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Paris review (dirge): Vagenende

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Paris review (dirge): Vagenende

Moshulu | Jan 2, 2006 03:29 AM

One of the really great practical uses of the Chowhound board for me is that it exposes the famous historical restaurants that thrive and survive only because of their reputations and, often, because their looks. Paris probably has more such establishments than any other city, and this is one of them:

Vagenende
142 boulevard Saint-Germain
Paris 6th arrondissement
Cancellations: 01 43 26 68 18
Open every day, all year.

It’s too bad that this place is such a dog, because the address and setting couldn’t be better: in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, a block from the Cafes Flore and Deux Magots. Outside the door, the picturesque oyster-shucker reigns over his various baskets and implements. Once through that door, one might as well be an extra in Act II of “La Boheme”. The lavish decorations go right back to 1904 and have been expertly preserved. Particularly pleasing are the pure Art Nouveau coathooks, the arabesque panels near the ceiling, and the frieze of tiles that goes all around the room. The restaurant’s web site and Google Images provide proof of all this and dispense this reviewer from further efforts - your reviewer Moshulu who is no fool, and can instantly tell that while Vagenenede may be a feast for his eyes, it will be a long purgatory for his soul. Brought here against his will by enthusiastic out-of-towners (and instructed in advance by his wife to refrain from complaining and spoiling everyone’s meal), he instinctively hunkers down to minimize the damage. But it’s no use – all of the exits on the menu have been blocked and he will have to drain the whole bitter cup (and pay for the cup!). He makes a partial escape by politely rejecting the waiter’s recommendation of a “plateau de fruits de mer” - a sort of spider-legged catafalque piled high with the dead bodies of shellfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and other, less easily identifiable marine invertebrates. Moshulu knows that such an item should never be ordered unless one can actually see and smell the ocean or, better yet, should never be ordered, period. But if this is a victory, it’s a trivial one: a rashly-ordered plate of marinated salmon is some of the very worst he has ever eaten, redolent of fish oil or something worse.

The main course is a hunk of tasteless beef fillet, slathered with an insipid mixture of stock and cream, with a few green peppercorns thrown in, served slightly congealed and below room temperature. Normally, Moshulu would vituperate and send the mess back to get nuked, but his spirit is already broken, and he submits. Adding to his suffering is the baleful look he gets from his wife, whose lovely head droops at the sight of a very expensive sole meuniere that has been embalmed in a small lake of butter. The other guests (no Chowhounds, but dear friends not seen for several years) are only slowly catching on to the unfolding disaster, for example, a tournedos Rossini crowned with an alleged truffle which looks and smells like something that one would gather off a Paris sidewalk rather than the Perigord forest floor.

Imperceptibly, a funereal pall descends upon this death’s-head of a meal. Dinner conversation falters, and veers towards morbid subjects: the international situation, the Bastille opera, “intelligent design”. The only relief comes from a bottle of Crozes Hermitage and one of white Sancerre. The wine list, it must be granted, is not so bad, and seems to reflect some kind of collaboration with the respectable if unexciting house of Joseph Drouhin. Wines are correctly priced, presumably because the clientele – middle class Americans – quite rightly balk at paying more than 40 euros for a bottle of anything.

With dessert, your reviewer cravenly abandons his post and declines eating anything more. He has been nervously eying the passing confections and has noted signs of advanced old age and prolonged refrigeration. But when a mousse au chocolat and a crème brulee are brought to the table, he sees that he was wrong: rigor mortis had already set in.

But enough. There is really no use going on about the dreadful food. Service can only be described as “harried”. Escape is granted after an ordeal of two and one-half hours, complete with desperate signaling for the check, a ransom of some 75 euros per person, and hypocritical bows and smiles to the staff on the way out.

Once on the bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain, Moshulu is overwhelmed by depression, guilt, shame. It is no use imagining what Vangenende could become if the entire kitchen staff were fired, a third of the tables removed (the place is hopelessly overcrowded) and the same respect accorded to the customers as to the furniture. These are mere childish revenge fantasies and will never happen: there is a line of eager tourists waiting to get in. There is no hope. Moshulu’s thoughts turn to his wasted life, missed dining opportunities, coming oblivion. His only consolations: a laptop computer and internet connection with which he can reach out and beg Chowhounds to not repeat his mistakes, and to never, ever eat at Vagenende. Ever.

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