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Letter from Paris: The Last Good Brasserie in Paris?

By Alexander Lobrano

Obsessively interested in good food, I always have the makings of at least one or two good meals on hand at home so that as someone who travels often, I never end up being forced to call out for a mediocre pizza or Indian food of unknown quality at the last minute. Returning home to Paris after ten wonderful sunny days in Greece on a cool, rainy Monday night, however, I knew I needed something happier than a bowl of spaghetti carbonara, an all-time comfort-food favorite, to revive my wilting spirits.

Waiting for our luggage to come up, Bruno and I had talked about going to Hokkaido, a favorite Japanese noodle and dumpling place in the rue Chabanais, but since it took forever for the bags to arrive–why is Charles de Gaulle sooo slow?, I knew we’d never make it. So we were hurtling into town in a cab when he turned to me and voiced the very same thoughts I was having:  “How about going to Le Vaudeville for some oysters and a steak tartare?” Yes! Oysters and steak tartare were exactly what I wanted after a gastronomic sojourn dominated by grilled octopus and squid, Greek salad, white wine and ouzo.

On the way to this pretty art-deco brasserie in front of La Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement, I couldn’t help but being a tiny bit anxious about our decision, however. Why? Most Paris brasseries have become caught in a no-go inflection point between their ever rising prices and the mediocrity of their food. I always remember Le Vaudeville as being a rare exception to this sad rule, but would I be disappointed?
After three hours of airplane air, we asked to sit outside on the terrace, and the hostess who promptly set our table and brought our menus was one of the friendliest and most cheerful people I’ve come across in a Paris restaurant in a very long time. So we ordered a dozen Gillardeau oysters with a carafe of Riesling, and then two steak tartares with two glasses of Guigal red Cotes du Rhone, a typical brasserie meal if ever there were one. The waiter brought good rolls and foiled wrapped knobs of salted Isigny butter to the table with our white wine, and breaking bread, and smearing it with good French butter, made us suddenly happy to be home. The oysters, which arrived in a heart beat, were absolutely delicious–fleshy, sweet and brilliantly briny.
The steak tartare was good, too, although an infuriating change in the format of the Heinz Worcestershire sauce bottle–they’ve enlarged the opening to the size of penny in an obvious attempt to get people to use more of the stuff, meant that both of us flooded our otherwise very nicely seasoned chopped steak with too much of this famous brown sauce that’s wonderful in small doses but downright foul in larger ones (at least you’ve been warned).
Not having had any red wine for ten days — if I found several Greek roses that were great drinking, their reds are just too potent in hot weather for me — meant that the Guigal Cotes du Rhone drank like velvet, too. To be sure, the accompanying frites were cooked on the premises but definitely not home-made–too bad, but our mesclun salads were impressively fresh and seasoned with a light hand.
At 130 Euros, this was hardly a cheap feed, but at least it delivered exactly what a good Parisian brasserie should, which is good quality food with fast friendly service and the extra fun of the sort of intriguingly odd-ball crowd you’ll always find sitting down to dinner at 10.30pm.
Now if Le Vaudeville can do it, and do it well, why are almost all other Parisians brasseries so damned dismal? (I wouldn’t go to La Coupole at gunpoint, for example, to say nothing of Le Boeuf sur le Toit, La Lorraine, Brasserie Flo, well, you get the point.)
Le Vaudeville, 29 Rue Vivienne, 2nd, Tel. 01-40-20-04-26. Metro: Bourse. Open daily, noon-3pm, 7pm-1am.
Prix-fixe menus 24.50 Euros, 31.50 Euros. A la carte 55 Euros.

ALEXANDER LOBRANO was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris”  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)

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