If all big cities change constantly, there’s one change that I’ve witnessed over the years in all of the cities I know and love best, including Paris, New York and London, that consistently saddens me, and that’s an ever decreasing diversity in their center-city streetscapes. What really brought this thought home was a recent Saturday morning in London when I was walking down Sloane Street and found it transformed in a souless alley of luxury boutiques guarded by security men with little curly black devices in their ears. Sloane Street has always been prime turf, of course, but when I last lived in London a longtime ago, there were still several pubs, a hairdresser and even a convenience grocer on that patch of pricey turf, and now they’re all gone. The same thing’s happened in many parts of Paris and New York, too–rising rents and increasing real-estate values thresh a neighborhood in favor of the same international luxury brand names you see in every city all over the world, and in this process what goes missing are the quirky little shops that give a place its character and also many of the homely ones that sell things you actually might need if you live locally.
Happily, they’re some streets that resist this process, and among them in Paris are the rue Vignon, which is right in the heart of the city behind the Madeleine, and on the Left Bank, the rue du Cherche Midi. Returning from a trip to the south of France on a recent Friday night, it was a real relief for me to see that so many of the shops I knew on the rue du Cherche Midi during the many years I lived on the rue du Bac are still there as I walked up the street in almost its entire length to meet Bruno for dinner at the charming Cafe Trama. The quincaillerie (hardware store) I always liked for its voyeur-at-a-keyhole glimpse of an orderly French domestic life that eluded me for years is still there just across the street from the ever popular cafe Le Nemrod and even the dreaded laundromat I used to use before fate smiled on me and freed me from that miserable chore–like all city-dwellers without washing machines, I always waited too long and then I always suffered the anxiety of wondering if one of the four dryers serving over a dozen washing machines might be available once my clothes were washed, survives. It sure did put a skip in step to walk by that place, though, and as I headed up the street it was also a pleasure to notice that a lot of new casual dining options have opened along this stretch, including the table that was my destination.
I decided on this new place, because a friend who works at a shop nearby had raved about it and also because it sounded easygoing and straightforward on a Friday night when we were both tired and had already cooked the fridge bare. I got there first and was warmly greeted by an attractive young woman whom I think was Marion Trama–of the celebrated culinary dynasty–and since it was warm, she nicely let me sit at the duece next to the open windows in the main dining room and promptly set me up with a very good glass of Chablis to while away the time over while I waited for Bruno. As the restaurant filled, the crowd was a pleasant mix of local jeunesse dorée, or affluent young locals; shopkeepers; antiquaires; and the sort of arty looking older Left Bank couples who’d be great subjects for a Sempe drawing.
I also liked the relaxed homey atmosphere, the good lighting and a decor that was a mix of tasteful flea-market finds and contemporary furniture, and the chalkboard menu looked appealing, too, for offering a mix of comfort-food classics and modish modern French dishes. As Marion Trama explained to us when she came to take our order after Bruno arrived, the menu was conceived so that you mix and match at will, having, for example, just a salad and some charcuterie, or a proper meal depending on your appetite.
Don’t tell my doctor, but I can never resist oeufs en meurette, or coddled eggs in red-wine-and-bacon sauce, a classic Burgundian dish, when I see them, so they got my dart for a first course, while Bruno had a delicious composition of sauteed squid with fresh white beans from Paimpol in Brittany in a shallow pool of savory slightly smoky bouillon. This was a simple but original and well-conceived dish, and the squid was perfectly cooked. I enjoyed my eggs as well, although the sauce was oddly sweet when I’d have preferred a ruddier range of flavors.
Among a nice run of main courses, including shrimp sauteed with lemongrass and ginger, we both had our hearts set on the steak tartare “à la thaïe,” which translated to coarsely chopped beef from butcher Hugo Desnoyer with a surprisingly successful seasoning of sesame oil, finely diced ginger and lemongrass. I feared that this Asian feint might overwhelm the primal goodness of the beef, but instead it set it into interesting mineral-rich relief, and the accompanying garnishes of mesclun and sauteed potatoes were ideal for their simplicity. With a good bottle of Morgon vieille vignes, this meal was one of those rare and deeply satisfying ones that was as much about being in the right place at the right time as it was the good food.
“I’d definitely come back here,” said Bruno as we shared a slice of pear and mirabelle tart. “The people are nice, the food’s good, the prices are fair, and it’s lively but relaxing.” I agreed, too, and made a mental note that this would be a great place for lunch for anyone touring the Left Bank and also ideal for the same kind of let-your-hairdown tete a tete we’d just enjoyed. It’s true that they’re some nights you just want a good simple meal without a lot of fuss about it, and if you find yourself feeling this way anytime soon, I suspect you’d enjoy the Café Trama as much as we did.
Café Trama, 83 rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th, Tel. 01-45-48-33-71. Metro: Rennes, Saint-Placide or Vaneau. Average 30 Euros.