Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 06:20
"I know you're going to hate me for this," said a friend calling from Berlin, "but I'm calling for a restaurant recommendation. I checked your book and I looked on your blog, but couldn't find anything that met the difficult requirements of my parents, with whom I'll be in Paris over the weekend." Yes.... "They want to eat really good fish on Sunday night in a place with a good view of the Eiffel Tower. I told them that this was highly unlikely but I hope you don't mind my checking with you anyway." Since she's not only a close friend and my go-to source for restaurant information when I go to Berlin, I couldn't say no, especially since I really like her parents.
Her father once owned a chain of shoe stores in Brooklyn, and the first time I met him, I was wearing a pair of loafers with a hole under my big toe in one sole. As an editorial assistant in New York City, I lived meagerly from pay check to pay check, and I was waiting for my next check to take my one pair of good shoes to the cobbler. Anyway, I trekked out to Brooklyn on a snowy day for a fantastic dinner and a night of brilliant conversation with my pal and her book-and-opera loving parents. Mrs. Schindelheim made the best pot roast I've ever eaten, with a superb homemade chicken-and-vegetable soup to start.
A few days later, I got home from work and was vexed to find a note in my mailbox indicating that I had a package to pick up. My post office on the Upper West Side had a beautiful W.P.A. facade, but permanent lines and some of the crankiest clerks I've ever met, so I dreaded this errand and just hoped it wouldn't be an invitation to a new discotheque sent in a long paper roller, a really bad idea that prevailed in New York in the early eighties. Instead, I was surprised by a neatly wrapped kraft paper carton with no return address. When I tored it open at home, I found a pair of fleece-lined bedroom slippers and a sturdy pair of ankle-high leather boots, with a card that said, "Dear Alexander, Please keep your feet dry this winter, and get your shoes fixed! Love, Mr. and Mrs. Schindelheim."
So I would have racked my brains to find the right place for these lovely people, but as it turns out, I didn't have to. Just a week earlier, I'd been to Antoine on the banks of the Seine not far from the Place de l'Alma and just across the river from the Eiffel Tower a week earlier on a Sunday night and had some terrific seafood. So I gave my pal the address and told her send her parents my best regards. An hour later, she called back and said that they'd be very disappointed if I didn't join them for this meal.
Well of course I would. So I was sitting there enjoying a glass of white wine, thinking about how much better this restaurant is now than it was when it was a pretentious and very expensive place called Le Port de l'Alma, and watching the action in the busy kitchen through a large pane window giving on to the dining room when they arrived. Both of the Schindelheim parents were wearing hats like they always did, but I got a twinge when I saw that he was walking with a cane.
After a round of hugs, they settled in and cooed over the view of the Eiffel Tower across the river. "I hope the view doesn't mean we're paying extra," Mr. Schindelheim wise-cracked, and I told him that if Antoine isn't cheap, it's worth it. "And in any event, good fish in Paris is a luxury," I added, setting up Mr. Schindelheim, who patted his daughter, an eye surgeon with a German husband, on the hand, and said "Sorry, darling, but we're going to spend if all before we go," he chuckled. "See Alexander, the cane doesn't mean a thing. I'm still sharp as a tack."
So we drank Champagne--my treat, and as I knew she would, Mrs. Schindelheim remembered how her daughter and me had first met. Briefly, I was working as a temp for a secretary in the order department of the International Paper company who had been mugged when she went to the ladies room via a pantyhose sale at Lord & Taylor, and my friend, then a would-be painter with a fierce punk look, had been dispatched by the same agency to do some similarly mind-numbing job for a woman on maternity leave. "She told us that she'd met someone very nice at work when she came home for Sunday dinner," Mrs. Schindelheim said, and her husband horned in, "She's always been a bad judge of character." I translated the menu for them, and all three of them remarked on how friendly and attentive the young servers were after we'd ordered.
"No wonder you've filled out so much, eating good food like this everyday," Mr. Schindelheim said after he tasted his fish soup, which I'd had the week before--a rich, smooth, leaf-brown potion spiked with saffron and tasting deeply of rock fish. I liked my dainty beignets of langoustines and sole wrapped in feather-light golden leaves of pastry and served with an imaginative mango dipping sauce, and my friend loved her tartare of sea bream with lemon-verbena oil--"This fish is really, really fresh," she said, surprised. "I was afraid that because it's Sunday...." she trailed off.
Aside from the impeccable freshness of the fish, the great service, and the view, what I like most about this place is that the kitchen pratices an intelligent contemporary French seafood cookery that privileges the natural taste of their produce without overwhelming it, a perfect example being my thick and impeccably cooked chunk of sea bass from Saint Gilles Croix de Vie in the Vendee. It had been sealed inside of a glass casserole with pastry and organic baby vegetables with a little butter and a pinch of herbes de Provence and sea salt, and it was excellent. The obvious idea of this cooking method was the fish would create its own sauce, and it did.
"This is delicious," Mrs. Schindelheim said of the sea bass grilled over sticks of wild fennel and served with an unctuous puree of ratte potatoes from Le Touquet that she shared with her husband. "I was afraid it would be all fancy and French, but it's so light and subtle." My friend liked her steamed sole with a sauce corail and squid's ink gnocci, too. All of us finished up with excellent cheeses from Quartrehomme, and when Mr. Schindelheim told the waiter that the 36 month old Comte was one of the best things he'd ever eaten, he came back with another slice on a side dish. Mr. Schindelheim ate it, too, inspite of his wife's raised eyebrows.
"So, an eye surgeon and a food writer--you kids ended up doing okay," Mr. Schindelheim said while I walked them over to the Place de l'Alma to get a cab. "Of course, some grandchildren would have been nice, and I'm still waiting for Alexander to write a novel, but that was a very good dinner."
Antoine, 10 Avenue de New York, 16th, Tel. 01-40-70-19-28. Metro: Alma Marceau. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Average 75 Euros.