I read a lot about Paris. Food, restaurant, wine bar reviews. But I know enough from flawed experiences that someone else's good review and experience may not be mine. It was with optimistic anticipation that I nevertheless headed to l'Avant Comptoir yesterday, a wine bar, for a quick re-fueling after 6 a.m. Paris arrival at CDG, RER trip into the city, coffee with my hosts--where we discussed the U.S. jury system and the purview of the judge and jury in questions of law and fact--and a five-hour nap.
The obvious choice was to use the first of the limited, not already-booked nights in Paris to try the Verjus wine bar. The restaurant, yes, sublime experience in April, but need to get in and try that wine bar my fav food writers love so much. Closed.
What now. Paris by Mouth's list of wine bars, by arrondissement, comes in handy. If I am not walking all the way to Palais Royal in the bitter cold, I should try a new place that is close. L'Avant Comptoir, already on the list I always keep in my head (when my post-45 ailing memory can recall the list), is on their list. Done.
It is a short walk away, over at the Carrefour de l'Odeon. Straight shot down Boulevard St. Germain.
Enter. Let's see what this is all about.
Unassuming at first. A group of young 'uns from a country in Asia is placing a large order for crepes and gauffres (waffles). I ask them, after politely waiting and studying the food items signage hanging from the ceiling, if they are waiting for wine. (When I am hungry, and food/wine is just right there, I do not mince words). They were not. I squeeze by and settle in at the counter (the "comptoir") and work on figuring out the drill here.
I ask if I order right there, from the master organizer of everything I figure out (and whose name is Eric/Erik/Erich (with red hair, en plus)). I admitted I wanted a little help with the red wine selection. Well, he says, what do you like? "Uh, everything?" I say. (Bad start to new year's reoslution to increase wine vocabulary).
He says, smiling: "What matters is what interests you right now."
Me: "Well, I just arrived from Texas this morning. I have not slept much, have not eaten much, and am starving." (rough English translations from the French, or what I recall of it...)
He ponders. He turns around look through the wine array. I order in the meantime what Dorie Greenspan must have been talking about as "voluptuous" in terms of some fried ham croquette thing.
The wine comes. One sip in and I am writing the name down to email Austin Wine Merchant and see how this can become the new go-to red wine at Chez Liz. Because what do you know, it is a Cotes du Rhone. I'm not sure I need to drink any other wine for the rest of my life.
At the comptoir, there are plates of enormous blocks of butter, with butter knives plunged deep into them. There are giant crocks brimming with cornichons, wire baskets of a Poilane-like bread. And Eric the Red is preparing all of the delectible bites in a space the size of tiny Manhattan closet, a tiny "kitchen," right there (cooktop and toaster oven), with all the ingredients incredibly well-arranged in plastic containers in a tiny regrigerator.
As Eric left the bottle of my new favorite wine right in front of me, I ask if I just help myself, as he had chosen to place the entire bottle right there in front of me. He smiles again and says, non, though it does look that way, j'arrive to pour your wine for you. (I really love having wine poured for me.)
Next item to order: I opt for the foie gras brochette. Eric asks if I am from California - non, I say, foie gras still legal in Texas. Thankfully.
More orders for crepes at the window. Eric manages the food orders, deliveries coming in. He handles all the food prep - except the crepes and gauffres. He handles the friendly banter with old and new friends. He speaks great English to the English couple that had come in and, to my surprise, just stared ordering in English without even asking if he spoke English. It is an amazingly well-orchestrated operation in this small space.
The fois gras brochette arrives: hot, seared tiny pieces of yummy fatty melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, roasted red pepper bites in between - a balsamic vinegar tangy glaze. Now this just feels dream-like.
I tell Eric this wine could not be more perfect for me tonight. He chose well. Thank you. And when he launched into the tutoyer with me too, I get that everyone gets the friendly tutoyer, not just longtime friends. And, enfin, I say:
"Monsieur Eric - I will need the addition when you have a minute."
He stops in his tracks. Stares at me.
"Madame Texas, I will get that for you right away."
He smiles and asks my name. We shake hands. Tell him I will see him again very soon.
I wonder why people never listen to me when I try to steer them away from what they think is a quintessential Paris experience. A friend of a friend told me her family would be dining at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower over a holiday. I had on good authority from American almost-chef friend that the food there was lifeless and a waste of time. This was someone who could afford to eat and drink anywhere and everywhere in Paris - and has, so knows full well there is far, far better food to be had in the city. I tried to subtly suggest to the friend of a friend not doing this - a stupendous waste of money. Why not hang out and see what Paris is really like?
I said something to Eric like this place was "pas mal." He smiles, getting the joke, because he knows it is awesome, and says I came at a good time to really enjoy it. Not the huge crowd (I can barely move by now it is getting so crowded).
I step out into Paris and it starts to snow.
Later on, in a cozy cafe on the Ile St. Louis, over French Onion Soup, and a nice chat with a table of Professors from Toronto, whom I let have the last of my carafe of Bordeaux as I could not polish it off, I watch the snow come down harder, and watch snowball fights in the street in front of me.