a fall Sunday in Paris: two meals and a stroll
Very few restaurants that you'd seek out in Paris are open on Sundays, and since museums and other potential destinations tend to be tiresomely overcrowded, picking a place for a comfortable meal requires more than just a phone call or two. Forethought! Planning! Analysis!
I thought the choice would be easy, given that Au Petit Marguery's game menu is renowned and they also do some lovely things with the seasonal fungi. He thought a midday Sunday dinner would be perfect. We were both right! As usual, we began our walk over at Place Monge, so that we could see what looked good and was in season, and thus be adequately informed for the challenge of ordering. The Place Monge - Rue Monge - Blvd de Port-Royal stroll we did last spring is discussed in this post, and although the produce and fish, flowers, and meats (there's some farm-raised game) are seasonally different, I didn't take pictures, except of the leopard- print and polka-dot fishes , pictured here.
Summing up, we got to the restaurant, were made welcome, and chowed down. I ordered the vol-au-vent d'escargots, he ordered the sauté of girolles, and we shared (both dishes a touch light on garlic but otherwise excellent). He had the wild duck, I had the pheasant, after an awkward second or two we agreed that we didn't want to share. Dessert: grand marnier soufflé for me, gratin of pears in champagne sabayon for him.
We abandoned our well-intentioned plans to walk back to the hotel with a stop at the ancient Roman arenas, and took a taxi. An attack of guilt hit as we drove across the first bridge, and we decided to get out and walk after all. The cabdriver had a sense of humor. I must say also that I prefer to gaze at the Arènes at night, when they're beautifully lit up and there are no school trips. Our walk took us past what used to be the exotic pet district -- pet shops moved out to the sidewalks on Sundays, and if you needed a house gift, and wanted to make more of a statement than, say, chocolates, you could surprise your host with a perfectly matched pair of ready-to-breed black swans. There's the gift that keeps on giving... Over time we saw miniature ponies, more birds than the Garden of Eden, rabbits great and small, furry, shaggy, lop-eared, short-haired (also a gift that keeps on giving), and a lot of peculiar wildlife suitable for adorning the grounds or ponds of your château. We also observed a lot of children refusing to believe that this was a zoo and the creatures were not for sale. Today, sidewalk use (and exposure to passers-by) has been greatly restricted, but you can still coo over lots of cute things. Had we staggered to our feet earlier in the day, we would have gone to the Sunday morning bird and flower market on the Ile de la Cité, and if you're looking to fill an hour or to without making too much of an excursion, you should try this.
The rest of Sunday passed peacefully, and just in case we found ourselves hungry Sunday night, we had booked dinner at Benoit. Benoit was owned by the same family since 1912, a beautiful bistro, decor kept spiffy, open atmosphere, grand table as you came in displaying all of the glorious dishes for which the house was known. On Sundays, French families at midday, more Anglophones at night. Impeccable, caring service: we once saw a waiter carefully cutting the meat for an elderly gentleman who had lost the use of his right arm. Wonderful carefully prepared dishes. A favorite: Soupe aux Etrilles (tiny crabs). Tables were assigned by means of a gadget that looked like a magnetic chessboard. It was our go-to place for a Sunday meal, and one of the few places where Parisians would start conversations with us.
All good things end, they say, and when the last owner wanted to retire in 2005, he sold the establishment to M. Ducasse. Alas, this was not a Good Thing. Those of the Ducasse restaurants that bear his name run like clockwork and offer a carefully thought-out balance of the extravagant and the traditional. The others, not so much. The menu gets dumbed down and shortened, quirky decor is dispensed with in favor of "streamlined," younger and less experienced (cheaper) staff is brought in and a snooty maitre d' is installed. Room for more seating is created. Sic transit Aux Lyonnais, and Benoit was the next to fall. We should have known better this trip, since we'd been there right after the acquisition, when we'd been mistaken (or not?) for part of a bus tour and were seated in a hitherto unused back room with a single large group whose language neither we nor the staff spoke. They toasted one another loudly and continually, and we could not get reseated. Nor could we order since the group's meal had been pre-ordered. We knew something was very wrong when we entered and did not see the display of food, were met by silence and had to point out our names on the reservation list, but -- Sunday night, raining -- you suck it up. I got an order placed by telling a waiter that if they couldn't get us some food, I'd call Speed Rabbit Pizza for a delivery. (SRP has won multiple awards for having the fastest delivery in Paris, the cutest pizza-related t-shirt, and the absolutely most inedible and worst-smelling pizza.)
Never ones to learn from experience, we returned to Benoit a few trips later, figuring that after all Ducasse knows how to run a restaurant, and they were just having a tough transition. Huh. No Soupe aux Etrilles, a few other favorites had vanished as well. So had the flowers, along with the sense of teamwork and attention to detail. I forget what we had, but I do remember one dish was cold. And shouldn't have been.
Fast forward to Fall 2011, Himself insisting that surely by now they'd have gotten the kinks out. Same addled and grudging service, better table, still another dining room in operation, and the same reluctance to take an order, even for wine. The bread was soft and damp - insupportable! Shocked staff by requesting new bread, staff was shocked, no new bread. Starters: the marinated smoked salmon for him - Marinade added no flavor and portion was even smaller than on the last venture, and no, this was not a tasting menu. I had the escargots, which were of varied sizes (unforgiveable) and lacked garlic (menu lied). My main was the classic Filets de Sole Nantua. Tough. As in, needed to be cut with knife and chewed for a long time. Himself had a "pretty good" wild duck with gingerbread spices. We skipped dessert, although twice I was offered someone else's. I said addled, didn't I?
We won't be returning here, although if you stay tuned you'll find a rave review of a different Ducasse establishment that we visited a week or so later. Fair's fair.