Letter from Paris: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu
A table at Chez Maitre Paul.
Chez Maitre Paul and Chez Catherine Reviewed
By Alexander Lobrano
Though most of my meals during any given week in Paris are in new restaurants, I make it a point to regularly revisit places I included in Hungry for Paris and also to check in on other long-running and well-established local tables, such as Chez Maitre Paul in the rue Monsieur le Prince, for example. When I was choosing the restaurants to be included in Hungry for Paris, I ate at Chez Maitre Paul once a month for six months, hoping against hope on each new occasion that there would be a change in both the kitchen and the dining room, because I used to love this place so much when it was owned by a warm, generous, charmingly shy couple from Besancon.
He cooked, and she mothered and spoiled a crowd of regulars who, twenty years ago, ran to professors and publishers–the talk here was always about books, ideas, politics. Madame loved explaining the cooking of the Jura and the Franche-Comte regions to those who didn't know it, and all it took was a meal here to fall in love with this sturdy, delicious, rustic cooking. I always ate exactly the same meal, too–Montbeliard sausage with boiled potatoes in a puckery vinaigrette, chicken cooked in a vin jaune spiked cream sauce with morels mushrooms, and iced walnut cake, and it was here that I discovered how good Arbois wines from vignerons like Trousseau can be. The dining room with its exposed stone walls and crisp white table cloths had a winsome grandmotherly feel, and I never ate here without coming away with a feeling of great well-being.
Chez Maitre Paul.
So on a snowy night this week after a book reading in the Latin Quarter, Bruno and I were starved and I suggest we stop by for a stick-to-your ribs winter meal. Walking down the rue Monsieur le Prince, now lined almost entirely with rather unappealing Japanese places, I sadly realized just how rare Chez Maitre Paul had become, too. Sushi and noodles are what academics seem to favor these days, and since so much of this neighborhood is now pied-a-terre territory, there's very little local clientele left for a place like Chez Maitre Paul.
Arriving, we had an autopilot welcome from a young waiter, who never bothered to ask if we'd like an aperitif, and the dining room was filled with tourists, including a large group of American men who wondered out loud why they couldn't get boeuf bourguignon, and a sweet trio next to us–a Spanish student who was being treated to dinner by his very proud parents, both of whom were disappointed not to find escargots on the menu, especially Madame, who said she'd been thinking about snails swimming in garlic butter during their entire flight from Madrid. Their son explained that this particularly restaurant specialized in the cooking of the mountains of eastern France, which left Mom and Dad totally puzzled. Where, they clearly wondered, were not only the snails but the foie gras and other dishes they had their heart set on. Waiting for our first courses, we sipped an excellent red Arbois and I quietly routed for the student, who'd done something imaginative in bringing them here.
Then their main courses arrived, including a very overcooked looking steak for Mom, a visibly dry veal chop for the poor son, and a decent looking sole meuniere (not everything on the menu here is regional) for Dad, and the food extinguished their lively chatter. Eventually, Mom spoke up. "It's not your fault," she said kindly, "but maybe it's true what I've been reading about France, maybe the food isn't as good as it used to be. When I'd come with your grandmother, we'd nap after lunch just so that we'd have room for dinner, we couldn't bare to miss a meal in those days," she said.
The arrival of our Montbeliard sausages let me off the cringing hook I'd found myself on as an eve's dropper, and they were very good–fat, firm pork sausages with a wonderful hint of the resinous pine smoke that makes them real Montbeliard. The potato salad was overcooked, sloppily plated and not very generously served, but the sausages were delicious, and I kept wanting to offer a slice to the nice woman from Madrid. Next, a very desiccated and tasteless veal chop with rosti potatoes and savoy cabbage for Bruno, and stringy, dried out chicken in a cream sauce that had almost fallen apart through overheating and which had almost no trace of vin jaune for me. I surmised that the chicken had quite oddly been pre-cooked and then plated with sauce, which is why is lacked the moistness and richness of this dish at its best, and the only real pleasure I found here was in scarfing down the morels, since mushrooms in cream sauce strike a cord of truly primal pleasure insofar as I'm concerned.
The much loved walnut cake of yore stood up to memory, however–a nice eggy cake studded with walnuts and covered with icing, but meanwhile the poor young Spaniard was promising his parents the compensation of an oyster feast at noon the following day. "It was cooking with no heart," said Bruno has we went into the night, and I now know that if I ever decide to give Chez Maitre Paul another chance–and I will, I love the French regional tables in Paris and the city's gastronomic landscape would be infinitely poorer if they all sputter out–I'll be dining alone.
Well over ten years ago, Chez Catherine was one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. It was hidden away in what was then the no man's land of the rue de Provence in the 9th, a street where the most common sidewalk traffic at night consisted of ladies with alarmingly eager makeup, high-heeled boots and fur coats over high-thigh mini skirts.
Then Catherine Guerraz, a saucy lady with bright red hair, took over an old-fashioned bistro with a copper bar, cracked tile floor and lace curtains and cooked up a storm. I still remember her fabulous mushroom timbale with crayfish tails and what was one of the best steak au poivre in Paris. I also loved the charming waiter from Martinique, the excellent wines chosen by Guerraz's husband, and the fact that when one of the working girls came in for a quick bite, they were politely seated and served like all of the other clients (and why not?)
The whole game changed when Catherine moved to a very dolled-up atelier space not far from the Arc de Triomphe in the 8th arrondissement. A lot of the endearing funk of her restaurant, and her cooking, went missing in the move, prices went up a lot, and it suddenly shifted from being a fun and rather arty bistro to a silk-stocking table, which is why I hadn't been back in a longtime until dinner this week.
Catherine has moved south, to Nice, but the charming Martiniquais is still on hand, as is chef Franck Paget, a talented, hard-working cook who was her second for many years. Originally from Provence, Paget has the same winning and warming desire to feed people well, to look after them, to assure a good time, that Catherine did, and to his credit, he's pulling this off in a neighborhood that's decidedly complicated. To wit, to succeed in the 8th at a time when expense accounts are being severely shorn and also surf the drastically alternating desires of power brokers for old-fashioned consoling bistro cooking one day and waistline conscious modern French dishes the next is a very tall order.
But it's one he pulls off with real aplomb. My langoustines r
aviolis, a modern French classic if ever there were one, were delicious, made with feather-light pasta, and served in a thyme-seasoned cream foam (one of the rare recent encounters with omnipresent foam that made any sense, since you don't want to freight a crustacean as delicate as a langoustine in a real bath of cream), as was the superb daube de boeuf, one of my all-time favorite dishes–succulent beef braised in red wine until fork tender. With the beef, I ordered a side of the pommes allumettes (French fries) vaunted as homemade on the menu, and Bruno, whose expertise is a birthright, since he's from Valenciennes in the seriously frites loving north of France, was instantly lit with joy when he ate one. "These remind me of what frites tasted like when I was little." The frites I ate at Howard Johnson's as a boy were another matter, but one way or another, these were sublime–crunchy, but floury inside (Bintje potatoes, bien sur), with an expert ratio of crispiness to softness. Bruno liked his dressed crab with whipped cream seasoned with smoked salt and sea bass steamed with lemon grass and served with a citrus compote, too. For dessert we split one of the best baba au rhum I've had in a dog's age, and l left the table heartened by knowing that Paris still has well-mannered, grown-up restaurants where the kitchen cooks with all its heart and the dining room staff fall all over themselves to make you happy.
Chez Catherine today has nothing to do with the bistro of yore I loved so much, but I have a lot of respect for the low key seriousness of the contemporary French table it's become and think that Franck Paget is a very fine cook indeed.
The Verdict: Chez Maitre Paul: C and Chez Catherine: B+
Chez Maitre Paul, 12 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, 6th, Tel. 01-43-54-74-59. Metro: Odeon. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 28.50 Euros, a la carte 40 Euros.
Chez Catherine, 3 rue Berryer, 8th, Tel. 01-40-76-01-40. Metro: Charles de Gaulle-Etoile. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Prix-fixe 37 Euros, a la carte 60 Euros.