I suppose I look like a glutton because I am writing an entire blog entry about a single meal. But sometimes French cuisine necessitates undivided attention. And now that the Long Famine, as I “affectionately” refer to the period of my delayed paycheck, is over, I revel in the thrill of the occasional restaurant. This past week two of my best friends from home were visiting, so we allowed ourselves to fully partake of some of Paris’ finest things to eat. At the recommendation of the family I work for, we trekked to the farthest corner of southern Paris to a little restaurant called Restaurant du Marché. Three hours later, we left not only with the realization that we had eaten the best meal of our lives, but also with having experienced a perfect micro chasm of French cultural differences. In analyzing the differences between an American and a French dining experience, you can simplistically understand the differences between so much else.
We were considering turning back when we finally found the restaurant. Cute, but rather nondescript from the outside, it didn’t have a sign with a lovely font or twinkling lights illuminating the entryway like so many of the lovely tourist restaurants. We stepped inside to find a little room with 9 tables, most of them empty, and were given the last table open, as the rest were already reserved for the evening. I explained to Megan and Rachel, that eating here takes a long time. A long, long, time. There would be one seating that evening, as the people would arrive around 7:30 or 8 and stay till the last drop of wine ran out around midnight. This is why fast food, though loved in France (despite what they say, the lines in Macdonalds are NEVER short), is in my opinion a failure. They sit four hours eating their burgers, because fast eating is not done, regardless of quality or venue. The French love their pace of life, their love of relaxation, and they will force it on foreigners, like it or not. Knowing this, we chose to like it. I had tried to find a menu on line before coming, but like many French restaurants, the menu consisted of a little black board with approximately 4 options for each course. Not knowing what the seafood options were completely, Megan and I opted for duck in a truffle sauce and Rachel chose the steak. By the time our first course came, the restaurant was packed, with the coat tree at the door bulging so far you had to shove it to one side to get in. We were the only diners not French, and also the only ones who didn’t seem to intimately know the waiter. As we waited, we noticed the little details of what had first seemed a plainer restaurant. The salt came in small cast iron pots, each course was served in the brightly colored cookware, our waiter astutely chose perfect wine to compliment our meal. France is a country of almost anal attention to detail, an attention which means there are constantly little delights awaiting those who come to look for them.
Once the food started coming, many details were forgotten. There is no way to describe exactly why this meal was so good. I think Rachel’s response was the best when she slowly chewed, put down her fork, and calmly said, “This is the best slice of meat I have ever eaten.” There are two ways to impress, quantity and quality. In the US, we love quantity. We love restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, where it takes you 20 minutes to read the menu once and then you have to ponder all the totally bizarre but intriguing combinations of flavors and ingredients. We Americans like to be overwhelmed, to be blown away by creativity, novelty, and proportion. In France, I find the opposite to often be true. Our meal was simple, with key ingredients chosen to lend sublime perfection by complimenting the already high quality of ingredients. Often when I eat out in the states, I am delighted and surprised by trying something new or bizarre, or I applaud the chef’s creativity. This meal instead delivered a sense of utter contentment in receiving the fruits of a chef’s perfect labor. We sat in that restaurant with 9 tables and approximately 12 menu choices for almost 3 hours. For the French, bigger is not always better. Better is better, simply put.