By Alexander Lobrano
In Paris, the assiduously institutionalized exultation of the city’s past poses the same sort of risk as the sugar water in a bee trap. Like many people who live here, however, I forget how easy it is to succumb to the easy nectar of memory and to gloat over the beauty of a place that has pretty much shunned modernity, or at least inside of Le Peripherique, or the beltway that separates the city from the suburbs it ignores.
So as luck would have it, just before going to dinner at the new version of Le Bon Saint Pourçain, a Saint-Germain-des-Prés bistro I’ve known for years, I’d just read Luke Barr’s fascinating and beautifully written book Provence 1970, which puts the relationships of many legendary American and British food writers under a magnifying glass as they interact during a series of cross-hatching visits to Provence. What especially intrigued me in these pages was that two of my heroes, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, were both so wary of becoming trapped by the past. Both women saw that France was changing, in ways both good and bad, and so they sought in their own ways to re-situate themselves in their relationship to Gaul, not loving it less but perhaps not needing it as much as they once had. And both women also felt a powerful eagerness live in the present and discover new things, which struck a chord with me, because so many people, myself included a lot of the time, don’t want Paris to change.
But the city will change, and it does, and often that’s a good thing, especially in the kitchen. And for all of the dozens of very happy meals I’ve had at Le Bon Saint Pourçain through the years, the best dish here was always off-menu, since it was the ineffably charming and rather clubby conviviality of the place. And the food? Depending on who was in the kitchen, it was usually just fine, if rarely better than that, or the type of cuisine ménagère (home cooking) your French maiden aunt might have served you, where the pleasure was derived more from her good intentions than her skills in the kitchen. To be sure, I always liked the leeks in a vinaigrette sauce and the boeuf aux olives (braised beef with green olives), and sometimes there was a good fruit tart to be had as well.
But the best of being here was the banter of François, the beetle-browed owner, and the fun of seeing who else would be there of a given evening, maybe Leslie Caron or Catherine Deneuve or a politician or writer or two, because this was always anur Saint-Germain-des-Prés kind of place. Happily, David Lanher, the shrewd restaurateur who took this place over, understood all of that, so it was no surprise that he hired a former waiter from the Cafe de Flore to run the dining room, and no one in the dining room did more than bat a complicit eye lash or five the other night when François-Marie Banier came through the door with two friends (and if you don’t know who he is, you can read more about this man, who would have been a wonderful character in a Guy de Maupassant short story, here). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Monsieur Lanher had been behind some last minute accessorizing in the dining room as well, see above.
When the waiter came to prop the chalkboard menu up on a chair next to our table, I was extremely curious to see if his next move wouldn’t be to pour us both a welcome glass of white Saint Pourçain wine, since this was one of the hospitality fixtures that distinguished this restaurant for years. Reading my mind, Bruno answered my question. “I don’t think so,” he said, so we had a rather skimpy pour of Petit Chablis instead, and a trip wire went off. As moneyed and worldly as the regulars at Le Bon Saint Pourçain have always been, they’ve also always been a particularly pennywise crowd who are most expediently seduced by generosity.
So this one little tradition might wisely have been perpetuated, and wines served by the glass should be poured generously. If the menu had very little to do with what had previously been served in this dining room, there was a wink or two at the past, particularly in terms of the marinated leeks in a silky camel-brown Satay like peanut sauce with a coddled egg that I had as my first course. Though it was rather murky looking on a matte black plate, this dish was unexpectedly satisfying–the peanuts actually flattered the vegetable, and everyone loves the drama of slitting open a coddled egg. Bruno’s foie gras with pickled mushrooms was lush, pleasantly salt and peppered, and generously served to boot.
And on a summer night, the discreetly refreshed look of the dining room, with its globe lamps, patches of exposed brick and curtain-less windows (they’d formerly been dressed with the sort of thick lace you might once have seen on your grandmother’s dresser) was appealing in its Gallic simplicity. Our main courses registered as excellent modern French bistro cooking from the moment they arrived at the table, too. Myechine de porc (pork shoulder butt) was cooked pink, which is just how I like it in spite of the fact that my mother used to reduce nice pork standing rib roasts to near cinders in the belief that pork had to be nearly incinerated to be safe to eat, and this rosy meat road a bed of sautéed mushrooms and greens lapped with a nicely jus de viande that I’d guess was veal based. Perfectly braised, with a crispy skin, and an identical garnish, Bruno’s free-range chicken was similarly satisfying modern French comfort food, too. And because this was Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where everyone knows the carnal catechism that you should never eat anything starchy or farinaceous in the evening, because it leads, quel horreur, to weight gain, there wasn’t a grain of rice, a potato or a noodle to be found within a block of our table.
As it got later, the early-bird Americans on the terrace left and more and more old regulars arrived in the snug little dining room, eye balling the changes with guarded curiosity, as if still hoping for the best. Since we were at the end of our meal, like the three elegant ladies next to us, we’d spent an evening watching people attempting to diagnose and decide about the change, and every newcomer caused us to exchange fleeting complicit glances. But what consistently brought us to the edge of mirth was the frustration of the regulars at the stingy pours of the wines by the glass–we’d glance at each other, exchange pursed lipped smiles and half nods, and savor this recurring moment, since the few people who still drink in Saint-Germain-des-Prés–so many have lost their toys–are very serious about it.
A good cheese plate and a pleasant modern riff on a baba au rhum (sponge cake with whipped cream and lashings of rum) ended this pleasant if pricey meal, and the grand finale occurred a few minutes later when we were walking to our car and saw Catherine Deneuve peck someone on the cheek before hoping out of his car and immediately lighting a cigarette. Noticing Bruno and me standing there rubber necking, she grinned and said, “Ca va, les garçons?” (How’s it going, boys?), which was a rather wonderful conclusion to our Left Bank outing. So the only things that are missing at David Lanher’s reboot of this venerable bistro are the welcome pour of wine, and, I’m afraid, the young eager eyes that would be intrigued by this profoundly Parisian institution but which are very rarely found in gentrified and vaguely geriatric Saint-Germain-des-Prés anymore.
10 rue Servadoni, 6th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-42-01-78-24. Metro: Saint Sulpice or Mabillon. Open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. Closed on Sunday and Monday. Average a la carte 65 Euros.