I woke up on fine sheets. In that gauzy sort of morning when you cannot immediately determine what time it is. Nor is there a need to know the time. I gazed up at the ancient wooden beams in the ceiling of my hotel room. And at the antique prints of generals and gentlemen near my bed. There was the sound of a soft rain falling outside my two floor to ceiling windows. It was drizzly outside and warm inside. The smell of bakery and fresh coffee drifted into the bedroom from somewhere in the hotel beneath me. I stretched and considered rolling back into sleep. After all, I was in Paris. And I could do anything I wanted to do. All day.
I was intoxicated. No, not by the wine and Calvados I had consumed the day before. Rather, by the idea that I was in the city of my dreams, on the other side of the world, fully enabled. Emancipated from the workaday world. As it turned out, more emancipated from work than I thought at the time.
I lingered with morning grooming, fooling about with a new razor and some very good Portugese shave creme. Then out to the Rue Saint-Louis and off to the Pompidou Centre for a bracing dose of Modern Art and my first planned meal of the trip. As I walked through the drizzle I realized that despite my excitement level I was hungry. At the end of the street were four great looking cafes, at the intersection where you cross the Pont Saint-Louis heading to Notre Dame. I braced for my first order of a petite dejuner en Francais and squeezed into the lovely little Le Flore en L'ille cafe on the Quai d'Orleans.
The place was busy and I wondered vaguely what time it was. With the kismet that followed me the entire trip, there was one table open and I was shown to it right away.
One tip. When you are sitting down at a Parisian cafe table, take your all weather coat off before you sit. The buildings that house most places worth going to eat in Paris are very old and thus very small. As a result, the tables are very close together. This makes for a great chance to meet fellow diners, share commentary about the menu or the food and wine, to eavesdrop or to otherwise generally add to the solo dining experience. That being said, it is a critical mistake to try and remove your jacket after sitting, especially when you sport an Edwardian sort of physique. This results in the sartorial equivalent of a professional wrestling match and will draw raised eyebrows from the involuntary participants sitting beside you.
My favorite morning pastry is pain au chocolate, a roll with dark chocolate baked in the center. Due to whatever time it was, the waiter sadly informed me that they had sold out of la pain. I settled for a fresh baked huge croissant which was so buttery and flaky that my usual habit of spreading jam [preferably raspberry] on a croissant was made unnecessary. I realized that I had never eaten a real croissant before. Putting jam on what I was then eating would have just been wrong. I also ordered the ubiquitous "une grand creme", strong coffee with hot milk. You can get really great coffee almost everywhere in Paris of one sort or another. I never had a cup that was anything short of outstanding. I did eventually return home, fulfilling my wife's only restriction on the trip, and I have taken to making Cuban style espresso every morning with lots of milk. In a Paris cityscape tourist mug I brought home for the purpose.
At a table just in front of me was a man about my age with a striking young woman. In her early twenties, a foot taller than her companion, blond with eyes like sapphires, wearing a fitted white parka with fur trim at the hood and wrists. The jacket probably came from Gstaad. I figured her for Denmark's representative in the Miss Universe pageant. How she kept her eyes off me is still a mystery.
Despite the numerous advantages that doubtless attend finding oneself in the company of a Miss Denmark half your age, certain downsides also seem to pertain to the adventure. A certain volatility of emotion, for example. The couple seemed to be having a normal breakfast until MD's sapphire eyes blazed lightning and she stood up. I suspected that he had said the wrong thing. Rising to her full, slender, astoundingly well dressed height MD then cast some Euro notes on the table, speaking rapidly but under her breath to the somewhat mystified looking man who was trying to mollify her. He touched her arm, which I knew from experience to be a critical error.
One time, many years ago, I had the experience in a very fine restaurant of having a gorgeous redhead rise from a table like that and cast a heavy linen napkin on her chair. It seemed to me as if I had said the wrong thing. A neophyte in the world of gorgeous redheads at the time, even I had the good sense not to TOUCH her when she stood up. After a bit, she came back to the table. Perfectly composed and mystified that I thought my time with her had concluded. We were eventually married. So it all worked out for the best. Regardless, I suspect that grabbing her sleeve in the moment could have significantly altered the course of events.
Miss Denmark gave a firm, but elegant, twitch of her Cartier bangled wrist and stepped toward the door. At which point the man said about four words of something she wanted to hear and she returned to her seat. Gave him a Miss Universe caliber smile. Returned to her breakfast. I thought the fellow looked rather tired at that point, for that time of day, but the hour may not have been the reason.
I have mentioned Liebling before. In my repeated readings of his opus "Between Meals, An Appetite For Paris" over the years, it occurred to me to make a list of the places where he mentioned dining. So that when I got to go to Paris, I could go to them too. Sort of a tribute tour. Romantics are always doing things like that. Sewing seeds in fields which may never see a drop of rain. There were only a handful of Liebling's favorites that survived from the 1920s, however. La Closerie de Lilas, the Restaurant des Beaux Artes on the Rue Bonaparte. Chez Benoit.
Benoit has a history stretching back to 1912. In my pre-trip investigations, I determined that it is still in operation, in the same location as in Liebling's day. The place was bought by the great Chef Alain Ducasse a couple of years ago but the restaurant web site, and more importantly, the menu, give a strong nod to the past. Tres' classique. Liebling went there for pot au feu. I would go for his second favorite. Cassoulet.
I made a reservation for a late "Parisian" lunch at two in the afternoon of the second day I was in town. I resisted the urge to go to my first Liebling spot on Saturday after my arrival due to the nefarious effects of jet lag. It was a wise idea. When a gourmand and an epicurean walks through the door of Benoit for the first time, he had better be on his feed. Plus, I thought a good wander down the Quai des Fleures and over the Seine to the Chatelet area from my hotel followed by another good wander through the Pompidou Centre's exhibits would be an excellent way to wind up my appetite after the croissant and drama I had consumed for breakfast.
So I wandered through the cold drizzle, reveling in the experience that is Paris on a Spring morning. I managed to use my museum pass to get into the Pompidou Centre via the express entry, and rode the series of tubular escalators to the top floor. It is worth the price of admission to see the tremendous views which are afforded on the escalator ride. Once you get to the top, there is an expensive cafe with million Euro views and (reportedly) good food. At the top, I ran into my first bureaucratic snafu. I was allowed to cut to the front of the long exhibit line with my museum pass but then denied entry for a reason my rudimentary French could not decipher. The docent kindly showed me to the escalator and told me to go to the original entry point. On the first level. After a few minutes of attempted communication with a very friendly and memorably pretty security guardess I realized that the top floor access was a temporary exhibit of Matisse...not included on the museum pass. By this time, I realized it was too late to go back to the exhibits as my 2:00 p.m. reservation at Benoit was in peril. I conceded defeat and left the building, an escalator ride to the better, no art viewed. Priorities must be maintained.
The front door of Benoit [which Liebling pushed open himself!] opened to the past. Fresh flowers. Small tables. Heavy silver. Crystal glasses. Seriously professional waiters. France. In its distilled essence. I was ushered to a small banquette. A total rookie. Treated as an old friend. My houndstooth Polo trousers, black blazer and snazzy pocket handkerchief did not hurt. This is a shot of the main dining room of Benoit when you enter the front door...
The first waiter presented three menus. And a wine list. The second waiter asked if I desired an aperitif. She recommended a new brand [to me anyway] of Pastis, Henri Bardouin. I ordered it. It tasted like aged Pernod. A very nice start to the meal. Then the gougeres were presented on antique Benoit china. A perfect Gruyere cheese puff pastry. Slightly crunchy on the outside and soft and cheesy inside. Delightful.
I studiously read through all the menus [100 year anniversary; prix fixe; and a'la carte] and the extensive wine list. The second waiter presented himself to inquire whether I had made selections. I was sitting just below the painting at the back of this photo:
Across the aisle from me was a Parisian man, dressed in a crisp white dress shirt and a tailored navy blazer. A mane of white hair. Pale blue pocket handkerchief casually tossed into his pocket. Beautiful watch. No doubt the figurehead of some ancient noble family. Or a scion of some sort at least. Next to me was a young couple who seemed even more excited to be at Benoit than I was. They took photos of each others food each course with their phones.
I then committed my first Parisian faux pas. I ordered wine. From the waiter. Who looked out of sorts but politely told me that the somnelier would take that order. I got the feeling that, had the waiter taken my wine order, fisticuffs or some other sort of Gallic donnybrook would have erupted. The wine steward appeared and took my order for a bottle of Chateau Fourcas Bordeaux, 2009. I know almost nothing of wine, as I readily admit, but every wine list I viewed in Paris had a massive selection of wines at prices to suit every imbiber. The Fourcas was a low-mid price Bordeaux and I found it towering in its contribution to the meal.
As the wine was being opened, the waiter brought a surprise from the chef, Rillettes de Lapin. I love rabbit so this was a real treat...
Rillettes is a classic meat spread, typically made from pork, but the Benoit treatment of this dish was just perfect. The taste of the rabbit was fresh and uncomplicated and the spread was creamy and perfectly complimented by crispy toasts.
Then my first course arrived. Smoked salmon. Cut in long, thick strips with a few slices of baby carrot and green onion. No capers. No creme cheese. Just the fish. Fresh. Buttery. Perfectly smoky. I have had a lot of smoked salmon in my gastronomic life since it is one of my favorite dishes. This was far beyond any salmon I have ever had. It was ethereal. So good I felt that it was almost silly to eat anything after it. I felt myself slipping into a salmon induced dream state. This euphoria did not count the happy effects of either the Chateau Fourcas or of the silver bowl of marvelous fingerling potatoes simply dressed in light mayonnaise and mustard that was served with the salmon. Or the plate of the same perfect house made crisps which had accompanied the rillettes. I had to force myself to cut the salmon into very small pieces to subdue the urge for wholesale gobbling and to prolong the pleasure of eating it. I seriously considered ordering a second portion, but I demurred. The cassoulet was arriving.
When I ordered it, the waiter beamed with delight. As if to say "here is a disciple of Liebling". It arrived in a crock. Lid on. The waiter opened it and the aroma of the Cassoulet coursed over me.
As he spooned the lamb sausage, tender navy beans, broth, ham and duck onto my plate, the waiter told me "when you eat this cassoulet we will bring you some more". At that point, there were still two more servings in the crock on my table. Another thing I adore about Parisian dining is that you are expected to take your time and indulge in the experience. I think that Liebling would have at least approved of my effort in finishing off two of the three servings in the chef's initial presentation, but I just could not finish the entire crock. The dropping temperature outside the restaurant and the heavy rain against the windows near my table only made the choice of a rich, steaming, Cassoulet more perfect. The flavor of the dish was tremendous as the duck, ham and lamb blended perfectly in the broth and the beans were cooked to a perfect texture. The aromas of the dish continued throughout and made each bite sublime. Even the bread crumbs that top the cassoulet were browned just enough and added both texture and flavor. This hearty dish was a perfect compliment to the increasingly wonderful Bordeaux. As he cleared the dish, the waiter told me "your mother would be proud of your efforts monsieur, your grandmother would be disappointed". He must have met my Swedish grandmother somewhere who felt slighted if one scrap of her food remained on the table after its conclusion. This dish was rustic but fine, obviously made by people who loved Cassoulet and took great pride in its preparation.
I fully intended to have a cheese course, but after two servings of cassoulet I realized that for cheese I would have to skip dessert. And there was no way I was not having the dessert which had immediately caught my eye on the menu. The fabled Savarin a' l'Armagnac. A cousin of the equally fabled Baba au Rhum, this simple but magnificent dessert consists of slices of fresh cake with a richly vanilla flavor, soaked in Armagnac poured from the bottle, and accompanied by the heaviest Chantilly creme I have ever seen...
It is rare for me to feel absolutely satisfied and content after dining but that was just how I felt as the waiter cleared the devastated Savarin from the field of play. This was a great meal. If I could have consumed another sip or bite, I would have had a big snifter of Cognac and a cigar. If I still smoked cigars, and if you could smoke them inside the restaurant. I wanted to order the entire meal over again, right away. Instead, I chose to merely sit at my table and smile while looking over the menu again. Replaying the meal in my mind. Then the waiter brought the final surprise of the afternoon...
A little plate of sweets to give me something to do while I finished my coffee. Hazelnut bars and two [I ate one before taking the photo] dense, marvelous dark chocolates. Oh, and a little while after that, I was offered [and graciously accepted] a newly baked lemon cookie. My day was complete. Another Paris day, another long, sublime dining experience. There were many more to come. But, in the end, I think that Liebling would be so very happy that one of his favorite places is still around and still ever so memorable, not having missed a beat since Liebling last dined there. And it is now one of my favorites too.
Post Script: I stepped out of Benoit into a steady, cold rain and headed home to the Hotel Saint-Louis en L'Isle for a nap. Later I trudged through the rain to the Pompidou Centre and spent the rest of the day looking at one incredible modern art display after another. My phone/camera died some time during my nap and I had no way to record this visit. Suffice to say it was very easy to find ones way about, the exhibits were fascinating, and the museum store was irresistible. Perhaps the best moment of the afternoon post-Benoit was overhearing a young British couple who were standing at a hallway corner ....the fellow said to his wife in that patented British university droll tone..."darling, it is an empty wall....we are looking at a BLANK WALL...". Which was true. My amusement at the couple's expense was short lived when about an hour later I found myself peering into a lucite display case...at an empty pedestal where some objet d'art had previously been sitting thinking the pedestal was the item on display. In my defense, it was a pretty nice looking pedistal. And at least there was SOMETHING inside the case.
I left the Pompidou Centre at closing time and headed back to the Isl Saint-Louis, tired but with sufficient juice in the batteries to carry me to the Pledge Bar for a nightcap of Calvados. I toasted Liebling. And Chef Ducasse for preserving such a grand and lovely restaurant as Chez Benoit.