Walking to lunch at La Tour d'Argent from the Metro station at Maubert-Mutualite, I found myself so lost in thought that this post might never have seen the light of day if a strong-armed and quick-witted old lady hadn't yanked me back up on the pavement from the path of an oncoming van delivering butter and eggs. It was a hot June day, and after waiting a half hour at Sevres-Babylone because of yet another pointless RATP strike, I was puzzling over a mysterious and unsettlingly sweet whiff of linden flowers when I completely lost track of where I was and what I was doing on the way to one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, La Tour d'Argent. Why? The Place Maubert and environs are profoundly freighted with memory for me. For many years, two of my closest friends in Paris, Anne and Peter, lived just off the place, and we spent many wonderful bibulous evenings in neighborhood restaurants--Al Dar was a recurring favorite, or cooking at home--we loved grilling confit de canard and making pommes Sardalais, that fabulous dish of sliced potatoes and chopped garlic and parsley cooked in duck fat.
I was also musing over the six meals that I've eaten at La Tour d'Argent during the twenty four years that I've lived in Paris. Actually, it should have been seven meals, because the first time I ever came to Paris, my mother had booked here for an appropriately grand slam first experience of French gastronomy for my two brothers and my sister and I, but when we met my father and sister at our hotel off the Champs Elysees--Mom, the bros and I had been traveling on our own in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany--Dad put his foot down. It was ridiculous, from his point of view, to be spending so much money to feed the children. Mom reminded him that she was spending money that she'd inherited from a benificent great-Aunt she'd never met, but Dad held firm, despite Mom's tears, and we end up in the Pizza Pino at the end of street, where we were served pizzas with the shocking garnishes of pineapple rings (Hawaiian) and a fried egg (say what?). Coming from one of the best pizza regions in the United States, Connecticut, we found these toppings hilarious, and the night was saved, sort of.
It subsequently took some twenty years before I finally did get to La Tour d'Argent--as a reviewer for an English restaurant guide. I invited a South African girl friend to join me, and she was thrilled, but I arrived worried about the modest budget I'd been given for this grand night out, and was especially apprehensive about the wine list, to wit, would I be able to find anything that we could possibly afford in this huge leather-bound tome. Arriving, I went through a steeplechase of "Bonsoirs" while being escorted to the lift, and then got hit with the buck shot glamour of the dining room when the doors opened. The vast candle-lit room at dusk on an autumn day was absolutely magnificent, and to my surprise, I was shown to one of the coveted corner tables with a full-on view over Paris.
Staring out at Paris--Notre Dame, of course, but also a tiny piece of the Centre Pompidou, and various other monuments, I relaxed--I'd been feeling rather intimidated by this place, and then my friend Amanda showed up, and I made a split second decision and decided to forget about going over budget and just enjoy myself. So we drank Champagne and were nibbling some rather dried out gougeres, when I someone at close proximity uttered a long rolling summoning "Bonsoir" in a beautiful baritone just over my left shoulder. When I looked, I saw a very elegant and handsome older man in a beautifully cut suit with a batchelor's button in his lapel, and dimly wondered who on earth he was. He stood there in a slight bow with his arms behind his back and a bemused but friendly expression on his face. He was obviously waiting for something, but I couldn't imagine what it was, so we both muttered "Bonsoir," and he bowed slightly, said "Bienvenue," and moved on the the next table. And so I met the late Claude Terrail, one of the most celebrated restaurateurs of the 20th century.
The meal that followed was very pleasant--we frog's legs and mussels in a ginger-scented nage and artichoke heart stuffed with crabmeat on a bed of celeri remoulade to start, then a beautifully cooked canette a l'orange that we'd have been quacks to pass up, since even twenty some years ago, such vieille France masterpieces were becoming hard to find in Paris. But the food was ultimately secondary to the grandeur of being here--the silver-plated water goblets, the impeccable service, the magnificent view, the elegant international clientele, and most of all, the tantalizing sense that this was a very special occasion, which it was.
Other meals at La Tour d'Argent had their ups and downs gastronomically, but it was always a huge pleasure to dine here for the very rare experience of a profoundly French meal with so much head-spinning ceremony.
So on my way to lunch, I was extremely curious to see what I'd find now that Monsieur Terrail senior is gone and new chef Laurent Delarbre has taken over. On a sunny afternoon, the formal dining room reminded me of my Aunt's Park Avenue apartment--you know, a formal space, elegantly decorated, a bit stiff, but the service was just as gallant as I remembered, and Delarbre got off to a good start with delicious little tomato-and-basil canapes in a bright basil coulis. My London pal Tatiana and I studied the menu eagerly, too, and finally decided we'd do a mix of Delarbre's more contemporary creations to start and then add to our numbered postcard collection--every duck served here since 1890 has come with a numbered postcard as a souvenir. Just after we ordered, Andre Terrail, Claude's son and the director of the restaurant, stopped by, and after a nice chat, we decided that there must be some gene in the Terrail family tree that favors full-barrel charm.
I liked my thin Wagyu beef scallop rolled around crispy vegetables, but would have liked more the wasabi mentioned on the menu, while Tatiana was very pleased with her sea bass carpaccio, which also needed a big of salt. The Rully 1er Cru "Les Cloux" Jacqueson 2000 that the sommelier suggested was superb with both dishes though, and went down a treat with the duckling as well. The bird came to the table already neatly carved into breasts and legs, which was a big disappointing, since I like the table-side theater of the bird being carved before my eyes. The meat was perfectly cooked, deeply flavored and came in a lush, velvety sauce of its gizzards, and we both loved it. What went missing, though, was some nice crispy skin--curiously, this bird came skinned.
All told, it was a very good meal, and a precious one as well, since this type of courtly restaurant that's so old-fashioned it's almost tongue-in-cheek, is nearly extinct in Paris. So would I go again? Yes, most definitely, and especially for the 65 Euro lunch menu, which is one of the best buys in town.
La Tour d'Argent, 5 Quai de la Tournelle 5th, Tel. 01-40-46-71-11. Metro: Maubert Mutualite. Avg 250 Euros, lunch menu 65 Euros. Open Tue 7pm-10pm; Wed-Sun 12pm-2:30pm, 7pm-10pm
During this sweltering week in Paris, everyone's been rushing to snag a table in any outside setting possible, so when a friend who lives in the Luberon came up to Paris this week and suggested dinner somewhere near the Gare de Lyon, because she was getting a late train, I called a bistro I'd been curious about for a while, Les Banquettes, and asked if they served en terrasse. They do, and so Sue was sitting at a cafe table with a glass of white wine when I showed up for dinner and very grateful to be outside.
The actual restaurant has a charming flea-market decor, and service was friendly and attentive from the start. Unfortunately, however, some unnamed problem in the kitchen meant that very little of the chalkboard menu was available by the time we showed up. So we settled for a terrine of red peppers and goat cheese in beet puree--for Sue, and very good, and a coddled egg with bacon and asparagus spears for me. Sue's terrine was tasty enough, but needed salt, as did my single egg, which was hidden at the bottom of a little pond of hot unseasoned cream with a tangle of slivered carrots, celery and zucchini and a little wad of soggy sprouts standing in for the missing asparagus. it was acceptable but certainly not memorable, and the same could be said the cod steaks we both had as a main course. They came with exactly the same vegetal garnish as my egg and likewise were very underseasoned.
Since the setting and service were so agreeable, and they mention on their webdsite that on Tuesday nights they serve aveyronnaises dishes that I love--aligot, truffade, saucisse au couteau, and pascadous, I'd be inclined to give this place another chance if I were in the neighborhood, but it's certainly not worth going out of your way for.
Les Banquettes, 3 rue de Prague, 12th, Tel. 01-43-47-39-47. Métro Ledru-Rollin or Gare de Lyon. Prix-fixe lunch 14 Euros (including a glass of wine), Prix-fixe dinner menus 24 Euros, 30 Euros.