I dined here for the first time two weeks ago and it was simply wonderful and fun-filled. I called to make a reservation in French earlier that day, but "le bruit" on the phone was so bad the proprietor could not get down the spelling of my name despite several tries, and she seemingly spoke no English. Finally she just said to show up at 10 and she'd figure it out then and hung up on me. I had no idea if she meant it or not.
My friend and I arrived just before ten, I stood at the front entrance to the packed room while he went to the bar and asked for our table using my name. An intense search through the reservation book began, pages flipping, fingers running over the page. Finally the proprietor gave up and shouted across to me "Quel nom?! quel nom!?" I said it and got about five letters into spelling it when a light went on and she cried gloriously for all to hear: "Of course, I know you -- I cannot understand anything you say!" and she quickly sat us with a big smile that she had solved the problem.
Of course every ear at nearby tables was cocked my way when the waiter came to take my order. Lucky me, listed on the handwritten menu at the bottom of the entrees was something I could not decipher. So I asked what the "verre de cotnari" was. The waiter was perplexed and told me it was a glass. "I understand it's in glass, but what is cotnari?" Mind you no one else seemed to be coming up with an answer for me either, and they were all listening. "What is it? What is it? I don't understand" repeated the waiter at a loss to figure out what I didn't understand. Finally he just picked up my wine glass and said "It's wine!" He couldn't understand why I would make a question out of something so obvious (and frankly I couldn't either once I realized my obvious error!).
I of course ordered it and it was delicious, golden and summery, which actually went extremely well with the pate de fois gras that was my friend's starter. The pate had a nice gelatine layer between it and the layer of buttery fat on the top of the terrine. It was very creamy and rather subtle and went nicely with the brioche toast. I opted for a starter of ravioli with champignons de bois -- I had seen huge piles of mushrooms in the market on rue Daguerre and my mouth was watering to taste some. The ravioli were rather small, more like tortelli, and were stuffed with a combination of mushroom and I believe veal (but it might have been pork), the flavor was a little salty like when you nibble at the remains in the pan left after roasting meat. A sizeable portion of ravioli in a soup bowl were smothered in sliced mushrooms and a dark and speckled broth that was very redolent of the wood mushrooms -- it was probably the mushroom liquor pushed through a chinois. I already loved the place, it tasted of REAL food.
For mains I had a fricasse de joues de porc aux chanterelles; my friend had noissettes de porc aux St. Jacques. The fricasse was a heaping bowl of stew with huge chunks of porc that had been braised and slowly cooked for what must have been a day -- they were incredibly spoon-tender and had soaked up a lot of the cooking juice, the chanterelles were cut almost into julliennes and you could see that a lot of them had disintegrated into the stock as well, and there were some fresh ones added on top just before serving. It was so delicious I was not permitted to hold onto the plate by myself and we swapped dishes half way through. I got to eat half of the pork medallions which were cut to the same size as the scallops, an odd combination at first. They were laid out helter skelter on the plate and blanketed in a very rich cream and shellfish stock based sauce, which had paprika in it as well. It was difficult to tell which was the scallop and which was the pork until your fork touched it. Mashed potatoes were piped in the center of the plate. I thought it was more successful than my friend did, but I think he said that only because he didn't want to hand the pork cheeks back. We had a bottle of St. Julien that went especially well with the pork cheeks, but the scallops were fine as well thanks to that touch of paprika in their sauce.
Next came the reason to head to this restaurant: when the staff brings to you the huge basket of cheeses, all delectable, some running, all at their prime since they have been in the room temperature for hours, and you are invited to take as much of a variety as you wish. The only drawback was that they provided no labels for them which is a shame, because I would have smuggled them back home had I known what to buy in a shop. I usually put up with the cheese course as something one gets through on the road to dessert: this was entirely different, and I think it was the character and combination of unique cheeses that were offered. For the first time the cheese course seemed like a necessary component to every meal and I will definitely look forward to Astier's platter in the future.
For dessert we shared a cassoulette de clemintines, sauce miel and a terrine d'orange et pamplemousse en gelee. The latter was very refreshing and served with a small quenelle of vanilla ice cream and I liked the thickness of the slice too. The clementine cassoulette was a little bit of an unexpected and acquired taste, I'm not a huge honey fan and this dish was clementines that had been backed in cream and honey until they turned yellow brown from soaking up the honey. It was a lot better if you stuck with it and didn't go back and forth between it and the sharp unadulterated grapefruit taste. I'm sorry I didn't have a glass of cognac to go with the clementines in honey, as I think they would be a remarkably soothing pairing. To make amends, while my friend had coffee I had a digestive. We were very satisfied indeed and were mentally checking out calendar to see if we could return some night later in the week.
I went to the lounge and when I returned my friend told me that the proprietor, Natalie, made a beeline for the table as soon as I had left to make sure she hadn't hurt my feelings by not understanding me. He told her that I was still trying to master the language but was very committed to learning it and moving along rapidly. When I sat back down she came over and said quite earnestly and privately that she was sorry about yelling across the room at me earlier and that my French was fine, it was really the noise of the dining room at lunchtime that day that caused her not to understand me. I told her I did not understand what she was saying, and when she began to repeat herself and I started laughing, she realized that I was having her on, she laughed too. She asked me about my name once more, and we shook hands and decided to only use each other's first names in future.