Saturday, November 11, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Bistrot Paul Bert

What a difference a day makes. By early afternoon today, after our concierge had a called a bunch of restaurants on our list to find them fully booked for tonight -- one of them gave her a "Wow, mademoiselle!" as if she'd been joking -- 10pm didn't sound so bad. That slot was offered by a place that had been plugged by a friend of a friend, and we jumped at the chance.

Bistrot Paul Bert, way over on the east side of the right bank (almost off our map), was hopping when we arrived. The menu was written on a blackboard that was passed around from table to table, the wine list was novella length, and the restaurant had that classic look that said I've been here a while, and I'm not going anywhere. The slightly crooked picture frames, the buckling and spotted mirrors, and, yes, even the floating clouds of cigarette smoke all contributed to the very Parisian aura of the place. I saw hunks of meat on plates all around the room, and I got excited.

The meat looked good, but I had fowl on the brain. And what do you know but I think I spotted some sort of bird on the list of main courses. When our waitress came by I asked for a few translations, and though she tried to be helpful she was nothing like the sommelier/waiter from last night. Her translations boiled a long phrase down to a word: côté de cochon fermier aux haricots mais became "pig." But that's okay -- you have to be ready for a wide range of experiences when you go to a foreign country and don't speak the language.

For our starters, Margy ordered veal carpaccio and I went with roasted scallops. I don't usually love scallops (except raw as sushi or sashimi), but they were in season and we'd already seen them around a bunch. Plus in French they're called coquilles St. Jacques, and to me such a refined and stately handle really makes a difference -- why order "scallops" when you can have "coquilles St. Jacques"?

For the main course Margy asked for steak frites, and I most enthusiastically requested roast pheasant (which I had noted actually came with vegetables -- chou vert, or green cabbage). As we began to wait, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, and then... no, it couldn't be -- our waitress came back our way with the blackboard in her hands. Oh, no.

"I am very sorry. It is my fault. We have no more pheasant."

I've come a long way toward becoming a somewhat mature semi grown-up-type person, but it took all the self-control I had not to start banging on the table and maybe even shouting "Waaaaa!" The pheasant was all I wanted; I'd barely glanced at anything else. I felt helpless. A long, quiet moment passed as I stared a hole in the blackboard.

"If you wanted the pheasant, you should try the rabbit," the waitress said. "It is very like pheasant." She pointed to a dish I hadn't really noticed. I guess that was because I didn't know the word lièvre but assumed it might be some variant of "liver" (even though I indeed know the word for liver). Well, it means wild hare. I'd had bites of rabbit, but I'd never eaten my own. I knew it wouldn't be that much like pheasant, but I figured she meant that it was also gamy and maybe even that it also had lots of tiny bones. All day, I'd been ready to deal with some tiny bones.

I asked how it was served, and I didn't get much. "Is there a sauce?" I said.

"Yes, it's in a sauce, with mushrooms."

The night wasn't getting any younger. I went with the wild hare. A nice bottle of Bordeaux arrived, along with our appetizers, and I started to loosen back up.

The coquilles St. Jacques were terrific, roasted in their shells and sitting in a rich pool of melted butter. The presentation was beautiful and the flavor was excellent.

When it came to Margy's veal carpaccio, the one word in the description that we didn't understand -- and we only figured this out for sure later -- was the word for kidneys (rognons). Looking at her plate, Margy said something like, "I think this is liver." I knew it wasn't, because it didn't look like liver. The slices, sort of freeform roundish, were too small, and the shading of each slice, from dark to lighter to almost white in spots, was too varied for this to be liver. Anyway, it was absolutely fantastic, and it only got more tasty with each bite. The veal was dressed with olive oil, parsley, thin-sliced mushrooms, and chopped nuts, and all of those ingredients staked their claim in the overall success of the dish. I noticed that a woman at the table next to us received a parsley-free version, and I felt sorry for her. Not only was the green a lovely color contrast, but the bright, herbal flavor of the parsley was a happy surprise when you got some.

And then the main dishes arrived. Margy's steak and fries looked good, but I was sure I had been given the wrong plate. Take a look at the photo above, which you may have assumed captured some decadent chocolate dessert. Nope. It's the wild hare. I poked at the big molded cake with my fork, and meat flaked off. I took a bite. I knew I wasn't tasting rabbit, but I wasn't sure what I was tasting. The flavor was familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. At this moment, I was extraordinarily confused. I didn't hate what I was beginning to eat, but I didn't love it, and it wasn't at all what I'd been craving. And on top of everything else, there were no mushrooms as advertised. The hare came with a side dish of large pasta shells dressed in a mushroom sauce. These were just lousy -- badly overcooked and tasting only of butter.

The waitress swung over at this most vulnerable time to check on things. I didn't really know what I was eating, but I was trying very hard to be happy. Margy had taken one bite of her steak, which she liked, but she hadn't learned the truth about her dinner either. When asked how everything was, we said it was okay. The fries were certainly good.

A minute later Margy realized her steak was essentially raw. The one bite she'd taken was one of the few perimeter pieces that were medium to medium rare (she'd asked for medium). And then I grabbed the non-English-speaking sommelier, whom I already trusted more than our waitress. I pointed at my plate and asked, "Lapin?" (That's the French word for rabbit.)

"Oui," he said, and then he proceeded to describe the dish, in French. I understood every word, though one grand gesture certainly helped. He kind of pretended to rip out his own loin, and then he said the loin was rolled and stuffed and served with a sauce of wine and chocolate. And what was it stuffed with? Well, that's the flavor I was struggling to determine -- the dish tasted of nothing else. It was foie gras!

Suddenly the six-euro supplement made sense. But now I really wanted to murder our waitress. She had misrepresented this dish straight down the line. It was not like pheasant in any way. And there weren't even any mushrooms.

Margy and I weren't sure what to do. We hate complaining in restaurants, plus we felt like we'd missed our chance to do so. (We've since sworn to each other that we'll be more assertive should anything like this ever happen again.) Her steak had been picked over, and I was really trying to eat my strange and heavy but not altogether horrible dinner. It wouldn't have been my cup of tea under any circumstance, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with foie gras after having the best slice of my life last night. That was going to hold me for a while.

For a minute I was ready to pout. I'd come to Paris for six dinners, and now one of them was getting away from me, and that's a significant percentage. But hey, we were in Paris. We'd had great appetizers in a charming old bistro, and we still had a bunch of wine, plus cheese and desserts and a bracing snifter of Calvados, to look forward to. We surveyed the wreckage in front of us -- raw meat, the worst pasta ever, a plate swirled with chocolate sauce that looked like some abandoned meaty dessert -- and we started to laugh. It was all we could do. The waitress came and took our relatively full plates like she'd seen it all before. And I know she had. I believe it's not uncommon in Paris to eat a few bites and leave the rest -- but I'm assuming that's usually in the name of portion control, not frustration.

Next, Margy ordered cheese and I ordered ile flottante, a meringue set in a pool of crème anglaise, with praline and roasted almonds. This stuff set us back on track, big time.

The cheese was magnificent. The varieties were described by the sommelier, so I didn't really get all of it. But the Camembert was particularly memorable. It had an intense savoriness that I'd never experienced before in a cheese. All the varieties were tasty, and I'm guessing all of them were made with unpasteurized milk and would therefore not be available in such fine form in the States. We circled around and sliced bits off larger pieces until we'd had our fill, and then the waitress came and grabbed the board when we were done. That's some fun eating... and we certainly had the room.

The ile flottante was similarly amazing. We loved the texture of the meringue -- soft and supple yet firm enough not to lose its shape in the crème anglaise, which was rich and cool. And the almonds had been roasted to perfection and gave a nutty and almost smoky counterpoint to the sweeter elements.

In the end, Bistrot Paul Bert, though certainly not perfect -- damn that waitress and her pheasantlike rabbit! -- was absolutely unforgettable. (I mean, hey -- I learned I like kidneys.) I would go back. Just not at 10pm.

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