Generous to a fault
Les Ormes is of a distinguished lineage. After Chef Stéfane Molé trained under Robuchon, he and his wife Régina opened a seriously formal bistro in the 16 th which attracted the seriously sober locals plus a growing band of pilgrims who were prepared to make the odyssey to the western extremity of the Peripherique.
That was several years ago. Now the Molés have taken over the elegant premises of Le Bellecour in the more accessible 7 th, a short stroll from the Metro Invalides. When Mary and I arrived for dinner, we had trouble finding it and had to look up the exact address. It was only then that we realized that there was no sign to indicate its location, just the old Bellecour sign across the upper front with an “under new management” banner draped partly across it.
We went inside, slightly but not seriously late, and asked the formidable waiter at the door if this was indeed Les Ormes. He replied rather condescendingly in manner of Basil Fawlty, as though we had asked a stupid question to which the answer should be self-evident.
Someone was leaving just as we were arriving and there was a moment of confusion. Before escorting us to our table, our now exasperated waiter remarked, “Excuse me while I close the door.” This could be translated as, “You dolts! Were you raised in a barn?!” We were beginning to feel as though we had blundered into Le Tours en Defaut.
We were escorted to a lonely table in the corner, feeling as though we were in quarantine. A young, rather nervous waitress brought us the carte, but no wine list. While we were making our selection the imperious guardian of the door suddenly returned and snatched away the plates from in front of us without a word of apology, leaving the silver askew and unadjusted.
The young waitress returned to take our order. I knew in advance that I wanted the Quenelle de brochet et son coulis de langoustines façon Bellecour, for which, in the memorable words quoted by John Talbott, “a lot of animals had been sacrificed.” I ordered it, only to be told the French equivalent of “Dumplings are off, dear.” There had been no warning when we were handed the cartes that they were overly optimistic. At that moment I briefly considered storming out and finding somewhere – anywhere – with an empty table.
“May I recommend the jarret de veau,” she added, or words in French to that effect. My brain having turned itself off, I meekly gave assent. It proved to be my best non-decision of the evening.
We decided on our selections and I asked, not for the first or the last time, for the wine list.We had lunched so generously at Le Duc de Richelieu that an entrée this evening was superfluous. But when did that ever stop a whiting from hoovering up the ocean floor – we’re bottom feeders – and so I opted for a starter, exhibiting a modicum of restraint by choosing a modest Gaspacha de tomates fraîches, filet de rouget sur croûtons.
It proved to be the turning point at which the food became the center of our attention. It was as good a cold tomato soup as I had ever encountered, topped with perfectly fried fillets of red mullet, and tiny crunchy pellets of crouton that exploded lightly in the mouth like the little strings of ladyfinger firecrackers I remembered from so many years ago.
Jarret de veau braisé à la cuiller, gnocchis de pomme de terre et étuvée de carottes proved to be my favorite form of meat – a flavorful cut gradually forced into total submission by the gentle persistence of long slow cooking, so that it could indeed be cut with a spoon, or even gummed to death by an edentate centenarian. The gnocchi were as light as gnocchi should be but rarely are. Meanwhile, Mary’s Queue de lotte rôtie sur une emulsion d-ognons doux, blettes et pommes façon boulangère was giving her equal satisfaction.
From the wine list I had ordered a William Feure Chablis 2002, which proved to be excellent, and at a reasonable price. Curious as to whether I had properly remembered the “William”, I took it out of the ice bucket to check. Immediately it was snatched out of my hand by the terrified waitress, afraid that I might be about to – horror of horrors! – pour my own wine. I explained that I was only looking at the label, whereupon she returned it to the bucket, failing to notice that my glass was in fact empty.
Her proprietary interest was not limited to the wine bottle. When I attempted to replenish our water glasses from the carafe left on the table, she again took it from me and filled the glasses herself. It was the first time I’d not been allowed to pour my own water; I had the feeling that if I had resisted she would actually have fought me for it..
Meanwhile, the food proved to be so superbly prepared that the gaucheries of service became merely an entertainment. With age one learns that a social error committed by another should be a source of embarrassment to the perpetrator, not to the innocent victim.
After such riches, I was happy with an elaborate mouth cleanser, the Assortiment de glaces et de sorbets maison. They were all pleasurable, including an apple purée which apparently consisted of sieved frozen applesauce. Being an applesauce lover, I had no complaint.
Mary’s desert was a Tarte fine aux cerises noires, crème glacée au fromages blanc, which she chose partly to compare it with a previous cherry tart at Mon Vieil Ami. It stood up well to the competition, but the fromages blanc ice cream could better have been common or garden vanilla.
At the end of the meal Mary made her usual trial request for hot chocolate. This was dealt with to perfection. Our waitress said she would ask and her next-in-command came out to explain apologetically that it was not available. Much better than the usual haughty negative suggesting that “We don’t do that sort of thing.” My coffee was supurb, as were the accompanying petit fours.
I’ve had a certain wicked enjoyment in detailing what may well be the growing pains of a new establishment; but I should end by reporting that the quality of the food we had eaten was the most sophisticated and the best realized of our five days in Paris. We agreed that we would happily return, even if the service were to prove similarly left-handed. (With forewarning, we would regard it as a sort of floor show.)
Madame Molé, when we encountered her later in the evening, proved to be the perfect embodiment of graciousness. She was particularly appreciative when Mary pointed out a sharp point protruding through the banquette’s upholstery that might do serious damage to an expensive silk dress. Our memories of Les Ormes are more of the Happy Isles than of Fawlty Towers and we would happily renew them.
Les Ormes, 22 rue Surcouf, 7 th, Tel: 01 45 51 46 93, Mº Invalides
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