Eating in Paris these days is an increasingly schizophrenic experience. On the one hand, there are more and more food factories, large and small, which could be anywhere in the world, and more and more people from everywhere in the world to keep them solvent. I haven't seen any figures how could they be arrived at? but I would guess that this now includes a majority of the places where you can order something to eat. Even the old-fashioned cafés where you can save a few centimes by standing at the zinc will happily serve you a frizzled burger or a microwaved pizza. Upmarket, there are dozens of international hotels where you can spend a fortune on Lemon Grass with Everything, parachuted down from the Great Thai in the Sky.
But there are still scores of Paris restaurants which, against the rising tide of commerciality and anonymity, attempt in their various ways to take food seriously. At the top of the heap is Taillevent, which, after more than half a century in the same location, still ignores the dictates of both fashion and finances and aims simply at a sort of Platonic perfection. Foreigners are tolerated, but Mssr. Vrinat reserves at least half his tables for his fellow-countrymen.
In a time of tightening belts, lesser divinities such as Claude Terrail of the Tour d'Argent have felt the need to cultivate an alter ego: modest establishments, metaphorically "below stairs", where the lesser cuts of meat can be served up in tasty stews [cf. Marilyn Monroe on matzo balls: "What do they do with the rest of the matzo?"]. But the move down-market has not produced an automatic profit; some overly-optimistic chefs have found that they are merely losing less money.
What of the ambitious young chefs at the beginning of their careers, with no fortune and a name to come? In London, many such high flyers are doing very well. They have the distinct advantages of working in a city where (1) a lot of newly-acquired money is being tossed around; (2) press agents and spin doctors are so vital to the economy that they are sometimes taken seriously; (3) celebrity chefs and celebrity comics are at the top of the TV hit parade and are often interchangeable; and (4) there are so many untrained palates that garishly colored, precariously architected dishes may safely be erected for photography rather than consumption. (Like Abe's legendary sardines, they're for trading, not eating.)
Paris, however, not only has a large population of serious eaters, but is also a Mecca for foodie pilgrims from all over the world. They're enthusiastic, they're well-informed, and they're not prepared to throw money away. And so a number of young chefs, trained in the great hotels and restaurants, have jumped off the precarious haute cuisine ladder, presented their training as security for the necessary loan to get themselves started, and opened their own modest bistros out near the peripherique. If they're good, word gets around that there's another gastronomic bargain to be had.
Jeffrey Steingartenthe self-declared Man who
Ate Everythinghas been spending a lot of time at these modest
showcases and he has liked what he's eaten. He is paid so generously
by Vogue for his exclusive services that he can afford to research an
article as if he were an Oxford life fellow, so when Steingarten approves
of something, I take notice.
Consultation with AutoRoute Express, my Microsoft Vergil, confirmed that this restaurant, at the lower edge of the 14th Arrondissement very near the Porte de Châtillon, was perfectly located for a break in the last leg of my journey back to London. (Break a leg!-an old theatrical toast.) In fact, if I were to leave Lancie, just south of Macon, by mid-morning and follow a scenic route, I would reach the peripherique at about six, just as the parking restrictions went off. And so I phoned the restaurant, three weeks in advance as advised, and was able to secure a booking for opening time at seven-thirty.
On the day, everything went like greased chippolatas. Trusty Vergil, asked for a scenic route, guided me through Cluny, hitherto only a name in history but suddenly alive as the city that a thousand years ago had housed the most powerful abbey in all of Christendom. Then through the Morvan Nature Park, forty miles west of the A6 motorway (the main north-south route through central France) but light years away from its noise and traffic. In the early afternoon, concerned about my arrival time, I reprogrammed my journey over to the N6, which brought me through still beautiful country to Fontainebleau, where it seamlessly joined the A6 motorway for the last (free) section leading into the south of Paris. I easily found a parking place a couple of blocks from La Régalade, fifteen minutes before my ETA.
With an hour and a half to spare before the restaurant opened, I strolled over to have a close look at the posted menu with the aid of my Youell & Kimball (I'm not proud.) On the way back to the van I spotted an interesting hotel down a side street and took a detour which may well affect my next stay in Paris. At the end of a residential cul-de-sac, surrounded by respectable apartment houses, was the Châtillon Hotel, a quiet, retiring two-star establishment with a pleasant lad behind the counter who gave me its card, bearing the remarkable but accurate claim, "Calme absolut". No time to look at a room, but the lobby was simple, clean and tasteful. Just off the peripherique, it's very convenient to drive to; there's a parking garage close by and the nearest metro station gets you into the center in a few minutes. It's also handy for those who may also want to use Paris as a hub for driving into the countryside-which, if you're staying in the middle, is out of the question. The price of a room for two, 330 francs, will produce disbelief in anyone who has recently stayed in a modestly comfortable Paris hotel.
After a stroll around the neighborhood I returned just after opening time and, though the restaurant was empty, was taken to a table immediately adjacent to a Berkeley-ish American couple in a far corner. The tables-for-two along the wall were jammed so close together that I had difficulty squeezing through and tucking my shoulder bag onto the bench. We sat huddled like passengers in a crowded stagecoach. Was this the American ghetto? My neighbors were in the middle of a conversation, which they continued in that mezzopiano which says, "We may not be whispering, but this is a private conversation."
Would I care for an aperitif? Explaining to the waitress that I must drive to London after dinner, I handed back the wine list and asked for a Badoit. Ignoring my specific request, she brought me a local brand from the Southwest, which was fine. Unusually-and those who have been in the restaurant business will appreciate my point-I was brought a small bottle, while my neighbors had been served with a large one. It's common to stick the single diner with a whole litre of water. Multiply him by a few thousand, and that's a lot of extra francs on the collective bills. Full marks.
Among the starters was a cochonnaille, a collection of cold meats and patés "whose disappearance from the menu," says Steingarten, "might cause a riot among the regulars". It came in a succession of pots and packets which threatened to spill over onto the floorit was Christmas! (No gasps of amusement or astonishment from the next table; they continued to play the Quiet Americans.) The flavor was as good as the drama, including a rough terrine de campagne every bit as tasty as Francine's the previous week. And there was an idea I shall immediately steal: paper-thin slices of strong salami in a spicy-hot marinade. The bread, tough and tasty, was a worthy vehicle.
The menu was fixed price (165 francs), with a few dishes carrying a supplemental charge. Among these, wood pigeon on a bed of wild rice with a red wine sauce had caught my eye. First a finger bowl arrived, which was encouraging-they expected me to engage it properly rather than tickle it with a steak knife. Alas, a hammer and chisel would have been useful: the breast meat was chewable, but the legs were impregnable. The poor little creature must have been unearthed in a Neolithic burial site. I remembered, wistfully, an old Knightsbridge restaurant called The Fiddlers Three where thirty years ago I used to order wood pigeon in wine sauce for seven shillings sixpence (less than a dollar). The Good Food Guide, 1965, asked, "How do they get them so tender?" Maybe pigeons weren't so tough in those days.
At about the same time my neighbors' main courses arrived. One of them was, unmistakably, a cassoulet. Steingarten had described it as "epitomic". Would I summon the chutzpah to ask for a forkful? No point. Under the thin crust, it was pale and watery, a rather anaemic bean soup. My neighbor was noticeably chewing on the beans. "Nadiral" would have been my adjective.
Am I spoiled by impractical domestic standards of long slow cooking? A few days later I ate in the simple public lunchroom of the French Institute in Edinburgh. Cassoulet was on the menu at less than a fiver and had sold out early, but there was a tiny portion left in the dish which the waitress generously brought us as a taster. The juices were thick but not solid, the beans had held their shape but instantly dissolved in the mouth: in other words, in spite of simple, inexpensive ingredients, it was, in texture and overall flavor, a perfect cassoulet. It can be done-and, by a trained chef from the Southwest, by golly it should be done!
Hot Grand Marnier soufflé for desert. There's something you can't fake: a soufflé rises or it doesn't. This one rose, but in a most unusual fashion-straight up out of the ramekin with perfectly smooth cylindrical sides and an absolutely flat top, and dead white like a professional meringue. And it was delicious. How is it done? Answers on a postcard.
By this time my neighbors and I had thrown reserve to the winds and entered into pleasant conversation. It was nearly ten o'clock. A waitress approached and none too politely asked us to leave; others were waiting for our tables. Apparently they count on two sittings a night. Fair enough; but it would have been nice to know in advance. I was reminded of a luncheon I once had with George Mully in Soho's Food For Thought. After a scant half-hour they asked for the table. George said, "I see. Lots of food, but not much thought."
But I'm shouting into the wind. "The best young chef in Paris," says the Zagat Survey of Paris Restaurants (the book the pros love to hate). "For the price, it is perhaps one of the best meals you will have in Paris," says the usually reliable Sandra Gustafson, somewhat more cautiously, in Cheap Eats in Paris. "I have visited La Régalade," says the ineffably fussy Jeffrey Steingarten, "on nearly every trip to Paris since it opened". He must have liked it. Why am I unhappy? Perhaps a clue lies in Zagat's concluding remarks: "The main complaint was 'It's too successful', which may explain gripes about 'mediocre' service and 'too closely spaced' tables."
But I'll be back. No restaurant with such a huge following should be judged on a single visit. I want it to be good. It would be nice to have a favorite Paris hotel and a favorite Paris restaurant within spitting distance of each other. After all, thousands of eager diners can't be wrong. Can they?
La Régalade, 49, Avenue Jean Moulin, 75014 Paris,
TEL: 01 45 45 68 58
© 1998 John Whiting, Diatribal Press, London, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
NOTE: in 2004, La Régalade went into new ownership under a new chef. Most reports are favorable, some even suggesting that it is less "tired" than it had become unde the weight of excessive notoriety. We plan to check it out again this year. (And we did.)