École Vieille

While it would have been wonderful to have nothing but multi-star meals during this trip, the simple truth is that it’s not possible. Paris is expensive, and the weak dollar means that the whole country is steep, even down in the provinces. The challenge has been to eat well on a budget while still choosing meals that will make for good copy–since despite all snark I am trying to make this trip worth reading about for all you good people who voted for me–without running up an insane tab.

I had dreams of hitting some renowned and starred establishments for lunch–which, by all accounts, are bargains compared to their dinner prices–but so far it hasn’t happened. But there are still pleasures and lessons to be found in the less gilded corners of Paris. Take the photo above; that’s a salde Niçoise I had the other day for lunch. I’ve always had a soft spot for this dish, because it is in many ways the perfect lunch: packed with nutrition, yet light enough to make no dent in the afternoon’s productivity. Every café does it differently, and it’s always fun to see how the chef puts a personal stamp on such an archetypal dish. I thought this one was lovely; the chef clearly put some thought into it, and the dressing (piquant with mustard seeds) was sharp and assertive, playing off the balsamic glaze over there on the right and binding all the diverse flavors and textures together nicely, even though the tomatoes are not in season and really served no purpose. I also find that the lunch salads are an essential means of getting enough vegetables in this town.

It was nothing at all fancy, but executed with care. And that’s something that one finds here more often than at home, provided one is at all judicious in choosing where to eat. For example, Sunday night I ate at a Corsican place here in Agen. Being Sunday night, the place was a ghost town, evoking nothing so much as Eliot’s Four Quartets; a stiff and gusting breeze sending bits of paper and leaves whipping down narrow, abandoned streets shiny with recent rain. For the first ten minutes of my walk, I was worried that I would find nowhere at all to eat, let alone another human being. But then, turning off the main street, I found a warmly lit little place that looked inviting, especially on account of it was open and there were a few people inside.

Turns out it was Corsican, and the menu, though simple, offered some compellingly different takes on standard café fare. I started with a salade de chevre chaud, another of my favorites, except the goat cheese was a sharp Corsican variety and there were four slices of exquisitely smoky and herb-crusted coppa on top as well. The meat was sliced just a hair thicker than paper, so it offered a bit of resistance to a chew and positively burst with flavor. To follow, I had lamb chops: four beautiful little loin chops, also with an herb crust, and cooked the deep red inside that everybody in this whole country seems to automatically cook meat to. He didn’t even ask me how I wanted it, which is common here; it’s just assumed that you want it cooked perfectly, which is rare. I know lots of people disagree and like meat less red, and they’re entitled to their opinions, but I have eaten many kinds of meat at every stage of doneness, and there is no doubt that by far the best combination of flavor and texture is to be found in deep red territory, especially when the meat is good. I love that that is a consensus here, because it’s the truth.

Sorry I didn’t take pictures; I neglected to bring the camera and phone pics don’t cut it. I’m trying to run a respectable blog, after all. But I do have a picture of the food that helped soak up the epic amounts of wine I put away Saturday at the Caligula Convention agriculture fair. I found a place not far from my hotel that had a certain old-school air about it, and I needed some hearty fare to right me. Sitting at the bar, since the small place was full, I had six oysters, a salad with a croustillant of chèvre (a small packet wrapped in a thin, phyllo-like dough) with a bit of baked apple mixed in with the cheese for a delicate sweetness that played beautifully with the sharp, mustardy vinaigrette, and then this dish: “Poulet fermier aux morilles.” Again, it could not have been simpler, but the chicken (both halves of a leg) was clearly from a farm, with a nearly gamy intensity to its flavor, and the morels were as fresh as could be. I could literally taste everything that was in the sauce: cream, white wine, mushrooms, a bouquet garni, salt and pepper. That was it. But it was all immaculate, falling off the bone, and supremely appropriate to the evening.

The parsley on the potatoes only underscored the beige-brown color scheme of the dish, which is of course the universal color for comfort food. The two meals I had at hip and trendy “Bistronomes” (Bistro + Gastronome; it’s the French equivalent of Gastropub) type places (one of which is actually called “Les Bistronomes” and the other of which was Le Cornichon, which I wrote about) were very good, and gave me some insight into the past and present of Parisian cooking. Since it eschews spices and loud flavors (and vegetables, let’s be honest), it has always been about technique above all else. So the plate of chicken and morels was simple, and perfect for what it was, but circumscribed by a very conservative tradition. The younger, hipper places delivered the same calm, delicate flavors, but with brighter colors and more sharpness. The pickled baby vegetables on Rosa’s tongue dish were the perfect example: the meat was unctuous, tender, and classic, but the pickles added a shock of color and sharp tang that marked the plate as being in a different category. It’s like the difference between color and black and white in both flavor and appearance. But it’s also kind of funny that this type of innovation is perceived as a revolution at all, however modest. This conservatism is charming to some and galling to others; I find myself more in the latter camp.

French food has such a reputation for being aristocratic, and yet that’s such a tiny percentage of what is actually cooked and eaten here. Whether or not one loves the bland, careful end of the culinary spectrum, the emphasis on technique is admirable. And that’s the real lesson: once you know the rules, you can follow or break them as you wish to realize your own vision.

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  1. March 9

    I loved this post because it reminds me so much of how I felt in Europe: I had to eat salads to make up for a lack of vegetables on the plate but the comfort food, no matter the color, just burst with flavor. Despite it’s brown color, I feel like making the chicken with morels for dinner tonight. Maybe with a bit of French music in the background, I can fool myself that I am once again in France.

    And a Corsican restaurant! I need to put Corsica on my bucket list. I have friends who spent time there and loved it. Funny, they sent me postcards with recipes. How appropriate.

    • Peter
      March 13

      I’d love to go there, too. Also Sardegna.

  2. Helen
    March 9

    Try my favorite, the overlooked gem, Restaurant Reed, Rue Amelie in Paris.

    • Peter
      March 13

      No time. Next trip…

  3. […] I imagined this meal, it was rather a lot like the poulet fermier aux morilles I had back in Paris on the night I got plowed tasting Burgundies at the huge agricultural fair. […]

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