Memory is a wonderful thing and I am of the opinion that it is something to be enjoyed while I still have it. On one of my recent constitutionals down that virtual lane the name of Chez Allard came to mind. This is a restaurant that I love, not because I frequent it, but because it stands for an ideal that pleases me: bistrot cooking. Over the years this restaurant has changed dramatically which has left me with the memories of what once was and has left Chez Allard with Ducasse and his well heeled acolytes. Because of this passage of time I must revert to the past tense.
There were few drawbacks to Chez Allard save that of drawing back one’s chair from the small table as they were so tightly packed together making it no place for a weak bladder: unless one was on the menu. The walls and the ceiling had a golden brown patina that could only be achieved by demanding that the clients smoked cigarettes of the highest tar content, which they did without complaint or pause, giving lie to the belief that smoking impairs the palate as the food which the smoked clientele demanded was of the highest quality. It specialised in classic bistrot dishes such as volaille de Bresse, which entailed a whole roasted fowl from Bresse served with a mountain of girolles or ceps to be enjoyed by two people. The menu also boasted the roast duck with green olives, big metal dishes of butter bleeding escargots, braised pigeon and peas, rabbit stew, salads of beets and mâche – gear of the finest quality and wines to match. The magic once again lay in the fact that perfectly prepared food was not a surprise: it was expected.
I have only eaten there twice, with a huge gap between the visits. The first time was in the late 60′s when the activists of OAS were blowing up cafes and making life a little too edgy for a for a peace loving smudger on an early visit to what was gay Paris before the dictionary was hijacked. I can’t remember what I ate, but I do remember feeling very uncomfortable as a long haired hippie surrounded by severe crop haired colonels from the Legion Etrangeère entertaining male or female lovers, and in some cases both, and whose humourless faces suggested that this was but a tiresome interlude before setting off to assassinate de Gaulle. They didn’t look like the sort of people who would take kindly to people who disapproved of them or, in fact, take kindly to anyone for whom they didn’t already have a use. I ate quickly, fucked off quietly and came back 35 years later when not wanting to kill the president of the Republic was more acceptable. On this subsequent visit I had the most wonderful pigeon and peas, followed by cheese and something else that was delicious. I was with Jenny, my wife, and Andy Harris. The latter is a man who knows a great deal about food so what followed was even more unexpected. Jenny was already in hell. There were far too many unrecognisable organs on white plates oozing blood, and snails and generally things that she doesn’t believe people actually enjoy, but only eat to be cool or, as she says, to show off. Andy had his eyes on rognons de veau, a plural, and those eyes widened and nearly leaped from their sockets when not they, but “it”, arrived at the table. In my memory the kidney was the size of a baby’s head, dark brown and with the protruding ends of some tubes quiveringly visible: a more than daunting sight for someone who had clearly been expecting a small dish of delicately sautéed kidneys. With downcast eyes he set to work on the monumental organ and, before the first mouthful was raised to his lips, he whispered menacingly, “Don’t say a fucking word, Roger” and so the meal continued until the Big Kidney was no more. You win some, and the big kidney bore evidence that you do indeed lose some. I didn’t need to remind him of this, but I did.
The basis of this piece originally appeared in “Simply Fed”.