June 17, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable
Losing My Head at Marie-Antoinette's


PARIS

        Freshman bons vivants navigate Truffleland by the stars…the Michelin astrology of France's greatest tables. Sauce-stoned and muzzy, the gastronomic tenderfoot basks in the elegance and grace of la grande cuisine. How sad if -- star-struck -- he were to overlook in humbler haunts the glories of la cuisine bourgeoise, down-home cooking, the soul food of France.

        Cognoscenti speak of Marie-Antoinette Cartet as the last of Paris's Lyonnaise mothers. Actually, Mme. Cartet is not Lyonnaise. She was born in Ain, birthplace of Brillat-Savarin. And the lusty stews and charcuterie that emerge from her closet of a kitchen in the Restaurant Cartet are not strictly Lyonnaise but nostalgia for the peasant tastes of Burgundy and Provence.

        Mme. Cartet has been simmering her palette de porc a la bouguignonne, her numbing tripe with onion and fig-graced duck, in this very tacky little bistro not far from the Place de la Republique for 36 years. "It seems like yesterday," she confides, incandescent and aglow. Mme Cartet has the air of a nun from the era before walls began to be leaped. "My life gives me enormous satisfaction."

        It is Saturday noon. Mme. Cartet does not serve dinner -- only lunch. The day is too long and she likes to go to the theater at night. No more than 22 seekers after soul can occupy the purée-of-pea-colored banquettes of her seven tiny tables. Today there are serious gastronomic pilgrims from New York on either side of me. And Edmond Bory, Fauchon's overlord, is wooing Mme Cartet. He is feverish to fathom the secret of her celebrated museau de boeuf en salade -- an incredibly fresh and delicate vinaigrette of cow's nose…yes, beef snout, the man said. If only Bory can win her favor, persuade the beneficent Marie-Antoinette to share her piquant museau with tout Paris crowding the delicatessen of Fauchon.
   
        This bourgeois little haunt is quite a detour for Bory. Oh, cruel irony. Fauchon's leader is dieting. Always. His fixed and never mutable lunch is a slice of ham and a hank of naked string beans. When the rituals of haut commerce demand, Bory feeds at his neighborhood luncheonette. And that just happens to be a relic of a myth, Maxim's. We lunched there last at high noon after the France-American fashion spectacular at Versailles. The status front room, way station of a narcissistic marathon, hissed with the electricity of hyperbole and congratulation, as cheeks grazed air, eyes darted, dramatic 2:30 entrances were effected, and so many couturiers of France and New York sipped side by side along the banquette that a bolt of lightning could have paralyzed hemlines indefinitely. Bory ate a disgraceful slice of wretched ham and some abused string beans. When he realized the house had no fresh dill to accent his guest's lobster, he sent his car to fetch some from Fauchon. The great house of Maxim is doleful. And not surprising. First time we met, the proprietor, Louis Vaudable, quickly launched into a paean to his proudest triumph: "You should see what kind of canteen meals we are producing for less than $1."
   
        Chez Cartet is not Bory's turf. He explains to Mme Cartet that he has recently been sadly betrayed by his vésicule. He pats his gall bladder in regretful emphasis. "So alas, I must eat with prudence." Madame sighs and nods sympathetically. "Gall bladder is something she can understand better than a diet," he whispers.
   
        Ah, yes, Madame understands, but she does not understand. Here she is, in her knee-length button down chef's habit, mixing the house aperitif -- strawberry liqueur with vermouth and a fizz of soda -- and offering little islands of the house charcuterie to each of us, as well as the museau de boeuf and jambon persillé we ordered. That's ham (Bory midday inevitable), and here it is cubed in an over-firm, very strong gelee unlike the usual parsleyed ham, but the salami is fresh and delicate and the pâté of hare is zesty with flavor. That’s Mme Cartet's way. "When I give a little of each, everyone eats much more," she marvels.

        My mouth is fixated on something young and red, a Beaujolais, but Cartet insists we drink her blanc de Bugey, an innocuous white from Ain, northeast of Lyon. Survival and research conflict. I long to taste Cartet's mythic brandade de morue -- humble cod transcendent -- or the morels on croutons, but perhaps the crab soufflé would be kindest to M. Bory's vésicule. What a beauty the soufflé is: handsomely crusted, creamy in the middle, and wondrously perfumed (though the perfectionist could do without the scattered bits of shell).

        The house is so small and intimate, everyone seems to get involved with his neighbors. Bory is debating what potato goes with the truffled sausage of Lyon. "Pommes vinaigrettes," he says. "Pommes à la vapeur," our neighbor insists. Madame serves scalloped potatoes. Both men shrug. I have a feeling the Americans two tables down are about to ask for a taste of their neighbors' delicately crumbled sweetbreads.
   
        Marie-Antoinette herself serves, directly from the heavy enamelware casseroles. For me, milk-fed baby goat, simply roasted, delicious. Across the room: a mammoth basin of lamb à la provençale. Now she walks through the restaurant ladling potatoes here and there, returning minutes later with fresh spring peas, flavored with tiny lardoons of pork and lettuce. And the Beaujolais is everything one wants in a Beaujolais: abloom with fruit, robed in bright scarlet, enough left to drink with the sampler of goat cheese -- fresh, aged, grainy, smooth, cinder-wrapped. I choose a bit of St.-Maure and some crottin de chavignol, served with walnuts and Malaga raisins on the stem.
   
        Wordlessly, lest Bory or his gall bladder protest, Mme Cartet serves a chorus of desserts: strawberries in a crisp, tough pastry shell, a fine lemon tart all wicked and sharp, and a sublime, densely diabolical chocolate mousse.
   
        Incredibly, it is five o'clock and I am not permitted to stir till I drink a strange herbal digestif, L'Arquebuse de l'Hermitage. Good for malaise, says the label -- also emotion, accidents, fevers, insomnia. "And car sickness," adds Bory. Our exercise in determined excess cost $50 for two, but even the half-heartedly prudent could lunch for less.

Restaurant Cartet, 62, rue de Malte; 805 1765. Lunch only.

 

***


        Not much grows in the dunes and marshes of les Landes, south of Bordeaux. But the scrubby pine forests shelter ortolans, wild doves and guinea hens, woodcock, quail, and rabbit. The farm chickens run free. And every day three little old ladies bake tourtieres, crackly prune pastries, and ship them by train to Paris for the soul food claque of Georgette Descats at Lous Landés. Solid little Georgette, with her blond gamine fringe is stubborn. If the farmer in Landes does not send her chickens or she runs out of wild dove, then the worshippers of the lofty bourgeois kitchen must eat duck. Georgette is a purist. It would never occur to her to pick up a few birds in the Paris market. "But fortunately she has her connections," a habitué confies. And there are no sauces to mask the old-fashioned flavor of a well-brought-up bird.
   
        Lous Landes is tiny, charming, rather like a country parlor with guns and traps mounted high and a breathtaking still life of Georgette's preserves, a jeweled tower of jars in the window: confits of goose and duck and cèpes. One evening at dinner we arrived to find freshly cooked cèpes still cooling in just-capped jars on the table. Not long ago a few tables disappeared. Indeed, if Georgette's son, Jean-Pierre of the wildly flowered cravats, had his way, the house would be trimmed to a table or two reserved for old friends. Jean-Pierre composes songs, dreams of musical-comedy stardom, and tends the cellar of bottles so precious and so expensive, even the house's affluent faithful are drinking little country wines.
   
        The house aperitif is champagne blushed with a dash of cherry liqueur. And we are drinking a fresh pink Sancerre and Bergerac, a simple country red from the Dordogne. The foie gras of the Landes region is silken. Here it is sprinkled with pepper and baked in foil: in a year of foie gras excess I can't remember a more voluptuous texture. The charcuterie platter is a remarkable sampling: very dry salami, fine terrines, and the house's own moist, masterful boudin. There is something fiercely maternal about the garlic soup -- like oatmeal on a winter morning. While I admire the garbure with its white beans cooked properly to the bite, and bits of carrots and cabbage, I had expected something slightly less elegant in this classic peasant soup.
   
        If a Landaise housewife cooked as brilliantly as Georgette Descats and her cousin in the kitchen, this is what you would eat: omelets stuffed plump with foie gras, chicken in the pot, ham from the Landes in thick, moist, slices, wild dove cooked with the intoxicating scent of the forest. But the price of flavor, alas, is a certain measure of toughness. My wild rabbit with cèpes was chewier than my lazy mouth expected. And those celebrated chickens -- le vrai poulet de la ferme -- were tough…not impossible, but tough, a trade for exceptional flavor. The kitchen's tour de force is the lou magret à la ficelle, a magnificent rare duck steak sliced thin, served with stuffed cabbage.
   
        At this point the house granité -- an ice of champagne and fresh peaches -- is a bracing exclamation. That imported tourtière is an emancipated strudel, crisp tissue-paper pastry oozing prunes, sprinkled with Armagnac. And something as simple as prunes poached in St.-Emilion is a benediction.
   
        Two can eat at Lous Landés for $35 to $40, but my second dinner there was inflated by surrendering to the house's quintessential Armagnacs. That night seven of us passed around, sniffed deeply and sipped a 1912 Poyferré and a 1947 Domaine de Lasgrace, boosting the tariff to $30 each.

        The cuisine bourgeoise has a status all its own…like custom-cut blue jeans.

Lous Landes, 9, rue Georges-Sache; 783.08.04. Closed Sundays.

 

***


        A passion for old Armagnacs leads inevitably to J.B. Chaudet, a crowded little wine shop (at 20, rue Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire) near the Jardin des Plantes, where the patron, M. Chaudet, is a celebrated connoisseur. His old Calvados and pear brandy are spectacular too. And he responds to informed interest, often with a taste or two. The great Armagnacs to cherish are Poyferré, 1912, 1922, 1908 and 1914. Fanfore '47, and Lasgrave '51 or '61. Old Armagnacs are like yachts. If you have to ask how much…forget it.

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