In Paris, An Unexpectedly Disappointing Meal Followed by a Reassuringly Delightful Meal

by Chikashi

A few weeks ago, I met up with Jimmy, an old classmate, in Paris with our respective families in tow. Jimmy had been boozing for a couple of weeks amongst the vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy and came reasonably close to waking up and finding himself staring at the sky in the middle of a chalky vineyard. He subsequently brought his wife, children and Belle Mère over to spend the following weeks in relative sobriety in the South of France and Paris. In-between his French adventure, Jimmy and I went guzzling Belgian beers in Brussels one evening (well, afternoon to evening, to be more precise), cracking jokes about a kind stranger’s photographic skills only to realise a day later that it was Jimmy’s own handiwork.

When we planned to have dinner in Paris, I chose le Cherche Midi. Yes, it is a bit odd to choose an Italian restaurant to take visitors from abroad, upon their first visit to Paris. However, the selection was based on the fact that Jimmy was moaning a bit about overdosing on French food during his extended stay. It was also because Le Cherche Midi serve simple food that is consistently good. Or, as I found out, they did.

The front-of-house staff was charming and accommodating as usual. But the food?

Summer is not the prime season for truffles, but it is not impossible to get decent material even in summer. Bruno in the Provence can and does. If, on the other hand, all you can source are flavourless slices of brown lumps, then the proper thing to do is not to offer tagliatelle with truffles.

The Little Brunette had pasta with pesto that was of glowing green colour. It looked more like parsley than basil. And tasted like it. I’m not sure what happened there.

Something went a bit wrong with the ravioli too.

The veal I had as main course was adequate, good for sustenance but not for enjoyment. At this point, I was hoping that the conversations were keeping Jimmy and his family’s attention away from the food they were consuming. Of course, I knew that this was just wishful thinking.

So, all my hopes were on the dessert to somehow redeem the evening. Hope can be a terrible thing sometimes.

When I used to spend a considerable amount of time in Zurich, my colleagues and I frequented an Italian restaurant on, if my memory serves, Walchestrasse, to the north past the Hauptbahnhof. Nothing fancy, not the sort of place you would choose if you wanted to impress your hot date. Just a simple, family-run trattoria that one of our Swiss colleagues has known for ages. It was a bit out of the way, in the wrong direction, as I was more or less living at the Baur au Lac and my feet had a tendency to walk in the direction of the grande dame, Kronenhalle. The trattoria, whose name now escapes me, served simple but good food. The best was their panna cotta. On some evenings, the old geezer would refuse to serve us the coveted dessert even though he had a batch sitting in the kitchen. Why? Because he thought that they did not turn out as he liked. They failed QC. I know that it is deceivingly difficult to get consistent, good results when making panna cotta, but we begged. He refused. So, we had to take something else, which was also excellent, just not what we actually wanted. The owner has since sold the business and retired.

The panna cotta I got at le Cherche Midi had a vague fizziness, the sort that one detects in some young non-sparkling white wines. Or, in food that has gone a bit past its sell-by date. Memories of Zurich came rushing back, which, of course, made matters seem even worse.

Well, Jimmy, my apologies to you and your family. I should have taken you somewhere else.

image via Hip Shops

Mariage Frères Salon de Thé in the Marais, image via Hip Shops

The next day, we were determined to have a good meal before heading back home, so we lunched at Mariage Frères in the Marais.

Being Japanese, I love tea. A tea to match the season. A tea to match the food. A tea to match the mood. A tea to wake up to. A tea for everyday. A tea for special occasions. A tea to remind one of a moment past.

I find that it is rare to find a tea merchant that is strong in a broad range of teas. For instance, Harrods have historically been very strong with Indian varieties but relatively weak with Chinese and Japanese teas. Fortnum & Mason are relatively strong with Chinese tea whilst weak in Indian teas. In a way, they occupy complementary positions in the London market. However, I think it is extremely difficult to find anywhere the breadth and depth of the high quality assortment offered by Mariage Frères. It may have something to do with the fact that it is co-owned and operated by a Thai who loves to travel and discover things. One must be drawn by smells, colours, shapes, textures, flavours as well as stories and people to be good at being a tea merchant of high standards.

When rushing about to procure provisions, their Madeleine shop is convenient as they are just a stone’s throw away from Fauchon, but that location lacks a salon de thé. The Rive Gauche branch does have a lovely salon upstairs, but the service is of a colonial pace. I’ve not been to their salons in Étoile and the Louvre, so they are for another time. However, I think that I will always favour their home base in the Marais.

It’s an oasis. Paris, like other big cities, can be stifling at times, with a gaggle of people, cars, pollution, noise, etc. Step inside Mariage Frères, and it’s as if you entered another dimension. You wouldn’t know that you are in a quartier swarming with boisterous students and those who haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that those years are long gone.

It is a bit of a cliché to say that tea is an elixir for the soul. It’s a cliché that pre-dates the word ‘marketing’. When you step inside the Marais shop, and the tea salon in particular, you will actually observe that it is not just a silly cliché.

Of course, it is not all because of tea. Every detail of the whole shop, the salon’s menu, every ingredient in the dishes, the staff uniform and the staff profile are all meticulously considered elements. None of it is an accident or a coincidence. And, everything comes together seemingly effortlessly. Every time.

The food is designed to surprise and delight the senses. Literally everything on the menu is excellent. No exceptions. The opportunity to try an unfamiliar tea before buying a packet is most useful and pleasurable. And, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the handsome, courteous and helpful staff. In fact, they are delightful.

Sorry, Jimmy, they don’t serve dinner.