Nick enjoys two meals, slightly too close together.
The crowds on the RER from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon on Friday evening, and the policemen on duty at the blockaded entrance to the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt against the gilets jaunes the following day, signified very strongly that we were in Paris. But the atmosphere inside the restaurants we visited for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch evoked very different epochs.
The atmosphere when we arrived at L’Auberge Le Quincy was probably circa the 1950s. It was so warm and muggy inside that our glasses immediately steamed up. Once our sight was restored, we were able to take in a room festooned with red gingham that lived up to its description as an ‘auberge campagnarde’, a country hostelry.
The walls are covered in old prints. The wooden timbers seem to have been recently varnished. There is a lot of wood, including a small glass-fronted extension to the front of the restaurant.
The three waiters are all male, two of a certain age, one considerably younger. The two older men make an ideal working couple. The senior one is extremely welcoming and friendly, a man for whom nothing is too much trouble.
When I confessed that I was concerned, having read the menu and noticed that the restaurant does not take credit cards, he told me not to worry. ‘We will sort it out', he explained with insouciance. At the end of our meal, when he was seated by the front door talking to a couple of regular customers, he saw me leaving and asked me why. He looked genuinely surprised when I explained that I was going to get more cash from the nearest ATM.
His colleague is shorter (all three wear white shirts and black ties) and more focused on the service. It is down to him to take the orders, to serve the wine and to write the bills. He is very courteous.
As well as not taking credit cards Le Quincy is old fashioned in several other aspects. It is open only for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Friday. The kitchen, which reminded me of a galley on a boat in its layout, is relatively small and everybody can and has to walk through it as the restaurant’s only lavatory lies behind it. If you have long-held and fond memories of the Paris of yore, and find the prices at L’Ami Louis simply too exorbitant, then do consider Le Quincy. Particularly if it is cold outside; if it is for dinner rather than for lunch; and, of course, if you enjoy eating meat.
Having said that, our two first courses were not meat but a plate of frogs’ legs Provençal and a very generous slice of creamy leek tart. Meat was the inevitable main-course choice (hare à la royale was that day’s special), Jancis choosing a veal chop with morels and cream, principally for the sauce and leaving 95% of the meat, while I chose the blanquette de veau that was well cooked. With an ice cream studded with vanilla, on top of which we poured Grand Marnier from a bottle left on the table, and a bottle of 2013 Chinon, my handwritten bill came to €147.
The question of a bill was a huge point of difference between our dinner here and lunch at Le Clarence. Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of the Clarence Dillon properties Chx Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, had been urging us to try Le Clarence for some time. When we tried to book for Saturday lunch at fairly short notice, we were waitlisted. Since we go to Paris so rarely, we tried to pull a string called Prince Robert – who not only got us a table, but treated us to lunch and to two incredibly generous bottles of wine to sip with it, 2009 La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc and 1989 Haut-Brion Rouge from the glamorously appointed wine boutique on the ground floor. It’s not all bad being married to Jancis.
It is Prince Robert who has underwritten the conversion of this splendid town house into a restaurant with meeting rooms (the salon Carême for 20, the salon Escoffier for 14 and the salon Seymour Weller, who ran the wine company for 40 years, which accommodates eight).
Once across the threshold, it was rather like stepping back into the nineteenth century. One is greeted most courteously, then shown up a flight of stairs to one of several small dining rooms. Ours had a view through a window in which flags fluttered outside in the cold wind over a normally busy street that had been completely cordoned off by dozens and dozens of policemen. It’s a wonder that the restaurant was so full. Inside, however, everything was extremely snug. No expense has been spared in renovating this building: impressive wallpaper and curtains; lots of ancient prints and drawings; a library complete with books; thick, white linen and napkins; heavy napkin rings; candles; and all this before going upstairs to the bar for a coffee, where this sense of luxury continues, even accentuated thanks to the waiter adding logs to the open fire.
One other factor led us to believe that we were back in the nineteenth century, in an antebellum southern state of the USA. The other room we could see from our table, through an open archway, was a library lined with real books. So it was possible to witness two young black commis waiters approaching the tables in there with their trays of food and watch them as the dishes were taken by the young white waiters and waitresses and placed in front of the hungry customers. Shades of Gone With the Wind!
The chef is the very talented Christian Pelé (pictured above with the Prince), who has been handed carte blanche by the proprietors and allowed to cook without the restrictions of a menu, an increasingly common phenomenon across Paris. The waiting staff are very solicitous. They listen carefully to those foodstuffs you either cannot eat or simply don’t like to, and then inform the kitchen.
I am slightly averse to this modus operandi, principally because the customer never really knows what stage he, or she, is at in the meal. But that is a purely personal opinion.
We began and ended the meal in great style. Our first course was a grilled langoustine, split down the middle, and topped with a thin slice of fatty, lightly spiced lamb’s feet that certainly added piquancy and interest. And the final dessert was a warm chocolate mousse that was absolutely delicious.
In between, not everything was perfect. Our two fish courses, a duo of scallop dishes followed by a fillet of John Dory topped with anchovy, were underseasoned while the piece of roe deer with truffle and black squid ink juice was slightly too undercooked for me (Jancis for once finished hers). A side dish of fried Sicilian artichokes interlaced with the famous red prawns of Palamos, northern Spain, was virtually the only obvious appearance of any vegetable. But that is the Parisian way.
Whether Pelé’s decision not to offer a written menu before the meal (although one was kindly sent to me after our lunch) is because he wants to be au courant or because he realised that whatever he wrote, it could not compare to the contents of the wine list, is something that will never be known. But the wine list is a beautiful read, 54 pages of excellent wines, many but not all of them from the Haut-Brion stable. It has obviously been compiled with great love and is interspersed with some highly evocative black and white photographs of the loyal team at Haut-Brion as well as an unmissable photograph of Clarence Dillon himself alongside JFK.
So, for lunch it is Le Clarence, and for dinner it is Le Quincy – but ideally with a longer interval than between Friday night and Saturday lunchtime!
L’Auberge Le Quincy 28 avenue Ledru-Rollin, 75012 Paris; tel +33 1 46 28 46 76
Le Clarence Hôtel Dillon, 31 avenue Franklin D Roosevelt, 75008 Paris; tel +33 1 82 82 10 10
Open Tuesday–Saturday, lunch and dinner. Menus from €90 for lunch, €130 for dinner.