Le Fournil de Versailles and Le Laurier
When, in the near future, you are standing on a long winding boulevard in Paris, eyes glued to the map searching for a real place to eat, elbows of passing cattle (tourists) jabbing into your sides, and restaurant hawkers assaulting you at every turn with their English language menus--take a breath, and stop fooling around! Pull out your Salty Cod Travel Guide jammed into the bottom of your Felix bag and get your arses to the best (biased yet correct) restaurant and sandwicherie in the big city of lights. If you do venture forth to Paris, and have the gall to visit neither of these establishments, we will first dub you the fool, and second disown you from our hearts and minds for a great deal of time. On y va.
There are places where we eat, then there are places where we eat. Any human with the ability to sit up and chew knows that while taste is the number one ingredient of a good dining experience, it is not the only one. Presentation and ambiance play crucial roles in determining whether a meal was good, great, or enlightening (if the food itself falls under the level of "good" then there is nothing a setting and scene can do to recoup their failure.) What then do you have when the food is not only undeniably fantastic, but the ambiance and setting are so friendly and welcoming it feels as if one is dining with family--well, you never have to fear the dreaded "eating alone," for your friends are already there.
Abdel, the master boulanger on the premises of Le Fournil de Versailles, runs a team of three others along with his wife who often appears alongside him at the baguette counter in the evening hours after her workday hours are complete. Le Fournil de Versailles, at first glance is just the seemingly "average" corner boulangerie and midday lunch hub for the nearby schools and local business workers, but on closer inspection and trial, one discovers this place to be truly owned and operated by the most genuinely friendly people one could ever expect to find on the planet. Why? Well, this is not a tourist district. The interior (and exterior) is nothing special, nothing glamorous, nothing to make you sigh "oh très jolie!" this is one of those situations where the lunch time line snaking out the door speaks for itself.
Le Fournil offers breakfast to dinner baguette service, baked fresh right there (you can see the ovens) along with the fare of any standard boulangerie; croissants, tarts, cookies, cakes, meringues, macaroons, etc. At lunch time, on the other side of the round-about counter is a lunch window full of crisp fresh baguette sandwiches, hot paninis, quiche, and salads available alongside a dessert and beverage for emporter (takeout) or sur place (seated at one of the tables, the window bar, or outside at one of the terrace tables). A good deal too--do not expect to pay more than 7euros for the whole meal. 7, yes that is what I said.
Me--I have been eating a salad for lunch at this corner shop 2 to 3, to sometimes 4 times a week. It is less than a minutes walk down the street from me, and a second home. If you are a friend of mine in Paris, you have eaten there. If you have visited me in Paris, you have eaten there. Even Flo and C, my little French children, have enjoyed a few lunches seated at the tables inside Fournil. Though it took a while to convince Abdel and the others that I wasn't the only person in the world who didn't eat wheat, and after many questionable looks and comments of "oh American diets" the usual slowly became "salut mallory my little flea (sounds better in French), what salad today, poulet ou thon?" The chicken and the tuna salad are my particular favorites, though ham and salmon are also available.
Nicoise olives, hardboiled eggs, cheese, and tomatoes have been my midday companions--though I never take the sauce--Abdel here is my secret I never would tell you: take it home, add 21 haricots verts, salt, balsalmic vinaigre, anise seeds, and two crushed bay leaves. That is what I do to your salads. Though they are darling on their own none the less. For dessert--who chould shed a tear over missing the apple crumble, pain au chocolat, and brownie when there is fromage blanc; a sour yogurt style cheese taken naturel, with strawberry jam, or a bit of creme de marrons. All that is then missing is the perrier.
Going to Fournil de Versailles? Tell them you have a very good friend who recommended you to them--then casually drop my name, and report back to me. Avoid 12h30 if you can--before noon and after 1h00 will give you more room to breath and more attention. French is always smiled upon if you try--but fear not here the use of your English, you will be welcomed and quite well understood. And don't cut and run afterwards, stick around for a cafe, and then perhaps a walk to the Roland Garros, or the Greenhouse of Auteuil, or perhaps the bois de boulogne. See what the southern 16th has to offer.
metro line 10 Eglise d'Auteul--take left metro exit and walk straight down rue Chardon Lagache, turn left at rue Jouvenet and continue straight until Ave de Versailles, it is on the corner. Or line 9 Exelmans--take boulevard Exelmans direction toward the Seine, turn left onto Ave de Versailles, and continue straight until 136 on the left hand side.
Din din time. Stay clear of the Champs Elysees, and get the hell out of montmartre. Where am I sending you? Where few tourists have gone before--but oh how they will have wished they had. The 14th--south of Montparnasse. Never thought you would make it south of that big boy did ya. Make your way down the charming, diverse, more "oh this is where normal people live" part of Paris to the little restaurant on the corner, Le Laurier. Laurier means bay leaf, and it is fitting, for this small restaurant of traditional French cuisine is so god-awfully gifted in the usage of spices and flavors that I can not imagine ever eating French style cooking without making a form of comparison in my mind. This place had the goods. You want French? You belong here. You want real waiters that don't wear berets and suspenders? You belong here. You want an ambiance and quiet charm fancy yet laid back and as French as it can get? You belong here.
As with Fournil de Versailles, I am a frequent visitor of Le Laurier; 1 to 2 times per week. As with Fournil, if you are a friend of mine in Paris you have either dined there or we became friends there. As with Fournil, the waiters and chefs have become some of my greatest friends in Paris, a Parisian family if you will, after hours as well. I grew to love the Laurier team-- weekend picnics and sunday night poker parties, the Parisian philosophy on food has taught me a great deal about food, and foods place in life and culture. Life is around the table, whether they are seated next to you or running around like mad men--if you don't eat with people you love and care about around, why bother eating at all.
I have had everything on the menu at least once. And it changes with the season. C'est vrai. Except many of the desserts. Those I have just observed. There are a few permanent residents of the menu--the classic gouts that never change; the tartar du boeuf which is in the end my favorite main plate, served with seasoned potatoes and a delicately dressed salad. The duck--always excellent. Fillet mignon, scallops with fois gras, steak, lamb, roasted chicken--and of course there is always the daily special. The salads are impeccable as well; the salad Laurier comprises of shrimp, mango, avocado, and a plethora of flavors and sauce all above a bed of fresh maché, there is the antipasta, and the smoked salmon salad which is moreover smoked salmon and sautéed potatoes accompanied by a few leaves of lettuce.
The entrees--fluffy and light terrine of blue cheese over a tomato red sauce, fois gras, mozzarela and tomato salad, tuna tartar, pumpkin soup with craw fish, and my particular favorite--pureed lentil soup with a creme sauce topped by a drizzle of raspberry syrup.
Desert--hands down the creme brulée is my recommendation, three small rounds of variant flavored cremes sometimes a chocolate, or a berry, or a nut, depending on the season--caramelized to that near blackish and crackling state of perfection. The nougat glacée, the rice pudding melded with a caramel sauce (a bit Portuguese do you not agree?) and of course there is the ever changing tare du jour.
Laurier is a bar à vin, and as such i have had much, much from its store. Glass, carafe, bottle--they boast an impressive stock, and it is there where I have indeed found my favorite flavor. The boys can also offer a classy aperitif if you desire--a cocktail bien sûr, and Antoine, I must say, mixes quite a nice caipirinha, a result from his joyous travels abroad. However, I will say, and I do boast this with pride, I was the first customer at Le Laurier, to ever ask for one--the virgin bottle of cachaça retrieved from the cellar and opened just for me. What can I say. Just, what can I say.
when to go? any day of the week except sunday, lunch or diner. Dinner after 8h00 is best, but remember there is no special on saturday. Metro line 13 Pernety, exit metro and walk straight forward down rue Pernety until the end, Le Laurier is on the left hand corner.
What is so outstandingly brilliant about these two places that I would send you trekking west and south all around the city just for a meal--what you ask. So what if you are friends with the baker and the waiters--so what, perhaps his bread is as good as any of the hundreds of others that line the Parisian streets, so what. Well, so plenty. These establishments are dear to me, I recommend them with a heart to do you good. When I return to Paris, I will eat no where else before I have sat down at these tables again. Getting there is half of the adventure, find the other pockets in the city, get out of the line at the Louvre, your photo at the Eiffel Tower is lovely, but that crepe you ate on the Champs was pre-cooked. What you will remember in ten years is the 3 hour meal you ate in a charming restaurant you went on a treasure hunt to find, surrounded by laughing locals, sleeping dogs, and friendly, charming, and high-on-life waiters. You will remember how you could not stop pouring the wine, and that though there were three courses, you felt satisfied but never full. You will remember the meal. Everyone remembers the meal. And by remembering the meal, you remember the people, and you remember Paris. I will miss my friends dearly, thank you for your friendship, we will meet again soon, ça, c'est sûr.