A la Recherche du Temps Perdu: Chez Maitre Paul: C

February 9, 2010

Though most of my meals during any given week in Paris are in new restaurants, I make it a point to regularly revisit places I included in HUNGRY FOR PARIS and also to check in on other long-running and well-established local tables, Chez Maitre Paul in the rue Monsieur le Prince, for example. When I was choosing the restaurants to be included in Hungry for Paris, I ate at Chez Maitre Paul once a month for six months, hoping against hope on each new occasion that there’d be a change in both the kitchen and the dining room, because I used to love this place so much when it was owned by a warm, generous, charmingly shy couple from Besancon.

He cooked, and she mothered and spoiled a crowd of regulars who, twenty years ago, ran to professors and publishers–the talk here was always about books, ideas, politics. Madame loved explaining the cooking of the Jura and the Franche-Comte regions to those who didn’t know it, and all it took was a meal here to fall in love with this sturdy, delicious, rustic cooking. I always ate exactly the same meal, too–Montbeliard sausage with boiled potatoes in a puckery vinaigrette, chicken cooked in a vin jaune spiked cream sauce with morels mushrooms, and iced walnut cake, and it was here that I discovered  how good Arbois wines from vignerons like Trousseau can be. The dining room with its exposed stone walls and crisp white table cloths had a winsome grandmotherly feel, and I never ate here without coming away with a feeling of great well-being.

So on a snowy night this week after a book reading in the Latin Quarter, Bruno and I were starved and I suggest we stop by for a stick-to-your ribs winter meal. Walking down the rue Monsieur le Prince, now lined almost entirely with rather unappealing Japanese places, I sadly realized just how rare Chez Maitre Paul had become, too. Sushi and noodles are what academics seem to favor these days, and since so much of this neighborhood is now pied a terre territory, there’s very little local clientele left for a place like Chez Maitre Paul.

Arriving, we had an autopilot welcome from a young waiter, who never bothered to ask if we’d like an aperitif, and the dining room was filled with tourists, including a large group of American men who wondered out loud why they couldn’t get boeuf bourguignon, and a sweet trio next to us–a Spanish student who was being treated to dinner by his very proud parents, both of whom were disappointed not to find escargots on the menu, especially Madame, who said she’d been thinking about snails swimming in garlic butter during their entire flight from Madrid. Their son explained that this particularly restaurant specialized in the cooking of the mountains of eastern France, which left Mom and Dad totally puzzled. Where, they clearly wondered, were not only the snails but the foie gras and other dishes they had their heart set on. Waiting for our first courses, we sipped an excellent red Arbois and I quietly routed for the student, who’d done something imaginative in bringing them here.

Then their main courses arrived, including a very overcooked looking steak for Mom, a visibly dry veal chop for the poor son, and a decent looking sole meuniere (not everything on the menu here is regional) for Dad, and the food extinguished their lively chatter. Eventually, Mom spoke up. “It’s not your fault,” she said kindly, “but maybe it’s true what I’ve been reading about France, maybe the food isn’t as good as it used to be. When I’d come with your grandmother, we’d nap after lunch just so that we’d have room for dinner, we couldn’t bare to miss a meal in those days,” she said.

The arrival of our Montbeliard sausages let me off the cringing hook I’d found myself on as an eve’s dropper, and they were very good–fat, firm pork sausages with a wonderful hint of the resinous pine smoke that makes them real Montbeliard. The potato salad was overcooked, sloppily plated and not very generously served, but the sausages were delicious, and I kept wanting to offer a slice to the nice woman from Madrid. Next, a very desiccated and tasteless veal chop with rosti potatoes and savoy cabbage for Bruno, and stringy, dried out chicken in a cream sauce that had almost fallen apart through overheating and which had almost no trace of vin jaune for me. I surmised that the chicken had quite oddly been pre-cooked and then plated with sauce, which is why is lacked the moistness and richness of this dish at its best, and the only real pleasure I found here was in scarfing down the morels, since mushrooms in cream sauce strike a cord of truly primal pleasure insofar as I’m concerned.

The much loved walnut cake of yore stood up to memory, however–a nice eggy cake studded with walnuts and covered with icing, but meanwhile the poor young Spaniard was promising his parents the compensation of an oyster feast at noon the following day. “It was cooking with no heart,” said Bruno has we went into the night, and I now know that if I ever decide to give Chez Maitre Paul another chance–and I will, I love the French regional tables in Paris and the city’s gastronomic landscape would be infinitely poorer if they all sputter out–I’ll be dining alone.

Chez Maitre Paul, 12 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, 6th, Tel. 01-43-54-74-59. Metro: Odeon. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 28.50 Euros, a la carte 40 Euros.

  • John Mihalec

    Alec,sorry to hear about Chez Maitre Paul,which we had enjoyed several times,and is, to my knowledge the only real Franche-Comte restaurant in Paris. It was the kind of place to send my 25 year old daughter with confidence when she was alone in Paris. The chicken with jura wine,cream and morilles was great.But it takes effort to keep things to a standard. I know what you mean about the Japanese joints across the street. One night the owner of one was dining at ChezMP and invited me back for some karaoke. Since then I’ve learned a Japanese song, Yosaku,so I’ll be ready to wow them if ever invited again.

  • Alec Lobrano

    Hi John,

    You’re right, it does take an effort to keep things up to standard, but I fear the problem at Chez Maitre Paul is that it doesn’t have a crowd of regulars anymore who’d insist on same. I know I’ll go back eventually, because I love that chicken so much, and hopefully the kitchen will get serious again.
    Best, Alec