After creating Spring, with its beautiful, starkly modern decor, American chef Daniel Rose seems to be in a mood for tradition. Aside from his successful venture in New York City, Le Coucou, he has acquired two Paris restaurants with resonant histories, retained their original names, and refreshed the decor and food, updating both but staying in the same vein as the original incarnation.
The first was La Bourse et la Vie, and the second is the just-opened Chez la Vieille, a corner restaurant in the Les Halles quarter, just across the street from Spring.
Chez la Vieille was once the hangout for a certain segment of the French showbiz world: actors like Lino Ventura, singers like Eddy
Mitchell, cabaret owners like Michou. When you enter the restaurant through the bar, you’ll see black-and-white photos of these luminaries posing with then-owner Adrienne, the “vieille” of the restaurant’s name.
The small dining room upstairs was empty when we arrived and stayed that way through most of the evening, which created a strange impression considering that this was the brand-new restaurant of one of the hottest
chefs in town. We had arrived early in fear of being unable to get a table since I had been told over the phone that La Vieille was not yet taking reservations and that we would have to take our chances.
The staff was in a lighthearted mood and our server very friendly and chatty. He tended to hover a bit too much, however, probably because he had no other customers to tend to, and we didn’t appreciate the way he tried to push the more expensive wines (one at €145 and another that was even more expensive!), almost pooh-poohing the more reasonably priced ones that we chose.
The menu is a bit confusing, with everything in one list instead of being divided into entrées, plats, desserts. This makes sense for tapas-style menus with small servings but not for the traditional dishes listed here. We took the waiter’s advice and ordered dishes to share, but that’s not easy with what we ordered:
herring with potatoes in oil, an endive salad
with blue cheese and walnuts, and sardine
rillettes as starters, followed by blanquette de
veau, bouillon with pork and spätzle, and a
half coquelet (young rooster) à la diable
(a sauce made with, among other things, white wine, vinegar, herbs and butter). Sharing these dishes, especially the soup, is not really recommended unless you’re with good friends, as I was (Bobbie and Jay, visiting from San Francisco).
As you can see, these are all traditional dishes, and there was nothing especially original in the way they were made. What was fantastic about them was the dazzling freshness and goodness of every single ingredient. We reveled in the crisp bite of the endive; the tenderness of the mild herring; the perfect balance of the sardine rillettes; the rich broth and soft noodles in the bouillon; the succulent flesh and crispy skin of the chicken; and the choice morsels of veal and al dente carrots in the creamy blanquette.
The desserts followed along the same lines, with top-line ingredients in familiar dishes: rice pudding with pink pralines topped
with salted-caramel cream; vanilla cream,
obviously made with the real thing; and a far (a sort of flan cake that is a Breton specialty) with prunes.
We loved this satisfying meal and found the prices quite reasonable (except for some of those suggested wines). The most expensive dish cost €20, a real bargain these days.
As I was leaving, I asked the maître d’hôtel what Daniel Rose’s brief had been for the restaurant’s staff (after supervising the opening a couple of weeks ago, he had returned to Le Coucou in New York). The answer: “Joyeux, joli et généreux.” I think it lives up to his wishes on all three counts.