“Mais attendez, Monsieur–you brought steaks back to France with you from the United States? Vous etes completement fou ou quoi?” (Are you completely crazy or what?) Well, I’m not going to touch that interesting question from a French custom’s inspector with a barge pole, so I’ll just get it over with and fess up–yes, I often buy a half-dozen organic New York strip steaks at a favorite New York City butcher just before I’m off to the airport. I pack them in layer after layer of shopping bags and put them in my checked luggage, since the air temperature at high altitudes means they’re just fine after a seven or eight hour flight back to Europe.
We eat one the day I get home and freeze the others as a special treat to be meted out, if you will, during the months before I can get back to the butcher again. Yes, of course there’s wonderful, wonderful beef in France, but you just don’t get the same sublime trifecta of taste, texture and tenderness in any other beef in the world that you do with the very best American. With one very notable exception, a particular cut of French meat I found myself thinking about quite often during a trip to Buenos Aires, from which I came away disappointed by the city’s parillas.
Not long before my trip to South America, the beef loving Bruno and me broke our usual rule that steaks are best eaten at home and decided to splurge on Le Severo, which I think is the best steakhouse in Paris. This was hardly a spontaneous decision, of course, since you have to call several weeks ahead of time to snag a table in former butcher William Bernet’s always jammed-to-the-rafters dining room deep in the 14th arrondissement behind the tourist belt of the boulevard Montparnasse. Aside from that, I don’t go often, because it’s expensive, very crowded, very noisy and very popular with American lawyers whose voices could bore through metal. Not all American lawyers have voices like that–my best American friend in San Francisco and my brother are certainly exceptions, but the ones who come here seem to have clocked this place as some sort of Parisian version of the Palm steakhouse (it’s not), and so crow with pleasure at being in the know.
Ah, but when I give in to this place, the pleasure is intense. Though there’s usually a feint or two at the vegetable kingdom among the starters, I know it’s half-hearted, and so am never tempted the way that I might be by a garlicky iceberg lettuce salad with crumbled bacon and chunks of ‘blue’ cheese in an American steakhouse (writing that description, I’d give a finger for one of those salads right now) or the grilled provolone in an Argentine one. Instead, in an act of unblushing madness, we ordered plates of Bernet’s sublime Auvergnat ham and the best chorizo I’ve ever eaten in my whole life. And the fact that it’s served with thick pats of yellow butter reminds me–as if that’s necessary, of why I love France so much. I mean, talk about gilding the lily.
So the charcuterie is one great reason to come here, and the sharp knives and good bread, two others. The fact that Bernet has one of the most wonderful real-people, i.e. great bottles of wine at prices normal people can pay as a splurge, wine lists in Paris is another enticement, and the people watching is fascinating. But I’m not going to beat around the bush, I come here to eat a pavé de rumsteak from nearby butcher Hugo Desnoyer grilled on a salamandre, a piece of equipment I don’t have at home, with a tiny magic mountain of some of the best frites in the whole world.
Bruno made the mistake of ordering a filet the other night, and while it was delicious–Desnoyer’s meat is just plain sublime, it wasn’t half as good as my pavé de rumsteak, which offered the perfect Gallic knock-out punch to my perhaps vestigially patriotic attachment to great American beef.
They’re several desserts on the menu, including a creme caramel, but I’ve never seen anyone order one for the simple reason that this place is all about going to a bona-fide Cro-Magnon orgy. To wit, dessert would just be too damned dainty after a feed like this. After he’d finished his meat, Bruno excused himself to wait for me outside–he can’t handle the noise past a certain point, and despite the fact that this was meant to hurry me, I finished every shred of the meat, crumb of potato and drop of magnificent Crozes Hermitage at what I deemed to be a correct rhythm, pointedly ignoring his pacing on the pavement outside. The reason, you see, was summed up by the rumpled and rather tipsy businessman who stumbled out the door after me after I’d paid the bill for a cigarette. “Putain!” (F–k!) he exclaimed, after sucking on his Marlboro. “Was that meat good or what!?”
Le Severo, 8 rue des Plantes, 14th, Tel. 01-45-40-40-91. Metro: Mouton Duvernet. Closed Saturday and Sunday Average 55 Euros.