For a variety of reasons, the French have been slow to come up with a good Gallic gastronomic retort to the creeping American concept of ‘fast casual-dining’ (Boy, do I hate that phrase, which resonates as a pretty unconvincing euphemism for fat-and-unhealthy). In fact, in many large American cities, it’s difficult to find anything but the chain gain, including Applebee’s, The Olive Garden, Chipotles’s, Hooters, The Cheesecake Factory, Red Lobster and their ilk. These formatted restaurants are rapidly going global, too, and inexplicably seem to be finding large numbers of receptive customers in Asia, as well as more traditional markets like Canada and the United Kingdom.
Though I’ve never set foot in a Hooters, I have been to several of the other chains, including an outrageously dismal meal at a Red Lobster several years ago, and what interested me about them was how with a bizarre mixture of cynicism and cleverness, they’ve created highly profitable gastronomic algorithms that would seem to make many people happy. With the exception of the dreadful Courte Paille (a short straw indeed), L’Arche, and Hippopotamus chains, Paris has been largely spared the blight of ‘fast-casual dining,’ with the exception of Les Grand Boulevards, the Champs Elysees and Les Halles. Most Parisians, I’d like to believe, still prefer small independent restaurants with ‘real’ cooking.
What brought all of this to mind was a very good dinner with Bruno the other night at talented chef Antoine Heerah’s newly redecorated and re-formatted Montmartre table Au Clocher de Montmartre, a very shrewd restaurant. What Mr. Heerah, who also runs Chamarre Montmartre and Le Moulin de la Galette, also in Montmartre, has done is coin a smart and appealing French idiom for, well, um, French casual dining. Or in other words, this is the kind of place where you can pop in for a snack–maybe some vegetable tempura or a plate of smoked salmon with a glass of wine, or a quick meal–soup and a salad, or an omelette and a dessert, and be on your way again in less than an hour. You can also decide on a more leisurely meal, and since this dining room is comfortable, well-lit and very good looking and the service is absolutely charming, this is a place where you might happily while away an afternoon over a good book and some ricotta and beet tart and a green salad with a nice glass of red wine, since the restaurant is open from noon to 10.30pm and serves non-stop. In short, this is an intensely customer-friendly restaurant that has been very shrewdly conceived to appeal to the time-short life and times of both tourists–this place is right behind the Sacre Coeur, and Parisians, since you can eat what you want, when you want and in any quantity or sequence that makes you happy.
Hungry on a rainy night, we nibbled some excellent Spanish charcuterie with Catalan style pan con tomate with a terrific glass of Vouvray to start, and then Bruno ordered an intriguingly named “Salade du Bout du Monde”, which arrived as a nice assortment of greens garnished with smoked eel, haddock, salmon eggs, mackerel rillettes, herring and other fish, and I decided on some “Beef noodles and ravioli” soup.
Its thick consistency–this soup had obviously been made from good old-fashioned soup bones (oxtail would be my guess, actually) was deeply comforting and their was so much dissolved protein in this concoction garnished with beef-stuffed ravioli, thick udon like noodles, bone marrow and tiny cubes of calf’s foot that it really was lip-sticking good. So good, in fact, that I wished they’d put an extra-large meal-sized version of this soup on the menu and also sell it to take out.
Though I loved the idea of a cepes omelette–one of the seven different egg preparations on the menu, a combination of my insatiable appetite and unslackable curiosity–two of my guiding stars, I’m happy to confess, led me to order the Roscoff onions stuffed with oxtail. I’ve never come across an onion I don’t like, but these firm, pink ones from the region around the Breton port of Roscoff, are exceptionally good onions and even have an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Even though I see them in shops in London and even once came across them in a Trader Joe’s in Seattle, they never seem to find their way to Paris. Anyway, the onions were filled with tender juicy oxtail meat and garnished with strips of crisply grilled bacon.
I was very happy, and so was Bruno with his Angus steak, which came with excellent frites and a small salad of mesclun from Annie Bertin’s organic farm in Brittany. We shared a nicely made Paris-Brest–all of the pastries are on display, a good idea, near the service bar, before we went off into the night, and I came away with real admiration for Mr. Heerah, who demonstrates here that quality and affordability need be incompatible and also shows himself to be a very astute observer of Parisian life, since there’s not a neighborhood in the city that wouldn’t love this restaurant…a prototype, perhaps? I’d like to think so, and am also looking forward to returning for the good-value 21 EUro prix-fixe brunch some Sunday.
Au Clocher de Montmartre, 10 rue Lamarck, 18th, Tel. 01-42-64-90-23. Metro: Lamarck-Caulaincourt or take the Funiculaire de Montmartre. Open daily noon-10.30pm, Sunday brunch served from 11am-3pm. Average 25 Euros.