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Paris: A Tale of Old & New

Two meals in the French capital give John Saker a taste of two very different epochs.

by John Saker | Cuisine issue #153 | Friday, 17 August, 2012
Bouillon Chartier is just a few years younger than the Eiffel Tower, but nowhere near as visible. The restaurant has no shop window and muted signage. You’d miss it if it weren’t for the queues that daily stretch from the discreet entrance out on to the footpath of Rue du Faubourg Montmartre in Paris’s ninth arrondissement. The lines of people are a persistent endorsement of everything Chartier (as it’s known locally) stands for – hearty, inexpensive, old-school French food presented in a place and in a way that has changed relatively little for more than a century.

A bouillon is a simple French broth, but it is also a word used to describe a type of restaurant that was once a Gallic staple. These were lunchtime cantines, where workers of every stripe could head at midday and be assured of a sit-down square meal.

The fare was straightforward (soup; pot-au-feu; the occasional grill) and cheap. Although the bouillons occupied a rung below the bistros on the eating-out ladder, French reverence for la table still applied. Waiters wore bowties and those black waistcoats with multiple pockets, while lunch was always built around three courses with wine.

When it opened in 1896, Chartier was one of hundreds of bouillons scattered around the city. Today, it is one of the last of the breed, a relic that has thumbed its nose at evolution and hung in against the odds.

At midday on a Saturday, Chartier is filling up. Restaurant manager Christophe Jacquet, well turned out in a grey suit and grey tie, has one eye on his team of a dozen waiters (some of whom have clocked up 30-plus years of service at Chartier), and another on the door.

They don’t make rooms like this any more – it’s a belle époque grande dame, as high as it is wide with wood panelling and brass hat racks running the length of the room. Jacquet says his predecessor felt compelled to paint over the brass-work during the war years – “the Germans would have taken it to make bullets”.

The tables are long, narrow and arranged for maximum diner density. Chartier can seat 320 at any time, and now that it’s open from 11.30am to 10pm non-stop, it averages 1200 covers a day. Paper tablecloths are used – and not just as tablecloths. They double as jotting sheets for the waiters to list orders then add up the bill at the end of the meal, just as they did 100 years ago. Jacquet tells me some regular customers bring their own pens and do this themselves. Many years ago regulars would also bring their own napkins, which they would store in one of the small wooden drawers that still cover walls near the entrance.

Every day a new menu is printed with minimum fuss on an A3 sheet. French favourites such as oeuf dur mayonnaise, celeri remoulade and museau de boeuf vinaigrette head up the entrees. Among the mains, steak frites is a staple but Jacquet reports the favourites are the slow-cooked dishes, such as pot-au-feu, boeuf bourguignon and tête de veau.

“That’s because people no longer make them at home – they take too much time.” Most of the mains are priced between eight and 12 euros, as are the bottled wines.

The clientele is diverse – young, old, families, couples, nuns, a lot of tourists. Beside us is a middle-aged French couple from Marseilles, who have come up for the weekend to catch a concert at the famous Théâtre Marigny; beside them are two young American women. If you arrive alone at Chartier, don’t expect a quiet, isolated dining experience. You’ll be placed at a table with others, which Jacquet says is exactly what attracts many people.

“Lots of people come alone and find someone to talk to… there’s a convivial spirit. That’s quite unique; these people wouldn’t accept doing that at other restaurants.”

If you’re getting the picture that Chartier is ambience-driven, you’re on track. The food, as the French might say, is correct and well priced. But above all, it is classic, both in presentation and ingredients. The celeri remoulade (blanched celeriac dressed with mayonnaise) and oeuf dur mayonnaise (egg mayonnaise) entrees are so simple, yet so reliant on a good mayonnaise, which Chartier delivers. Among the mains, the tête de veau (calf’s head with a sauce gribiche – made from egg, pickles and capers) is great comfort food, and if you like tripe, go for the andouillette, the chunky tripe sausage that is a specialty of the city of Troyes.

Chartier is part museum and part French culinary defiance. There are restaurants throughout provincial France that offer similar fare, which many view as immutable a part of French culture as Molière or the Napoleonic Code. Why change something that was well conceived and continues to work well?

“It’s always interesting to taste new things, new combinations,” Jacquet says. “But we shouldn’t forget that it’s an exact science… traditional cuisine offers une valeur sûre (a sure bet) – you can’t go wrong.”

At Braisenville restaurant, a 15-minute stroll away in the ninth arrondissement, they couldn’t take a more different approach.

This is obvious from the moment you enter the restaurant off the Rue Condorcet. A wide space with a concrete floor and plain walls is unpretentiously furnished. A long concrete bar occupies one side, surrounded by high, heavy stools. Elsewhere are small wooden tables. Beyond the bar you can see the kitchen, in which the proud centrepiece is a charcoal-burning oven imported from Spain. It was later explained to me that this oven also inspired the restaurant’s decor – plain brick walls with bright orange lighting to represent the fire itself.

One of the Braisenville’s three founding partners is on the floor this evening. Philippe Baranes is 30-something, with shoulder-length hair and jeans so tight they could be leggings. He is an experienced Parisian “food revolutionary”, having established La Ferme (The Farm) in the centre of the city in 1999.

La Ferme was (and still is) an unusual hybrid – part takeaway counter, part farmers’ market, part cafe-bistro – but unified in its devotion to fresh, organic produce.

“At La Ferme you could eat fast, but well,” Baranes explains. “It changed the midday Paris eating scene.

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