The northern part of the sixteenth arrondissement is the cold, moneyed heart of Paris. The apartment buildings, with their beautifully carved stone facades, are the hiding places of Frances invisible but still-powerful aristocrats, its captains of industry, its diplomats, Arab princelings. By day, the men are chauffeured out to multiply their fortunes, while their wives crowd the cafés of the Trocadero and the Chausée de la Muette, challenging passers-by with their bold stares, their garish gold jewellery, their sun-wrinkled bosoms, their facelifts, and their monstrous fur coats. By night, the empty streets are spooky, and it is only the blue flickering in the windows that gives the inhabitants away: they (or, at any rate, their servants) are mere mortals addicted, as is everyone else, to Frances cretinous televised entertainment. There is really no reason for an outsider to venture into this part of town, except to visit the Marmottan museum, to admire the art deco buildings along rue La Fontaine, or just to come and observe the locals, the way one would make a special trip to the zoo to see a particularly primitive type of crocodile or a three-headed snake.
One would think that, in this bastion of wealth and tradition, the food would be of the very best. But one would be wrong. In reality, not one person in twenty knows or cares much about he/she eats or drinks. As a result, the same proportion of restaurants are of even passing interest to chowhounds (although cause and effect are difficult to disentangle in this matter). But if nineteen out of twenty are awful, then there must be one that is good, and here is a one:
31 rue Vital
Tel. 01 45 20 33 00
Closed Saturday, Sunday
Even before going in, there are signs that interesting things are about to happen, for the outside walls are decorated with lovely ceramic panels from the renowned house of Jacques Peiffer in Longwy. (Longwy, famous for its faience, is well worth visiting. Its near Verdun, even more famous and worth visiting, etc.). Closer scrutiny reveals that each panel is inscribed with the name of one of the better types of Beaujolais wine (Morgon, Fleurie, Saint-amour, etc.) This posses a problem for this reviewer, who has no use for gamay wines (except for Beaujolais Nouveau, which is good for unblocking clogged drains).
There are more such decorations in the handsome dining room, which is permeated with bourgeois comfort and respectability. The tables are well-spaced, and there are smaller side-tables that can be rolled up to hold the wine, mineral water, salt and pepper mills, etc. The diners are mostly long-time customers and friends of the patron, M. Géraud Rongier. Jackets and ties on the men, dresses on the ladies.
M. Rongier is a wonderful older man who responds with warmth and enthusiasm to expressions of interest in the food, and will even share the secrets of the kitchen. This is not too surprising, since the emphasis here is on perfect ingredients, tradition, and flawless execution, rather than novelty or imagination. Thus, the menu features such entrées as foie gras, salade de langoustines or St. Jacques, game terrine. Memorable main dishes include a simply roasted Bresse chicken, calfs liver, rabbit with whole garlic cloves (the rabbit is a rare free-range animal, and the sauce is enlivened with homemade wine vinegar), cod, salmon, monkfish. In winter, there is plenty of game (chevreuil, hare, boar). The basic paradigm is: roasted meat/fish, sauce, vegetable and it works to perfection. But all this enumeration just sets the context for the main event: ris de veau (sweetbreads, thymus gland). This is not an item that I ever order lightly anywhere, because when its bad, its really bad. Géraud's is just perfect: not too thick, nicely seized in the pan, never dried out or mushy (although I must admit Ive had better in a place called Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia).
Desserts are excellent. They make a fantastic nougat glacé (in most Paris restaurants, its industrially produced) and a lovely poached pear that is baked in almond paste and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Not surprisingly, the wine list is dominated by the Beaujolais region, but one can easily head a bit north into the lower part of Burgundy, where one finds such reliable and affordable pinot noirs as Givry and Mercurey. These do not need ageing. There is a very fine house white from Macon (which many people are afraid to order because they dont know how to pronounce it. The c is as in cat and the on as in bonjour. There.)
Service is flawless. A couple of the waiters, I am told, speak restaurant English.
Dining at Chez Geraud is a pleasure for all of the senses, and for the mind and conscience as well. The pocketbook fairs a bit less well: dinner for two can easily total 150 euros, but the price/quality ratio is fully satisfactory. There is a thirty euro 3-course menu with several choices (I have never tried it: in a really top-notch restaurant, my advice is always to go with the carte).
Eating done, what a pleasure it is to sit back comfortably, cradling a last glass of Jurancon (not too sweet, slightly bitter, slightly resinous), thinking about how good life is, and how silly people are. For example (and no offence!) why is it that The Chowhound Team continues to conflate chow with food, and eating with dining? Or why do so many Paris-bound chowhounds laboriously compile and post lists of restaurants, hoping to stuff themselves into a stupor throughout every moment that they are here? Its just like being one of those manic tourists who rush through the Louvre making sure that nothing escapes them (Michelangelo? check!, Rubens? check!, Leonardo?, check!). It makes no sense. A gastronomic romp in Paris should be a quietly composed, elegant sonata, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Or maybe a tasteful country bouquet with just the right combination of colors, textures and smells. It should consist of a few choice selections from a palette that includes, among others, a neighborhood bistrot, a noisy brasserie, a simple fish place, a temple of haute bourgeoisie cuisine, a creperie, and (why not?) one of those phantasmagorical Senderens/Ducasse/Robuchon affairs. Each should be savoured for what it is, not checked off some list on the way to the next Michelin-rated clone. A quiet dinner at Chez Geraud is like lingering for an hour in the Louvres Palissy room, grateful that someone once made such extraordinary efforts on ones own behalf. And thankful that a few good restaurants still survive in Paris, even in the sixteenth arrondissements frigid, stony heart.