought the ardoise, but I hardly needed to glance at it – the dishes on offer have been much the same since time immemorial. I knew that I wanted to start with the foie gras and end with the Tripe au Calvados – if I did them justice, there would be no room for dessert. Frank skipped the starter and opted for the lamb chops.
As I knew from experience, there would be two large hunks of foie gras (above right), enough for me to share them generously and not feel deprived. Frank’s main course consisted of four good-sized chops and an enormous plate of perfect frites, with which he required assistance – one does what one must.
As I expected, my old friend the Tripe was not quite at the level of gastronomic complexity as that which I’d had the month before at Pharamond, but the latter is in my experience unique – there is no other remotely like it. Both are excellent; on some sort of Parker-esque scale, I’d rank them at 98 and 95. After helping Frank with his frites (and part of a lamb chop), I made no effort to finish the pot, thus saving my Mr. Creosote act for another day. Dessert? Sir, you jest!
Unless you’re feeling flush, the wine to drink at Chez Denise is the quaffable house Brouilly, which sits near the door in huge barrels. An open litre bottle is brought to the table and you pay for what you drink. If you guzzle the lot, it’ll cost you a reasonable 20€.
At the next table was a family of two parents and two late teen-aged girls from Mexico City. The older girl had the Tripe, which she had eaten on a previous visit. Not your typical Mexican meal, but what typical Mexican can afford to dine in Paris? She kindly offered to snap Frank and me, stuffed to the gills, and so here we are, preserved for all eternity (or until Google is gobbled up by Murdock).
For over thirty years, Chez Denise has been one of my favourite Paris bistros. In the dead of winter it’s as full of Parisians as it is full of tourists in the high seasons; they know that its eccentricity is the result of tradition, not invention. If “authenticity” has any real meaning, this is where you’ll find it.
A la Tour de Monthéry (Chez Denise) 5 rue des Prouvaires 1st
Tel: 01 42 36 21 82 Mº Louvre-Rivoli
©2009 John Whiting