If this keeps up before long I will have a book just with the vignettes on eating in French restaurants. It seems that every time I eat out I find myself taking notes on new things or old things re-observed. Today was no exception.
It is New Year’s Day, January 1, 2011. I have decided to give myself a treat so seeing that Les Voisins is open at noon, I immediately call to make a reservation for 12:30. Unfortunately, Salomé is not included. Les Voisins is one of the few restaurants (if not the only) in Salies that does not accept dogs inside so Salome’s visits to this exclusive eatery are restricted to summer when we can sit on the piece of street that LV calls its “terrace”. When the Madame answers I half expect to be told the tables are full, but no, my request is accepted and at 12:30 on the dot I present myself and am shown to a table set for one.
The first thing I observe upon looking around is that this going back and forth like a shuttle on a loom not only has a rhythm but a very definite purpose or two. This is how it goes. Madame escorts the newcomers to their table. Then she returns hence, (which could be the kitchen, the sideboard with the dishes and table settings or the small cupboard where the menus are kept), hence always being across the room, and comes back with the menus for the table seated immediately before the last one. She returns again –this time to the kitchen- and brings forth two steaming plates for a couple that has obviously arrived at least fifteen minutes before the table that got the menus. On the fourth trip she brings out the menu for the last persons seated. Back again, this time apparently for the exercise because she comes out with nothing and goes directly to a table that has finished with their soup. She collects the dishes and returns “hence” again to take the order from a table that has been scanning the menus for at least 15 minutes. Every sally produces one thing or takes away one thing. No two things are done on any one trip. Given the apparent inefficiency of this method, what is its purpose? The answer is the preparation of the food, done by one chef and one helper with each dish prepared individually. The dance that goes back-and-forth, and back-and-forth, allows the chef time to take special care with each dish, to elaborate each presentation to perfection and assure that everything that finally gets to the table is comme il faut. The fact that each order enters the kitchen only after the person in charge of collecting them has gone back and forth at least four times, prevents the chef for ever being pressured and thus making a mistake. I sit back and begin to enjoy the respect and love that goes into this particular dance. Its second purpose? Well, it certainly keeps Madame very thin.
Knowing then that I have more than enough time to select my food, I peruse the menu slowly, finally deciding on a bowl of beef consommé because I have seen it served with a topping of freshly baked pastry that covers the bowl, and a filet of bass on a bed of sautéed spinach. Nothing being left to chance because that might upset the chef, I have to order my dessert with my meal or forfeit it. I choose one at random of the three offered because I actually don’t understand what any of them entail and it sounds like the simplest.
Now having been assured that I will at least be fed, I dig into my bag for pen and paper to make my jottings for this vignette. When finished, I take out the book brought along to help pass the time without having to listen to my stomach grumble. Bread is out of the question as it is seldom produced until the main dish is placed in front of you. Heaven forbid you would spoil your appetite and not appreciate the chef’s efforts to place an impressionist masterpiece in front of you. Suddenly it occurs to me that perhaps it is very bad manners to read in a French restaurant, or even to write for that matter. No one else seems to be doing that, but then no one else is sitting alone either. I begin to feel uncomfortable. What will Madame think of me? I don’t remember my father or mother ever teaching me that it was bad manners to read at the table, but then at our table my father talked his head off, my mother asked questions and children were to be seen but not heard; there was never a question of taking a book to the table. However, I had the sneaking suspicion it would have been seriously frowned upon. Suddenly I have the impression that this is true also in French restaurants where everything is so absolutely proper and correct, and I begin to feel extremely uncomfortable with my big brick of a book on the table, especially since the first word of the title is Merde in very large letters with the blue-white-and-red colors of the French flag. I turn the book over and push it to one side. French restaurants are for eating only, I say to myself, going back to my observation of the surroundings.
My gaze quickly takes in the fact that the French never seem to look at other diners at another table. At tables of two, the commensals look resolutely at one another or at their plates. When by chance one looks elsewhere, it is always into space and never at another table, much less at someone else’s food or, heaven forbid, their person. I wait patiently to see if anyone breaks this unspoken rule and am still waiting when the first dish arrives.
The puffed up, crusty top on the miniature tureen turns out to be a stretched-out version of the top of a croissant, flaky on the outside and doughy underneath. I am warned of the temperature of the soup and, in spite of the grumblings from inside, take my time in diving into the bouillon. It is acceptable but nothing out of this world, its greatest attraction apparently being the crust on the top. I find a couple of pieces of foie gras floating around and the yolk of what could only be an undercooked quail egg given the size, which I rapidly break up and stir into the watery mixture.
Another distinction to dining in France is the level of noise in a restaurant. There are close to twenty people in the room which in itself is small and yet the level of sound is way below that of a table of four Spaniards having lunch. The people at some tables speak almost in whispers and there is one couple that doesn’t exchange a word during the whole meal. There is no clanking of pots from the kitchen, the “ready” notice for a dish is given with the tinkling of a small bell and the Madame and her helper must wear something similar to slippers if one is to consider the absence of noise from their footsteps. The result is that French restaurants probably have a noise level similar to French funeral parlors. It, no doubt, is conducive to concentrating on the food and nothing else.
And then there is the question of the pansy that arrives on my plate along with the filet of bass, the spinach and a dotting of lima beans. It looks up at me from its little purple and yellow face which always seems on the point of smiling. Does one eat it or not? That a pansy in French and in Spanish is called a “thought” (pensée or pensamiento) comes to mind as I contemplate the dilemma. Does one eat the “thought” that the chef so carefully has included on the plate? If this pansy is meant to be eaten and I leave it, that will be a sure sign of my foreigner’s ignorance. However, if the pansy is mere decoration and I eat it that will be a sure sign of the same thing. So I am faced with what can only be called a lose-lose situation. The French pansy gazes at me disapprovingly, awaiting my decision. With a sigh, I pop it into my mouth along with a couple of lime beans and a serving of fish wondering why I always feel so inadequate in French restaurants.