So after hurriedly shedding my winter work uniform of black watch plaid flannel pajamas at 7.30pm and taking a shower, I was late for a change. But this time I had an excuse, sort of. I was engrossed in a fascinating article about chilis by Lauren Collins in The New Yorker, so by the time I looked up fifteen minutes after boarding a bus to go meet Bruno, Richard and Roberto for dinner, I was in front of the Gare de l’Est, well past my destination, the Bistro Bellet, in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Rushing through the streets of the 10th arrondissement on a rainy night, I was amazed by the speed with which this once endearingly shabby and rough-and-tumble neighborhood continues to morph into one of the trendiest quartiers in Paris–it seems as though a new restaurant, bar and cafe or five opens in this quartier every week. At the rate it’s changing, it’s just a matter of time, I fear, before the Kurdish bakeries and African hair-dressing salons are driven out of business by shops selling gluten-free pasta and hand-dipped candles.
For the time being though, enough of the scrappy real-life texture of the old Faubourg du Strasbourg-Saint-Denis survives that it was a surprise to get to the door of the Bistro Bellet and find such a sleek, good-looking bistro in a neighborhood dominated by kebab shops. This airy gallery like space is the latest restaurant of Nicolas Lacave, who runs the very good Niçois restaurant Réparate in the 11th arrondissement, and he recruited a really excellent cook, François Chenel (ex-Chez Michel, ex-Cafe des Musees) to execute a menu of bistro dishes so classic as to make a bistro-lover like me almost misty eyed.
The boys were nibbling squares of pissaladiere–Niçoise focaccia topped with sauteed onions, anchovies and black olives, over glasses of white wine when I blew in, and since everyone was hungry, we made fast work of the short but very appealing menu, which was provided by a lanky waiter in a black trilby hat that pointedly announced his hipster credentials. After he took our order, he returned to see what we wanted to drink. I told him we’d have a bottle of the 2011 Domaine des Schistes Cotes du Roussillon Villages, a supple medium-bodied red that’s a terrific food wine. He nodded, and then he said, “Uh, where are you from?” with a sort of exasperated tone of voice. I knew why he was asking, too–the other three had all showed up in their office gear, i.e., nicely cut jackets and dress shirts, and were well-groomed and prosperous looking. And though everyone (but most of all Bruno) spoke fluent French at the table, there were those accents. “Venezuela, Connecticut, Ohio, and Valenciennes,” I told him, and he shook his head as though this were just too much to take in, but we weren’t going to let a little low-grade attitude distract us from our excellent bottle of wine and our first courses, which arrived promptly from the open kitchen at the back of the room.
Since I love their faint taste of fresh hazelnuts against a bracing backdrop of iodine richness, I couldn’t resist tasting several of Bruno’s mussels, which were perfectly cooked, parsley flecked and generously served. On this damp night, though, I was craving good old-fashioned Gallic grub, a yearning that Chenel’s beautifully made terrine de campagne more than sated, since it had a perfect balance of ground pork and richly flavored fat and was served with cornichons and excellent bread from chef Thierry Breton’s Sangaré Bakary (and no, that’s not a typo–it really is spelled bakary). “This is a really good restaurant, Alec,” said Roberto as our starters were being cleared. “And it’s great to be eating some food that isn’t intended to show off someone’s creativity for a change,” he added, and I agreed. There’s no doubt that Paris has a flock of astonishingly talented and impressively creative young chefs, but sometimes all I want is the type of real old-fashioned French food which caused me fall in love with the French kitchen when I first came to Paris as a teenaged boy.
Blanquette de veau is baby food for people with sharp teeth, and it’s as comforting as being under a heavy goose-down-filled quilt on a snowy night. The word that most often comes to mind when I eat it is kindness, since this dish is as reliably kind and comforting as my much loved grandmother Jean or Miss Lucy Gorham, the gentle woman who taught me to read when I was in first-grade. With me sitting nuzzled next to her, Miss Gorham smelled softly of lavender and vanilla pudding. Since she traveled during the summer when school was out, she had fascinating jewelry–Navaho turquoise bracelets, a pair of red coral earrings from Sorrento that look like little bunch of grapes with tiny gold leaves, a moonstone necklace from a London antique store, and after our lesson, she’d take off her treasures and let me examine them while she told me about where they were from. Her stories deeply nourished the incubus of my restless imagination, and I don’t think she’d be at all surprised today to learn that I live in Paris and that blanquette de veau is a dish that profoundly sustains both my ever weedy imagination and my love of French food. This blanquette was one of the best I’ve ever had, too, and I know that Richard, who’d ordered it as well, felt the same way, since there was a polite tension between us as we served ourselves from the shared cast iron casserole it was served in–neither of us wanted this pleasure to end, and both of us wanted every shred of meat, every last drop of satiny sauce.
Bruno was very happy with his Erquy scallops in the shell with caramelized endive, and though initially wary that it would be fatty, Roberto loved his juicy Bigorre pork, which was fork tender from having been braised and then grilled and rich with the flavors of unjustly maligned fat. There’s good fat and bad fat, of course, but when French food is as well sourced as it is at the Bistro Bellet, the fat is a gift for being so rich with flavor.
Just over the midway hump of a very successful meal, we were happy, and the conversation roamed from the serious to the silly in the way that it will inevitably do when old friends who don’t see each other very often–everyone’s just so damned busy–catch up, blow on the embers, have a laugh, remember why the friendship was born to begin with and relax. What we talked about: Venezuelan politics, a new luxury hotel in the Maldives, our upcoming trip to Vietnam, the insanity of how work is leeching leisure out of all of our lives, my new book, the threats to French raw-milk cheese culture, the madness of over-designed appliances, celebrity marketing, a brilliant Alice Munro story in a recent issue of the New Yorker, and where everyone will be for Christmas, leavened with gossip and hearsay about common friends.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the four of us might have been likely to skip dessert– weight-watching and alarm clocks, oblige, but we were having too much fun to pack the tent early, and so Bruno ordered creme caramel, Roberto poached pears, and Richard and I had cheese, a superb Beaufort with a pretty little nosegay of mesclun.
So to our mutual regret, we paid the bill–the crowd in this restaurant was getting progressively more interesting during our meal, which ran from 8.30pm to roughly 10.30pm, because this place serves until midnight, rare in a city that’s become wiltingly early-to-bed. We jammed Richard and Roberto into Bruno’s Mini and drove them home. Fond farewells on the sidewalk, and then on our way home, Bruno said, “That was one of the best meals I’ve eaten in a long time.” And it was for me, too–the food was excellent, the room was great looking, and despite that feathery flutter of condescension towards four ‘mature’ men by the waiters, they did their jobs well. So put Bistro Bellet on your go list–I’ve already been back since the meal described here, and as a place to enjoy seriously good traditional French bistro cooking in a setting that doesn’t ape a farmhouse or a medieval auberge it was even better the second time around. Before I go back again, however, I might invest in a trilby hat
Bistro Bellet, 84 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel. 01-45-23-42-06. Metro: Château d’Eau, Gare de l’Est or Jacques Bonsergent. Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner only. Prix-fixe menu 32 Euros, average 40 Euros.