Restaurant Review: Septime, er, no, the Pause Cafe

This review of Septime the Pause Cafe is for lunch on 28 January 2015.

So, while this is not a review of Septime, it is a little story about it, as well as living in a foreign land. My friend Greg, who was the sommelier of one of Australia’s top restaurants and is always good for recommendations for food and grog, had highly recommended the restaurant Septime on Rue Charonne from when he was passing through on a champagne tour.

On our trip to the southwest of France in August 2014, we had a few days in Paris either side. But as they’re only open Monday to Friday evenings, our schedules didn’t quite coincide. I decided we’d head to their sister restaurant, next door, Clamato, which has gotten rave reviews. I carefully checked their website which said it was open on the weekends, non-stop, noon to 23h. I decided it would be our special meal in Paris to finish our holidays together. I thought an early dinner on Sunday might be less busy, so after finding our way to the 11th, and finding a place to park our vélibs, we stumbled into the restaurant which was… closing. Packing up, chairs on tables.

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This is the Pause Cafe, not Septime

Oh, we’re closing for the holidays, I was told. Non-stop? Very disappointed, I asked if they had any recommendations of other restaurants close by, and the waitress seemed exasperated at both the question and my poor French. We left, and being a Sunday in August, it wasn’t that easy to find a restaurant that evening.

Flash forward. Back in France, unexpectedly, and this time for four months. I meanwhile find out that Septime is the new hot restaurant, has great reviews and is hard to get into. I put it on my list of restaurants to try. Their website advises that you can make reservations online but every time I clicked, it was filled. I’d found the booking service, La Fourchette, easy to use and efficient for other restaurants. But it didn’t work in this case. I later read the fine print. Reservations only open for a three week period daily. I tried online a number of times, at the time it said reservations were open, but only once did a reservation come up, and it was for lunch, when I was working.

Still, it was in the back of my mind, and a pal at UNESCO said it was really interesting. Don’t do it online, just call up. And so I did. I figured surely I could get us in sometime during our last two weeks in Paris. But no, when I got through, dinners were all booked up. There were lunch bookings available. I hung up, disappointed and then thought: well, why not? I’ll take off half a day and go for lunch. So I called right back. When did I want the reservation? As late as possible, I said, thinking that it would still allow me to work in the morning. OK. How about treize heures? Pleased with myself, I hung up, put the reservation in my calendar for 3pm, and messaged my partner with the good news.

Flash forward. I arrange to take the afternoon off from work. I’m very pleased to create this treat and occasion for us, a special meal in our last week in Paris. They call the day before to confirm the booking. But the first call, I’m in a meeting with my boss and the second call, I don’t manage to answer before it goes right to message. The message says that I can call them back to confirm after 17h, or just send an email. I decide that an email is easier, and write that I’m looking forward to seeing them tomorrow at 15h.

In the back of my mind, I do know this is a strange time. But somehow I’ve convinced myself that they are so busy and popular, that they run a non-stop service between lunch and dinner. It’s a drizzly Wednesday but not too wet to ride our bikes. I leave work a little earlier than I expected, telling colleagues I’m off to a special lunch. I head home, pick up my partner and we ride to Rue de Charonne.

When we enter, I can see an empty table for two, the rest of the place is filled and buzzy. How nice. But the waiters, all gathered at the counter look up with some confusion and that particular Gallic air that says you’ve done something wrong. ‘We’re here for our reservation at 3pm’, I say with my best accent.

No, no, it’s not possible, the kitchen is closed now, and you were supposed to be here at 12h30.

I am confused. 12h30 doesn’t sound a thing like 3pm, and it hadn’t been a short conversation on the phone. But he checks his computer, and it was 13h we were supposed to be there, sorry sir, there’s nothing he can do about it. Neither is there any space tonight or anytime soon.

But I tried for weeks,’ I say feebly.

Next door is no reservations, they open at 19h30′, he says, and then for emphasis he says, ‘Not 17h30. Don’t get it mixed up.‘ The waiters all laugh.

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Duck parmentier and beef with winter vegetables

I am rather emotional to tell my partner I screwed up, and as we wander off in the direction home, it starts to rain, more heavily. ‘I tried so hard,’ I tell him. We pop into a cafe nearby before we get too wet, a lively and colourful cafe that we’d noticed back in August. It doesn’t take me that long to realize that the reservations guy had told me ‘treize heures‘, meaning 1pm, and I’d mistaken it for trois heures, 3pm.

But still, there had been a number of opportunities to avoid this, if I’d managed to answer the phone for first, or second time. If I hadn’t been too busy and called instead of emailed. If they’d read the email and thought it strange that I was confirming for 15h instead of 13h. If my partner (or anyone I’d mentioned it to) had spoken up to say: the French don’t serve lunch at 3pm. If I’d remembered that the French don’t serve lunch at 3pm. If, in all my years of travel, I’d gotten used to the 24 hour clock, so I would never have expected the reservations guy to say 3 in the afternoon, rather than a thirteen or fifteen.

Licking my wounds, I toast to my stupidity with a cup of champagne (I like that they call it a coupe instead of a glass, une verre), and at the Pause Cafe, my better half has a tasty sort of stewed beef on winter vegetables, and I have a rather excellent duck cottage pie (a parmentier).

It’s not like cultural confusion and language problems don’t happen all the time. In fact, last night, a colleague asked for a hot whiskey, a grog, and after a long wait was presented with a melted cheese sandwich, a croque monsieur. We both agreed that they sound nothing the same and that our French pronounciation isn’t THAT bad.

I don’t begrudge Septime for being so popular and hard to get into, and acknowledge my own mistake and their losing a table of two for lunch. But you know when you try and try and things just don’t work? Septime, I’m sorry, but we’re never ever going to be friends. As for the Pause Cafe: thanks for saving a distraught stranger in a strange land, with a rather imperfect comprehension of everyday French language (and evidently, culture).

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