Marine Oasis in a Concrete Desert
|One of Paris’s most appealing terraces.|
A cagouille is a small snail found in the Charentes region on the Atlantic coast of France, yet the restaurant La Cagouille specializes in fish. Go figure.
They are so proud of their snails in Charente that they have a confrérie, a highly organized traditional club (see www.cagouille.com) whose members dress up in pseudo-medieval robes and sing silly songs together. The wine regions also have these kinds of confréries, some of them pretty select, with gatherings that get very brotherly toward the end of a well-oiled evening.
La Cagouille is the baby of Gérard Allemandou, who hails from the Charente and who, about 20 years ago, moved his restaurant from the Rue Daguerre round the corner to what must be one of the ugliest neighborhoods in Paris. Don’t let that put you off, because he serves very fine fish, prepared very simply, and pairs it with fine wines.
In summer, he opens up his terrace, bounded by greenery to mask the surrounding blots on the architectural landscape, to create what must be one of the most attractive, almost-traffic-free outdoor dining locations in the city. The wood-paneled indoor dining room, separated into different areas, must be quite cozy in winter, especially if you get a blaze in the fireplace.
Allemandou’s chefs do very little to the fish, other than applying heat to some of it. Witness the little bowl of warm cockles served as an amuse-bouche on my first visit. The hit of marine freshness was so strong that I swear I could hear the waves lapping at my feet. My second visit was on the day after a public holiday, so no fresh cockles were available, “just” the most delicious tapenade it has been my privilege to sample.
Which brings me to the one drawback of La Cagouille: the hasty service. Our tapenade was whisked away before we had a chance to really do it justice. And things continued that way throughout much of the evening, only slowing to the pace of a snail on neuroleptics when it was time for coffee and the check. Less than a minute after the whiteboard listing the evening’s catch was placed beside us, the waiter was hovering with his notebook, asking for our order. And this was before he had even offered us a drink, mind. So we ordered up a glass of ice-cold Touraine sauvignon to try and slow things down a little and give ourselves time to consider.
A small school of battered fresh anchovies, deep-fried along with some fresh parsley, and raw sardine fillets Charentaise, with a balsamic vinaigrette and crunchy sea salt, were ordered up for starters. They were followed, at a pretty brisk canter, by a flanc de daurade, bouillon de coques (fillet of gilthead bream with a lightly buttered cockle sauce) and a filet de maigre aux olives de Lucques, a generous chunk of meagre, a white fish, decorated with sliced green olives and drizzled with olive oil. With their side dishes of tiny boiled potatoes still in their skins and mixed fresh vegetables, they were very welcome on the warm evening, especially to my companion, who had just spent two weeks working in the Dordogne on what sounds like a duck-only diet.
Desserts were as simple, fresh and perfect as the rest: a very good strawberry mille-feuille and a dish of properly ripened mara strawberries (which have the taste and something of the texture of wild strawberries) with a little dollop of equally perfect Chantilly cream. Seasonal raspberries, an apricot tart and other desserts were also available for non-strawberry fans.
A bottle of Henri Bourgeois Sancerre “La Bourgeoise” 2006 was chosen by my companion. Despite its youth, it had tons of honeyed flavor and seems to have been made to be drunk young – it certainly punched above its expected weight.
A couple of right-on features that pleased me at La Cagouille were the little note telling patrons that Monsieur Allemandou would no longer be selling Mediterranean bluefin tuna until stocks regenerate (although he’s still serving cod). My heart warmed when I saw that. The other thing was the diversity of the staff, with waiters of South Asian, East Asian and African origin plying the tables – still a most unusual sight in Paris.
Apart from the caveat about the less than perfect, over-brisk service, I can heartily recommend La Cagouille and its mostly traffic-free terrace for a summer’s meal. I’m looking forward to tasting his winter offerings in that cozy interior, too.
Update, Sept. 3, 2008: After publication of this article, the owner of La Cagouille contacted me to point out that I had failed to mention him in my piece. If I had gone back to Jonathan Nossiter’s Le Gout et le Pouvoir when I reviewed the restaurant, I would not have committed such an oversight. My apologies to André Robert.
La Cagouille: Place Constantin Brancusi, 75014 Paris. Tel.: 01 45 38 57 29. Métro: Gaité. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 48, rue de l’Ouest; 90, avenue du Maine. Open daily. Fixed-price menus: €29 euros for two dishes, €42 for three. A la carte: around €40.
© 2008 Paris Update
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