Saturday, October 15, 2011

Slapstick and Sumptuousness

I think yesterday must have set a record for ridiculous contrasts.

First, there was the latest salvo in the ridiculous war against the telecom I got rid of last summer, when it became evident that they had lied to me from the very start of my contract wtih them. Remember the name, folks: Not free. Very French. Out of the blue, in July of this year, I got an e-mail from a collection service saying that they were coming after me for the debt of €540 I owed these frauds. Seeing as how I had formally cut off the contract and returned their equipment a year previously, this made very little sense to me. I wrote the collection agency (in French) and asked them just what this bill was all about. I have never gotten a response, but I have gotten three letters warning me that they will soon turn the case over to a judge and then bailiffs will come. French customer service at its best. There must be some agency somewhere which protects people against this, but I have no idea what it is.

Anyway, I tossed the letter into a pile and went on with my day. Around 3, I was sitting at my desk with the windows open and I smelled smoke. Was the tram station on fire again? I walked out onto my balcony to see if I could figure out what direction it was coming from, but once out there, I couldn't smell it.

Now, I don't know if I've mentioned my upstairs neighbor, Madame Merde. She's quite young, and has two kids, one a boy about 6, and the other an infant, maybe a year old. I guess the father is a teenager-looking kid I see her with, although I don't know if he lives there or not. She's gotten her name by the fact that her way of dealing with just about every situation is to yell, and the last word in the sentence is just about always "merde." She's quite eloquent with it, although her accent precludes my understanding most of what she says. She also yells "arrête!" and "Dépèche-toi!" at the older kid a lot ("stop" and "hurry up," for you Americans). I'd like to pretend she's more colorful than she is, but she is distinctly unfriendly, and has never thanked me when I've helped her carry the baby vehicle up the stairs. She also has the habit of flapping her bedding out the window every morning and flicking her cigarette ashes out the window, too. I've got more ashes on my desk than I did when I smoked.

So I'm sitting at the desk, having already had to close the window once because she was apparently scrubbing the windowsill and water was splashing me. And the smoke came on again. And again I went to see what was happening and heard her yelling something out the window real loud. She was yelling at the violin-makers across the courtyard, and they were answering her. Suddenly, I saw some ash -- going up. Aha! I went back into the bedroom and onto the balcony and saw what was happening. People in our building can't access the courtyard, which has a couple of staircases coming off of it. Directly below me is one that's become filled with trash, largely thrown out the window by Mme. Merde's oldest kid, but some dating from the era of Les Lunkheads. She had flipped a lit cigarette out the window and it had started a fire. Big surprise, but she wanted the violin-makers to put it out. She snarled at them, disappeared from the window, and came back with a saucepan with water in it, which she dumped out without looking at what she was doing. It missed half the fire. I remembered that I had a mineral-water bottle out on the balcony that dated from when I thought I could actually grow something there, and so I grabbed it and -- hey! -- it still had water in it. I uncapped it, stepped over to the end of the balcony, and within seconds, I had put out the rest of the blaze. The violin-makers were walking over to the fire with a large bowl filled with water, and suddenly Mme. Merde unleashed a second pan of water -- right on my head. The violin-makers cracked up, and I don't blame them. I looked up at Mme. Merde, and she said "Attention, monsieur" and disappeared from the window. What a charmer.

So there was nothing else to do but to change my clothes. But I was going to do that anyway, just not at that moment. Because there was more going on.

* * *

Monday I'd hiked all over the centre ville with J, scouting restaurants because it was E's birthday and she wanted to take us all out to dinner. I gave a pretty good tour if I do say so myself, and she took notes with a little camera so she could do further research at home. A couple of days later, she said "Let's go to Le Pastis. I've made reservations for 8. And let's get a drink beforehand." I was delighted: the place is inconspicuously nestled in the Ste. Anne district, probably the part of town I most would like to move to, and the menu, which I've checked from time to time, looked amazing. It was one of those situations where the menu is affordable, but the wine list was another matter entirely. I swore I'd get there some day, however.

Thus, after changing into dry clothes, I awaited their ring on my doorbell at 7. I had an idea of a place to have a drink, and boy, did I hit the jackpot with that! I don't go to bars -- my financial situation doesn't allow it, obviously -- but I do observe the city, and there was an old street just off the Rue Foch where there seemed to be a couple of bars. Three, in fact, meaning it's probably not a place I'd want to live too near. One seemed less populated than the others, though, so we went in. There, we were presented with a wine list -- it was a wine bar! No wonder the clientele looked older than the usual binge-drinking student crowd! And lordy, what a wine-list! And one reason it wasn't so heavily populated was that half the tables were reserved, it being Friday night. No matter: there was indeed a table for us, and we sat down.

One problem I've found with wine-bars here is that there are very few by-the-glass choices. Not here. It turns out that E has spent most of his life drinking white wine, and knows nothing about reds. Well, he's landed in the place where a post-doctoral eductation on the subject is possible, and this looked like a great classroom. He got a Pic St. Loup (I forgot to take notes, dammit) and I got a Terrasses de Larzac, and, as I'd figured, his was big, fruity, and complex, and mine was more austere, mineral, and the fruit was way back in the taste. A better example of terroir is hard to imagine: we'd driven to both regions, so he knew what it looked like out there, and now he was seeing what the difference made to the taste of the wine.

The place filled up quickly after we got there, so we were right at the perfect moment. Plates of tapas came out of nowhere to various tables, and I regretted not having read that part of the menu, but they looked good. A huge dog ran around with the grace of a ballet dancer, not disrupting anyone. Clearly it was his place, and for me, it's a place to go back to again. Soon. You're welcome to join me.

Oh: it's called L'atelier, and I'll dispense with my usual listing because all the info is right there on the website.

* * *

It was just a few blocks to dinner, and when we got to Le Pastis at five minutes to eight, we were practically the only people there. This changed very rapidly. If we had reservations for eight, I guess most people reserved for 8:15 -- or, come to think of it, there is the famous quart d'heure montpellierian. No question: they were ready for us. I'd already read the menu and had decided that as long as someone else was paying, I'd just order all of it. It really was that tempting. (Note: the link there leads to whatever today's menu is. What's up there as I post is what we had to choose from last night. What you'll see depends on whether you go there today or months later.)

Fortunately, we all had different stuff, and the extremely helpful waitress also helped me make a good choice for the wine. It wasn't on the list: the one I'd settled on was sold out, but she suggested instead another St. Chinian (since I decided that that terroir would be an excellent half-way point between the two we'd already had), a Les Eminades Cebenna from 2010. It was pretty huge, but still had loads of sunshine, subtle fruit, a little tannin, and less of a mineral presence that the Terrasses de Larzac, but just enough so that it wasn't too smooth. E, with his limited experience with red wines, says he finds a lot of them "scratchy," which is a wonderful word for badly-made wine: it scratches your throat on the way down. There was no scratchiness tonight.

J didn't have an appetizer, but E had a ballotin of chicken, stuffed with foie gras and artichoke heart. It's definitely one of those don't-try-this-at-home dishes, where you debone a chicken and then stuff it with whatever you're stuffing it with. There are those who say it's easy, but I'll get mine here, thanks. My starter was less successful: an "ingot" of tomatoes in a jelly of espalette pepper, with a little ball of avocado ice-cream next to it. I had a memory of a weird bar in New Orleans I'd been taken to ages ago by Bunny Matthews, where people gambled on horse-racing slots downstairs and upstairs a couple of gay Brazilians made odd, great food, where I'd last had avocado ice cream. But the espalette was nowhere to be tasted and the tomatoes themselves were only vaguely there. I guess I made a mistake, and it was too late in the season for the tomatoes, but there's no excuse for the espalette, which is right in season, although the ice cream was lovely and subtle. Too bad: I should have had the grilled sardines stuffed with pesto.

J definitely won the main-course race with four huge scallops, crusted with persillade (parsley and garlic, finely minced) sitting in a celery bouillon on red lentils. E came in second with a hunk o' hake sitting in a horseradish sauce, accompanied by an odd construction in which beets were peeled very thin and stacked with slices of conté cheese, which I bet tasted great if you like beets, which I empatically do not. I had a couple of pieces of local lamb, which were just delicious, but the advertised sauce "fortified wtih garlic" wasn't much in evidence, and the "lead-shot and preserved squash" turned out to be some small potatoes -- very richly flavored -- and, um, zucchini. The other two dishes at the table proved these folks can cook extremely inventively and skillfully, and like I said, mine was fine, but just not as creative as I was hoping. We all got little glass jars filled with steamed seasonal vegetables -- cauliflower, romanesco, red carrots -- which were very nice. The reason J hadn't had an appetizer was so she could get dessert, which turned out to be figs and violets on shortbread and a rosemary-honey ice cream. Dang.

Le Pastis is a major find, and clearly not for everyday eating (well, not until I sell the movie rights to this blog or win the lottery or something), and I would like to thank E for having a birthday so we could discover it -- and to urge him to have another soon!

Again, details of opening (they do lunch, too, and their by-the-glass wine selection is superb) and all can be found on the opening page of their website, so just click and discover.

Oh, and sorry, no photos: J's camera wasn't up to it, and I wasn't about to lug my big black monster to the table. Go experience it in person: technology's nice, but you still can't upload those odors!

1 comment:

  1. I have passed that restaurant a hundred times and have never seen anybody in there, except maybe in the summer when they have tables on that wooden platform up by St. Anne. It looked intriguing, but I always asked myself how they survived with no customers. From the sounds of it, I guess I was just never there late enough to see the crowds.


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