Every struggling American writer on the way to a date with destiny has passed through the Closerie.
Places associated with literary figures… hmm. The Deux Magots will forever bring to mind Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but one can’t commune with the spirit of Saint-Germain-des-Prés there because the wait and kitchen staff are on different planets and make so much goddammed noise you can’t hear the voice of Juliette Gréco any more. You can, of course, sit outside in the exhaust fumes of a million cars and your neighbor’s tobacco smoke, which is possibly the more authentically Parisian experience.
And then there are the Hemingway connections at the Closerie des Lilas. You can even sit at his table (just as you can admire the Virgin Mary’s authentic engagement ring every year in July in Perugia, Italy, if you believe that sort of tale) in the piano bar section. La Closerie, like the Deux Magots, is a draw for visitors to Paris but gets a lot of locals, too. I was through there for a drink in the bar with friends a couple of years ago and enjoyed the clubby atmosphere, but had heard such dire things about the food and service that I was not in the least tempted to eat there.
Then came a sea-change and good things began to be said about the food and the restaurant, a lovely bright place with comfy red chairs and tables for two and tables for 12 and every combination in between. Families eat there. Groups of well-heeled medicos eat there after a hard day in the operating theater. It’s a pleasant space where the waiters seem to know what the customer wants. Our own waiter was delightful and was only too happy to make my crêpes suzette at the table for dessert. Every bit the showman, he strutted his stuff for the two English-speaking diners (we were bracketed by Finns and Germans)
Fresh morels were in, and, as I have a certain relish for them, I had a starter of creamed morels with a perfectly poached egg, going 50/50 with my companion’s confit quail salad. I always find quail a bit faffy, but cooked for a long time in another bird’s fat, the legs were juicy and very nibblesome.
The meaty options we chose for the main dish were a veal chop and medallions of venison. The latter were small, tender and pretty to look at but rather bland, while the chop was certainly fit for purpose and grilled just right – to the point that you wanted to pick up the bone and gnaw it white.
The other dessert, to pair with my crêpes, was a jaw-dropping mass of beautifully executed profiteroles. They just had that “Oh!” factor that waiters so love to create. We drank rather too much wine, I fear, but the Mendoza Terrazas de los Andes 2008 was all fruit and a lucky pick, putting the overall price of an already expensive meal up by a further €54. Apart from a very inexpensive option or two from the deep south of France, though, that’s more or less the starting price on the wine list.
La Closerie des Lilas is pure theater, a loving re-creation of what we now assume the inter-war years in Paris to have been, when every American was a struggling writer on the way to a date with destiny in a beret basque. What’s not to enjoy?
La Closerie des Lilas: 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris. RER: Port Royal. Tel.: 01 40 51 34 50. Open daily for lunch and dinner. A la carte: around €77. www.closeriedeslilas.fr
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