Paris: First meal

April 11, 2023 • 11:06 am

After two brutal hours of standing in the line to have my passport inspected, I finally escaped Charles de Gaulle Airport (one of the world’s worst, in my view), and immediately took the Metro into town to have lunch with Winnie, my long-time food and traveling buddy whom I met years ago in Hong Kong (she also introduced me to delights of Chinese food in that famous eating town). We now have eight straight restaurant lunches reserved in Paris. And this is the third or fourth time we’ve engaged in a weeklong bout of gluttony in the bistros of this most beautiful of cities.

Our traditional first meal is at Chez Denise, a classic bistro in the First Arrondissement that’s gotten a bit more touristy over the years but is still reliable and with wonderful ambience.  It hasn’t changed except that my favorite dessert, baba au rhum, a cake covered with whipped cream and soaked with rum (they also leave the bottle on the table to add more), had shrunk in size. But so had our stomachs, so we skipped dessert. (We later tried to sniff out a famous ice-cream place in the 11th, but it was closed today.)

You will find Chez Denise on the Rue Prouvaire in Les Halles, near the Chatelet Metro station:

The dude above is perusing the menu, which you can see below. It’s always pretty much the same, written in chalk inside and outside. No point in walking in to eat if you like the menu; they’ll kick your butt out, even if there are tables free. It’s by reservation only.

We split a salade frisée to start with (not on the menu, but a refreshing entrée if you plan a heavy meal). It’s made with curly lettuce, hard-boiled egg, homemade croutons, and a tangy dressing (other bistros often add bacon.) This is the entrée, or starter, mistakenly used as a term for the main course in America (the course is called a “plat” in France). “Entrée” literally means “entry”: the entry to the meal.

For the plat, Winnie had the braised salmon with mustard sauce and potatoes, which you can see on the menu above. She pronounced it excellent:

I always get the same thing because it’s so good: the onglet de boeuf grillé, a grilled skirt steak smothered with shallots and served with a ton of delicious hot frites. This time I ordered mine cooked à point, which is supposed to be rare, instead of my usual saignant (“bloody”), and it came out not rare enough, though still delicious. From now on it’s back to bloody for me:

And we always get the Brouilly, a decent red wine that’s the house red. It comes in liter bottles, and you pay only for what you drink. Our appetites not yet being fully revved up, we split half a liter, which was only 10 euros. This time the bottle, normally unlabeled, had a fancy house label: “I’m walking to Brouilly.”

The cherry trees are blooming in Les Halles, and dozens of crows invaded the park. The building with the dome is the Bourse de Commerce, or old mercantile exchange, which was built from 1763-1767 with an open courtyard, latter capped with a wooden dome replaced by a copper one in 1811. There was another major reconstruction in 1888 and 1889. It’s now a museum housing the Pinault art collection.

Cherry blossomsl. The weather will be overcast and rainy for the next few days, but of course that’s April in Paris.

We repaired to the Bastille, near where I’m staying, and had coffee and citron pressé, or French lemonade, in a cafe. I love the stuff because it comes decontructed, like their philosophy, and you assemble it yourself. Here’s what you get when you order one:

a huge amount of freshly squeezed lemon juice in a tall glass,
a glass full of small ice cubes,
a pitcher of cold water,
a big shaker of sugar, and
a spoon

Then you can mix the lemonade the way you like, slowly adding more water as you drink the concoction, so it lasts a long time. I forgot to take a photo, but it looks like this.

The cafe where I like to get this gives you a huge amount of juice (at least two lemons worth), which necessitates a copious amount of sugar.

On the way back to my hotel, a group of middle-aged men were playing the time-honored French game of boules or pétanque, played with metal balls. It’s like curling, with the object to get your ball closest to the target and knock the other guys’ balls away from the target. It’s actually a very old game, with versions dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece.

We are both excited because tomorrow we have the first of two lunches reserved at Cartet, a virtually unknown but absolutely fabulous restaurant described in this post. The guy serves huge quantities of homemade food in several courses, and no human can possibly finish what’s on tap (read the post and you’ll see what I mean). We loved it so much last time that we decided to go twice in a week, and the chef/owner/server (only one guy runs it) was surprised that we made two reservations.

He usually serves only one table of two people for lunch, with enough food to feed a regiment. There will be ample food photos tomorrow for sure. Read the link above to see our last meal there. I keep telling people to go here, and nobody ever heeds my advice. Well, so much the worse for them! (Granted, the restaurant is daunting: the door is locked, there’s only a small sign, and it’s dark inside. If you have a reservation you have to knock.) There is no email or website.

À demain!

23 thoughts on “Paris: First meal

    1. Hi Bro,
      Thanks to you making reservations for us in 2009, your nephew fell in love with escargots. That was a mighty task because he didn’t like anything at the time. Here’s to Chez Denise!

  1. Delicious! Did Chez Denise become reservation only recently? In 2019 I had dinner there without a reservation.

    1. Yes, i had picked the sauced salmon from the menu and the lovely picture with potatoes affirmed it as a wonderful choice…especially as the only full meal of the day.

  2. Wonderful! Looking forward to more vicarious meals this week.

    “Deconstructed, like their philosophy” – ha!

  3. I love the stuff because it [citron pressé]comes decontructed, like their philosophy …

    Cute, though I think for the analogy to hold, the lemonade would have to be served fully assembled, then leaving to the customer to examine the space left due to the death of the lemonade-maker by shaking the liquid along its gaps and fault lines. 🙂

  4. Lovely. I sure wish I could get frisée around here. It’s one of my favorite salad greens. I have to drive 40 miles to Seattle’s Pike Place Market to get it. I also loved the 2020 meal you had at Cartet. One photo that you described was endive. And not only was it endive, but the best endive of all- Treviso. Can’t wait to see your Cartet food photos this year.

  5. For the first meal of the trip, that’s setting a pretty high bar! I look forward with salivation to the next few posts.

    My son is a chef, and plans shortly to relocate back to Paris from Biarritz – sadly, just too late to cook for our host. Maybe next time!

  6. I agree completely about CDG. The facilities are poor and half-hidden: as if the designers did not want to clutter up the place with, you know, actual passengers. Also they clearly believed that signposts were not aesthetic.

    1. And it’s many kilometres outside Paris and one time when I arrived, the baggage handlers decided not to bother with the last pallet meaning that several of us were waiting for over an hour for our bags.

      It’s almost as bad as Gatwick.

    2. CDG isn’t so bad as a transfer airport in our experience. Other than Heathrow and Zurich (once each) we have nothing to compare. During many flights into CDG to go bicycle touring in the Alps and Pyrénées I guess we just got used to how the stuffy, gloomy place works. Passport lines for incoming passengers getting connecting flights were brief. Once the guys see a return ticket they wave you through if you look remotely like your passport photo. We never had trouble making the tightest connection the airline schedule allowed. Once we headed home from Rome. The chaos there delayed our flight nearly an hour, yet by the time it was all buffered in the transfer process, we got home on time, with all bags and bicycles. We haven’t flown anywhere since retirement — grandchildren, you know.

      When we’ve visited Paris, it’s always been as a stopover during our return home from elsewhere in France or the EU. You just arrive at your domestic gate, collect your bags, leave the bulky stuff at the concession, and head for the RER.

      I wanted to give a shout-out to some ground staff at CDG who went out of the way to help us not miss flights when we were encumbered with bicycles — every airline’s favourite luggage! — and Things Just Went Wrong, including the day of the liquid explosives plot at Heathrow in 2006. (These may have been Air France staff, not Paris-Aéroports workers.) They gave the effective impression that they were trying to do their best for customers while working in physical and bureaucratic strictures not of their making. We are grateful to this day for their kindness and efficiency.

  7. Aw, yes!

    You know, I can’t even do my usual critical-theoretical exercises to this! That HAS to be good.

  8. Very refreshing to read such positive reviews/views of my native city. No mention of the downside, there is enough of it in the domestic and now international press. Bon appétit!

  9. Enjoyed the post and looking forward to reading about the rest of your culinary adventures!

    I checked out your last review about Cartet and will definitely visit if ever in Paris again.

    There used to be a very similar sounding restaurant in Sydney. Located in Kings Cross and called Mere Catherine it was run by an elderly French couple who did everything! You wouldn’t know it was even a restaurant from the street, just a white door. Not even a sign. Felt like you were dining in their living room. Best French Onion soup I’ve ever had and I’ve had many. Sadly gone now, but a hidden gem for those in the know! I lived down the road for a year and didn’t know about it, my wife introduced me to it when we started dating. Good memories!

    Thanks Jerry!

  10. It all looks delicious. I was surprised to see gateau de foie de volaille (which I love) on the menu board. I never saw that in Paris when I lived there (1979-86), but here in Lyon, it’s a standard. And it can be quite good. You should come to Lyon sometime and sample our local cuisine. It’s less fine than in Paris, but at least as copious.

Leave a Reply