Letter from Paris: Auberge Bressane
By Alexander Lobrano
After a morning of musing on the question of where to go to lunch with a friend from London who loves old-fashioned French bistro cooking, the Auberge Bressane suddenly bobbed up in my mind as a possible solution. True, I hadn’t been to this Gaullist gastronomic redoubt in a very longtime, but a quick glance at their menu online left me with a pulse-quickening desire to eat there again. And besides, I’d already allowed the work of choosing a restaurant for us, complicated by the fact that many places are closed on Monday, to take more time than I really had.
The problem, you see, is that I’ve always taken the business of choosing a restaurant very seriously. Not only is there something both sad and vexing about a bad meal eaten anywhere but at one’s own kitchen table (happily, I can’t remember the last time that happened either, although if he were around this afternoon, Bruno would doubtless chime in to reprimand my free-handed tendency with the garlic and the chile peppers when I make marinades), but the remote possibility of a disappointing meal with a friend who loves good food as much as I do is something I’d work to avoid at almost all costs. It’s complicated, though, since beyond the necessity of great food, they’re many other inputs to be considered as well–the price, bien sur; the atmosphere, which is a unique-to-every-restaurant mixture of the decor, service and clientele; the time allotted for the meal; accessibility; and the personalities and tastes of the other diners. Going to a restaurant is like casting yourself into a play, so it’s generally a good idea to make sure that there’s a role that appeals to you and suits you before you show up.
Of course counter casting can be fun, too, and that’s the sociological posture I chose in deciding to ignore the fact that the Auberge Bressane is so profoundly vieille France, or a bastion of the bourgeoisie, an address favored by penny-pinching aristocrats, and a place popular with conservative blowhard politicians. My friend and I didn’t tick any of these boxes, but we do like a good show and since we’re polite, our shaggier bohemian traits and attitudes can occasionally be concealed behind a scrim of manners. So we settled at a table in the very back of this restaurant with its oak-paneled walls, vaguely Violet-le-Duc mock medieval style woodwork and chandeliers, and all of the coats of arms and signage in typefaces that evoke France in the Fifties and Sixties and got to work with the menu, which looked like a mimeographed page like the ones I dealt with in grade school, minus, that is, the smell of the toner, which I’m certain was potent enough to make any receptive second-grader a tiny bit high.
Since we were both “a la cherche des gouts perdu, ou presque” (looking for the much loved tastes, textures and smells of old-fashioned French bistro cooking), we had to have the salade de pissenlit avec lardons (those big chunks of bacon that are one of the top five reasons with bread, cheese and good cheap wine that I could never leave France) et oeuf poche, or a salad of dandelion greens with chunky bacon and a poached egg in a perfectly made vinaigrette. But what stumped us was that we absolutely wanted three main courses–veal sweetbreads braised in cream with morels, chicken braised in cream spiked with vin jaune from the Jura and morels, and a bouchée à la reine, or a puff pastry filled with chicken, mushrooms, kidneys and other tasty morsels in cream. Oh–do you see a theme emerging here? “Bouchée à la reine, that was something I adored when I lived in Paris in my twenties,” said my friend, who had to have it. So then I got it.
When the waiter came, I explained we’d start with the salade and a bouchée à la reine, which we’d like to split, and then I’d have the poulet and Madame the ris de veau (I wanted the ris de veau, too, but the resident of any city always cedes the mutually desired dish to the visiting guest when it’s a question of this being one of those meals where you want to taste as many things as possible).
We nibbled homemade gougères and sipped our excellent Crozes-Hermitage until our first course arrived. And the pleasure of seeing my friend, ditching my computer in the middle of the day, and the enchantingly unselfconscious fly-in-amber atmosphere of this restaurant quietly guardedly raised my hopes while we waited for our first courses to arrive. And then they did, and because we’re both obsessed, the first thing we cooed over the beautifully made and presented salad, a relatively easy hat-trick in the large scheme of things, and turned our attention to the bouchée à la reine with both of us wondering exactly the same thing: Was the pastry homemade?
Examining the bottom of the pastry cap, it was yellow and beautifully laminated, so we were delighted to conclude that it really was homemade, something the waiter later confirmed. The contents of the puffy case were succulent and individually cooked–the fowl needing more heat, for example, than the kidneys–and a there were a lot of expensive morels in the composition, too. “This really is lovely, and so is the salad,” said my friend, and I relaxed into the knowledge that we’d have both a good meal and a good time.
With the possible exception of the price–there’s an excellent value 24.50 Euros lunch menu, but it’s expensive to order a la carte, which we did–everything about this meal pleased. Served in a copper saucepan, her sweetbreads had a very light golden crusting and the texture of set custard, as they should, and came with a side of homemade mashed potatoes that I suspect might have been gently goosed by a little celery root, and she loved them. The mountain of hot homemade fries with my chicken was a treat, and the farmyard bird was pleasantly firm, lean and gently gamey.
We ate and we talked and we laughed and we gossiped and we kept going. And then I noticed we’d finished our wine, and when I looked over my shoulder to find the waiter so that we could see dessert menus, the restaurant had already emptied. But never once during this meal did we have the impression of being rushed, and having launched our meal just a little after 1pm, it was 3.15pm when we ordered a baba au rhum, one of our mutually favorite desserts, to share.
Staring at the fleur-de-lys motifs and the ship symbol of the city of Paris woven into our jacquard tablecloth, it occurred to me that this might be a perfect setting for a freemasons’ luncheon, but this idle thought vanished with the arrival of one of the best baba au rhum I’ve ever eaten. The particularities of this one were that it was homemade and that there tiny black currants suspended in its eggy crumb.
The service was cordial and attentive throughout this meal, and stepping out into the bright sun on the sidewalk after three hours of gastronomic ardors brought on a version of the deliciously selfish and evanescent melancholia that can follow some good rutting. So after saying good-bye to my friend, who was sensibly going to try and walk down some part of the quart of cream she’d just consumed by returning to the flat where she was staying by foot, I raced home by Metro to try and meet a deadline. And to console myself before I got to work, I read the weekly lunch menu at the Auberge Bressane, usually posted on their site, and thought: Anyplace that serves up ‘Poireaux Mimosa” (Poached leeks with riced hard-cooked egg) and pot-au-feu as part of their 24.50 Euro lunch menu is going to be seeing me again very soon. And the 29.50 Euro “Menu du Dimanche” will tempt me back soon, too, both for the food–maybe a green bean and mushroom salad, coq au vin, and crepes flamed with Grand Marnier, and the show this place offers when the usual posse of God-fearing locals take their doddering elders out for some air and a meal. And come to think of it, I hope someone will kindly do the same thing for me when that day dawns.
L’Auberge Bressane, 16 Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, 7th Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-47-05-98-37. www.auberge-bressane.com Open Sunday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Saturday dinner only. Lunch menu 24.50 Euros. Sunday prix-fixe menu 29.50 Euros.