MCM and I finally went out to celebrate the completion of Book 1, and we had an obscenely good meal at Cafe Constant, Rue St. Dominique (Ecole Militaire Metro).
Cafe Constant is one of a number of restaurants owned by chef Christian Constant in the very posh 7th arrondissement of Paris. We briefly considered Les Cocottes de Christian Constant on the same street, but opted for the more traditional Cafe. Our little nosy around revealed that Les Cocottes serves cocottes, of course - warming meals served in individual, mini Staub casserole dishes - but has a slick, modern interior, all chrome counters, angular bar stools and lime green trim. We wanted something a bit cozier.
Both restaurants do not take reservations, which is extremely rare for Paris. This is not a city where you just roll up someplace on a Saturday night and enquire about a table; if you come to Paris always, always book ahead, even if you phone up just a few hours beforehand. Heck, I've even phoned about half an hour beforehand and said, in most polite and apologetic tones, that I knew it was terribly late, but was there any chance that they had had a cancellation? And I got a table - the fact is, there probably had been a table free, but many Parisian restaurants are tiny and understaffed, and they appreciate much more knowing in advance. (The universal exception if a restaurant doesn't take reservations: if you are in a big group. I used to work at a restaurant that didn't take reservations, but we sure wanted to know if a group of 8 was going to show up in the middle of Saturday service, because that could throw everything off.)
This is the funny thing about Cafe Constant. Because it's small, serves fantastic food and doesn't take reservations, you must heed the advice of your guidebook (and it's in every guidebook, mine included) and show up early. In Paris, early means before 8pm. MCM and I arrived at 7pm - ravenous after a day of walking, shopping and talking - and it was half full: 2 tables of American families (couple plus 2 teenage kids each), 1 elderly French couple du quartier, 2 American women in their 30s. With the arrival of 6 more Americans (2 couples, 30ish; 2 well-heeled female study abroad students), the downstairs was full, and by 7.45 the small upstairs was, too. The elderly couple were replaced by two men, one of whom I am pretty sure is a French film actor.
Therein lies the problem. If you want to get a table, it means getting there early and being surrounded by American accents. There's nothing wrong with American accents (I usually have one myself!), but the American tourists are surely looking for a Parisian experience, and feel a bit foolish to be surrounded by their compatriots. It's obviously not a rare thing, because one of the waiters spoke near-fluent English and they had an English-language menu chalkboard. MCM and I spoke French the whole time, and I think our neighbours were none the wiser about my origins; in fact, I almost felt I was being observed as Exhibit A: French woman eating in cafe! Let's see how she does it!. The study abroad student next to me even politely asked about my dessert in French. I wanted to give her a medal.
Before I get to the point (the food! the food!), there were a few things that Cafe Constant could improve on. Like the atmosphere, which does the hardworking staff and great food a disservice. The interior was traditional of cheap cafes - red banquettes, bare plastic tables, simple chairs. For a place that serves such beautiful food, a simple white paper tablecloth would be classier. Decor includes the Constant empire's cookbooks propped behind the banquettes and a few naif paintings of Provence; they could - they should - try a bit harder. The lighting is harsh and too bright, too; changing the bulbs would change the entire atmosphere.
The waitstaff were friendly and knowledgeable but run off their feet. That's true in most Parisian restaurants, but this was extreme: a bartender and three waiters for approximately 55 covers. No manager, expediter or busser. There seemed to be a big problem getting food out of the kitchen, and too often the bartender had to hop out from behind the zinc bar and fetch food or clear a plate. This place would be dramatically improved with an expediter, someone stationed at the kitchen and responsible for getting all the food out. It was a bit embarrassing when we got our food long before the American family next to us, even though they ordered first.
Okay, are you ready? Cafe Constant has 6-7 choices for each course. Fish and seafood choices were plentiful; I don't recall a vegetarian option. Entrees (starters/appetisers) were 11 euro; plats (main courses) were 15 euro, and desserts were 7 euro. There is no obligation to have 3 courses, but the servings are sized so that you can comfortably eat 3, so you might leave a bit hungry if you don't. Most places in Paris that serve creative, solid food in a casual atmosphere require that you order 3 courses and charge 31-34 euro, so this is in line. There were lots of wines available by the glass, which I like, as MCM and I are increasingly interested in pairing wines well and it's often hard to find a bottle to match ("A light red again, cheri?"). They also offer house wines by the pitcher or glass, which is a great value option. Some restaurants with comparable food prices only have wine by the bottle, usually in the 25+ euro range.
I started with foie gras with toast and a little salad; solid and good quality, although I would have really liked a little tangy jam or compote on the side. MCM had an amazing dish: three oysters (raw) topped with a salmon tartare - raw salmon diced with, I'm guessing, shallot and lemon. It was incredible: so fresh and zingy, a true appetiser in the sense that it whet the appetite and woke up the taste buds. We each had a glass of Quincy, a light, fruity sauvignon blanc-based wine from the Loire. It was a bit too citrusy for my starter but still enjoyable.
Then the mains. Oh wow. We couldn't decide between the lamb and the bar (sea bass) so we ordered one of each. We asked the bartender for wine recommendations and he assumed, unusually, that I was having the meat. "Do you like Bordeaux?" Yes, I said. He suggested a Montagne St Emilion, a deep, velvety, complex red wine. MCM was offered a very pleasant, golden Sancerre, which picked up the sweetness in the sea bass, which was served with truffle oil and a sweet potato puree. The sea bass was lovely - light, refined, complex but not overpowering. A bit small, but a fish option usually is.
But the lamb! Wow. I have no idea what they did to it; it was slices of a thick cut, served just pink as requested, with white beans and a thyme sauce. It was fantastic. It was earthy and rich, yet delicate; perfect for the season, when the sun has come out and we are dreaming of spring but there is still a chill in the air.
I wanted to lick my plate.
Dessert was fine - correct, as the French would say. I had profiteroles, two huge pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with an indecent amount of chocolate sauce, which the waiter poured for me from a little pitcher. MCM had the comparatively dainty chocolate quenelles, little mousse spoonfuls in a sauce.
As MCM noted as we left, walking back to the metro past Les Cocottes (now heaving with people), a place that is so popular with tourists could slack off on the food, but they didn't. All in all, a fantastic celebration meal. It was cheaper than we had expected - in part, I realised after we had left, because they had forgotten to add on two glasses of wine. See what I mean about needing more staff? I don't feel too bad, because we'll be back.
Service: A+ for effort, B- for execution.
Value for money: Very good, given the quality of the food. Extra credit for the affordable wine options. Count on 30-40 euro per person.
What to wear: casual or smart casual. MCM and I both wore "dressy" jeans.
Good for: small groups of friends, people who love food, people who want updated takes on French classics.
Not good for: vegetarians, little kids, people with enormous appetites or people who have trouble squeezing into banquettes.
Handicapped access: Toilets are up a narrow flight of stairs.