On my way to meet Bruno and some friends for dinner the other night, I was in sort of a bad mood. An old college friend had called for a chat just before I went out, and it had been terrific to catch up with him until the talk turned to our work. He’s a very successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., and I, well, I’m a food and travel writer who lives in Paris, bien sur. He mentioned having seen something that I’d written in the Wall Street Journal and said that he’d liked it. I’m so glad, I told him, and then there was an ominous pause. “Alec, one thing I’ve always wondered–I’ve always enjoyed your writing, but why did you decide to write about food when you could be writing about so many other things?” Oh, dear. Where to start? Some day, I’ll answer this question in much greater length and detail, but my brief reply was that my love of food was born as an expedient way for a shy boy to indulge his curiosity about the world and access a dimly perceived sensuality that was, I instinctively knew at the time, inappropriate for someone of my age. Also, there just isn’t a faster way, of course, to know where you are or learn something personal about someone than there is by eating that country or that person’s food. And besides, I’ve always loved to eat, and as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to eat almost anything, or at least once. So my love of food, and writing about, is just as essential to my seeing the world clearly as putting on my glasses every morning after the alarm clock goes off.
What I found wilting, however, was the implication that food writing is somehow unimportant or accessory, when I know with great certainty that it’s not. How could I ever have begun to understand Transylvania during a trip to one of the most beautiful places in Europe if I hadn’t visited the shepherds who were tending their flocks of sheep above the little village where I’d rented a house for a week and tasted their freshly made cheese? It was warm and tangy and dripping with whey, and it was startlingly funky and just delicious. Their gift made me shy, but I laughed when I ate it, and the shepherds laughed with me. Though I could sort of make my way in Romania, because I speak Italian and Romanian is, of course, a Latin language, our shared tongue on that hot afternoon, which smelled of freshly cut hay, sheep and the shepherd’s sweat, was cheese. And similarly, how could I have ever begun to make sense of Paris when I arrived here twenty-seven years ago with a knowledge of the language that was a confused and self-conscious linguistic school-boy pottage if I hadn’t started assiduously going to the city’s restaurants? Everyone one of them taught me something about the city and about France, and even though I now speak French, this is as true today as it was then. I love restaurants, all restaurants, because they’re like little theaters, where there’s always a show going on and a spectrum of lessons to be observed and learned.
So this was what was going on in my head on my way to Aux Enfants Gâtés, a place I’d read about in Le Figaro. It also happened to be a very pretty Spring night, however, and the terraces were full along the rue Daguerre, the spine of a nice little neighborhood where I’ve often thought it might be good to live, because it’s one of those avowedly gastronomic precincts that make eating in Paris such a pleasure. I was also hungry at the end of a busy day, and looking forward to seeing my friends (it goes without saying that I’m always looking forward to seeing Bruno).
I liked this little restaurant as soon as I came through the door, too. Nadine and Bruno were already at the table having a glass of Petit Chablis, and the small space had a warm witty decor that included attractive geometric wallpaper that stopped just short of being a tongue-in-cheek reference to French design in the Seventies, suspension lamps, and oak tables. A pleasant and welcoming blonde lady–Caroline, the wife of chef Frédéric Bidault–ex Grande Cascade and Lasserre with Jean-Louis Nomicos, as it turned out, was running the busy room with efficiency and good-humor, and from the relaxed happy atmosphere in the space, I suspected we’d eat well, and we did, in fact, very well indeed.
The short menu was impressively seasonal, and three of us immediately decided on the vegetables in aspic as our first course. I can’t speak for Nadine or Judy, but my decision was propelled by both an atavistic affection for aspic–memories of the wobbly tomato aspic Mom used to serve when she had a ladies luncheon during the summer came to mind–and a vernal desire for greenery, and what came to the table after an amuse bouche of foamy potato soup was just the little still-life I had in mind. Carrots and leeks suspended in a layer of vegetable bouillon aspic topped a bed of duxelles, or hashed mushrooms, and this deceptively simple–it was obviously a laborious thing for any chef working on his own in a restaurant to have made–and sort of poignantly sincere, since you just wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to cook something like this if you weren’t motivated by a real desire to give other people pleasure. Garnished with lava beans, asparagus, red peppers and roasted tomato, it was also one of those wonderful dishes that was as healthy as it was gastronomic. The scattering of freshly chopped chives brought an image of the chef’s strong hand on a knife on a chopping board in the kitchen to mind, and also communicated the real pride and pleasure he takes in his craft.
Bruno’s pâté de tête (head cheese) was homemade, too, and made him very happy. I forked my way across the table, and loved the mix of tender meat, perfect seasoning and great garnish of freshly made celeri remoulade.
Our main courses continued the welcome theme of precise modern bistro cooking with beautifully sourced and vividly fresh produce, too. Judy and Nadine had the lieu jaune (yellow pollack), which came on a bed of wilted baby spinach in a light sauce of pan drippings, good butter and citrus, and was garnished with shaved radishes. “Just lovely,” said the ladies.
Bruno’s saddle of lamb was stuffed with herbs and was a gorgeous piece of meat cooked rare the way it should be, and my roasted veal was garnished with morels and homemade gnocchi that had been griddled to give them a nice crust. The simple sauces of cooking juices on both of these dishes were expertly made and welcomely light. This was clearly food that had been made by someone with a deep love and knowledge of cooking, in a style that was pleasantly homey but decidedly professional. I rather doubt that the Clos Siguier Cahors–a bargain in terms of restaurant pricing at 23 Euros a bottle–we chose was an ideal choice for the fish, but it was good drinking with the lamb and the veal.
A perfect wedge of Fourme d’Ambert, one of my favorite cheeses, came garnished with trident of dressed romaine, and the others concluded this very happy meal with a streudel like tourte de pommes with caramel ice cream. All said, this meal was a perfect retort to the ongoing kerfuffle about whether French food is still good anymore or needs to be saved or some such. If the menace of industrialized cooking is a global plague for anyone who loves to eat as much as I do, Paris remains blessedly truffled with outstanding little neighborhood restaurants like this one, where I couldn’t help by being moved by the deep desire to please and nourish that so clearly motivates the admirably proud, hard-working and hospitable Bidaults.
4 rue Danville, 14th, Tel. 01-40-47-56-81. Metro: Denfert-Rochereau or Gaîté. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch menu 25 Euros, three-course prix-fixe 34 Euros. www.auxenfantsgates.fr