All Images: Pauline Boldt
Don’t tell me you have never gone into a classic Parisian bistro or café in a fairly posh neighborhood, ordered some seemingly timeless dishes with French wine, and not walked out feeling ripped off and disappointed?
The disinterested waiter (they’re no longer surly in such places) plunks down your small white plate on the table. With its full array of fork scratchings collected since 1973 on either side of your cylinder-shaped cheese omelet, the only thing under 15 euros on the menu seemed to involve cooking. There are a total of three colour tones on your plate: white, burgundy, and pale yellow.
Don’t expect a slice of orange, and sprig of parsley here — that would be for an American diner. You ordered a glass of red Brouilly because the Bordeaux was two euros more, but it is so cold that you fish a glove from your bag to keep the feeling in your fingers as dinner progresses. Dessert? Hmm, they look so heartwarmingly old-fashioned on the menu that maybe the owner’s grandma is making them, and so with your last gasp of faith for this institution of hearty French cooking, you go for the crÃ¨me caramel.
Oops! The same pale yellow, white, and burgundy colour combination on your plate as your previous course, but the plate scratches are at least covered by a fourth tone: the brown liquid. Your last drops of wine are now finally near proper temperature so you can take off your glove, but you can feel them starting to curdle the cold custard in your belly. Café? Ahh, non, merci.
The bill arrives, and at least the total is what you expected, because the sales tax is in the price. But, you were so hoping the price of a small bottle of Perrier, and that Coke your wife took was an error on the menu. If you’re Canadian, you still leave a 15 per cent tip because the waiter looks like he probably didn’t have a very happy childhood, and you apologize that it’s all in small change and that you don’t speak better French.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of such restaurants in Paris, and one of the most famous of them is Café de Flore. Although it is in a different classification, since famous writers used to grace their tables, they now have a boutique for the tourist hordes.
Here is a sampling of what might let you down at the Café de Flore (prices are in euros):
Å’uf au plat nature et la paire de Francfort . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18,00
(Plain sunnyside-up egg and 2 boiled wieners)
Le Club Rykiel Club sandwich tout nu . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19,00
(A “naked” club sandwich: bits from the inside of a club sandwich without bread, named for the Fashion house across the street where the carbohydrate is apparently forbidden)
Endives au roquefort . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18,00
(Endive leaves and some blue cheese)
Saumon fumé Norvégien tranché Ã la main, avec toasts . . . 29,00
(Smoked salmon, hand-sliced, with toast)
So far, our basic no-frill nibbles comes to about $100. If that seems like a fair price to you, you may not shrug at washing it down with their best wine, a Petrus 1999 Pomerol for 2500.
Remember, we were talking about a café here, not a three-star restaurant!
Okay, it is too easy to slag the Café de Flore. Maybe you still insist on going? And perhaps you should, if you want to rub shoulders on the patio with the likes of famed photographer David Hamilton, as Pauline did (considered notoriously pornographic almost everywhere but France). I would go back to have a pot of Mariage FrÃ¨res tea. While four to five euros for a thimble of espresso always gets me raging, I am content to pay six for a pot of good tea, which I can feel guiltless about when taking an hour of table space for people-watching.
Our initial question was whether there was any hope for the typical Parisian Bistro/Café. What started out in the centuries before WWII as Ma and Pa joints with some authentic, unpretentious cooking ended up with kitchens staffed by immigrants from the tropics, expert in frozen-food reheating techniques. Many people outside of France don’t realize that the same industrial food movement that hit North America in the fifties also air-dropped into France. Preparing fresh vegetables is generally labour-intensive, and skilled labour in France is expensive. Complicating matters for the bistro owner, many good French cooks decided there are more interesting careers to be had in London, New York, Tokyo, and so on. The easy but regrettable solution became to hire immigrant workers at minimum wage, and not fretting about their lack of French cooking talent by using ready-made industrial food products.
My verdict’s still out for the future, but the French are now scrambling to get caught up on the North American trend of eating local. Reasonably-priced restaurants are now going through the trouble of sourcing their ingredients and showing pride in the origins of the food that ends up on your plate. Give the Café de Flore about 20 years, and some young, crazy chef with inspirations from Toronto and Montreal will take over, and bring back some real cooking.