Chapter 1 Paris / Steak Frites
I’m not a voracious carnivore, but there’s something about being in Paris that makes me want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef. Perhaps it’s the French paradox, the seductive theory that a diet rich in cheese, meat, and red wine actually lowers cholesterol. Perhaps it’s watching all those sexy French women purse their lipsticked mouths while slicing through a juicy chop.
Steak frites is a relatively easy thing to order if, like me, you’re still struggling to master those nasal French vowels. The words fly off the tongue, without any hidden surprises—unlike, say, asking the waiter about preservatives only to find out you’ve interrogated him on condoms. But, as I found out during one of my first meals in a classic Paris bistro, ordering a steak leads to more questions.“Quel cuisson désirez-vous?”
said the waiter in an offhand way, like asking my date of birth or my hair color. He wore round glasses, a white shirt with a black bow tie, and a long black apron that reached past his knees. It was difficult to discern who was older: him or the desiccated leg of ham hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room.
Thus far I had tricked the waiter into thinking I spoke French, but now, I realized, the jig was up. Medium, I thought, and tried a quick, desperate translation. “Uh . . . moyen
A look of weary disappointment crossed his face. But he’d been around enough American tourists to know what I meant. “À point,”
he corrected me.
Later I would memorize all my steak vocabulary—the hot sear and chilled interior of bleu,
the rosy glow of à point,
the tough brown gnaw of bien cuit.
I would learn how to enjoy a steak the French way—saignant
—with a magenta center and juices that ran red. But at that moment I just repeated the words after him and washed them down with a gulp of wine.
I’ve wanted to live in Paris since I was six, when my family and I took a summer vacation to Europe. We went to London first, gray and proper, where we spent a week shivering into our teacups, even though it was mid-July, and I stared in terrified fascination at the Mohawked punks in Piccadilly Circus. Then we arrived in Paris, which was ablaze in a high-summer heat wave. It seemed alive, Paris, alive with warmth, and days that never ended, and beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes and speaking a beautiful, strange language. Every aspect of the city assailed my senses: the grand buildings in pale limestone, the parks teeming with half-naked sunbathers, the taste of baguette dipped in chocolat chaud, the seesawing sound of the sirens, the imprint of wicker café chairs against my sticky thighs, the Coca-Cola poured from chilled glass bottles that turned tepid without ice cubes, the smell of fresh croissants and ripe cheese and human sweat. It was all so new and different from the only place I really knew, our home in the sterile suburbs of Southern California. I didn’t like everything, but it all gripped me, holding me in an embrace that I would come to know was Francophilia.
The trip has gone down in Mah family lore as the nadir (or zenith, depending on who you’re talking to) of my brother’s rebellious teenage years. He spent a lot of time plugged into his Walkman while my parents coped by drinking red wine. As our voyage continued, they—my parents and brother—seemed to grow more and more matted and worn, more impatient to return home to their own routines and clothes and space. In contrast, I became more energetic as the days passed.
“I want to learn French,” I proclaimed. It felt like my destiny. After all, hadn’t my parents given me a French name, Ann Marie? They responded with wan enthusiasm, dampened even further by the sticky oppression of our hotel room. We’d had a long week of sightseeing, my parents juggling the manic highs of their nurseryrhyme-chanting young daughter with the manic lows of their adolescent son. My mother considered French impractical, a pastel bonbon of a language, the linguistic equivalent of empty calories, unlike her native tongue, the useful, fibrous Mandarin Chinese. If you have any experience at all with Chinese mothers, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I ended up studying Mandarin.
By the time I made another trip to Paris, twenty-two years had passed. The second visit was with my husband, Calvin, who had lived there for a few years during and after college. He showed me two sides of the city—his old haunts in Belleville, a scruffy neighborhood in the twentieth arrondissement, contrasted by the sweeping grandeur of Haussmann’s boulevards. Unlike so many childhood memories revisited, Paris didn’t disappoint. The city was on its best behavior during that vacation, all bright, clear June skies, a profusion of flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, and unusually patient waiters who refrained from speaking English when I tried to order in French. They say you’re supposed to be in love in Paris, and I was, headily—with my husband, with the beautiful city, with the slim flutes of Champagne we drank while gazing at the rushing fountain on place Saint-Sulpice.
Is Paris addictive? Maybe. After that trip I abandoned all other holiday dreams. Every penny saved, every vacation week earned, was earmarked for France. We visited in the winter to shiver under covered skies that never brightened; we went in the summer to bask in the sizzle of light that stretched until eleven o’clock at night. And each time I left, I craved more. More crusty baguettes split lengthwise and spread with butter and jam. More wrought-iron balconies adorned with window-box geraniums. More Art Nouveau métro stations, more walks along the Seine, more surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus.
When I wasn’t in Paris, I sometimes dreamed of living there, of making a home in one of the ornate stone buildings that give the city such elegant propriety. What would it be like, I wondered, to become part of a neighborhood, to be greeted at the café with a handshake, to have the woman at the boulangerie
prepare my baguette without asking, to commute home by crossing the Seine? I wanted to know bus routes, to have secret shortcuts, to greet neighbors with a murmured “Bonjour.”
Most of all I wanted to watch the seasons change in the market, to consume and contribute to my own small patch of French terroir,
to participate—if only for a short window of time—in the small, prosaic, unbroken traditions of French cuisine. I wanted to buy a galette des rois on Epiphany and chocolate bells on Easter and foie gras at Christmas. I wanted those traditions to be mine, however temporarily, even though I knew that was a dream both impractical and abstract. We had American passports, not European ones. How could we navigate France’s notoriously Sisyphean bureaucracy? How would we support ourselves without working papers? How on earth would we ever convince one of its wooden-faced civil servants to allow us to stay?
one possibility but I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Calvin’s career as a diplomat meant we moved often between overseas assignments—he’d already served in Turkmenistan, New York, Beijing, and D.C. Why not Paris? And yet it seemed far-fetched to hope for such a plum assignment, even though Calvin spoke fluent French and followed French politics as avidly as he did the National League baseball standings. The American embassy in Paris was one of the most desired posts in the world, often considered a reward after hardship tours in places like Africa or Haiti, or unaccompanied stints in war zones. But now the unbelievable had happened.
We were in rural Pennsylvania, on our way to visit Calvin’s grandparents in State College, when we stopped for gas at a rest stop, Calvin checked his e-mail, and we discovered the good news. Later, in our motel room, I didn’t sleep the whole night, my mind dancing with images of picnic lunches in the Luxembourg Gardens, and casual glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, and late-night ice cream cones licked while crossing the Seine. It seemed impossible to believe— too good to be true—that we would live in Paris, together, each with our own work that we loved. The frustration I’d felt over the challenges of trailing-spousehood—lack of a steady job, lack of a steady home, distance from friends and family, loss of independence and identity—melted away with the promise of three years in Paris. Some lucky confluence of fate and aligning stars had brought us to the City of Light. Or, for me, the City of Dreams.
Before I moved to Paris, back when I was an American who fantasized about living there, I had an image of the perfect café. It had mirrored columns and a zinc bar, rattan chairs and sidewalk tables where I would nurse a glass of red wine while watching the world pass by. Grumpy waiters would serve up succulent steaks, charred on the outside, rosy within, tender enough for a knife to slip through, paired with a pile of crisp frites to mop up all the juices.
Once I got to Paris, I found out that plenty of cafés fulfilled different parts of my fantasy—some had historic charm oozing out of the coffee machine, others were modern with square plates and a list of overly sweet cocktails, still others had sun-drenched terrasses
where I could indulge in a citron pressé
on a summer afternoon. The café nearest to our apartment had rattan chairs and sidewalk tables; its owner, Amar, came from Tunisia, and I loved his couscous. But despite their differences, there were a few elements that tied all these cafés together: the coffee, the wine, and the steak.
The more meals I ate in Paris, the more I wanted to know: What makes the perfect steak frites? And how did it become the town’s favorite plat du jour?
The meal’s basic ingredients—beef, potatoes—don’t point back to Paris. Cattle are not traditionally raised in the surrounding area, and frites
—or French fries—come, arguably, from Belgium. Perhaps its popularity lies in the dearth of options on a typical café menu, so few choices that most French people know what they’re going to order before they even sit down. Or perhaps—as William Bernet, a former butcher and owner of the lauded Paris steak bistro Le Severo, told me—it’s because of the rush of city life. “A piece of seasoned meat, it cooks in an instant—and it’s fast to eat,” he said.
Steak was brought to France by occupying English forces, sometime after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Even the word comes from the other side of the Channel, derived from the Old Norse steikjo,
which means “to roast.” In fifteenth-century England, cooks dished up their meat sizzling, sprinkled with cinnamon, but by the time of Napoleon’s defeat it was eaten plain, without sauce. As is true today, steaks were originally cut from the sirloin, rump, or fillet—that is, the animal’s loin—though modern butchering techniques vary among countries and cultures. Talk to any butcher and he’ll convince you that his method produces the best, most bountiful and tender pieces of meat.
Steak is a relatively easy thing to prepare—season it, slap it into a hot pan, don’t overcook—but while talking to meat aficionados, I quickly learned about the skill and patience required for a superior version of the dish. When I arrived in Paris, a food-loving American friend sent me to the southern edge of the city to the fourteenth arrondissement, to visit William Bernet at Le Severo. Who better could explain the intricacies of a hunk of beef and a few fried potatoes?
Bernet is a thickset man with the observant eyes of an experienced waiter and professorial-style glasses that slide down his nose. He grew up in the Vosges, in northeastern France, where he trained as a butcher, eventually moving to Paris and working, among other places, at the famed Boucheries Nivernaises. In 2005 he opened Le Severo, a shoe box of a restaurant with a handful of dark wooden tables, a series of scrawled chalkboard menus covering the room’s longest wall, and a short zinc bar overlooking a kitchen big enough for one. Bernet fulfilled front-of-the-house duties—taking orders, delivering food, and recommending wine from the two hundred bottles on offer—while the cook presided over this tiny kitchen. I heard the fresh sizzle of meat hitting a hot saucepan, the crack and bubble of freshly cut Bintje potatoes twice bathed in hot oil, first an initial dip of 140ºF and then a second one at 350ºF.
Steak’s true magic, Bernet explained, happens before the meat ever hits the heat—it’s found in the aging process. He hangs whole cuts of well-marbled beef in a dry, chilled space for weeks, sometimes months, a process that concentrates the meat’s flavor and breaks down its connective tissues, resulting in richly beefy, butter-tender fillets. In French, dry-aged meat is called rassis,
a term that can also refer to stale bread or to a stick-in-the-mud.
Aside from a few first-course salads; side dishes of green beans, fries, or potato puree; and classic desserts like crème brûlée, I spotted only meat on the menu: beef or veal, served plain, without sauce. That’s it. “If you write about my restaurant,” Bernet said to me with a pleading note in his voice, “please say that I would prefer it if vegetarians came here as little as possible. I just don’t have anything to offer them.”
One flight down from the dining room was Bernet’s lair, a tiny, brightly lit basement workshop where he butchered sides of beef into individual portions like the bavette (skirt steak), faux-filet (strip steak), or entrecôte (rib eye). In a corner of the room was a walk-in refrigerator, cooled to 35ºF, where he hung his oversize cuts to dry and age. Inside, the racks of meat gleamed dully, like unpolished jewels, ruby red against a startlingly white layer of fat. Bernet held up two pieces of beef, one aged, one not. “Before it’s rassis
it still smells like the slaughterhouse,” he said. I dutifully sniffed both pieces. They smelled exactly the same to me—a faint, raw, damp whiff of aging animal. Some of the older pieces of beef had developed a dark, furry mold on their surface, a crust that Bernet would trim off when portioning the meat for service. (When I asked if I could take a photo of the meat locker, he gave me a horrified look. “I would never allow a picture of this to be published!” he said. “It’s too unappetizing—no one would ever come to eat in my restaurant again.”)
Today, under the constraints of time and profit, the practice of aging beef in France is disappearing. A well-aged slice of beef has lost at least 30 percent of its original volume in evaporation—a considerable amount if your product is sold by weight. It’s next to impossible to find a Parisian butcher or steak bistro offering boeuf rassis,
Bernet told me. He checked the refrigerator’s meat, rewrapping some pieces in muslin, turning others, handling them as if he were an artist and these hunks of flesh his oeuvres. He showed me a côte de boeuf, a prized cut that sells in the restaurant for eighty euros for two people, turning it from one side to the other. “It takes at least thirty days—minimum—to age a côte de boeuf properly,” he said. “If only I could double that. Sixty days . . . now, that would be exceptional,” he added dreamily.
I ate steak the very first week we moved to Paris, before we even had a chance to unpack a box of kitchenware. Calvin and I hopped on the métro and headed across town to the twentieth arrondissement, to the café that he thinks of as his own—as a loyal customer, a friend, and a former neighbor. Le Mistral was the place he used to frequent when he was studying in Paris. We’d come for the steak and red wine, of course, but we’d also come to see our friend Alain, who, along with his brother Didier, owns Le Mistral.
Twenty years ago, when Calvin was an exchange student living in Belleville, he’d wandered into the café, armed only with basic French. He met one of the brothers, serving behind the counter, and, after a few days of morning coffee and evening beer the three became friends. Didier and Alain helped Calvin find a job and an apartment. They invited him on visits to Aveyron, their region of France. They offered him hot meals in exchange for writing out the daily specials on the chalkboard menu. And their daily conversations—on politics, history, and the Doobie Brothers—left Calvin speaking fluent, almost unaccented French. Despite the constraints of time and distance, the three never lost touch.
They owed their friendship partly to Le Mistral itself, a neighborhood institution opened by Didier and Alain’s father in 1954. It sits on the corner outside métro Pyrénées, a grande dame of the neighborhood with a welcoming golden glow. Inside, there’s the smell—a mix of fresh coffee and toasting cheese, a hint of damp from the cellar below—and the noise—the bustle of voices, the call of the servers ordering un café allongé
or un quart de vin rouge.
There are round columns covered in tiny rectangles of mirrored tile, red pleather banquettes, wall sconces emitting warm light, checkered paper place mats, blackboard menus propped up on chairs, the requisite zinc bar.
On that late-summer evening, we stood at the counter drinking red wine produced by the brothers at a cooperative in Aveyron and chatted with Alain as he constructed elaborate salads. The twentieth, with its shop signs in a mix of Arabic, Vietnamese, and Chinese, felt very different from the hushed polish of the Left Bank, not a gleaming tourist attraction but a quartier populaire,
a working-class neighborhood. Next to us two young men stirred sugar into their coffee while chatting in a combination of Arabic and French. Across the bar an older man sipped a magenta-colored drink from a long, cool glass. “C’est un monaco,”
said Alain, following my gaze—beer with a splash of grenadine syrup, he explained. A woman with white hair and a dark green waxed raincoat, whom Calvin recognized from 1988, moved a lone stool to a secluded corner of the bar to sip a demi
of beer and read the newspaper.
The last time I’d seen Alain, three years earlier, my French had been limited to a vocabulary of about ten words. But I had just finished a French-immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont—seven weeks of grammar exercises, drama classes, poetry recitals, and essays on the Nouvelle Vague. I had lived in a dorm with college freshmen fifteen years my junior, written letters to a fictional pen pal named Innocence, and memorized lines for a play that would be forever embedded in my subconscious. It had been an experience worthy of a book itself, one that had quite literally turned my hair white, and aside from the shared bathrooms and cafeteria grub, I’d loved every second.
During my Chinese American childhood, studying French had been discouraged. My mother had never shaken her terror and dislike for her cruel, half-French stepmother, and as a result she had dissuaded me from learning French; though she didn’t exactly declare the language verboten, she definitely disapproved of it. “Why would you want to learn French?” she asked me when I started high school. “No one speaks French.” And so I took Spanish, and in college I switched to the language she considered truly useful, Mandarin. At age twenty I spent a summer on that same verdant Vermont campus in a nine-week Chinese-immersion program, gazing jealously at the French students as they smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while I stuffed another five hundred Chinese characters into my brain.
My mother, I’m forced at gunpoint to admit, was right about studying Chinese. When I moved to Beijing with my husband almost ten years after that summer of Mandarin immersion, my rusty language skills proved very useful indeed. But she had underestimated the most important factor in language study: love. I respected Chinese, but I didn’t love it. I loved French, and it fueled me to memorize extra vocabulary, to read Georges Simenon novels before bed, to practice phonetics exercises over and over again. It had been a dream come true to immerse myself in the language of diplomacy, of romance and poetry. Now I was eager to show off my progress.“Tout le monde va bien? Christine? Les enfants? Didier?”
I asked, exchanging cheek kisses with Alain.“Ça va, ça va. Tout le monde va bien, ouais.”
He tore up some red-leaf lettuce and scattered a handful of canned corn on top.
The conversation continued as I described our new apartment, the weekend we’d spent on a dairy farm in northern Vermont, and asked about his kids’ favorite subjects at school. Alain chatted away without even a flicker of acknowledgment at my improved language skills. I started to wonder if he’d even noticed that I was speaking French.
Finally Calvin, who had been watching me struggle to contain my frustration, broke in. “Hasn’t Ann’s French improved?”
Alain grinned, a smile that spread across his wide features. “C’est pas mal!” Pas mal?
Not bad? At the time I didn’t know that those lukewarm words were actually a great compliment for the French, who seem reluctant ever to express too much enthusiasm.“Tu as vraiment fait des progrès!”
Alain added kindly, perhaps sensing my disappointment.“Oh, non . . . Je fais des efforts, c’est tout.”
I tried to be modest, but I couldn’t stop beaming from ear to ear. After so many years of longing to speak French, I could actually communicate! I was participating in a conversation with a real live French person! I felt like breaking into song.
Alain launched into a long anecdote about one of the café’s former clients . . . an American musician? a drummer? a member of the Doobie Brothers? who he ran into at the airport? I have to admit, I was lost from the first sentence. It was a feeling I remembered from living in Beijing, of trying to stay afloat in a foreign language, clutching desperately at familiar words as they drifted by, hoping they could save me from drowning. I’d managed to pick up quite a bit of French in a short period of time, helped along by many English cognates. But as I watched Calvin absorb every nuance of Alain’s story without a flicker of effort, I quietly despaired of achieving complete fluency. Would I ever be able to interview someone for an article, recount a story, or even tell a joke?
Eventually we made our way to the back of the café, past the teeny kitchen, really a small box just big enough for the lone chef, to a dining room converted from an old garage after Calvin’s student days. Murals adorned the walls, bucolic scenes of Aveyron. Though Didier and Alain were both born in Paris, they consider this isolated region in south-central France their pays,
their native land.
Over fifty-five years ago, Didier and Alain’s father, Monsieur Alex, gathered his savings and moved from Aveyron to Paris to seek his fortune. Part entrepreneur, part charbonnier,
or coal seller, he hoped to open a neighborhood café that would offer drinks and simple meals and also sell coal. Thus Le Mistral was born. Though the idea of a combination coal shop and café seems rather eccentric from a modern perspective, at the time it was quite common. In fact, there is even a French word—bougnat
—that is defined as a coal seller–turned–café owner from Aveyron. Today many Parisian cafés honor this tradition with names like Le Petit Bougnat, L’Aveyronnais, or Le Charbon.
Cafés have existed in Paris since 1686, when an Italian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Le Procope on the rue des Fossés Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. The self-proclaimed “oldest café in the world” still stands in the same spot, though the street has been renamed rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. Inside, the scarlet dining room is lined with portraits of its former patrons, including French artists and revolutionaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Napoleon (whose three-cornered hat hangs in the entry). Today the sprawling café has become a tourist hub serving some dubious-looking meals. But if you stop by in the hush of late afternoon, you can sit at a corner table, sip coffee, and imagine the debates launched within these red walls, the impassioned speeches, the laughter and rebellion.
Over the centuries, as the popularity of coffee waxed and waned, cafés evolved from informal social clubs to centers of political debate to the smoke-filled lairs of artists, writers, and musicians. But the Parisian institutions we know today—with their tiny cups of coffee and balloon glasses of wine—weren’t firmly established until the nineteenth century, when the Aveyronnais began to migrate to Paris from their mountainous region.
Poverty brought them to the capital, and in the beginning, like most immigrants, they worked menial jobs, delivering hot water and hauling buckets of coal to private homes. This gave way to coal shops, warm places where regular customers could indulge in a glass of wine while placing an order for delivery, which eventually turned into cafés. By the end of the twentieth century, the region of Aveyron was synonymous with a Parisian café empire that at one point numbered over six thousand and included some of the most storied establishments in Paris history: Brasserie Lipp, La Coupole, Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore. At 320,000 strong, the Aveyronnais form the largest French community in Paris—greater even than the population of Aveyron itself. These days, despite improved roads and rail service, the region remains known as la France profonde,
a remote and rough part of the country that still leans on Paris for survival.
“What’s the signature meal of Paris?” I asked Alain one evening. Calvin and I had joined him for dinner at a café in Montmartre, a cozy neighborhood place with yellow walls owned by a friend of Alain and Didier’s—yet another Aveyronnais—named Jean-Louis.
The sandwich, he said without hesitation. He called it le cassecroûte,
an old-fashioned term meaning “snack” or “fast lunch.” “My mother used to make piles of them for the café.”
Every morning Madame Odette would slice an armload of baguettes lengthwise and fill them with butter and ham, or sticky slices of Camembert, or pâté and cornichons. She’d stack the sandwiches like logs in a woodpile and sell them throughout the day to ouvriers,
workmen or factory hands, who formed the base of Le Mistral’s clientele. “In the 1950s,” Alain said, “most cafés were pure limonade
”— they sold only beverages and lacked kitchens and, often, refrigerators. Ouvriers
transported meals from home in a gamelle,
or lunch box, and cafés reheated the food over simple camp stoves. (These were also the days when every cup of coffee was accompanied by a shot of liquor, no matter the hour. Alain’s father once told him, “If someone asks for a coffee without the booze, that means the guy is sick.”)
“Do you still make a stack of sandwiches every morning at Le Mistral?” I asked.
It’s rare to eat a sandwich at a café these days.”
Alain took a sip of wine. “There used to be a lot of factories in Paris, especially in our neighborhood, but they’re closed now,” he said. “Replaced by offices. And bureaucrats like a hot meal more than ouvriers.
Customers kept asking for a plat du jour”—a hot lunch—“and cafés needed something quick to eat and easy to prepare. Et voilà, le steak frites est arrivé!
It’s in the same spirit as the sandwich.” He paused. “Except it’s hot.”
In the nineteenth arrondissement, in the northeast reaches of the city, sits a large swath of green: Le Parc de la Villette. I had come here in search of Paris’s carnivorous roots. For over a hundred years, from 1864 to 1970, La Villette was known as the “Cité du Sang,” the bloody center of the French wholesale-meat industry. In the 1980s an urban-renewal project turned the area into a postmodern park, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi. But as I wandered through the verdant space, I tried to catch a whiff of its gruesome origins as a cattle market and abattoir. A pack of young boys passed me on their kick scooters racing toward a futuristic playground.
In its heyday La Villette was like another country, a sprawling complex with more than twelve thousand employees speaking a special slang and operating under a complex secret code of warring families, fierce loyalties, honor, and alliances. Cattle farmers and merchants from all over France brought beasts here to be sold and slaughtered. Chevillards,
wholesale butchers who killed the animals, bargained with retail shopkeepers who traveled there to stock their boutiques, transacting business over glasses of wine in the café or heavy, meaty lunches in neighborhood restaurants.
At the southern edge of the park, I found a relic of the era: a grande dame of Parisian steak bistros, Au Boeuf Couronné, which opened in 1865. Stepping through the restaurant’s revolving wooden doors, I tried to imagine the dining room as it was a century ago, when men wore hats and La Villette diners used to provide their own meat for the chef to cook. White tablecoths covered the tables, Art Deco light fixtures suffused the room with a golden glow, and old photographs lined the walls—a child with a steer, men clad in long black smocks—memories of La Villette washed clean and sweet. I watched black-and-white-clad waiters deliver steaks to diners who leaned toward each other, speaking in hushed voices. Could this bustling bistro, which has specialized in beefy business lunches for almost 150 years, be the cradle of steak frites?
These days Au Boeuf Couronné is part of the restaurant group Gérard Joulie, a vast chain of bistros that is in fact owned by an Aveyronnais. But I found the menu old-fashioned, with things like marrow bones, different cuts of steak, frites, and the occasional piece of salmon. I ate my lunch while skimming the restaurant section of Le Figaroscope,
occasionally setting down my fork to turn the newsprint pages. My knife sliced through my pavé
—so named because it resembles a cobblestone—to release a pool of rosy juices. The fries were hand-cut, hot enough to sting my fingers, a glass of red wine was cheaper than bottled water, a pile of nondescript steamed green beans turned oddly addictive when dipped into the tarragon-scented béarnaise sauce. I pursed my mouth and sawed at my steak, took a bite and chewed, put down my fork to circle an address in a restaurant review. I felt almost Parisian.
About five years ago, Alain and Didier decided to take an early retirement. They left Le Mistral in the hands of a cousin and moved down to Aveyron. Though only in their forties, after more than twenty years behind the counter they were ready for a quiet life among the cows. Alain wanted to raise his kids, and Didier began a series of construction projects, renovating old farmhouses. They both bought a few hectares of vineyard and started cultivating grapes, joining a wine cooperative in the local village.
But back in Paris things weren’t going well. Business at the café had dropped off, who knew why? Maybe the cousin in charge was too much of an introvert. Maybe it was the new smoking ban, which outlawed cigarettes in cafés, restaurants, and offices. Whatever the case, something had to be done. Didier and Alain returned to Le Mistral, commuting between Paris and Aveyron, swapping shifts that each lasted a couple of weeks.
That first night at Le Mistral, I watched Alain behind the counter, smiling, shaking hands, and greeting customers eager to welcome him back after his long absence. “Oui, je suis revenu!”
Alain said as a mustached man pumped his arm up and down. He joked with a family as they settled their bill, poured another beer for the white-haired woman at the end of the counter, passing it to her along with a greeting from Didier: “He’s down in Aveyron, but he’ll be up in a couple of weeks.” Alain didn’t know everyone, but everyone seemed to recognize him. He was like a friend or an older brother, the unofficial mayor of the corner. And that’s when it hit me. Didier and Alain, they were fixtures of the community. Le Mistral had been in the neighborhood for over half a century, a family institution. People hadn’t stopped coming because the cousin was shy or because they couldn’t smoke at the bar. They’d missed the brothers.
Calvin and I slid into a booth, an intimate corner table where we could linger over our meal. The waiter brought us a pichet
of red wine, and we clinked glasses and grinned at each other. Calvin’s crooked smile made my heart skip a beat. When the food arrived, I cut straight into the center of my steak, revealing a juicy, dark pink interior, the meat tasting of salt and brawn, of the grassy Aveyronnais plain. In an oval side dish sat an oversize pile of frites, glistening a little from the fryer. They weren’t hand-cut, and they had almost certainly been frozen—Le Mistral has no pretensions of a four-star kitchen—but I relished the mix of crispy and salty, the crunch that gave way to a tender, mealy center. As Calvin and I ate and chatted, I could see my reflection in the mirror behind him: flushed cheeks, bright eyes, a smile that wouldn’t leave my lips. I was intoxicated, and my drug was Paris.
Alain pulled up a wooden chair and joined us at our table as we finished our meal. Calvin poured him a glass of wine, and the two of them settled in to talk about the old days—the trip they took to Aveyron when it rained every day for two weeks, the unforgettable bottle of 1947 Châteauneuf-du-Pape that Alain’s parents had poured at lunch one summer afternoon, the time Didier took a road trip to Holland and lost his parked car in a maze of city streets. They talked about Monsieur Alex, who had passed away a few years ago, new nieces recently born, old friends from the café.
After five years of marriage, I thought I’d met most of my husband’s friends. But listening to Calvin and Alain chat, I was struck by the depth of this new cast of characters, all with poetic French names like Gilbert, Marie-Hélène, Michel, Agnès. For me France was new territory—albeit one that operated under an Old World code of politesse—and I still struggled to remember if a greeting should consist of two or three cheek kisses, or whether I needed to maintain eye contact while raising a toast. My husband, I realized now, already understood France with a fluency that went beyond language. At least I could rely on him for translation.
After dinner we stepped out of the café and paused at an intersection to peer around the corner of a building. “Look down there.” Calvin pointed, and I gasped. From the top of Belleville, the city descended before us, the buildings receding in size. Far in the distance, I spied the Eiffel Tower, as small as a toy and twinkling madly. We flattened ourselves against the side of a building, away from the other pedestrians on rue de Belleville, and watched as the tower sparkled against the orange glow of the city lights.
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” Oscar Wilde once said. I’d managed to get there a little earlier, and I still couldn’t quite believe my luck. The future felt as glittery as the Eiffel Tower, brilliant with anticipation. Calvin’s hand reached out to touch my arm. “Are you ready to go?” he asked, and I nodded.
Later I would realize the difference between us. Calvin had, in a way, come home. But I was on the brink of an exciting new adventure. Bavette aux Échalotes
This is my interpretation of a set of loose instructions given to me by William Bernet. At his restaurant, Le Severo, most of the meat arrives at your table sauce-free. The bavette aux échalotes (skirt steak with shallots) is one of the few exceptions. Like many classic bistro dishes, this one relies on the quality of its ingredients. Bernet would encourage you to use aged meat.Serves 2 For the steak
1 skirt steak, 9 to 10 ounces, patted dry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon mild-tasting oil such as sunflower or
grape seedFor the sauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 sprig fresh thyme
½ cup chicken or
beef stock or
waterPreparing the steak
Trim the steak of excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Place the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Test the heat of the pan by touching a wooden spoon to the oil—if the oil is hot, it will lightly sizzle. Place the steak in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is well seared and browned. Turn the steak and cook the second side for 40 to 50 seconds, or until medium rare. (Skirt steak is a thin cut, and the meat cooks very quickly.) Transfer to a plate, cover loosely with a tent of foil, and keep warm while you make the sauce.Making the sauce
In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter with the meat drippings. Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the red wine vinegar, thyme, and stock (or water), and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter and add any juices released from the meat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding a few drops of vinegar if needed.
Slice the steaks against the grain into thin strips. Serve with the shallots spooned on top, accompanied by mashed potatoes or steamed green beans.