By Alexander Lobrano
Chardenoux has always been a very good bistro. This is saying a lot, too, since it’s also one of the very rare restaurants with which I’ve had a long and consistently happy relationship during the more than twenty-five years I’ve lived in Paris. Oh, to be sure, as is true of most relationships, we’ve had our moments. But the longevity of this connection is precious to me less for its durability than because it’s proven to be so reliably delicious.
When I first began going to Chardenoux, the neighborhood where it’s located deep in the 11th Arrondissement was still quiet and filled with artisans of various kinds–wood-workers, furniture makers, metal casters, jewelers, lamp makers and others–working in local ateliers (workshops). Previously working class, the neighborhood immediately around the Bastille was becoming trendy, however, and the eastern arrondissements of Paris were just at the beginning of the transformation that eventually made them the younger and hipper half of the city. I was living a tiny apartment next to a convent on the Left Bank. I liked it during the summer, the season of open windows, when I was often awoken by the nuns softly singing hymns. The rest of the year, though, it had the distinct disadvantage of being too far away from Chardenoux.
The chef at Chardenoux then was Bernard Passavant, and the reason I remember his name is that I owe my mad love of foie gras to him. Maybe the second or third time I ever went to Chardenoux, I ordered something called a salade folle, or ‘crazy salad.’ I had no idea what this might mean, so the big mauve slab of foie gras that topped a tidy tumble of chive-flecked match-stick-sized green beans and shaved button mushrooms came as a hugely unwelcome surprise. Why? Well, believe or not, back in those days–this was probably 1987–I not only didn’t eat foie gras, but I actively avoided it. Like many suburban Americans, I flinched at anything offal, in fact, but that night I found myself shamed into trying the duck liver by the teasing of the Greek born Paris based men’s underwear designer who was taking me out to a business dinner I’d been avoiding a long time.
“Oh, how patheeeetic!” he said. “I can’t believe it! It’s delicious, a so so so sensual luxury! You must try!” So reluctantly I did, and I’ve never looked back. I also used to love Passavant’s veal with morels; cod with a warm vinaigrette of fresh herbs; “Cervelle de Canut” (silk worker’s brain, canut being Lyonnais slang for silk worker and the term a reference to how hard they once worked in deafeningly noisy mills). which is a Lyonnais cheese speciality of fromage blanc flavored with chives, garlic, shallot, parsley, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar and white wine; and black cherry clafoutis.
Every meal at this beautiful little dining room with a ceiling covered with swirling floral Belle Epoque moldings, a delicate screen of etched and beveled glass and wood panels diving the room in half, and a stone clad zinc topped bar just inside the door was a pleasure. Passavant eventually left, to be replaced by Michel Cornubet, and another chef or two, but the quality of the food remained uncommonly good. When young chef Cyril Lignac took over, however, I had my doubts. I was doubtless not being entirely fair, but his food-television celebrity made me dubious, and I feared an old favorite might be rejiggered into something trendy or fussy or both. Happily, I was wrong–Lignac respected the traditions and spirit of this century old bistro when he took it over in 2008 and painstakingly restored the interior. The food was good, if not better than good, too, but I hadn’t been in here in a very longtime before a recent sunny August day when I was trying to think of a good bistro when I might lunch with a friend visiting from London. The two new places she was keen to try–Le Servan and Restaurant David Toutain, were closed, but knowing how much she loves traditional French bistro cooking and also that they serve outside during the summer when the weather’s good, I booked at Chardenoux, where I hadn’t been for several years, and kept my fingers crossed.
My date was late, but I enjoyed sitting on the terrace on a sunny day mulling over the menu over a cool glass of Chateldon. It was also a pleasant diversion to observe my neighbors, all of whom were seriously enjoying their lunches with a pleasure that was absolutely contagious.
Then Madame arrived, hungry, and we ordered. Since she’s a talented London based cook and food writer, we usually try to order different things, so that we can taste some variety, but on this occasion no one was giving any ground on the starter of coddled egg with girolles, fava beans, and freshly made croutons. We both wanted it, we both had it, and it was superb, since the egg yolk slicked the perfectly braised mushrooms dressed with a little jus de veau and finely chopped shallot, and the favas and croutons added an earthy high note and some texture respectively. Coddled egg starters are surefire crowd-pleasers, since they appeal to something subliminally serene and infantile in all of us, but for them to work, the produce has to be of the very highest quality. Happily, here it was.
Since I’d come into town from the borrowed house in the country 75 minutes outside of Paris just for the day where I spent much of August, I was hankering for fish, since neither of the two larger towns near our hideaway has a fish market anymore, which means the only place to buy fish is at the ice-lined morgue-like counter of the local ‘grand surface,’ or giant supermarket. Having done that once, I’d never do it again, and besides, more pleasure was to be had from having a real live barbecue, which begged for the excellent sausage made by a local farmer or some of his superb free-range pork over and over again. So I chose the cod baked with white miso on a bed of fresh peas with lardons. The gently meaty taste of the miso flattered both the fish and the peas, while the lardons added texture and salt but most all appealed to that deep primal limitless yearning so many people–me very much among them–have for cured pork, aka bacon.
I rather envied Madame her sweetbreads, however, since they came with baby carrots and an elegantly acidulated sauce of chopped capers, lemon and meat juices spiked with tomato and turmeric. They were impeccably cooked, too, but when I tasted them, I immediately found myself thinking that a side of tagliatelle would have been a nice occasion to elaborate the pleasure that well-made sauce. “Some good sturdy noodles would have been nice with this,” Madame suddenly announced, and I laughed, because our friendship was born from the naughty avidity of our shared appetites. “Excellent product, and if at first I found it a little under seasoned, that’s really only because I’m too accustomed to food that’s been over-salted. This is some very suave bistro cooking indeed.”
Madame said she’d been craving a good baba au rhum ever since she’d gotten on the Eurostar in London that morning, so I left it to her, and had a fine slice of Corsican goat cheese with cherry-cinnamon marmalade and salad instead. The baba, which came from Lignac’s bakery across the street, had imbibed a perfect dose of rum-spiked sugar syrup, to which a nice little pour of caramel-and-sulfur scented Martinique rum, the world’s best, because it’s made with fresh cane juice instead of sugar, was deftly added by Madame.
“This rum is superb, so nuanced and ambered but clean tasting,” said Madame, adding, “I’d be half-tempted to tuck the bottle into my handbag and bring it home it’s so good but I rather doubt I’d get away with it.” I didn’t encourage her either, so the rum remained on the table, and after coffee we parted in search of our respective summer siestas, mine swaddled with the pleasure of knowing that one of my favorite Paris restaurants is still so good.
1 rue Jules Valles, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. 01-43-71-49-52. www.cyrillignac.com Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 39 Euros, lunch menus 22 Euros, 27 Euros.