Monday, 22 March 2010

Bouillon Chartier (Εστιατόριο Σαρτιέ, Παρίσι)

This post forms part of the series of our culinary adventures from our recent trip to Paris and London.

"We know the customers make the restaurant. Sounds, tastes, smells, sight, everything converges so you will not miss a thing of this fabulous banquet of the senses. But the story of Chartier is the one you tell." Alors, here is my story of "Le Chartier", my Chartier.

chartier restaurant paris

I had been informed that eating out in Paris was expensive. I felt a little put out by this: is it always going to be expensive to eat in Paris sitting down, feet tucked under a table? I wondered how I was going to stretch my Greek euros while I was there, in order to afford to eat good French food cooked in the French manner without the culinary 'haute cuisine' complexities and high prices of those Michelin-star restaurants that people often refer to when they talk about French food. And what about all that undercooked blood-pink meat the French are supposed to be fond of?

frisee lardons
My very first meal in Paris: frisee aux lardons and paupillotes de veau jardiniere. I fell in love with French food there and then.

After a few google searches, I managed to chance on the perfect post for people in my disposition. Here is what Parisien Salon had to say about eating out on the cheap in Paris:
"CHEAP EATS: I’d have to say Chartier. Yes, it’s true– “You get what you pay for.” But I can’t think of anywhere else you can get a square meal and a truly authentic slice of life in old Paris than Chartier. Stick with the classics and the house wine and you’ll be fine, but be sure to order the frisée salad with hot bacon, which costs less than a café crème on the St. Germain de Pres, and is one of the best in town. Service is predictably gruff, and if you’re looking for “Hi, my name is Jean-Pierre, and I’ll be your waiter tonight!” you’re not going to get that here. I did see a roach come out of our breadbasket once and I was with some out-of-towners who said that I should alert the waiter. Obviously it was their first time at Chartier. In spite of it all, I keep going back. But am not sure they would."
Well, maybe I'm just cheap. I decided to risk the roaches (they never surfaced). We were some of the ones that did return - three times to be exact, meaning that we ate, oops, sorry, dined a la carte at the Chartier four nights. In a row. I knew what to expect: "No silk, no crystal, no silverware, but the soul and the authenticity of a unique and timeless place." Its decor harks back to a former era, and is a vital part of the dining experience. I felt as though I had been transported to the 19th century, where men in tuxedos and top hats accompanied ladies sporting diamonds and fur coats. The little wooden drawers, the luggage racks and the small metal seats fixed to the dividing walls all recall times long gone. The windowless environment shuts off the outside world to the diners who enter a time warp when they spend that hour in their day at the restaurant. Those little details have made the Chartier a Parisian icon.

menu chartier restaurant paris
Some of the menu items seem to be standard entries, but there is something different being served every day. Note the date on the menu - a new card comes out daily.

I came to Paris with very little knowledge but the very basics of French cuisine. My likewise basic knowledge of the French language proved helpful in deciphering the menu card, which made me realise that although the Greek and French cuisine may differ from each other in many respects, they coincide in terms of the emphasis on the use made of fresh produce and the high quality of the ingredients. The meals at Chartier were of the unpretentious type: good solid home-style French food. I felt that I could re-create the recipes at home with the right ingredients. Many of the dishes on the menu (it changes daily) sounded very similar to Greek dishes, and it was easy to guess what I would be served (eg poulet fermier, cotes d'agneau, spaghetti bolognaise). This point was very important for travellers dining with children and/or fussy eaters with culturally inclined and acquired culinary tastes. I was more adventurous, ordering meals that I knew nothing about (steering clear of plats mentioning the words pieds, tetes and andouillettes - I do plenty of that at home, merci beaucoup).

Critics may say that I did not get a real taste of the Parisian food scene since I only frequented one restaurant, which represented a limited range of cooking styles. Click here to find out what I thought of the food.

The Chartier really is a good bargain for lunch or dinner if you want to try some carefully prepared classic French cuisine. I used Chartier's prices as a gauge when we considered eating out elsewhere, for example when we found ourselves close to the Centre Pompidou. The same entrees and plats were being served at the many eateries there, but their chalk menu boards showed higher prices. We were always lured back to our regular haunt, where the mood was slow-paced and we never felt rushed to eat our meal.

You may insist that you need to find yourself in the 9th arrondisement in order to visit it, but that's not a problem at all: the restaurant opens at 11.30am and works non-stop until 10pm every day. The waiters were generally very polite; the ones that weren't were still very efficient. The food costs the same at any time of the day, and you certainly don't have to stand to eat more cheaply (as many web pages informed me about eating out in Paris). The restaurant was visibly less busy between 2-5pm (we chose to eat Greek-time), and on Saturday night, as we exited the premises, a very large queue of diners had formed, all waiting to be seated. Despite their paper tablecloths and the waiters' scrawling your order over it (and then working out the bill on it when you were ready to leave), this was the only place on that night that we noticed doing a roaring trade (as we walked back to our hotel).

chartier restaurant paris
Because we always ate our main meal in the early afternoon, we never had to queue up like these people...

Chartier is located a few metres away from the Grands Boulevards metro station. A family of four can have an entree and plat, with half a litre of house wine and eau de robinet*, for no more than 50 euro. Take a look through my blog to see what we usually pay when we go to a tavern in Hania - you will be surprised to find that the prices are very similar. We never ordered dessert** after our meal, as this is generally not done in a Greek taverna anyway. But we never went without it: there was a patisserie in practically every street we walked on, and we always walked back to the hotel after our meal in order to deserve our sweet treat!

My photos of the Chartier do not really do this iconic Parisian restaurant justice. Click here for more photos, some of which are in black and white, and really suit the mood of the place.

*And no fizzy drinks for the kids - the French aren't into this themselves; "when in Rome, do as the Romans do", and you'll be all the more healthier for it.
** Not ordering dessert is not actually uncommon in Paris; many chalk boards outside brasseries gave a fixed price for a combination of an entree and a plat OR a plat and a dessert. This could be due to the economic crisis, or a healthier outlook on life, or (most likely) both.
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