I am in mourning for the old Poule au Pot, one of those historic restaurants in the Les Halles area, founded in 1935, where the market workers could satisfy their big appetites with hearty meals and where until recently you could still go in the middle of the night and fill up on the signature chicken in broth in the company of a collection of eccentric night owls at tables covered with real tablecloths, served by cheery waiters in the traditional white shirt, bowtie and long black apron. The restaurant has now been taken over by Michelin-starred chef Jean-François Piège, who promised to keep it as it was.
When I walked in for lunch last week, I was happy to see that the decor was unchanged – the copper-topped bar, gold-mirrored columns, and grapevine-wallpaper were still there, but as soon as we sat down, we got off on the wrong foot. When the server asked what kind of water we wanted, we said a “carafe d’eau,” code in French restaurants for tap water. “We don’t have carafes d’eau,” she announced, adding that we could get a bottle of water for three euros. When we pointed out that that was illegal (restaurants in France are obliged to offer free water to their customers) and said that we weren’t having it, she tried a little strong-arming: “It’s hot. You’ll be thirsty.” That was true: it was hot. Two of us were already fanning ourselves and wondered why the air conditioning wasn’t turned on. Apparently it wasn’t working.
Onward to the food: I was disappointed that the eponymous poule au pot wasn’t even listed on the menu. My friend explained that that was normal, because it’s a winter dish.
We went for other classics. Two of us shared the escargots, expecting the usual buttery, garlicky goodness. More disappointment: they were bland and not at all buttery; I think they were made with olive oil rather than butter. What is the world coming to? No chicken in the pot and no butter in the escargots!
One of my friends had ordered the fixed-price menu: €48 for three courses! And this at lunchtime, when most Paris restaurants offer a better deal. The first course was a green salad, pretentiously served in a big silver bowl. The greens were tired, with brown spots, and the dressing dull. The only good thing about it was the fresh herbs.
Then came the blanquette de veau, which two of us had ordered. The white sauce was fine, the rice flavorful, and the baby carrots and fava beans lovely, but the meat itself was so dry that it stuck in the back of my throat.
The whole fried merlan (whiting), which came with the set menu, was impressive when served, with its glaring eyes, but the friend who ordered it pronounced it uninteresting, although the tartar sauce was apparently quite good. I liked the matchstick fries, even though no one else seemed to.
We had no enthusiasm for dessert but agreed to share the one that came with the set menu, which turned out to be slices of three different tarts. We knew they weren’t fresh that day because they had already been cut into when spotted in their display case by my friend when she arrived, which meant that they were left over from the day before (we were the first to show up for lunch).
With our coffee, instead of serving us dainty little bite-sized goodies, as most restaurants in this price range do, the server put a small plate on the table and plopped some creme caramel on it for us to share (using our coffee spoons, since there was nothing else). Most inelegant and unappetizing.
At these elevated prices and from a chef with Piège’s credentials, I would expect far higher standards. What a shame. And, to add insult to injury, the restaurant no longer stays open all night. I recommend that you skip it and walk one block over to La Tour Montlhéry-Chez Denise (5 Rue des Prouvaires, 75001 Paris), another venerable Les Halles restaurant where you can still have a meal until 4am and which hasn’t (yet) been taken over by a famous chef.