On French Restaurants

Dear French Restauranteurs,

It’s time someone spoke the truth. We have admired you, no – hungered for you, hung out of your every culinary development for decades now. The word ‘Michelin’ is something craved by restauranteurs from other countries, who assume that it actually means something. You have presented yourself to the world like a lover who knows all the right moves, whose sense of the senses has inflamed the imaginations of millions, who imagine themselves tasting French cuisine and reaching culinary Nirvana. Not so, my dears.

For too long now you have traded on a name of excellence, and have accepted unquestioned praise for your Confit du Canard, your Creme Brulée, your boeuf bourguignon, and your mousse au chocolat. But it’s not enough to be dressed up in crowd-pleasing dishes. For one thing you do not realise that in certain other countries there exists a tradition of cuisine equal to yours. The fact that you are good with sauces does not excuse the inexecrably chewy, tough cuts of meat that are sometimes served up as ‘filet’,  and the fact that you serve a tripe sausage called ‘Andouillet’, with an admittedly delicious mustard sauce does not excuse your Crimes against Good Taste. Whilst you triumph in desserts and delights of mousses, meringues, pastries and compotes, your are sometimes below par when it comes to your choice of cuts of meat, which strike me as wartime cuts (like, 60 plus years ago honeys, time to forget the frugality of flesh!).

Furthermore, why are there no women serving in restaurants? Is this also a French tradition? And why must the tables always be squashed so inexcusably close together? Is this another sign of that famous French frugality which finds its origins in your own history of hard times during hard wars? Is space so much at a premium that you cannot allow just five centimetres more between the back of one chair and another?

The truth is, if Irish restaurant owners had a smidgeon of the confidence you display with such ease, we would be regarded as the best in the world when it comes to our cuisine. As it is, it’s pretty hot. Our resources are excellent, while yours are – excuse me – at times mediocre. The thing is, I appreciate that if you want quality it must be paid for. That isn’t in question. But what is very much in question is the fact that sometimes one pays top dollar for a pretty average meal.

For my money, one of the best Brasseries in Paris is Brasserie Balzar (Rue de l’École, just off Boulevard Saint Michel). You can’t go wrong. The beef is tender and cooked properly (not overdone just because they suspect you might be English/Irish), the potato gratinee is succulent and creamy, and the service is a delight. It is worth every cent. 

All of which probably goes to show that if you want quality, you have to pay. That rule applies in every country in the world. But please, French restauranteurs – stop flogging the stereotype that you alone hold the key to kitchen excellence because it simply ain’t true, and no amount of charm is going to change that. Your tolerance of dogs in restaurants I happen to adore, though others deplore it. But that’s something in your favour. And your tolerance of children is also excellent. It teaches them to partake of the commonality of eating and speaking – it’s a tribal thing, and you French understand this best of all the Western countries.

But – with the exception of a few restaurants (Balzar, Polidor, Le Jardin d’Artemis, le Volcan) I’m marking your card. It’s not all about image, you know, and if you were my lover I’d have thrown you out of the bed long ago. Improve your cuts of meat, serve your onion soup at a reasonably hot temperature, dress your salads properly, and improve the quality of your patés – some of it looks as if it came straight off a low-grade supermarket shelf, and tastes as bad. In other words get your act together and stop swanning around as if your cuisine was the best in the world. It could be, of course. Your presentation is, as ever, so very good. But as I said, looks alone don’t cut it these days. 

Amitiés!

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