By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
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By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
You know what they call French food in Paris?" the chef asked, repeating his shtick.
"What, chef?" I responded, my fingers sore and shredded from peeling hard-boiled eggs under tap water, my brain numbed from hours of prep. I'd heard the question before, as well as the answer, but that didn't matter. This was the way he taught —something about it almost like a Zen koan.
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"Food. They just call it food."
This was deep to him. Profound. He'd never been to Paris, as far as I knew. Neither had I. But he'd been taught this by some chef before him, and it'd stuck. He now passed it down at every opportunity — this one nugget of philosophical wisdom that he kept like a jewel beneath his toque.
And it stuck with me, too. So much about cuisine was contained in that one little exchange. Yes, the French were the kings of cuisine. Yes, absenting the Chinese, they had pretty much invented everything we now know about food and the cooking of it. And whatever they hadn't invented, they'd stolen and then claimed to have invented. French cuisine — especially to those outside of France — was held up as the Alpha and Omega of luxury. It was the best, the finest, the most complicated and intellectual and rigorous. For an American to say he was going out to dinner at a French restaurant meant that he was going somewhere fancy, wearing a jacket and tie and then maybe eating snails or something else uncommon, drinking wine (and not even out of a jug!). And also that it was probably his anniversary or his wife's birthday, or he'd just been promoted.
French = fancy. That was (and, to a certain extent, remains) the conceit. For cooks preparing French food (as I was, once upon a time), this can be intimidating. For diners eating French food, it can feel the same. What my chef was trying to explain, though, was that for the French, it was nothing more than dinner. In Paris and Lyon, in Aix and Strasbourg and Bordeaux, it was simply food, cooked by generations of housewives and pensioners, by students and hobbyists and lowly commis and prep monkeys like me.
Soup l'oignon and steak frites, moules Provençales with white wine and tomato and saffron, and les plaques de whatever were nothing more than the hamburgers and vegetable soup and steamed clams of our own tables.
Want to know a secret? The best onion soup is made from sprouted onions — the ones from the bottom of the bag that, after knocking around the kitchen for a week or so, have gone soft and begun to sprout little green devil tails. They are useless for anything involving preparation or service; they don't even work for mirepoix, because they have taken on a distinctive, woody, almost piney flavor that will fuck up any delicate sauce or broth being brought to life by the holy French-kitchen trinity of onion, carrot and celery.
But for soup, they're perfect. Granted, they take a bit of trimming, some surgical excision. But the best French onion soup will always have a woody, pine-tree flavor overlaying the sweetness of those beautifully soft onions in the bottom that comes from what? Rotting onions. French onion soup was a housewife trick long before it became a de rigueur appetizer on every even vaguely Froggish menu in the world, a way to use those onions from the root cellar that were no longer good for anything else.
Do you know why the French seem so obsessed with the broths that go with mussels? Because those broths — always heavy on the garlic, the saffron or other aromatic herbs — were originally designed as a way to mask the flavor of shellfish that had begun to turn. Mussels have always been cheap. They're poor-people food, meant for the families of fishermen and dockworkers the way that trotters and sweetbreads began their culinary life as the subsistence meals of poor farmers who sold off the good bits of their animals to the rich and kept only the scraps. But mussels do not travel well; they are delicate. And upon their death, they almost immediately begin to take on a foul, briny taste of mortality and the sea. Still, drown them in enough cheap vin ordinaire and garlic, and they're palatable.
French food. Fanciest in the world. The stuff you eat when the choice is between it and starvation.
It isn't all this way, of course. Over generations of obsessive-compulsive note-takers and maniacal chefs, the French have truly earned their reputation as masters of the galley. There is no strawberry in the world quite like a real French frais du bois, no finer thing to do with a rabbit or a duck than put it in the hands of a French chef. The best chefs I've known have been French (backed, usually, by a crew of tattooed, shit-talking Vietnamese and Mexican hardboys never seen on the floor), and they take their Gallic traditions very seriously.
But still, it's just food. Just dinner. And even with all the French restaurants that have sprung up across the city in recent months and years, the brasseries and bistros are the ones that have flourished. The fancy joints with their financiers and aspics have fallen away, closed or simplified in the face of diminishing dollars and counts on the floor. It is the steak frites that pays the bills, the soup l'oignon, the moules de blah blah swimming in their heady broths.
Brasserie Felix never even tried to feign luxuriousness. Conceived as a brasserie by husband-and-wife team Danielle Diller and Gilles Fabre, this summer it opened as one — a neighborhood joint, the Parisian equivalent of the corner diner (provided, of course, that diner poured wine and played nothing but terrible, screechy French pop music over the P.A.) offering the kind of comfort food and les dîners de ma maman cuisine that would (allegedly) make a homesick boulevardier weep in his Sancerre, and never going further up the scale of fin de siècle luxe than coquilles St. Jacques et crevette or duck confit with orange gastrique. There was poulet roti, of course, with frites and a simple pan jus (a fine meal for one, washed down with a glass of something white and sweet and chilly), the ubiquitous steak frites (done with a nice scratch béarnaise for an extra buck-and-a-half, and always with a cheap flatiron — read: chuck — steak that actually tasted like steak), and lamb shank with ratatouille and black-olive purée over couscous because, to the French, nothing says peasant food better than something based on a canon other than their own.
I remember sitting down with an early draft of the menu and puzzling with a couple of friends — chefs, restaurant brats — over certain oddly American inclusions (salmon salad, tuna steaks and burgers — steak hache) scattered amid the generalized Froggery. One of these acquaintances went on to work (briefly) at Felix. The rest of us only wondered how this place could ever make it, a half-breed menu in a neighborhood better known for its bars and barbecue than charcuterie plates and escargot.
I dropped in for dinner and saw that the space certainly looked the part — mustard-colored walls, tile floors, Paris Metro design filips, the omnipresent Le Chat Noir poster backed by French pop music. And the bar felt right — just crowded enough, just small enough, just cluttered enough to seem appropriate, somehow, in this place that was mimicking some other place Fabre had carried in his head from France all the way to Tennyson Street. I ordered a plate of Merguez lamb sausages and frites — delicious, finger-thick sausages oozing orange grease across the plate; frites done perfectly, as shoestrings, sprinkled with coarse-grain salt. But the harissa sauce on the side was awful — tasting like ketchup and smoked paprika squirted with a shot of lemon Pledge — and so I stuck with the French mustard, feeling like a ploughman at his daily feed.
I came back another night for the mussels. They were off — tinny and too briny, like they'd been gasping, out of the water for too long. And while the marinières broth was good (strong with acid, with garlic and shallot and the calming sturdiness of fresh parsley), I am not a poor French fisherman. I don't have to choose between eating the moules or starving. I can always just have a burrito on the way home.
Back for lunch, I had steak frites, the classic dish of any brasserie: the meat grilled, cut on a sharp bias, napped with béarnaise and served with a mound of fresh, perfect frites. It was a nice lunch, would've been a better dinner. And then, finally, a last lunch: onion soup. It was a slow weekday, and the chef was doing double duty, ducking out from the kitchen to make cocktails at the bar and also checking in his morning delivery. On the deliveryman's handcart was a bag of onions — fifty pounds of them, destined for the galley, for sauces and mirepoix, for sides and the filet of salmon and the soup aux poissons. My soup was excellent — the crouton crisp, the Gruyère on top chewy and just the right kind of sour, the woody, piney broth tasting of long-simmering and old onions, soon to be replaced by new ones coming in the next delivery.
You know what they call French food in Paris?
Just food. Nothing more.