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Un autre imbecile, eating

In a rainy Paris our Sunday Comics author finds riches that more than compensate for a failed business meeting

Jim Gabour
3 November 2013

Paris was cold, dark and rainy in early November, and it was obvious that the quintessential Frenchman was wearing a soggy grey flannel greatcoat, his shoes and socks were wet, and he was none-too-happy about the permeating chill.   That was the very Frenchman I met repeatedly that morning, many different faces and sexes but all carrying the very same attitude, on the trains, in the stations, and in the Metro on my way to a reserved bed in Montmartre.  My smiles were not only unreturned, but actually produced the opposite reaction, many a scowl, easily read as:   “Americain.  Simplement un autre imbecile.”

Me, I was indeed happy as an imbecilic clam, crossing through town and then checking into a minuscule, though cozy and warm, rooftop room in the equally cozy two-star Timhotel Montmartre.  I asked to get a look at the tiny room the desk clerk had offered as an alternative to the larger space I had reserved, and found that the room’s shutters opened onto a panoramic view from one of the highest vantage points of the neighborhood, offering a cascade of lovely Parisian rooftops and a slice of Sacré-Coeur.  

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Out the window and over the hill

Even though the room itself was not much bigger than the bed it contained, there was a television, vertically almost as large as the bed was horizontally, and that device opened onto a video menu showing two complimentary children’s channels and two late-night adult channels.  Equal treatment before the ever-wavering French television aesthetic.  Which was what I was in town for, the slim hopes offered by a program development meeting at Canal Plus.  The potential production was coming into the realm of possibility on my own dime, and needless to say, a tight budget.  And so, gambling, I was in Paris.

I took the room, and shook the desk clerk’s hand before I went out.  The room he had pitched to me had not only surpassed his claims as far as suitability, it had proved a huge bargain in the process.  Much cheaper than the space I had reserved online.  My limited euros were to go much further than I had expected in the City of Light, though that day light itself was in short supply.

Now that I knew I had a safe nest, I left my bag and leaped back out onto the streets.  I had a late afternoon meeting and I needed some fuel beforehand.  I was immediately faced with the prospect of Place Emile Goudeau, an Old World square completely encircled by a variety of hardwood trees, each of which was dropping its own pallet of bright color onto the shiny pewter cobblestones of the rainy streets. 

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On the Place

I walked south to Abbesses, the Metro stop from which I had emerged less than an hour before and turned due west down rue de des Abbesses, which looked promising.  It was another of those stumbling explorations of free will, disdaining GPS and guide book and Google, just looking, looking with my eyes and instinct for something entertaining.  And since I had been on rather bleak transport all day, “entertaining” at this point defined itself as “food”.

Less than two blocks later, I found that day’s version of heaven.  On the north side of the street, spread out in display boxes embedded in ice and seaweed, were dozens upon dozens of the most enticing shellfish I had ever seen. Oysters.  A dozen different types of oysters, all calling out my name.

Brasserie La Mascotte was the place, and they made prominent the sources of their name via a flyer attached to the menu, which translated as:  “MASCOT (French noun) a late derivative of ‘mascoto Provençal’, indicating a bewitching or enchantment in game (1850), itself derived from ‘masco’, a sorceress, which originated from the ancient ‘Provençal masca’ (1396), mask.” 

I think, “So I get this great place to stay and I am hungry, then come upon a magic joint which serves oysters, one of my favorite foods in the world, and wine… OK, this is it,”  I remember deciding.  “Can’t be much clearer than that.  I was supposed to come to Paris after all.  For something, whatever that might end up being.”

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La Mascotte no longer looks like it did when I visited, actually is in the process of being renovated.

Now all these years later, I just Google-mapped, street-viewed, and searched for a website – nostalgia had swept over me as I revisualized those bivalves and I wanted to make sure it still existed.  It does, still at 52, rue des Abbesses in the 18th Arrondisement, and it still serves the many varieties of oysters, but is now being remodeled and renamed “Écaille de las Mascotte” – the Mascot “oyster shell”, I guess to be more overt about its specialties.  And there are nice stainless steel bins of that sea product inside.

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The updated home of enchanted bivalves

The oysters are not cheap here, especially considering the oyster bars I frequent in New Orleans.  Tyler’s, once an historic establishment on Magazine street Uptown but now long gone, notoriously had noontime and midnight oyster happy hours when oysters were sold for a dime – yes, ten cents – apiece.  Obviously a loss leader to get patrons into the house during slow times to drink more expensive beer and wine.  I once took my father there, a man of some appetite when it comes to shellfish, and he ate so many dozens of those cheap oysters that I thought the owner was going to break down weeping.  So much for profit margins.

At La Mascotte the serious  Brittany oysters from Cadoret/Riec-Sur-Belon run about 30 euros for six, about US$7.50 a slurp.  But there were/are at least a dozen varieties available, the least expensive priced at just over US$3 a shellful.  So I was facing an expensive meal, a hard choice especially when I was considering myself once again the impoverished television bandito on the road.  But having just saved a substantial amount on my hotel bill, I decided to splurge.  I really wanted one of each of the dozen types of oysters, and a bottle of chilled Chateau Gaudrelle Vouvray Monmousseau.   I love Vouvrays and they are not that expensive.  But when I added up what it would cost, it was just too much for my thin wallet.

My very kind waiter – yes, I said that about a waiter in Paris, and this particular gentleman doing his job on a rainy nasty wet-flannel day – offered me a solution.  It seems the oysters  are substantially cheaper when you are seated at the bar.  12€ for nine oysters and a glass of wine.  Odd that they priced by nine.  But I got them to pro-rate for twelve, convinced the bartender that I should get the variety of oysters all at the same price, and found that sure enough they had the Vouvray I coveted by the glass.

It took some convincing, and I did end up spending everything that I had saved on my room, but it was worth the price.  Twelve times I went through the slow ritual of savoring the visual beauty of one more extravagantly different shell shape, inhaling the delicious sea-bite of the oyster’s liquor, experiencing the texture and taste of the oceanic mollusk itself.  It took some time, and by the end of my meal both the bartender and my waiter were smiling over someone who could truly enjoy what they had to offer.

My business meetings later that afternoon were less satisfying, taking the edge off my meal.  I decided to forgo dinner and take in an inexpensive movie to take my mind off any residual stomach rumbles.  And a film came to me, a super-cheap revival screening of an old Peter Greenaway film, “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover” a film I knew to be filled with such extravagant eating and debauchery that I would probably gain calories just by watching. Especially sub-titled in French.  Very fatty language.

I was and remain a huge Greenaway fan, and remembered the beautifully colored sets, the costumes, food, and music, in a runaway train of a story that pits such food art against horror and violence.  The New York Times said it well:

This is probably Peter Greenaway's most famous (or infamous) film, which first shocked audiences at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and then on both sides of the Atlantic. A gang leader (Michael Gambon), accompanied by his wife (Helen Mirren) and his associates, entertains himself every night in a fancy French restaurant that he has recently bought. Having tired of her sadistic, boorish husband, the wife finds herself a lover (Alan Howard) and makes love to him in the restaurant's coziest places with the silent permission of the cook (Richard Bohringer). Though less cerebral than Greenaway's other films, featuring deadly passions reminiscent of Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early 17th century, the picture still offers the director's usual ironic and paradoxical comments on the relations between eating and sex, love and death. The film is at once funny and horrific, and those who are not used to Greenaway's peculiar style might be even disgusted or shocked; however, one might mention Sacha Vierny's brilliant camerawork, Jean-Paul Gaultier's gaudily stylized costumes, and Michael Nyman's somber, pulsating music, which will haunt the viewer long after the film's end.

“The Cook…” was to be my dinner.  I watched it again, and was so truly dazzled that afterwards I was able to return to my hotel room quite content, having spent less than 5€ (most of that spent fulfilling an absolute need for a cheap adult beverage). 

In a bit of wild coincidence, a friend from New Orleans, the master chef Daniel Bonnot was there in Paris at exactly the same time, unbeknownst to me, dealing with his mother’s recent death and clearing up her estate.  He told me, by utter chance, almost a year later that he had been in a bad emotional state, and had stopped as he walked aimlessly down the street when he saw a movie about a chef being advertised right in front of him.  He went in, and emerged after two hours shell-shocked, on the same day that I attended.  We might have even been at the same showing.  What had helped me deeply upset him just as badly.  Though he did tell me that in retrospect the film’s food preparation had been exceptional.

There followed a day of further business meetings, futile and unforgivingly negative.  The show was not going to happen.  Upon accounting my resources, I discovered I had barely enough cash to get to the airport the next day.  Which did not bode well for a last meal in the city.  I did remember though that I had paid my Visa bill early, and that despite my being close to my credit limit my card would probably tolerate at most another $75 worth of use.  I have never been made to wash dishes for an unpaid meal, so I vowed to keep a tight rein on my expenditures, hold back enough on eating and drinking to leave a tip, and have one last rejuvenating night out. 

Rue des Abbesses, wet and chilly

I again walked the streets near the Abbesses Metro station, this time to the east.  And after only a short while, found exactly what I was looking for.  The chalk board outside the small restaurant -- it held possibly twenty seats -- advertised a three-course rabbit dinner, including a glass of wine, that held nicely to my budget.

I walked up the three steps, and was allowed to occupy a table for two in the right front window.  An ardent people-watcher, it suited me.  Usually on the road by myself I bring a newspaper, book, or magazine to fill the time between ordering and the first arrival of food.  This day I had the window-framed drama of dozens of very different Parisians scurrying home in the continuing drizzle.  I had seen this scene in dozens of films, but this one was in 3D.

I was still engrossed in the live cinema when my appetizer arrived, a small plate filled with a heavenly aromatic cheese, leek and mushroom tart, still bubbling from the oven.   And a glass of the house red.  I decided to forgo further viewing until this course was consumed.

I had indeed finished the tart, and was very stingily sipping my wine, when I heard a small uproar from the back of the house, the kitchen.

Sure enough, out came the chef, dressed in his whites, holding an umbrella and the leash of two huge German Shepherds, who strolled through the diners as if they owned the place.  Which in fact they did, via the chef.   Everyone in the place turned to stare at each other.  What had just happened?  Had the chef really just left in the middle of dinner service to walk his dogs?  Would he come back?  What about my rabbit? 

I tasted my wine even more frugally.

But sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, in walked the smiling restaurateur, his breath and those of his damp pets steaming, and dinner resumed as if nothing had ever occurred.

The rabbit was fabulous, with a rich dark brown sauce redolent of wine and woodsy herbs, accompanied by a crusty baguette that allowed me to consume every small drop of that delicious liquid.  Which held one of the deepest and most complex flavors I have ever enjoyed. 

Then came dessert, a brie cheesecake served with citrus compote and freshly-made vanilla bean ice cream.  I drooled between bites.

I considered going back to the kitchen to thank the creator of my meal, but there was this lack of language fluency in the way.  And then there were those two large animals.  Maybe not.

Then suddenly the check arrived.  It was time to settle up.  I held my breath and offered my credit card.  Held my breath some more, as it must have been ten minutes before the waiter re-emerged from behind the register.  Every second that passed confirmed more completely in my mind that the card was being declined.  When the waiter walked to my table, I was sure the jig was up.  I had held visions of my reddened hands in a hot sink of dishwater while the Shepherds gnawed on my ankles.  But then he smiled and offered the charge ticket.  And my card.  I let out a sigh so loud that the waiter quickly enquired if I was well. 

“Quite well,” I answered.  I paid with my pen, and then I was free to go.  I left, not looking back, afraid someone still might come running after me waving the check.  In the process of my worried exit, however, I did not note the name or even the address of the restaurant.  On my slip I only had the name of the company that managed the establishment’s card system.  And when I turned, it was gone from sight and the heavy rain had returned.  I kept going.

But outside in the chill and wet, walking through the neighborhood, out from under the tension of paying for my meal, I breathed more easily and finally was able to really enjoy what I had just consumed with an American bank’s long-distance electronic blessing. 

Truly, I had eaten magically the whole short but intense time I had been in town.  As the mystical La Mascotte first portended, I was supposed to be in Paris, and the City of Light would provide sustenance. 

Real World business means nothing in the face of such contentment.

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