From disaster cassoulet to La Belle Époque
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I’m not sure if it’s fate, contrast, climate change or bad then good luck, but I recently experienced the convergence of my best and worst meals ever in France, both on the very same day. I was heading home from Burgundy where I’d been working on a film about the plight of small wine producers during this very bad year in which a substantial portion of the harvest has already been lost due to freakish weather. Add to that all that had transpired in France since my last visit…the Bataclan, Charlie Hebdo, a surging Le Pen, &c, &c, and I was already out of sorts. What was happening? I especially love this region of Burgundy and the humble farmers there who make the world’s most sought-after grape juice. I’d visited many times before. I’d even written about it. It’s also something of a culinary capital, so to have a poor meal there is, frankly, my own damn fault.

I encountered the offending repast at the corner tavern near the train station in Beaune. It was nothing short of a high crime on my part given the fact that this Burgundian town holds more excellent dining options than just about any city its size on this great blue and green Earth. I must admit that the weather conspired against me, having flooded Paris and rerouted and delayed my train, forcing me to take the four-hour route via Lyon rather than the more direct connection through Dijon. Some say that you can’t attribute any single weather event, like said Paris flooding, specifically to climate change, but that it certainly increases the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Well, climate change had its fingerprints all over this disaster of a lunch. I found myself laden with luggage and filmmaking gear and with an extra hour to kill while unseasonably cold rain fell on a June afternoon in Burgundy.

With nowhere to stow my bags and with the passable restaurant at the Hotel de France still closed, I opted for the only other option. I dragged my things across the street and settled for the corner bar rather than make the trek into the center of town. The cassoulet on the signboard caught my eye, and I ordered it without thinking too deeply. This was an obvious misstep, ordering a regional dish from southern France in north-central Burgundy. It’s akin to ordering an Italian beef in New Orleans or jambalaya in Chicago. While fine examples of either can probably be found, why stray from the regional specialty? It makes no sense. But as I mentioned, I was shaken. Lovely France was under assault by the weather and so much more.

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The cassoulet consisted of tepid to cold canned beans and Vienna sausages plus a leg of duck or some other fowl microwaved beyond recognition of species. The vinegar served as the house red wine was well past any prime, if it ever had any to begin with. I picked at the dish merely out of politeness, and all the while 80s music videos from the likes of Sade, Duran Duran and Bryan Adams played on the overhead television alongside offensively overproduced contemporary French pop hits, one video of which included the singer in ruffled shirt riding a draft horse in slow motion while swinging a rapier. I sank slowly into culinary and cultural despair. What had become of La Belle France?

Why hadn’t I stuck to the safety valve of Burgundian classics like oeufs en meurette or escargots à la bourguignonne, both of which were on the menu slate? Would the kitchen of this little bar have done as much discredit to these local favorites? I imagined the Burgundian cook having a scornful contempt for all things Provencal.

I stumbled back across the road to the station with an unhappy, churning stomach, dreading the four hours by train and regretting that I would be only blasting through Lyon, a legendary culinary capitol in its own right. As if to add insult to injury, once on the train I caught a glimpse of the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon from the window while my sad meal churned in my sorry belly.

I had once believed that even a bad meal in France was far better than the average American truck stop fare, but this conviction was resoundingly shattered by the offending cassoulet. Paris was flooding. Burgundy vineyards had already suffered devastating losses. And now I’d had a miserable French lunch.

My world, it seemed, was coming unraveled.

But Paris is a city for redemption. I arrived at the Gare de Lyon without having had to make use of the train restroom, already a risky proposition in that rattling second-class car where the latrines are typically cramped and foul to begin with, but it would have also meant temporarily abandoning my filmmaking gear while shifty characters lurked in the hallways on a car already overcrowded by the flooding and rerouting. One must thank the Gods of Travel, or perhaps St. Christopher, for life’s smaller miracles. My stomach had held true.

I dragged my gear across the street from the Gare de Lyon to the handy if ominously named Hotel Terminus (you can check out, but you can never leave). With only a dozen small hours until my flight the next morning, plus the June Parisian sunlight extending well into the late evening, I decided to put my feet to work in search of redemption. There was no way I could leave France on such a poor footing as that cassoulet provided.

While walking in the best of weather in Paris can solve just about any problem known to humanity, walking in a flooded Paris is only a tad lest restorative. It was devastating, sure, especially given the interviews we’d done in Burgundy to learn how that region is struggling with climate change. But to see so many legendary and familiar Parisian sites half submerged in the swollen Seine was surreal. That being said, the curiosity of hordes of both tourists and locals leant a sort of festival atmosphere to the scene. Lots of selfies were taken before streets descending into the swollen brown murk. Waters rushed under the arches of the Pont Neuf and Pont d’Austerlitz with a disarming fury. The river was now a lake spreading to bury streets parks, tunnels and barges that strained against their moorings. Had one of the apocalyptical specters from the Book of Revelation or even Clint Eastwood himself ridden in on a pale horse I would not have been surprised.

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But still, it was Paris. It was late evening. I was on foot. I snapped the obligatory watery camera phone pics and kept moving up the Seine. The world was becoming better. The flood waters, I trusted, would recede. The memory of that bad meal was already starting to fade.

I stopped at Shakespeare and Company to buy a dual-language edition of Fitzgerald’s short stories, resolving to learn to read and speak French like a native once and for all for the eleventh time this year. I found a cafe on the Île Saint-Louis with a flood view, keeping one eye cocked on my studies and the other on the flow of people. Reading in a cafe in Paris is perhaps even more pleasurable than walking in that same city, meaning it’s more pleasurable than just about any activity on Earth.

Just about.

The one thing that can top either of these is eating well in Paris, from a crepe to a croque-monsieur or a multi-course bacchanal. The last of these was what I was after for this, my last evening in France. I was determined to redeem myself after the disastrous cassoulet. The hours ticked past. I had eight remaining, and some of those would need to be spent in slumber at the dreaded Terminus. I searched my brain. I had passed a number of promising restaurants on my hike, but then there’d also been plenty of tourist traps. It’s sometimes hard for even an experienced traveler to discern the difference. My own confidence was shattered by my earlier calamitous choice.

What to do?

One could, on such occasions, turn to the Internet. The Yelps and the Googles both offer handy star ratings. But crowdsourcing your opinions to others, while often safe, is also one way to remove any trace of your own individuality. It’s the surest way to become a culinary sheep, an ungulate, a lemming. Risk should always be a part of the equation. But then I’d had more than enough risk for one day, hadn’t I?

It was now that I recalled that my filmmaking collaborators, a pair of experienced Francophiles with much more sophisticated palettes than my own, had both recommended Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon. I’d been hesitant because it seemed too convenient. It was inside the train station. It is a big, established, obvious choice. Even so, I knew little of it. I was tempted to pull out my smartphone to see if I could find wifi to corroborate their suggestion with the masses, but I restrained myself.

While outsourcing your research to the Internets may be a copout, taking the recommendation of a friend is tapping into an ancient French tradition established when the very first protohuman on the Brittany Coast recommended to the fellow in the loincloth next to him the best tidal pool from which to pluck the most flavorful oysters. From such humble roots have risen  the national French pass time of evaluating restaurants, eventually giving rise to the Michelin Guide

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As time was ticking and safety was my primary objective, I followed the recommendation of my friends, walking home and then across the street to the imposing arched windows of Le Train Bleu above the main floor of the station.

This spot is not so much a restaurant as it is a harkening back to another, grander era. If you ever wondered what it might be like to dine inside the Louvre or perhaps the Musée d’Orsay , this would be it. It is a grand theater for haute cuisine, a dining palace trimmed in gold, with painted panoramas, naked cherubs, towering ceilings and windows, bright chandeliers and the gentle murmur of pleasant conversation. I carried in my Fitzgerald and happily sat on the blue velvet seat where the hostess pulled out the table and tucked me in again. I didn’t even look at the card, instead ordering the day’s full menu, the grand tour. I knew it would be a long meal, epic, even. For more than a hundred Euros, it had better be. But I wasn’t expecting the ensuing three-hour marathon of flavors that would follow.

Dining solo with a good book in Paris can be a great pleasure, relishing the steady, slow but inexorable progress of a multi-course meal. But I barely had to crack the spine of my Fitzgerald. There was so much to look at. Diners in intent conversation, polished waiters materializing out of the ether to fill my Champagne glass or brush aside the crumbs, those bones of the previous course, patrons pausing to gape at the glorious hall on their return from the restroom, even that brief respite from the grandeur enough to rekindle their awe at the spectacle.

The meal began with a handsome salmon crudo, rolled fillets that did their color justice arranged with cream, radishes and roe on a brilliant green aspic of mint and cucumber. Here’s where I get fuzzy. While I should have taken notes or at least snapped a photo of the menu on the way in or out, I was instead focused on redemption. And it was delivered, in course after course.

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The Champagne continued to flow through the bread and foie gras course served with a rhubarb jelly and a single perfect strawberry. Then onto a fillet of sole, spring lamb with morels, sherbets, desserts and cheeses. I lost track, but when I looked up a pair of hours later, the dining hall was empty save for my waiter and a solitary cat weaving casually, elegantly in and out of the blue velvet chairs and under the white tablecloths. He was a pretty cool cat, paying me no mind, and he was a fine companion with which to end the evening. It was close to midnight. I had only a few hours to sleep before catching my flight.

I reflected on the evening after the last course was swept away, and before the final assault the check would make on my already straining credit card. It was like traveling back in time directly to La Belle Époque. I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot Matiesse, the Brothers Lumière, Curie, Pasture, Freud, Proust, Mann.

Then the dark thought again wandered into my brain: I wonder if there were any ratings online of this place. I decided I wouldn’t look. I still haven’t. It was a lovely evening. A perfect meal, especially given the circumstances earlier in the day, the poor lunch, the ominous weather. The threats of climate change, terrorism, tourism…everything that we do as a species that drags down the lovely, the perfect, the glorious and makes it less, everything that categorizes and ranks and tells us what to control, what to love, what to fear.

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I left Le Train Blue quite satisfied. The last diner standing, or rather squatting on crushed blue velvet. I experienced a slight vertigo, perhaps from the entire bottle of Champagne I’d polished off, or the rum chaser with the final dessert. On wobbly legs I descended the grand staircase into the vast train station, empty save for a collection of weary travelers rendered temporarily or permanently homeless by missed trains, hard luck or both.

I reflected that Le Train Bleu was there for me, exactly what I needed precisely when I needed it. I stumbled across the place toward Hotel Terminus. I didn’t think about the flooding Seine. I didn’t think of the spring frost that had wrecked so many vineyards in Burgundy. I didn’t think about the Charlie Hebdo attack or the Bataclan, or everything else that had transpired in Paris since my last visit. This trip may have been ending. But my faith in La Belle France, its powers to destroy, rebuild, heal and delight, the magic of that capital of the human race with it’s gaudy, light-gilded tower and its swollen river and sunken streets and its flood of tourists, a flood which included me, was restored.

All this, with a meal.

David Baker by teslathemes