Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: La Rotisserie d’en Face
The dog days of August are a challenge in terms of finding places to eat when friends come to town, but they also offer me a rare opportunity to revisit places I haven’t been for a very longtime. So when a gaggle of pals decided on dinner a few weeks ago and wanted somewhere in Saint Germain des Pres, it occurred to me that we could go to La Rotisserie d’en Face, a place I hadn’t been in years.
When chef Jacques Cagna opened this studiously ‘Country French’ style dining room specializing in roast chicken in 1992, I lived on the Left Bank and went often, because the straightforward food was good and it was reasonably priced. You often saw Cagna here, too, because his eponymous two-star main table was just down the street, and he was rightly proud of the simple but good-quality French comfort food he served here. So the La Rotisserie d’en Face got a lot of press coverage, and then became a listing i most of the world’s major English language guidebooks to Paris. It remains in these pages today, too, although I rather doubt that most of the writers have been back recently.
Cagna retired several years ago and closed his main restaurant, but this place soldiers on and fills a need in a popular tourist neighborhood for simple uncomplicated French food as much today as it did on the first day that it opened. I think concierges must love it, too, since it hits the right buttons for being within walking distance of their front doors, and also moderately priced with a menu to please almost all comers.
The fact that it was August and many Parisians are away on holiday notwithstanding, this is a restaurant that people who lived in the neighborhood pretty much stopped going to many years ago, because it became known as a tourist table. Rightly or wrongly, this is just a fact of living in a heavily touristed city. When a restaurant’s clientele becomes largely transient and mostly foreign, Parisians don’t want to eat there anymore. The other night, though, there was a large well-dressed family from Bordeaux, but as far as I could hear, almost everyone else was foreign, including the four of us, Americans who have all lived in Paris for a very longtime.
Eyeballing the menu, we agreed it looked more innocuous than interesting, but no one had any trouble finding something to eat. As it was a warm night, three of us had the cold tomato-zucchini soup with basil and the fourth chose the chicken liver and duck pate with watercress salad. Served in white porcelain bowls, the soup brought business-class dining to mind, since even at the height of tomato season in France, it lacked any depth of flavor or the rich scarlet color of ripe tomatoes and was timidly seasoned. The translation of the French word ‘courgette’ to ‘zucchini’ on the menu was another indication of their predominantly American clientele, too, since the British and most other northern European call them courgettes. In America, the vegetable must have either arrived with or gained popularity after the arrival of Italian immigrants. Though it was served too cold and defaced with a squirt-bottle dribble of sticky brown sauce that was probably some derivation of Balsamic vinegar, the pate was “correct,” as the French would say, the adjective in this instance meaning something that’s acceptable. Of more interest, actually, was the accompanying watercress salad, since these crisp peppery greens seen to infrequently on Paris menus were ideal for rousing heat-dulled appetites.
Our exceptionally attentive and polite waiter, who automatically spoke to us in English, because who else comes here but English-speakers and he’d overheard us speak English, asked the three of us who ordered the roast chicken with potato puree if we wanted a wing (i.e. breast) or a leg, a nice touch, and told me when I asked that he sells many more wings than legs. The fourth diner chose the ‘pastilla’ of guinea hen, eggplant and pine nuts in a honey sauce. Well, the birds were sad fowl, with dry compact meat with very little flavor and the sort of elastic skin that’s created by heat lamps. They were described as ‘spit-roasted’ and ‘free-range,’ but the hopefulness elicited by these phrases sputtered as soon as we tucked in, and almost as if to emphasize the sorry anonymity of these poor poulets was the way they were garnished–with a single sprig of flat parsley and a few cubes on unripe tomato. The accompanying potato puree was ‘correct,’ but the jus that sauced our plates was remarkable only for nearly total absence of flavor.
Meanwhile, the pastilla had flown the coop in terms of what this word should mean in Moroccan cooking, where it’s a specialty. Instead of flaky layers of pastry interleaved with fowl, my friend got a floppy confectioner’s sugar dusted crepe-like reticule stuffed with a “correct’ ragout of guinea hen and eggplant. Almost as some sort of vegetal consolation prize, her sack was accompanied by a large serving of salad and a few cubes of unripe tomato were scattered on her plate as–as what? Well, something decorative rather than edible. Not surprisingly, a pall briefly settled over the table as we tasted our food, and it was only banished by good conversation, a nice bottle of Saint Veran, and the well-intentioned ministrations of our very nice waiter. No one was tempted by dessert, and when we sat down on a cafe terrace for a coffee after dinner, one of the gang accurately judged the meal we’d just eaten as “Correct, sans plus,” or acceptable, but not more than that, helas!
La Rôtisserie d’en Face, 2 rue Christine, 6th, Tel. 01-75-85-14-60. Metro: Odeon. Open Mon-Fri for lunch and dinner. Saturday dinner only. Closed Sunday. Lunch menu 23 Euros, 28 Euros, 37 Euros.; average a la carte dinner 45 Euros.www.larotisseriedenface.com
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. 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)