Les Fêtes Galantes is a tiny restaurant in the shadow of the Pantheon with an Egyptian chef named Bibi. It is also very very good.
This evening, after my very first day back at work in Paris, I thought it would be a good night to treat myself to a nice meal (I’ve so far treated myself to an excellent croissant and sweets, but not a nice meal). Julie had made this recommendation to me, and last year, in Paris, I’d not followed it up. Everyone has recommendations for Paris. It’s that kind of place. I think the magic glow of Paris makes everything even better than it already is, and it’s hard to be objective. Also, when I looked up the restaurant last time, it seemed like a typical French bistro. A few of which we’d been to in that time. So what I’d imagined: its charm lay in the fact that it was both typical, and managed to appeal in its typical Frenchness at the time.
On the other hand, ‘Why not?’ I thought on this particular night, wanting something typical and French, and not too expensive. I lasted at work as long as I could (not having a lot to do, it being my first day), then half-walked and half-cycled in the right direction, but then had some time to kill before the restaurant opened at 7pm. I had a drink at Les Pipos, a perfect aperol spritz, during happy hour, for Euros 5.50, while the local colourful character chatted the ear off the barmaid and then a couple who had come in to dine. I caught something about the songwriter Luc Plamondon and I don’t know what else. He was holding court as I cracked open the eBook Paris Nocturnes, my effort to discover why Patrick Modiano had been awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
And then to Les Fêtes Gallantes, where I was the only patron. A lovely woman explained the specials, and I examined the surroundings, quaint and crowded. One corner was completely filled with bras and panties pinned to the wall, which would in other circumstances been more disturbing but the decor was so cluttered and eclectic, it seemed not out of place.
I took recommendations for a ‘gratin’, an appetizer with eggplant and chevre, and then a lamb stewed in white beer. And a quarter carafe of white wine, and at least two little baskets of sliced baguettes. Honestly, it was so delicious. The thing about eating by oneself is that it can take a meditative quality, savouring each taste, not rushing. I can’t say that I focused all of my attention on the food, as I was enjoying the strange elliptical writing of Modiano at the same time, but I was paying attention: the gratin was a perfect texture, the soft, melting baked eggplant with cheese, and some nice cherry tomatoes as well.
The stew was elegant: perhaps five pieces of very tender lamb, in the richest broth, with a small selection of potatoes, carrots and more cherry tomatoes. Savoury and elegant with the taste of home.
In the meantime, I made conversation with the woman, occasionally, who seemed to be in a meditative state of her own, the three of us in the restaurant all quiet and in our own spaces and activities. Christmas was 15 degrees this year, the warmest in ages. Global warming, she chalked it up to.
Yes, the restaurant was very quiet. It was school holidays so Parisians were out of town, and it has been quiet since the troubles in November. But she hoped that it would be busier in the springtime. In the meantime, if I enjoyed the meal, I would have to thank my friend who recommended it, and in fact, if it has been a while since she’s been, she wouldn’t have tried the lamb stew, which has only been on the menu for the last three months or so. She would have to come back to try it.
So, yes, a delicious meal. I got to tell Bibi how much I enjoyed it. A little more than thirty euros later and I headed off.
I found a Vélib and rode off to my AirBNB, marvelling that in Paris, it can rain for ages, and you don’t get wet, and you can even ride a bicycle in the rain, and the heavy fenders don’t allow the wet to fly up from the road onto your clothes.
I also thought that it was quite appropriate to have taken a recommendation from my friend Julie. In our last significant set of communications, we talked about her book, about her pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, which is about reflection, and the connections between friends, and also about attention, and savouring the moment (which could be a delicious meal).
And then suddenly, in front of me, as an after-dinner treat, City Hall lit up and sparkling in the drizzle and my heart is singing, yes, yes, yes.