Paris Authentique

By Colman Andrews

Published on April 2, 2002

I am sitting with Claude, facing him across a small square table covered with a sheet of shiny, dimpled paper atop a sour-pink patterned cotton tablecloth. We are elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors—a couple of tweed-suited businessmen on one side, a couple of junior editors from _L'Express _on the other—in a noisy, smoky restaurant back room with murky off-white walls and red leatherette banquettes. Daylight floods through a bank of windows, softening the metallic glow of the fluorescent tubes along the ceiling; the air clatters with rapid-fire French and the clink of flatware on china. We have finished our pate de campagne and marinated herring, our steack frites and lapin a la mou-tarde, and have decided, as usual, on some cheese to soak up the rest of our moulin-a-vent. Claude sits back with an imperious scowl. "Jean-nine!" he booms, in what sounds like a kind of operatic parlando, quite oblivious to the waitress's whereabouts. "Un can-tal! Un roque-fort! Jean-nine!" I am in Paris, I think to myself. I am nowhere else.

This scene repeats itself, with minor variation, dozens of times over the years, and it ends up constructing, in vivid multiple exposure, what has become for me the defining Paris restaurant moment—a concatenation of atmosphere, lingering flavor, and sentiment that connects me more firmly and immediately with the whole rich Parisian dining (and eating) tradition than any great repast I've ever had at any of the city's gastronomic institutions. The resonance of this moment has much to do with Claude, for reasons which I will explain. But it also has much to do with the place itself, which is a simple bistro du quartier off the Champs-Élysees, called Aux Amis du Beaujolais—a workaday establishment devoted to nothing more than the consumption, in reasonable haste and marginal comfort, of ample quantities of dependably good food and wine in the pure French bistro style. Aux Amis du Beaujolais, in other words, is the real thing. So was Claude.

I met Claude in 1966, on my first night in Paris. He and his wife, Pepita, came to get me at my little Left Bank hotel to take me to dinner. When he saw me standing on the sidewalk waiting for him, he told me later, he recognized me at once. "I could have been looking at your father as he was the last time I saw him," he said.

Claude was 60 when I made his acquaintance, and I was 21. Nearly 40 years earlier, when he wasn't much more than 21 himself, he had been sent from Paris as a young reporter to work for a year on the Chicago Daily News—where my father, who was a few years older than he, was an editor. The two became fast friends and drinking companions, but when Claude returned to Paris, they lost touch; rumor had it that Claude had been killed during World War II. But when my father published a book about his Chicago days in 1963—in which he devoted some affectionate pages to his friend—he heard from another _Daily News _veteran that Claude was alive and well in Paris, and running the French bureau of the Associated Press. The two men were reunited by mail, but since my father's travels during that period were mostly to the Far East, via the Pacific, and I was headed off to discover Europe, I ended up meeting Claude before my father re-met him—and climbing into his little white Peugeot with him and Pepita on the rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre that evening 30 years ago this June.

None of us could subsequently remember where we dined that night. I recall only that it was a busy bistro with brass fittings and etched glass and a black-and-white tiled floor, and that Pepita had an allergic reaction to a strawberry tart and was never able to eat the fruit again. But somewhere between the pate and the confit de canard (if that is what we ate, and it may well have been), Claude and I discovered that we got along pretty well—and this proved to be the first of what must have been the couple of hundred meals I was to share with him over the next 28 years.

If I resembled my father as Claude had known him in Chicago, I could have recognized Claude, likewise, from my father's description of him in those long-gone days: "The battered beak of a dissolute Napoleonic eagle hung crookedly in his pale, old-young face. His sparse blond hair stood up like the uneven bristles in a worn-out bathbrush." Pepita, on the other hand, was elegant and stylish, with a finely sculpted face and a short crop of silky white hair. Big, American, with long dark hair, I didn't look like much of a relation to them—but I quickly grew close to Claude and Pepita and, as they had never had children of their own, I soon found myself becoming (to my flattered pleasure) their part-time stand-in son.

I dined dutifully and often at Claude and Pepita's apartment near Pere Lachaise, Paris's celebrity cemetery, with Pepita preparing her excellent boeuf a la mode or blanquette de veau or some other specialty of French cuisine bourgeoise. The three of us had glorious restaurant meals together, too, not just in Paris but in Provence, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Charente. But Pepita spoke no English, and her precise, aristocratic French resisted me even as I began to learn the language; she drank little and ate lightly; and she recognized early that, however improbably, I had turned out to be one of the few people her cranky old French husband could actually talk to. Thus she was content, time and again, to send us off to dine without her.

Claude and I shared meals classic and contemporary, good and bad, mostly French but with an occasional Chinese, Indian, Lebanese, or even American excursion thrown in. What we liked most of all, though, turned out to be simple, hearty, honest French stuff, as served in restaurants of a kind that probably couldn't exist anywhere else in the world but in France, and that achieve their apothe-osis in Paris—the massive, perfect cote de boeuf in the bustling downstairs dining room at Ma Bourgogne on the boulevard Haussmann (better than Taillevent's, as we once proved to our mutual satisfaction at lunch on two successive days); the choucroute at Le Muniche; the oysters at La Coupole; the filets of mackerel poached in courtbouillon and roasted woodcock on toast at the now-defunct L'Artois—this last restaurant the kind of place that used to hang a just-shot wild boar upside down outside the front door (a few blocks from the Champs-Élysees!) to prove to its patrons the authenticity of its wild game.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that much of what I know about eating in Paris—and about both eating and Paris in general—I learned from Claude. He knew food, not with the knowledge of the dilettante or the culinary professional, but with the intimate, affectionate confidence of the genuine connoisseur. He took pleasure in the way the dishes he chose looked and smelled and tasted, and—the mark of a true food lover—he took pleasure in anticipating them and then remembering them long after they had been digested. He was perfectly capable of enjoying the complicated contemporary fancies of the younger generation of French chefs, but he always approached such food with some measure of skepticism: It was guilty until proven innocent. He was an infallible judge of quality and condition—the freshness of a fish, the frankness of a minor medoc—at first taste. On the other hand, though he enjoyed fulminating to me privately, he never made a scene when something was not right.

Claude liked the restaurants he did, I think, at least partially because he could depend on them. He valued consistency and tradition. For him, the real Paris, while not mired in the past, knew the past, and appreciated its glories; novelty was diverting, but why would one want to be diverted from something one enjoyed just as it was? "Do you still like Paris?" I asked Claude once, after he had been going on about the disgracefulness of Parisian taxis or some such. He thought for a moment, grimaced, ticktocked his head back and forth a few times, and said, "Oui, apres tout, c'est pas mauvais." Yes, after all, it's not bad. This, from Claude, was a veritable encomium. "Does it still seem beautiful to you?" I continued. "Yes," he replied. Then, after a pause, he added, "And one eats rather well, too."

I was in Paris a few months ago to pick up some boxes and suitcases of Claude's things that I'd left in a friend's basement—old letters, some little oils he'd painted on the Île de Re, a few of the many games and music boxes and mechanical toys he'd collected over the years—and while I was there, I decided to make a kind of gastro-sentimental pilgrimage to a few of our old haunts. Partly, I suppose, I wanted to see how I'd feel at these places without Claude; partly, to be perfectly frank, I just wanted some good, no-nonsense French food.

Le Recamier was not a restaurant Claude and I visited often. It's too expensive, and rather too mannered to have been one of our regular stops. But I associate it with him because he knew the owner vaguely, and we did seem to end up there sometimes on hot summer afternoons, sipping Alsatian riesling from tall, green-stemmed glasses on the shaded terrace that stretches along a portion of private residential street just off the boulevard Raspail—and we did always eat memorably well there.

The restaurant was opened in 1969 by a dedicated amateur named Martin Cantegrit, who is one of those restaurateurs—oh, so typically Parisian—who apparently feels that he has to talk a lot of blather in order to justify his passion for cuisine. "The French are gastronomic because only in France do you find such a concentration of products in one small hexagon," he says with a straight face. "France must teach the rest of the world about fine food. It must be the locomotive by which each country rediscovers its own culinary traditions." This sort of thing is ultimately forgivable, however, because Le Recamier delivers.

The food here is traditional, and mostly Burgundian, with an occasional contemporary accent. Claude lived and worked for a time in Lyon and, like any sensible Frenchman, recognized Burgundian cooking as the best in France. He might have found the distinctly non-Burgundian hors d'oeuvre my friends and I were offered—paper-thin slices of raw scallop dressed with ginger-scented olive oil and topped with slices of Chinese truffles—too precious, though I'm sure he would have eaten every bite. Pepita would have loved it for its delicacy and perfect counterpoint of flavors—as did we.

Delicate is not exactly the word for what ensued, but its cognate, delicious, will do very nicely. It was wild mushroom season, and we luxuriated in that fact, sampling cepes, chanterelles, and other such treasures in the form of a buttery soup; a plate of nicely chewy ravioli in a spinach cream; and a garlicky, herb-spiked snail and mushroom fricassee. We also tried Le Recamier's famous oeufs en meurette—a quintessentially Burgundian dish of eggs poached in red wine, then covered with a reduction of wine and veal stock flavored with bacon, onions, garlic, and more mushrooms.

For main courses, we addressed a huge dome of stuffed cabbage with ground meat filling balanced perfectly between salty and sweet; pieces of truffled pork sausage with a puree of split peas; a thick steak of calf's liver, cooked perfectly and crusted with minced parsley and garlic (with flawless gratineed potatoes alongside—your reward for eating all your liver); and even a memorable magret de canard, in which this usual cliche of thinly sliced rare duck breast was elevated to perfection by the sheer flavor of the duck and the skill with which it had been roasted. (The chef, Robert Chassat, has been at the restaurant for 20 years.)

The food at Le Recamier has earned a star in the Guide Michelin—but, says proprietor Cantegrit, he's more concerned with customers than stars. "I fear that people understand this kind of cooking less and less," he told us, "and it becomes more and more difficult to maintain our standards. This form of restaurant, a good restaurant of the medium level, is condemned. Places like this will be finished in a few years." I hope that this is just blather, too.

Claude and Pepita took me to À Sousceyrac, one Christmas Eve in the early 1970s, for the first of many visits. I shocked them a bit, I think, by arriving with an Older Woman, about a dozen years my senior, whom I had brought to Paris for the holidays. But Pepita was always tres correcte, and Claude, as usual when addressing my foibles, displayed something closer to avuncular bemusement than to parental disapproval—so the evening went well, full of chatter and champagne. My companion might even have impressed Claude a bit by the way she held her own at a table fairly heaped with foie gras, grilled boneless pigs' feet, whole braised sweetbreads, and the restaurant's famous lievre a la royale—an elaborately old-fashioned dish of wild hare stuffed with foie gras, truffles, and its own innards and stewed in wine.

À Sousceyrac is a restaurant for serious eaters only. I'm sure the dieter who wanted just a bit of salad and some plain grilled fish, sauce on the side, would be accommodated—brothers Patrick and Luc Asfaux, who run the kitchen and the dining room, respectively, are nothing if not amiable—but such an order would be not only far from the menu but also many kilometers from the spirit of the place. Ida and Adolphe Asfaux, who opened the restaurant in 1923, came from the town of Sousceyrac, in the departement of the Lot, not far from the famous wine town of Cahors—a part of France known particularly for its wild game, its foie gras, and, in general, its hearty dishes full of concentrated flavors. They brought precisely this kind of food to Paris—and neither their sons, chef Gabriel and maitre d'hotel Guy, who assumed the succession in 1949, nor Patrick and Luc, Gabriel's sons, who took over in 1972, have seen any reason to change things. (Gabriel himself still often cooks at lunchtime.)

Returning to À Sousceyrac recently had an element of exorcism to it: The last time I dined there with Claude and Pepita, about four years ago, her blood pressure plunged suddenly during the meal and she turned pale and speechless—and the evening ended not with cigars and armagnac but with a careen to the hospital in a paramedic's ambulance. (She recovered quickly and went home the same night.)

I wasn't sure how the place would seem to me this time. It is so immediately welcoming, though, with its old zinc-topped bar, its timeworn oak paneling, its soft yellow-tinged light glancing off crisp white linen tablecloths, that I found myself thinking not of near-tragedy but of a far-off Christmas Eve. This time, with a friend, I shared big, juicy oysters beneath a souffle-like cloak of champagne sauce; an elegant little—well, not so little—pot of rillettes de canard (a sort of terrine of seasoned duck meat and fat, a bistro classic); a steaming casserole of the hearty lamb stew called haricot d'agneau; and some delicate lamb sweetbreads in a (comparatively) light cream sauce. We finished by sharing a tarte Bourdaloue, a now mostly forgotten old Parisian pastry-shop specialty made with poached pears and a crust of crushed macaroons; like the dining room itself, it was reassuringly warm.

Claude and I went sometimes to places like Le Recamier and À Sousceyrac, but we went all the time to Aux Amis du Beaujolais. It was his canteen, his hangout. When I first met Claude, his office at the Associated Press was just down the street from the place, in the same building as the offices of Newsweek _and the _International Herald-Tribune. L'Express and Hachette were nearby, and Aux Amis was always filled with journalists. That's certainly part of what made him feel at home there. But the food did, too. It was never demanding; it was always the same.

The story of Aux Amis du Beaujolais ("To the Friends of Beaujolais") is a tale of family continuity. It was opened in 1921 by Philibert Bleton, a young man from Fleurie, one of the ten Beaujolais villages that lend their names to that region's grand cru wines. His brother Georges went to work for him in the late '30s, eventually buying the place from him in 1949. Georges married Maria-Clothilde Picolet; her brother Maurice, in turn, started helping out at Aux Amis, and then took it over in 1963 when Georges retired.

Maurice was in charge when Claude first brought me there. I remember him as a mock-gruff, red-faced man, with burn scars on one arm. These he had obtained as a young man, I learned, in the restaurant's cellar, dipping bottles of beaujolais from his family property in Chenas into molten wax to seal them; he dropped one and the wax splashed up. The current proprietor of Aux Amis is Maurice's son Bernard. I remember meeting him in 1980, a year before he took over—a nice young man in a stylish suit. "The next time I come here," I said to Claude, "there'll be raw tuna with pineapple beurre blanc on the menu instead of boeuf bourguignon." I was wrong. There is more fish than there used to be, because that's what people eat these days. But all the old bistro specialties still remain, and Bernard cooks them just as well as his predecessors did. His son Christian helps him in the kitchen, and is learning the old ways too. (Picolet's daughter Patricia is following a different family tradition: She is studying winemaking.)

The decor of the place had changed twice since I've known it. The off-white walls and red banquettes disappeared in 1981, replaced by what I recall as mostly mousy brown. In 1991, the place was restructured from top to bottom, the bar moved, and an upper and a lower level sculpted out of what had been a single room. The walls are now mustard yellow; the tablecloths are faint pink, with beaujolais-themed place mats. But the menu still offers jambon fume, assorted terrines, various cold vegetables (beets, tomatoes, red cabbage) with vinaigrette, thin slices of dry sausage from Lyon, sole meuniere, beef stewed with carrots (another bistro classic, done superbly here), several French cuts of steak with pommes frites, cold smoked pork with lentils, gateau de riz (as much a comfort food as any American rice pudding), mousse au chocolat—and, of course, "can-tal" and "roque-fort".

What's missing is Claude. He and Pepita died, within a few days of each other, in a hospital outside Paris, in late September of 1994. When I visited them there a few weeks earlier, Claude and I talked about the next meal we'd have together. It seemed like the thing to do. "You'll feel better by the next time I come," I said, "and then we'll be able to go out and eat and drink like we used to do." "Yes," he nodded, "we'll do that." But we both knew that we'd already gotten up from the table together for the last time.

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