May 27, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

La Lune sous l’Eau

ourcine restaurant, paris

A bling-free bistro Orwell would love.

George Orwell famously authored 1984, but among the myriad bits of journalism he wrote was a musing that appeared in the London Evening Standard in February 1946, about his favorite pub, The Moon Under Water. Turns out that it was actually an ideal pub: one that didn’t exist, on which he had grafted all the features that for him added up to the perfect hostelry. It was pleasant and homely, in a side street, quiet enough to hear yourself talk and frequented by regulars. It also, by-the-by, served beer in pink china mugs.

I was reminded of the Moon Under Water article, which I had read in my Orwell bulimia phase many years ago, when I dined recently at L’Ourcine, a near-perfect little Paris bistro, hidden away in a side street in the 13th arrondissement, miles from anywhere, you might say.

L’Ourcine is quiet, for a start. My companion and I wondered how it could be so, because, being an old-fashioned sort of neighborhood café dining room, it has plenty of sound-reflecting surfaces. After checking with the pleasant waitress, we agreed that it was because of the former smoke extraction system on the ceiling, which now very effectively soaks up the ambient noise, so that everyone can resolve life’s great issues without shouting themselves hoarse.

As Orwell said about the MuW, although it would seem natural to mention the beer first in saying why you liked a particular public house, the thing that most appealed to him was its “atmosphere.” The “scare quotes” are Orwell’s own – his way of distancing himself from what (he was a terrible snob) seemed a rather raffish, modish expression at the time. And “atmosphere” is exactly what L’Ourcine has in spades. It comes from the regulars. There were lots of kisses exchanged with incoming and outgoing diners, and a little boy hopped and skipped from dining room to sidewalk while weightier things went on inside. The waitresses kept everything moving smoothly with unforced smiles, happy to see a full house enjoying the food.

Toward the end of the meal the cooking crew came out to have a smoke in the street, and then all seven (seven!) of them sat down at a table for a meeting as the diners thinned out. The chef was rightly intent on his next day’s menu, not on hobnobbing with his clients.

This is a place where they are proud of their wines, too. We kicked off with a glass of that luscious Binner Muscat d’Alsace that we discovered at Ribouldingue earlier this year, and followed up with a bottle of 2004 Côte Roannaise by Paul Lapandéry et Fils, who pick and de-stem their grapes by hand. Click here for a touching family pic and a rave by a wine professional.

Our starters were fishy: a creamy bisque of shellfish ladled from a tureen onto a little quenelle of cream and herring roe and herbs; and spider-crab ravioli with lemongrass emulsion. The latter was not all it might have been, and not just because of the modish lemongrass froth: the crab was a bit overwhelmed by the pasta. But certainly an honorable dish.

Then on to the meaty main courses: a fricassee duckling cooked with marjoram comme un parmentier, i.e., served with a mashed potato topping. Brilliantly flavorful and satisfying. A farmhouse pork chop cooked in parsley butter was prettily and tastily edged in crisped fat, and served with a glorious side dish of silver beet leaves cooked au jus and flash-grilled with a dusting of Beaufort mountain cheese.

And so to desserts. One was a shortbread guanaja chocolate tartlet – pronounced one of the best she had ever eaten by my chocoholic dining companion – with pistachio ice cream. Very short, the shortbread, as it nearly shot off the plate at the first attempt to get a spoon into it. Smooth, creamy guanaja, and perfect house pistachio ice-cream. My dessert was a “traditional” pot of vanilla cream, served with house langue de chat biscuits – old-time comfort food, perfectly executed. I would happily have called for more.

L’Ourcine is conducive to lingering. It’s a place whose owners are content to serve fine food, imaginatively presented, to the locals. They are aware of what’s going on in kitchens elsewhere, not least because the chef has been to the Camdeborde school, but you have to admire them for the modesty of the execution and the total absence of gastronomic bling.

Richard Hesse

L’Ourcine: 92 rue Broca, 75013 Paris. Tel: 01 47 07 13 65. Métro: Gobelins. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 2, rue des Cordelières; 55, Bd Arago. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Fixed-price menu: €32*. www.restaurant-lourcine.fr

* three courses, not including wine

© 2008 Paris Update

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