Goumard–A Good Address for Hard Times

January 8, 2009

After reading The Economist’s terrifying article on the state of the world’s oceans (dire, of course, but even more so than I’d thought), plus following the latest tragedy in the Middle East and experiencing another one when I opened my latest bank statement, I’ve been feeling very humble at the outset of this new year. To wit, with the world so roiled, a preoccupation with good food might be interpreted as escapist at best, delusional at worst.

On the other hand, lunch with a delightful couple from Baltimore on this icy winter day in Paris reminded me that even in the darkest of times, we still need not only sustenance but the pleasure of good wine, great food and nourishing conversation. And this I found in abundance at Gourmard, a venerable fish house in the rue Duphot in the heart of Paris. I’ve known this place almost ever since I arrived in Paris,  as I was often invited to lunch here by fashion designers during my improbable stint as an editor at a fashion-driven American press group Fairchild, then located around the corner in the rue Cambon. I think it may have even been Patrick Lavoix, a very elegant man who was the men’s wear designer for Lanvin, who very patiently and non-chalantly showed me how to deal with a whole fish (sole meuniere, if memory serves) at the table in a quiet corner of the now radically transformed (into an oyster bar/eat-on-the-go space) ground floor dining room (the main one is upstairs).

Since Gourmard has always been expensive, I hadn’t been in a longtime, and so was surprised by the dramatic new decor, a sort of louche lounge look in aubergine cut velvet, deadly nightshade purple, ivory and ebony, with low chairs at low tables and Roman shades in the windows. Quite a change, in fact, from the previous decor, which was rather forgettably modern but still made a feint at the good art-nouveau bones of this place.

If the original motto for this place coined by founding owner Alfred Prunier in 1872 was “Everything that comes from the Sea,” the latest menu by chef Philippe Dubois is more than half meat and the oyster counter of yore on the first floor has disappeared. Clearly this restaurant is making an urgent effort to remain viable and valid not only at the beginning of the 21st century, but at the outset of a potentially harrowing new year.

With the ambient penny-pinching that’s likely to dominate most of meals in mind this year, two of us opted for the 49 Euro all-in menu, which includes three courses, a half-bottle of wine and a half-bottle of mineral water. We fared reasonably well, too, with an odd but not unpleasant starter of crab in a sauce that fell somewhere along the bechamel, hollandaise spectrum, delicious cod steak on a bed of beautifully prepared brandade de morue (shepherd’s pie made with lots of garlic and salt cod) and a few tasteless and superfluous dots of arugula juice, and a nice apple pastry dessert. To be sure, the wine was a screw-cap white from the Languedoc Roussillon that was a bit too floral to suit this meal and could probably also be hunted down on the shelves at Franprix for less than 4 Euros, and service was scattered and unsure, as though the waiters had been given lessons in the Costes brothers school of fashionable dining, but hadn’t scored very well.

The third member of our party fared considerably less well than we menu-takers, however, since she had sea bass with girolles mushrooms and haricots vert, a promising sounding preparation that was absolutely tasteless. I also thought that it was nervy to charge 26 Euros for this dish without specifying whether or not the fish was wild or farm raised.

As fish stocks continue to crash the world over, this distinction will become more and more important, and one that I’ll use as a compass as to whether I’ll eat fish or not. Why? Because pisciculture is mostly a disaster in every part of the world in which it’s practiced, from the shrimp farms of Thailand to salmon farms of Chile, Norway and Scotland, to say nothing of the “Tilapia” or Nile Perch that arrives on our plates from various unidentified African destinations with no back story whatsoever.

Before lunch ended, I lurched back to the magnificent art-nouveau toilettes, and was relieved to discover them still intact with magnificent ivy motif tiles, sturdy brass fixtures, massive Sarreguemines lavebos and the marble partitions between the urinals that were installed at the bequest of Charles de Gaulle, or so the story goes. This fleeting experience of a pur jus Belle Epoque atmosphere reminded me, however, of why I had always so urgently wanted to live in Europe, a place where even the homeliest settings seemed to me as an adolescent boy to have a glamour sorely lacking at home.

In any event, Gourmard has slimmed down a lot for this new century, and I’d certainly be willing to give it another go for the good value menu, but I couldn’t help but regretting what it once had been, which was a distinguished luxurious seafood restaurant in the best French old-school tradition.

Goumard, 9 rue Duphot, 1st, Tel. 01.42.60.36.07. Mo Madeleine or Concorde.

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