One morning, at 4 a.m., I go to Rungis with Bernard Noel, the daytime chef at Chez Denise, to shop for tete de veau—calf’s head. Our long, leisurely stroll through the tripe pavilion, full of pale, ghostly cows’ heads staring gloomily down from the walls, cavernous laundry trolleys brimming with hearts, and great licking tongues swaying back and forth on hooks, leaves me in need of a reviving tonic—and I decide this would be the ideal moment to take up a long-standing invitation to visit À la Cloche des Halles, a charming wine bistro owned by Serge and Annie Lesage, and sample their prized J.-M. Boillot 1994 Meursault.
That is how I come to find myself propped up against their bar at 8:30 in the morning, raising a glass to sip the buttery richness of the wine. To accompany it, they offer me a small but perfect cheese plate, including brie, st-nectaire, cantal, camembert, fourme d’ambert, and chevre frais. As the kitchen is tiny at À la Cloche (named for the bell that was once rung to mark the start and finish of market commerce every day), the Lesages specialize in cheese and charcuterie plates, quiches, and fruit tarts. Serge is responsible for the endearingly homemade character of the chunky, rustic chicken liver terrine as well as the ham, which he poaches in a court bouillon, while Annie’s domain is pastry, both sweet and savory. Slightly more elaborate cooked dishes are sometimes served on special occasions—like the Petit Sale that traditionally accompanies the first beaujolais nouveau of the season every November.
There are also about twenty wines offered by the glass—and considerably more by the bottle. The vintages of Beaujolais, the Loire, the Rhone, and Burgundy are Lesage’s passion, and he often buys these directly from small producers, has them transported to Paris, and bottles them himself in back of the bistro.
“We don’t have a huge menu,” admits Lesage (whose family used to deliver produce to Les Halles from their farm in Normandy), “but what we offer is all based on the freshest and most flavorful ingredients. The enthusiasm with which a customer will polish off a cheese plate and a good glass of wine is satisfaction enough for me.”