Summertime Follies: Mama Shelter’s roof-top BBQ and Cru

July 1, 2009

Having lived in Boston, New York, London, and Paris, along with having spent huge amounts of time in Barcelona and Prague, I’ve always been fascinated to observe the different ways in which various villes approach summer. Summer heat turns over-achieving Manhattan into a sexy slacker, or a place where people expose a lot of skin, stay up late, and party, while Barcelona lives at night, and Praguers head off to one of the lakes in the surrounding countryside to strip off and go for an icy swim (cold beer figures big in Prague, too).

The first summer I lived in Paris, my apartment on the elegant  rue Monsieur in the 7th arrondissement overlooked a beautiful interior garden with several magnificent ancient chestnut trees. One stiffling Saturday afternoon, I decided to set up camp here in a spot of shade with a good book. Instinctively knowing the French capital isn’t a bare-chested kind of place, I wore a short sleeve shirt and shorts and carried a folding canvas chair into the shade, along with a thermos of iced tea. Engrossed in my reading for an hour, I was startled when I heard a rapping on a distant window. When I looked up, however, I saw no one at any of the windows on the back of the building. A few minutes later, there was another frantic bit of rapping, but again no face at the window. Fifteen minutes later, however, the concierge, a gentle Spanish woman, came to speak with me. “Bonjour,” she said with the wistful smile of an unwilling messenger, and then, in her beautifully accented French, “I’m sorry, but one of the neighbors has complained about your being in the garden.” Why?, I wondered, and then she continued, “What you did makes perfect sense to me, but they say that the garden is meant to be looked at rather than inhabited.” She sighed and gently shook her head, clearly not enjoying being the messenger of this message.

Paris, happily, has made a lot of progress with summer since then, but it remains at very formal city, which is surely one of the reasons I like it so much. There are, however, ways of not only coping with but enjoying the summer heat a la francaise et en ville. One of the best is to seek out a terrace or sidewalk table for a meal al fresco after sundown. This is exactly what I did on this sweltering night, and despite the fact that I was pretty much dead-on accurate in expecting that my dinner with Bruno at Cru would be underwhelming, I enjoyed it very much. Tucked away in a courtyard in the antiquaires quarter of Saint Paul in the Marais, this place is a charming gadget that works best for summer, since almost everything on the menu is served cru (raw). The idea, of course, is that it’s more refreshing to eat cool food than hot, and so they lay it on with a suite of carpaccios and tartares, most of which are better than average despite being rudely overpriced. Bruno enjoyed his starter salad of raw seiche (squid) with vegetables and greens, and my sea bass carpaccio was delicious despite being served with a quarter of lime so rotten it fell apart when I squeezed it. Still, the fish was of excellent quality, as was Bruno’s tartare de veau a la citronelle (veal tartare with lemongrass) and my steak tartare with very tasty “frites de legumes” (fried slivers of sweet potato, potato and celeriac). Abetted by an absolutely charming waitress, a delightful student from an African country, and a cold bottle of rose, we had a lovely time, but you’d never find me here anytime from mid-September to mid-May–this place is as (precariously) seasonably specific as a restaurant could be.

A better measure of how much Paris has changed in its summertime comportment is La Terrasse du Mama Shelter, the funky and very hip ephemeral barbecue restaurant that’s just opened on the roof of the Mama Shelter hotel in the 20th. It’s not cheap at 39 Euros a head, but it’s fun to lounge on one of the day beds or at one of the long wooden tables d’hotes with such summery fare as grilled salmon-and-tuna kebabs, merguez, beef, and chicken, accompanied by a variety of salads and side dishes, and a nice selection of desserts estivale, like strawberry tart or sliced water melon.

Cru, Village Saint Paul, 7 rue Charlemagne, 4th, Tel. 01-40-27-81-84. Metro: Saint Paul. Average 50 Euros.

La Terrasse du Mama Shelter, 109 rue de Bagnolet, 20th, Tel 01-43-48-48-48. Metro: Porte de Bagnolet. Average 40 Euros.