Café Moderne

September 25, 2007By Richard HesseArchive

Postmodern Blues

Cafe Moderne, Paris, France
No complaints about the food, but the service was a big negative. Photo:

“Y’all hurry back now” is one of my favorite Americanisms, but is not one we heard or are ever likely to hear at Café Moderne. It set me thinking about what a negative asset an unfriendly waiter can be: no matter how good the food and wine, I am in no rush at all to go back there. Perhaps things are better and livelier at lunchtime, when the restaurant is said to be a hangout for local bankers.

My girlfriend, Katherine, who has very firm ideas about atmosphere in a restaurant (as she has about just about everything else), commented afterward on the morgue-like atmosphere. Nothing like our great favorite, Gallopin, which is right next door. We were only 10 diners the other evening, in a long, narrow space big enough to seat 60 or 70. Three of the 10, including our guest, were locals, the rest were English-speaking, including a very nice American couple at the next table, who made a fuss over Bertie the gastro-hound when we arrived. Our waiter, obviously, did not have a lot to do, and that little was done with no attempt to promote diner enjoyment.

Perhaps I committed a faux pas when I asked for advice about the wine and didn’t know that the fine Coudoulet de Beaucastel I had lighted on was the secondary wine (from just outside the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation) of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the best-regarded and most hotly debated wines of that appellation, as I have since learned from the Wine Doctor’s Web site. We certainly did not regret the choice, which was heavenly and well worth its price of €36. But the waiter, apart from bringing the food and handing me with bad grace the copy of menu I begged as we were leaving, did not have much truck with us at all. We certainly did not rate a second helping of the well-made bread, which we finished with the starters.

So, pity about the waiter, but what about the food? No complaints there. A tartare of gilthead bream with wasabi and soy sauce managed to be simultaneously delicate and lip-smacking, since the seasoning was not allowed to upstage the small chunks of raw fish. My “bonbons de sardines,” little stuffed rolls of that under-loved fish filled with sun-dried tomatoes, grilled pine nuts and a hint of basil, were just the ticket for a chilly evening, while Katherine’s crab ravioli came with a wickedly powerful saffron “shellfish emulsion.”

From the half-dozen main courses, evenly split between meat and fish, the women both chose the canon d’agneau, jus au romarin, polenta à la tomate. This was a generous portion of boned rack of lamb with a rosemary-scented gravy, served on a rectangle of polenta. The polenta scored top marks for combining external crispiness (to support the weight of the lamb topping) with moist internal softness. The tender lamb was very well served by the chef, although perhaps a trifle bland. That may have been due to my jaded taste buds, however, and could no doubt have been remedied by a dash of salt.

Allow me a short parenthesis about salt here. Of course, you expect the chef to have done the work of salting properly, but tastes do differ, and sometimes you feel the need for an added touch. But I’m surprised by the extreme prevalence of common table salt on French restaurant tables, and Café Moderne was no exception. Which is why, on a recent return visit to Les Zingots (of which more next week), we were pleasantly surprised to find a box of classy Camargue salt on the table, an original touch that was much appreciated. My own personal preference goes to Maldon sea salt, a box of which is delivered to me regularly from London, with its oh-so-elegant crystals and addictive lack of bitterness.

I must confess that I did resort to the salt cellar for my roast T-bone of veal, which came with a side of potatoes and wild mushrooms. The potatoes were the tiny grenaille variety and had been glazed in their skins, and so had enough flavor and firm bite to complement the fresh, earthy chanterelle mushrooms. The veal was well-cooked, and slightly pink nearer the bone, as I had requested, but I don’t really see why it cost €5 extra on the fixed-price menu.

We took two desserts, one a moelleux au chocolat sur coulis d’abricot, a shining example of the genre, with the liquid chocolate oozing out once the cakey exterior was breached. The apricot coulis was no more than a decorative flourish on the plate. The other was a fine millefeuille minute au café ristretto – layer after layer of filo-thin pastry squares with a light, coffee-flavored cream between them.

Katherine had asked for “something white and sticky” which, it turned out, meant a glass of dessert wine, of which none was forthcoming, her request curtly turned down by our waiter, who by this time was making no attempt to disguise his desire to go home. No dessert wine? Something of an oddity in a restaurant that prides itself on its cellar – so much so in fact that on Monday evenings they bring out the serious stuff and sell it at cost, which, despite Café Moderne’s lack of warmth, is a tempting proposition, I do declare.

Richard Hesse

Café Moderne: 40 rue Notre Dame des Victoires, 75002 Paris. Métro: Bourse. Nearest Vélib stations: 1 rue Cladel or 3, rue des Filles Saint Thomas. Tel.: 01 53 40 84 10. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner, and Saturday for dinner. Fixed-price menus: two courses: €28, three courses: €34. Wines are ranked by price, from €22 and up (and up). Noise level: low, probably due to lack of customers. Background music barely audible.

© 2007 Paris Update

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