Saturday was my last day in Paris/Europe before my flight home, and I was determined to make the most of it.
I greedily craved a follow up meal out after being so impressed with my transcendent visit to Le Reminet. I had targeted a similarly lauded establishment, Les Fines Gueules (translated as ‘The Gourmets’) which was particularly praised for the impeccable sourcing pedigree of its ingredients: the city’s finest seafood suppliers, vegetable vendors, butter artisans (yes, really), oyster peddlers, and salt purveyors were all counted among the establishments suppliers. I had stopped in the day before and was told I would not, as just a party of one, need a reservation, but I hoped to make it there by about 1:45, still a respectable hour at which to take “le dejuner” (lunch, a very important meal for the French; often the biggest and most involved, as reflected in their name for breakfast, “le petit dejuner”, literally translated as the small lunch, and usually consisting of some teensy bread product and perhaps coffee, so as to leave room later for the REAL ‘dejuner’.)
It was a hot and steamy day and after being out til the wee hours the previous night, I was late in rising and departing. I wanted very much to see at least one real Parisian market, and had earlier in the week plotted a visit to one about ten blocks away. By the time I arrived, some of the sellers were beginning to pack up, but it was still an amazing sight – blocks and blocks of a double row of vendors selling edibles, bloomables, wearables, and play-with-ables. According to the market-specific guidebook lent to me by a Francophile friend, this ‘marche’ was geared toward the wealthy clientele surrounding it, with goods of assured high quality on offer. All the usual suspects were present: huge arrays of ocean-dwelling edibles, arranged on ice that melted nonstop in the Labor Day weekend heat and already, with the sun blazing at its apex, redolent of the nostril-flinching gutter aromas of an urban Chinatown. Cheeses, bravely displayed in little glass cases; tempting-looking charcuterie, which I was happily discouraged from indulging in after watching a number of fat happy flies trotting on the surfaces of the cured piggy meats; scads of flowers, looking much less wilted than many of the remaining patrons and early-rising vendors; the largest olive selection I have ever witnessed – at least 40 kinds; a rotisserie vendor, with delicious-smelling chickens of various sizes displayed next to peeled, roasted rabbits, still easily recognizable and very rodent-like without their silky fur. Having seen these spits all over town with various critters skewered and slowly roasting on them, I was curious to try one. I selected a teensy bird and some roasted potatoes to take with me (hoping I would have enough tummy room to finish both the bird and my leftover macarons and assorted fridge stock later in the evening).
I zoomed off at high speed toward my lunch destination, arriving, hot and out of breath, just around 2. The woman I’d spoken to the day before gestured me to a small high-top with a lovely window view, though to take it in I’d have to sit in the path of the scorching sun glaring in through the window (or sit in the shadow of a pillar with my back to the room). No matter – I kept my sunglasses on and mopped my brow periodically with my napkin. To my dismay, I quickly realized the impossibly closely-written chalkboard offered just a few items I could decipher – rather unusual, but being one of those fancy, high end places (you know they type, where the menu reads: “ragout of field-raised lamb in a frame of pureed heirloom lima beans with wild ramp foam”) I thought perhaps the words being used were beyond the bounds of my modest restaurant vocabulary.
The woman who’d helped me the day prior and seated me didn’t seem to speak English, or perhaps she didn’t wish to, though she was very pleasant towards me, so I decided I’d just pick as best I could – surely everything would be excellent. I’d read about their burrata and mozzarella di bufala appetizer, and I was able to make out the word ‘tartate’ on a separate menu item as well, but since I saw no adjoining mention of beef, I thought perhaps it was some sort of other kind of tartare – perhaps a raw concoction of veggies or seafood or something. I was willing to be surprised. I managed to express my desire that she select an appropriate wine to accompany the food I’d chosen (my miming skills, coupled with a well-placed French word or two excavated from my memory recesses were by this point in the trip able to convey some surprisingly advanced concepts) and received a tasty chilled rose for my troubles. The restaurant is also noted for their extensive selection of ‘bio’ wines, which typically means organic, but in this instance may have referred to natural fermentation or being sulfate free or something. THAT is a concept that would have been beyond my miming skills to ascertain.
The burrata and bufala came, drizzled with olive oil and roughly chopped marcona almonds, with a MOUNTAIN of shaved Serrano ham on top of -and nearly obscuring- both cheeses, which I was not at all expecting.
This dish alone, I realized with a sinking feeling, would have been quite sufficient. And it was – just cheese and meat. While both creamy and delicious, it seemed a bit odd to just sit there, eating my way through two cakes of cool, solid rounds of cheese, each about the size of my hand, as if they were pieces of cake. I balanced as much as I could with nibbles of the bread that had been brought for the table, and made sure I left plenty on the plate (though I was already feeling quite stuffed) to leave room for my Mystery Tartare.
And when it arrived, despite no mention on the chalkboard of anything resembling ‘boeuf’ next to the ‘tartare’, it was indeed a cake of raw beef chunks.
I’d already ingested as much animal protein as I commonly consume in a week before it even arrived, so although he plate looked lovely, I felt extremely discouraged that I’d assumed it was anything but classic beef tartare, and cursed myself for not having the sense to ask the manager who’d been assisting me for menu translation help, or at least a few recommendations. After just a few bites in I started to feel queasy – it was just too much meat and cheese in one sitting for me. (And really, it just didn’t taste like much, but it was sliding down my throat densely and slimily, and sending visions of immediate conversion to permanent veganhood through my brain.) I valiantly balanced it with as many of the little roasted potatoes and accompanying undressed greens as I could, but I eventually realized I had just taken myself out for a $70 lunch that I’d be able to eat about 30 percent of, at best. And the best part of the meal had been the rose wine – the lack of balance and ill-advised pairing was just not flavorful or enjoyable in any way, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was due to my poor random choices, or just odd kitchen execution. Like, why not dress the greens? Shouldn’t the tartare have had – you know – a flavor? A local restaurant in Winter Park makes a fantastic tartare I’ve always enjoyed, and it has flavor, though admittedly from seasonings and garnishes – yet I’m not sure I’d want to have a really heavily raw-beef flavored dish (ew).
And really – two cheese lumps? Was one MEANT to eat it with the bread (this was the kind of bread that’s brought to each table, mind you, it wasn’t a cheese lump accompaniment.) I thought mournfully of Le Reminet and the cute waiter with his slightly halting but perfectly accurate English translations of the sublime food to help me order, and realized –too late– I should have just gone back there for my last Paris meal. But wait! Indeed this was not my last Paris meal… I turned my gaze in dread toward the small plastic bag that held my market prize, the poulet roti and MORE potatoes, and realized I was not yet done with my animal protein allotment for the day, but would have still more to choke down when I arrived at home.