November 13, 2014

Le Petit Saint Benoit



Very old traditional bistros serving simple good food and providing pleasant and relaxed service still exist in Paris, even in trendy Saint-Germain-Des-Prés.

One of these few remaining treasures, Le Petit Saint Benoit, a surviving bastion of simple good old cuisine bourgeoise, has been doing business at the same location since 1901. It is even better today than 50 years ago when I discovered it. Because the majority of the dishes it serves, contrary to the semi-industrial food found in 70% of French restaurants, are cooked in house. And they still buy most of their products at the market.




Saint-Germain-Des-Prés unfortunately is not as exciting as it was in the 50s and 60s .

In the early 60s, when I moved to Paris from Aix-en-Provence,  the Saint-Germain- des-Prés district, in the 6th arrondissement, was one of the most lively, diverse,  and interesting neighborhoods of Paris. Its heart was the famous Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, nowadays renamed ‘’Place Sartre et Beauvoir’’ in honor of some of its most famous inhabitants, located at the intersection of the Boulevard Saint Germain, the Rue Bonaparte, and the Rue de Rennes. In addition to the splendid Romanesque church, built in the 12th century on the site of the oldest abbey in Paris, this area was celebrated for a few cafés.

 They are often a ritual meeting place for well-known, or aspiring to be, intellectuals, politicians, musicians, artists, actors, students, ‘’bohemians’’ of all kinds, and generally speaking ‘’noctambules’’, meaning people who loved going out at night. The most popular was and still is, Les Deux Magots, with its great terrace facing the church where people, including tourists from the world over would fight at lunch time and after 5:00 PM to get a table and chairs where they could drink a whisky, a café, or a ‘’coupe de Champagne’’, eat a light but elegant meal, and look at people walking around.



And in these days the people walking in, out, or around les Deux Magots, actually named for two old Chinese statuettes perched high against the walls, inside the main room, on both sides of the entrance, offered a full time show. It was a non-stop flow of celebrities, starlets in search of a producer or a sugar daddy,  young wealthy students with fast sport cars, international businessmen, elegant ladies showing off with super ‘’à la mode’’ outfits, and sometimes pretty young American tourists or students. But I loved watching, and listening, the musicians and artists, the beggars chased constantly by the waiters, and some lunatics yelling at the crowd.
And then there was Mouna, a bearded character riding an old bike, his crumpled jacket or sweater always covered with badges claiming his political convictions, which were pacifist and vaguely anarchist. He would try to sell you his self-published weekly newspaper, ‘’Mouna Frères’’. Everybody knew Aguigui Mouna, whose real name was André Dupont, who talked to the crowd for hours in a hilarious and totally provocative style about peace, injustice, social problems, and stupidities of both the modern life and French politicians. In fact Mouna himself ran an un-official campaign as a candidate for president a few times in the seventies.

 
Next door, to the left, on the boulevard at the corner of the small Rue Saint Benoit, was Le Café de Flore, which attracted famous writers, artists, composers, film makers,and stage actors. In the very early part of the 20th century many intellectuals from the right such as disciples of Charles Maurras who had his office there, members of the Action Française movement etc. would congregate in this café. But from 1917 to the end of the 1930s the Café reached a tremendous notoriety among the literary and artistic community. Well-known writers and artists such as Apollinaire, Hemingway, Aragon, Sartre, Camus, Simone De Beauvoir, Picasso, Zadkine, Giacometti, would meet their friends there and have long and passionate discussions.  This is here that the first member of the  Surrealist movement met around their leader André Breton.
Across the boulevard was the Brasserie Lipp, where politicians and executives would come at night to eat its famous ‘’Choucroute garnie Alsacienne’’, oysters, and marinated harengs (herrings) with potato salad, and to drink beer and good white Alsatian wines.
A block to the West, in front of the Mabillon subway station, was a bi-level bar-night-club and restaurant, La Pergola, where the very lively and noisy upper floor became a very popular disco-dancing place where you would find a strange mix of street-wise guys,  and some gays. This establishment does not exist anymore.
Across the street, just behind the Saint Germain des Prés church, was, and still is, one of my favorite cafés, La Rhumerie Martiniquaise, known from its great choice of rums and rum-based cocktails from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. La Rhumerie was much less pretentious and cooler than the other above-mentioned cafés. They also serve simple small dishes.
 
But in these days I was still a poor student at the nearby La Sorbonne, and could not afford to have a drink or even a “croque-monsieur” at les Deux Magots.
So at night I would walk down on the very short (only 28 numbers) Rue Saint Benoit, which in these days was packed at night with lots of ‘’noctambules’’ who patronized the many very popular bars, jazz and night-clubs, and dancing places, such as Le Montana my favorite bar on the street for its stiff drinks and great collection of good jazz records, Le Bistingo, Le Billboquet, and Le Club Saint Germain.  All these great places have been closed for many years. So the joyful ebullience of that street is not the same anymore.  
In 1963 I would walk all the way to No. 1, just at the corner of Rue Jacob, and sit at a small table on the sidewalk in front of L’Épicerie. There the jovial and generous ‘’patronne’’(owner) would serve me une  saucisse-frites, a warm sausage with french fries, a piece of bread and a glass of red wine for 2.50 French francs, the equivalent of 50 American cents in those days, and that would be my cheap but tasty dinner. I would listen to the animated conversations of other clients, some of them well-to-do Parisians living in the neighborhood, and often to foreign students playing some instruments or singing a few feet from where I ate. The name L’Epicerie (The Gocery Store) was justified by the fact that besides serving some hot sandwiches and drinks, it was actually still selling a few basic food and beverage items, including canned goods for those who came home late to an empty pantry. L’Epicerie stayed open until 2:00 in the morning.

 The discovery of the Petit Saint Benoit bistro


But most of the time my attention was focused on the happy people dining at small tables, very close to each other, on the sidewalk across the street, at the Petit Saint Benoit, a very old-fashioned bistro that had been owned and operated at the same place by the same family, or their descendants,  since 1901. The décor was authentically turn of the century (19th to 20th), with its  revolving entrance door, the partially wood-covered walls, leather banquettes, bistro tables covered with red and white checkered cloth, copper hat and umbrella  racks, old mirrors, and  a real wooden zinc covered counter in the service, bar, and busing area.



My favorite little spot though was located at the end of the main dining room, near the kitchen. It was, and still is, a marvelous wooden chest of 99 tiny drawers, each with its own number on white enamel tags, where regulars who came for lunch almost every weekday would store their own napkin.



How many times did I walked by the diners sitting at the terrace to read the description of the dishes and wines hand-written on big blackboards.



 It  was essentially what we used to call “cuisine bourgeoise” or “cuisine de ménage’’, with traditional dishes such as poireaux (boiled leeks) vinaigrette, pâté de campagne, oeufs durs (hard-boiled eggs) mayonnaise, assiette de crudités (julienned raw vegetables), harengs (herrings) with pommes de terre tièdes,  Boeuf Bourguignon, épaule d’agneau rotie (roasted lamb shoulder), côte de porc (pork chop) , andouillette grillée (grilled chitterlings), hachis parmentier (oven-baked gound meat mixed with mashed potatoes)  and rice pudding in a milk sauce, crème au caramel, or tarte aux pommes. Nothing fancy, but everything looked tasty when I spied on what the guests had in their plates.
It took me 3 more years before I could finally eat lunch at this marvelous terrace, when my wife and I moved to Rue de Seine a few blocks away. And even when I came back on business to Paris during the early seventies and eighties, and stayed in a hotel nearby, I would sometimes have lunch at the Petit Saint Benoit.
 But, in the 1990s, I had disappointing dinners there twice, and for no real reason I stopped coming to this dear old place for years. To tell the truth my tastes and financial means had evolved and I had found other traditional French bistros in other neighborhoods whose menus were perhaps a little more sophisticated and offered exciting new  dishes.

A few weeks ago I was in Paris and I took my traditional walk in my old neighborhood of Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, and I realized that the whole area had changed a lot, and not for the better. Now most of the small charming hotels are very modernistic expensive 4 stars, such as the luxurious Bel Ami Rue Saint Benoit precisely, or the Hotel Villa Rue Jacob where I used to stay when it was the more modest Hotel d’Isly.
All over the place antique shops or book stores, such as La Hune, my favorite one at the corner of Rue Saint Benoit, have been taken over by brand name clothing and fashion boutiques. All this of course has completely transformed the originality and character of the area and had a visible impact on the true nature of the local population.
The whole neighborhood is now full of flashy people, flashy cars, flashy outfits, and thousands of cell phones and tablets. In cafés, the intellectuals, the artists, the writers, and the charming bohemians of the 60s have gone somewhere else. And the oldest inhabitants are either dead, too old to go out, or were no longer able to pay the  rent or to afford the very high buying price of their old apartments, and moved to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.
Now the atmosphere, the objects, and even many people seem tacky to me and do not look at all as real ‘’germanopratins’’, the name that we used to give to the people who live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

But suddenly while I was walking down Rue saint Benoit, I found a reason to smile again. Le Petit Saint Benoit was still there, at number 4, its sidewalk tables full of seemingly happy customers who took their time eating their lunch and enjoying the beautiful and warm sunny October weather.
I looked at the menu on the Blackboard outside, and all the good old dishes that I used to love were there too, and the prices were still very modest. The menu changes practically every day even though certain dishes, such as the hachis Parmentier or the steak tartare, are almost always on the blackboard.
I could not resist, pushed the old revolving door, was tempted to ask for a table near the chest of napkin drawers that was also still there, but the very pleasant owner offered me a table outside and I took it.
I sat at a very tiny table and looked at the No. 5 building across the street, where the famous French author and playwright Marguerite Duras lived on the 3rd floor from her arrival in Paris in 1941 from Cochinchine (Indochina) to her death in 1996. I know that she frequently crossed the street to eat here, very often at a table on the sidewalk, and I could not keep thinking that I was perhaps seating at the exact same table where she ate.
 


Soon, as I could expect, a young lady came and asked me if I minded her seating at the table next to mine, and soon afterwards she was joined by an older woman who proved to be her mother, with whom she engaged in a very intense conversation. Obviously she did not see her mother very often and had numerous subjects of disagreement with her. They were discussed during the whole meal without even lowering their voice to prevent me to listen to some very intimate details of their tumultuous past relationship. At one point the mother who was sitting next to me and was smoking an electronic cigarette between each dish, noticed my coughing, and offered to switch chairs with her daughter so that the smoke would not affect me. I accepted her kind offer of course.

I had ordered a very tasty, and well spiced, Terrine de pâté de campagne du chef, which  was accompanied by a good Dijon mustard, traditional cornichons and pearl onions, and a basket of very fresh baguette. (4,50 euros). I enjoyed a glass from the ``pot’’ of a decent house Bordeaux that was served in a plain thin half-liter bottle (10 euros).
Next I had a perfectly cooked Cuisse de Canard Confit (duck leg) served with slices of roasted small red potatoes  and cloves of garlic in the duck jus (13,50 euros).
I finished my meal with a very sizable slice of perfectly ripe Brie de Meaux, that had been suggested by the owner (4,50 euros). The check was only 32.50 euros (41 dollars). The tip is always included in France. And that is not expensive for a 3 course lunch with wine in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés in 2014.And let's not forget that since sales taxes and tip are included in Paris it make  the check 33% less that what you would pay in Chicago.
The ladies had ordered a Hachis Parmentier, (12,50 euros) which has been a house specialty since the 1930s, and a house-prepared Steak Tartare au coûteau, made from beef from the Charolais region (10 euros) and it looked perfect, since the meat is knife ground. The hachis, probably made after a family recipe looked and smelled pretty authentic to me.
I took the time to study the menu, and found out that some of the dishes that I used to enjoy in the 60,s and 70s, were still on the menu, plus a few more recent new items: Poireaux vinaigrette (3, 5 euros), oeuf dur mayonnaise (hard boiled egg with home-made mayo)(2,50), filets de Harengs with Pommes de Terre tièdes (marinated herrings fillets with lukewarm potato salad) (6,50), Terrine du jour (pâté) (4,0), Faux-Filet de Boeuf sauce Poivre  (strip steak with a peppercorn sauce, and French fries 18,50), Boeuf Bourguignon (13,50),  Cassolette de Poissons au Petits Légumes (small casserole of fish with baby vegetables, 13,50). And the cheeses, Brie de Meaux, Cabécou, Camembert, or Roquefort with butter, are still modestly priced at 4,50 a piece.
The old desserts such as the Pot de crème, the Crème  Mont Blanc with whipped cream, the Milk and rice pudding, the Charlottes, or the more recent Fondant au Chocolat Noir, as well as the old fashioned ice creams such as the Nougat glaçé, the Parfait au café, or the Citron Givré, cost 5,00 euros.
And, as I said earlier,  the  wine list includes a good selection of decent Bordeaux, and other smaller regional appellations offered both in carafes, and in bottles, including half a dozen of them in 75 cl bottles for less than 20 euros.  But anyways most wines are among the cheapest I ever found on a Paris wine list.

The service is pleasant and fast and the waitress still calculates your check by hand on a corner of the table paper cover. By the way the restaurant does not accept credit cards.


The owner, Monsieur Daffis, who seemed to be a very professional and attentive manager, when he is not walking around to make sure every table  is having what it needs, and stopping to talk with regular clients, is in the busing-bar area preparing drinks or drying glasses with a cloth.
He is the son in law of the last owner, who I believe took over the place in 1960, who was still related to the original family.
He says that even though the number of meals served daily has diminished since 1998, his total annual sales have progressed every year since that time. Many satisfied customers become regulars and send their friends here. The ‘’quality’’ policy that he has implemented is very successful and contributes to a solid business.
He told me that he is very demanding about the quality of his products, especially the vegetables, meats, seafood and cheeses, that he purchases at the Marché de Rungis, a few miles South of Paris, a gigantic wholesale market of fresh foods.The largest such market in the world, it replaced the famous ‘’Halles de Paris’’, located in the famous Baltard Pavillions  in the first arrondissement, which were demolished in 1969.
He is also very attentive to the evolution of its client base, but intends to preserve the unique traditions of this ‘’historic`` restaurant.

Needless to say it was very comforting to renew with this part of my past and to find out that some Parisian restaurateurs are still proud to enjoy the pleasure of providing good food  based on fresh products in a simple convivial and authentically French environment.
I will come back to the Petit Saint Benoit, for sure.

4 Rue Saint Benoit
75006 Paris
Tel : 01-42-60-27-92     www.petit-st-benoit.fr 
Closed Sundays- No credit cards 


Photos: Alain Maes

No comments:

Post a Comment