I am writing this at an outside table at a Brasserie in the Opera District in Paris. The pavement table is so close to the busy road – the Blvd Des Batignolles – that your salad dressing fights with theVespa fumes.
It could be one of ten thousand, one of a hundred thousand, brasseries that stud the Parisienne streets. And they are all the same. Identical tables -- round and so small that you’d be hard-pressed to fit a large pizza on one. And the chairs are all Bentwood design and covered in cane wicker.
The brasserie tables and chairs are jammed so close together that, by necessity, you get pretty intimate with the people at the next table. And God help you if you don’t smoke. Passive smoking in Paris (like Athens) is almost as potent as the real thing. In the Paris Metro there is a graphic anti-smoking poster showing a bar and a mound of 19,000 real cigarette butts on the floor. The message: This is what you smokers force a non-smoker to inhale.
Parisiennes love brasseries. They live in them and by them. How they afford them in these inflated days of the Euro is another story.Surprisingly, the brasseries on the famed Champs Elysee are ordinary and tres expensive.
Two of us, between us, had one coffee, one baguette with ham (no butter, no mustard provided) and one croissant (no butter, no jam provided) and one Heineken. Cost $A30.
As I mentioned in a recent travel article on Paris for hinch.net:
Nearly forty years ago, on my first visit to Paris, my favourite place wasMontmartre. The cafes, the bistros, the bars, the art galleries, the writers, the cobbled stone narrow streets, the three-storey apartment buildings with flowers on the window sills and filigreed wrought iron balcony fronts. It was a preciousParis memory.
Went back on this visit. It still is. Sit there with a carafe of the house red. Order a plate of country sausage and salami and dried sausage and dried, perfectly cured, French ham (better than prosciutto) and some cheese and crunchy-crusted baguette. And those pesky little pickles.
It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
In the Hungry Hinch section I have reviewed a famous Paris brasserie – Deux Magot off Blvd Ste. Germaine. Like most brasseries, they are big on salads. Nicoise is everywhere. Day and night. And sandwiches (which are made with traditional crusty baguettes) and cheese platters.
And toast. They are all very big on toast.
If you don’t like bread there won’t be too many brasseries catering for you. But as I mentioned about Montmartre there are plenty of dishes of cold roast beef, and cold chicken and pate and mushrooms and foie gras – and more salads – and slabs of quiche.
With brasseries, in Paris, you have to shop around. Try a few and find a favourite. They are great places to get a carafe of wine, some iced water and a baguette. Watch the passing parade. Have a good coffee and maybe just sit and read a good book.
A travelling companion wasn’t so sure. She thought the food was repetitive and boring. Thought the pint-sized tables were jammed too close together, thought the iced coffee in some places was almost undrinkable. And thought some brasseries were grubby. Their toilets certainly are primitive and the constant incense doesn’t kill the smells.
We had deliberately avoided Guide Michelen places with waiters in black ties. Preferred a more relaxed dining atmosphere.
But after her repeated disappointments with brasseries I relented. We went to a “serious” restaurant. I had duck – unusually with a green pepper sauce-- and enjoyed it. Apart from Peking Duck at the Flower Drum in Melbourne who could cook duck better in the world than in Paris. The other home of duck dishes. N’est pas?
Mine was great. Hers was duck slivers – not duck livers -- in a salad.
It was undercooked and apparently off. She spent her last night in Parisvomiting violently from food poisoning.
On our first day in Paris, after our first two meals, she said she didn’t like French food. After she had chatted to the pan for a few hours, after a “real” restaurant meal, I didn’t have a strong argument to counter such a sweeping comment about one of the three ancient bastions of food: Chinese, Italian, and French. The Japanese should be in there too but they were xenophobic and Marco Polo didn’t take their cuisine to the world.
Of course, the Chinese argue they were the ONLY cuisine and the others stole their recipes. Marco Polo took their noodles for the Italians to “invent” pasta and the French took their “popin” -- the pancakes Peking duck is wrapped in – to “invent” crepes.
Not a bad argument.
But back to the brasseries. They are a way of life in this city. And for my money (should that be Euro?) Monmartre is the place to experience them.