It figures. In France a butcher has superstar status. He has his own web site. He has a hip font and typeface for his storefront, which bears his name. He supplies the meat stuffs to all the most discerning French persons – i.e., the French government, specifically, the Senate and the Assemblée Nationale. He does not do the hands-on work anymore, so to speak. A small corps of select butcher boys now do this.
He is Hugo. And he is, uh, very attractive.
Maureen and I walked in early - 8:00 p.m. - to Le Jeu de Quilles, after a long trek from Ile St. Louis down to the 14eme. We are meeting an ex-pat lawyer friend, Bill, who managed to score a reservation. He recalled I had more than a passing interest in food outings and thought I would like it. It is, he told us, one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite places to eat in Paris. This was enough for me, but, en plus, Paris by Mouth loves it and the Girls Guide to Paris loves it. And I love it too now, but for far more than just the food.
The minute we walked in, it was easy to image Anthony Bourdain kicking back here. It felt just right, like you knew this was going to be great one way or another. It could have been the organic feel of the wood, the simplicity yet warmth of it, the stark but not cold color scheme: grey/brown wooden tables that reminded of aged, weathered wood, the white linens, the simple wood shelf up high, supported by black iron brackets, holding about 30 glass carafes of varying shapes and sizes for the water, and the bursts of color in the most gorgeous table knives I have ever seen or touched. They are, I would figure out later, the 9.47 table knives made by Perceval. [Dear Santa: I would like a set of 6, in that bright cobalt blue.]
When we arrived the two affable men are manning the restaurant and were still enjoying the pre-dinner crowd lull, or pause, with glasses of wine and what looked like charcuterie. Maureen and I say we are three, for a reservation, for Snyder. They look long and hard for our name – I deep down start to panic that something has gone awry and I will miss out on this Paris by Mouth/Girls Guide to Paris recommendation. He finds us and notes that the reservation is not for 20h00 but 20h15. We are invited to seat ourselves wherever we wish. We head for a small round table for three as we will be three. They offer us instead the rectangular table that sits right in front of the staging area for the kitchen, where Benoit (?) mans the phone for the always full reservation list and deals with lofty matters of wine. It’s a communal table for about six. We decline. I have not seen Bill in a while.
They say, "Well, it’s the best seat in the house...you will leave with new friends." I tell them, my copine, le petite blonde former ballerina Maureen, who did not speak any French at all when she moved her law practice to Paris a few months ago, does not need any help at all in this category. Bill arrives…he too questions the communal table option.
So we say, again, uh, well no, we’ll take this cute round table for three, and, well, now that we’ve installed ourselves here we’ll just stay here. But thank you….
They shrug. They say, you are really missing out but ok….it’s really the best table.
Then, somehow, maybe I said something or Maureen said something that broke the stalemate and we said, finally, ok. We’ll take it. Well, they say, too late now...you should have believed us the first time - so sorry. They break into mischievous smiles. We’re kidding – we’re kidding. Come on over.
They set us all up at that table. At the end, of it though, and, what do you know. It’s the best seat in the house. I exclaim – wow – you were right! Well, of course we were right, they say, smiling. [I would figure out that the one continually giving me a hard time, and whom I would later question about what he did at the restaurant when it looked like Guillaume was actually doing all the hard work, is Benoit, the one who actually runs the restaurant...]
Around this time, he walks in to join the guys. He is Hugo.
Benoit then brings over to us, without our even asking, a plate of charcuterie.
He points to Hugo. Says something about him being famous. I was too busy choking on my white wine, puzzling over how a piece of charcuterie could, seriously, and I mean literally, melt in your mouth. This stuff was mind-blowing. And I do not say that lightly about a piece of salami. How does one do this? Is it because it is sliced wafer this? Is it just the right fat content? What? What?? Fortunately Maureen eats like next to nothing. I got most of the ethereal meat to myself.
Hugo had an aura for sure. But a confident, humble one, not the arrogant, smug types of the Ralph Lauren ad that he embodied. Think soft spoken, early to mid-40s maybe, salt and pepper thick and wavy black hair, a perfect casual ensemble of appropriately faded soft denim and leather – belt and shoes - with varying patinas. Like French intellectual meets Ralph Lauren meets Marlboro man. I hear Bill say something about lines going down the street as people wait to get into Hugo’s boucherie, which is right next door.
Then Hugo, leaving over the bar/table/staging area, leaning into and toward us, is saying something. He says something in English. I don’t hear the words. I’m too overwhelmed by how one secures such a beautifully worn leather belt and how this butcher, but no mere butcher of course, is standing here as if he walked straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad.
The man, the myth, the legend leaves. I would later learn much more about him. Like from the New York Times write up on him in 2004 and the many web sites and books about him and how his artisanal boucherie had made meat glamorous.
This picture, from this site, is closer to the vision that night, but he was not holding a steak then. Just a bag from his store with the characuterie or other items it seemed he had brought to share with his friends Benoit and Guillaume while chatting with them before heading home.
It is finally time to figure out what to order when Guillaume checks in on us again. For an entree I opt for a veloute of potiron and watercress and something else. I am stunned that Maureen, who eats, seriously, little more than a baguete and better every 2 days, order not just the veloute as well, but also the high-end plat of veal carpaccio with shaved black truffles.
Then the veloute comes – bright green – piping hot. Delectible. Luscious and thick and tasty but not too creamy. This is all I have to show for it.
Around this time, we are into bottle number 2 of red wine. Benoit had called it a little more spacey but his favorite. We ordered it. I taste. I suggest it needs to breathe a little bit. Benoit accommodates. He decants it.
It may have been around then that things really kicked into high gear.
The small restaurant is full now.
But all we really notice is the entertainment going on before us, the staging are and the kitchen and the choreography required to maneuver all the food and wine and cooking in this space. And all from the perfect table, out best seat in the house.
I hear Benoit tell Guillaume they need some music. They pick Rod Stewart: “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy….” I am laughing so hard...while singing along and dancing in my chair. Benoit feels vindicated by his music choice. He points out to Guillaume how much I am enjoying the music.
Then I mention Francis Cabrel and how much I love him (from my decades of France and high school French class trips and French cultural immersion.) I go even further to demonstrate my French culture street cred and start singing some classic Yves Duteil song, Prendre un enfant par la main. We all start singing together "Prendre un enfant par la main" -- Guillaume, Benoit, and I.
They are now totally making fun of me and my irrational love for passé French pop stars. [A guy friend once heard some of my Francis Cabrel music and asked if this was the French version of Neil Diamond. I was devastated. Ruined it for me. But I think he was right. I tell them this story about the comparison to Neil Diamond.]
All of a sudden, there is Francis Cabrel playing. Benoit managed to find it and it’s one of the classic ballades that Francis does. I am clasping my chest with nostalgia and all the longing for French student days that this music evokes. I am also laughing so hard that he went to the trouble to find this and am amazed that it is playing now at his restaurant.
Time for dessert: we order chocolate soup over pistachio macaroons. It was good.
But it was not as good as Maureen accidentally video conferencing via Skype from her iPhone her assistant in Houston – and then getting all of us on the Skype conference call, then getting Benoit in on the skype conference call.
And it was not as good as the end of the night ritual as we began to take our leave.
We settle up. We get coats. We begin the process of saying our good byes. Maureen, more outgoing than myself (understatement), takes the lead: She goes and tells everyone good night – Guillaime, Benoit – but elle fait la bise. Guillaume does likewise with me, maybe he even kissed my hand? - and says “c’etait un vrai plaisir.” Seriously, what is not to love about the French and Paris and just all of it. Suddenly I am thinking why the “Girls Guide to Paris” is particularly keen on this place -- and not just for the food.