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Liberty, Equality, Gastronomy: Paris via a 19th-Century Guide

By Tony Perrottet
November 22, 2009

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A marvelous painting of a gourmand at his table hangs in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris — a portly, pink-faced figure happily gorging on a regal casserole, with a bottle of wine at one elbow and a luscious-looking soufflé at the other. It is traditionally believed to be a portrait of Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, an aristocrat notorious in Napoleonic France for gratifying his palate with the same abandon as his contemporary the Marquis de Sade showed in indulging carnal desires. Whether or not the painting is actually Grimod’s likeness, it captures the eccentric, omnivorous spirit that made him not only a gustatory symbol in the Paris of his day, but the grand-père of all modern food writers as well.

Starting in 1803, Grimod, whose family fortune had largely been lost during the Revolution, financed his voracious appetite by writing a series of best-selling guidebooks to the culinary wonders of Paris — its famous delicatessens, pâtissiers and chocolatiers — including the first reviews of an alluring new institution called le restaurant. His Almanachs des Gourmands were something new, the Michelins and Zagats of his era, and their offbeat style reflects the author’s larger-than-life character. Grimod was born in 1758 with deformed hands, one a birdlike talon and the other a webbed pincer. But he was not one to be held back, so he had learned to write — and dine — with metal prostheses. A social butterfly, he became a successful theater critic in Paris before the Revolution, survived the Terror and amused himself later by hosting literary salons in the cafes. And, of course, eating.

It was on the trail of Grimod one day last summer that I passed through the vaulted arches of the Palais Royal, opposite the north wing of the Louvre, and into a vast, empty courtyard. In Grimod’s day, the Palais Royal was the heart and soul of Paris, a rowdy entertainment center filled with brothels and sideshows that, despite its louche ambience, also boasted some of his favorite specialty food stores and restaurants.

For me, it was the first stop in what would become a week of wandering the modern city armed with a map on which I had marked streets mentioned by Grimod. One of the most exciting things about the Almanachs is that they include detailed gastronomic walking tours of Paris, called “nutritional itineraries” — each one a vivid window onto the past.

The inspiration for my trip was a discovery I made a couple of years ago in the New York Public Library, where I was researching a book on Napoleon and came across two pocket-size, leather-bound volumes, the 1805 and 1810 editions of the Almanach. They made fascinating reading: idiosyncratic and outlandish, filled with arcane gossip about forgotten chefs and digressions on the best way to cook calf’s head in aspic or quails in sarcophagi (the birds lie in tiny pastry “coffins,” with their heads intact; a version of the dish appears in the film “Babette’s Feast”). At various points, Grimod even includes the names and addresses of actresses he is wooing, like the comely Augusta, cited for her “grace and freshness.” The more I read, the more interested I became in the question of what remains today of Grimod’s Paris.

I had assumed that recreating a 200-year-old trail would require something of a creative leap, but now, with the Palais Royal presenting itself to me as a serene park, quaint and genteel as a fashionable graveyard, I realized what a challenge I actually faced. Its splendid arches are intact, but they are lined with clothing boutiques rather than fleshpots or culinary diversions. I pored feverishly over my 1810 guide. Where was Corcellet, the most revered épicerie in France, with its rich pâtés, delicious sausages and succulent hams? (The painting in the Carnavalet was actually commissioned as a sign by the owner in 1804, after Corcellet was given a rave review in the Almanach.) Or the restaurant of Jean-François Véry, the most sumptuous and expensive in Paris? Where was the dining hall of the so-called Three Brothers from Provence, “renowned for their garlic râgouts and excellent brandades de merluche”?

I comforted myself with the idea that on any historical quest the difficulty of the hunt only makes the rewards more satisfying. And I knew that at least one survivor did remain: Le Grand Véfour, the oldest continually operating restaurant in Paris. I found it tucked like a jewel box in the Palais Royal’s quietest corner.

Le Grand Véfour was founded in 1784 as the Café de Chartres, and Napoleon and Josephine used to meet there on trysts. (Napoleon also lost his virginity in the Palais Royal as a young officer, to an amiable prostitute — but that’s another story.) Grimod did not mention the cafe specifically in 1810, lumping it in with the many other coffeehouses of the Palais Royal — “few people can flatter themselves that they have frequented them all,” he wrote loftily. But after it was purchased by Jean Véfour in 1820, Grimod praised its cuisine: “Nowhere else can one find a better sauté, chicken Marengo or mayonnaise de volaille,” he wrote. To my mind, no other restaurant in modern Paris could offer such a direct link to the past.

The moment I stepped inside the door, I was swept into a romantic fantasia of the 19th century. The décor was original, exquisite and in immaculate condition. Long mirrors reflected sparkling chandeliers and plush crimson upholstery. The gold-framed glass panels that stretched to the ceiling were lavishly painted with classical beauties. I happened to be there on Bastille Day, July 14, and the maître d’hôtel reminded me that here in this very courtyard Camille Desmoulins had whipped the Parisian mob into a frenzy before the Bastille was stormed in 1789. “The police had no jurisdiction in the Palais Royal,” he smiled nostalgically. “That was the beauty of it.”

AS I expected, the waiter service was as old-school as the décor. A phalanx of tuxedoed professionals briskly whisked me to my table, where a large menu materialized before my eyes. I noticed with a gulp that Le Grand Véfour has also inherited the mind-boggling price tag of the top 19th-century restaurants. Luckily for me, it offered a relatively democratic fixed-price lunch special — a mere 88 euros (about $135 at $1.53 to the euro). The meal, prepared by the chef, Guy Martin, was no museum piece. With a steady, dreamlike pace I received what seemed like a dozen courses, with amuse-bouches, sorbets, cheeses and confections providing the backdrop to more substantial courses like a shredded crab and radish salad, and the monkfish on mango with coriander mousse.

Needless to say, after a three-hour repast, I was thankful that not all of Grimod’s culinary sites survive. A few days of this and I’d be more rotund than the great gourmand himself.

Grimod wrote his guides at a pivotal culinary moment, when Paris was flush with money from Napoleon’s imperial conquests and establishing itself as the gourmet capital of Europe. Filled with celebrity chefs like Marie-Antoine Carême, who served in the royal kitchens of Alexander I of Russia and the future George IV of England and other notables while also writing several classic cookbooks, it was also incubating the new culture of the restaurant, named for the soups called “restaurants” (restoratives) that were initially the new dining places’ staple. Unlike the old inns and taverns where food of variable quality was laid out in a family-style buffet, restaurants offered patrons private tables and the chance to choose fine meals individually prepared. They became tourist attractions in themselves, vying with one another in their opulent décor and presenting Parisians with dozens of fresh and exciting dishes printed on menus the size of newspapers. It was the perfect environment for the blossoming of Grimod’s peculiar talents.

Grimod de la Reynière is not exactly a household name in the United States today. “There isn’t a single English translation of the Almanachs,” Rebecca L. Spang, author of “The Invention of the Restaurant” and an associate professor of history at Indiana University, told me when I called her with questions about Grimod. “So in the English-speaking world, unless you’re a hard-core historical foodie, you simply won’t have heard of him.” Julia Child made no mention of Grimod. Even in France, he was soon eclipsed by other, more practical and accessible food writers like Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, whose “Physiology of Taste” has not been out of print since it was first published in 1825.

But specialists in the field still revere Grimod. Rémi Flachard, the owner of Librairie Rémi Flachard, Paris’s finest bookstore for gastronomic history, declared that Grimod “almost single-handedly invented the genre of food criticism.” I visited the shop to lay the groundwork for my own gastro-tour, and as we chatted, Mr. Flachard, a towering, balding figure in his 50s, produced an array of unique literary treasures: a boxed, leather-bound set of all eight of Grimod’s Almanachs in pristine condition, priced at a modest 7,500 euros, and what he believes is the oldest menu in existence, a handwritten page from an unidentified Parisian restaurant in the 1780s (3,500 euros).

“France’s old high society was swept away by the Revolution, and Napoleon’s Paris was filled with nouveaux riches,” Mr. Flachard said. “Grimod wrote for them, explaining how to eat well, how to carve roasts, how to behave at table.”

It wasn’t always easy to follow Grimod’s footsteps. But enough of the old medieval streets and alleys that made up the Paris of his day still survived for me to plot out the erratic contours of Grimod’s walk, which took shape as a sort of drunken zigzag across the city, starting at the site of his family mansion on the Place de la Concorde (occupied today by the United States Embassy), weaving across the Right Bank, crossing the Seine at the Pont Neuf, and snaking through the Left Bank.

Inevitably, many spots beloved by Grimod survive only as alluring ghosts, but I was constantly surprised at how many relics did turn up. For example, when I first set out on the Right Bank, I could find no trace of Rouget’s store at 8, rue de Richelieu, declared by my guide to be “the finest pâtissier of the city,” whose meringues were “incomparably light.” But I did track down the oldest remaining pâtisserie of Paris, Stohrer, whose 1730 shop a few blocks from the Palais Royal is an irresistible palace of sweet delicacies, with original lead mirrors reflecting a multicolored array of pastries and glazed fruits.

Another delicious discovery was the mustard emporium of Maille on the Place de la Madeleine. Although the premises are modern, Maille has been a fixture in Paris since 1757, and you can still sample Grimod’s favorite mustards (“famous from pole to pole,” he enthused), which come in dozens of flavors from chardonnay to Roquefort, and are sold in the same faience tubs as in 1810.

The disappearance of Les Halles, the thriving market district, would bring a bitter tear to Grimod’s eye. In 1810, he wrote page after page assessing the vendors’ wares, ending in a shopaholic ecstasy: “One would like to invade every stall, carry away everything to stock one’s kitchen.” Sadly, the neighborhood was demolished in the 1970s and replaced by a wan garden and underground shopping mall. But consolation came when I strolled into the nearby Rue Montorgueil.

If Grimod had a favorite street, Rue Montorgueil might have been it: he drools over its oyster vendors, whose shells were piled as high as the roofs of the houses. Here also stood one of his favorite restaurants, Au Rocher de Cancale, which he cites as having the best seafood and poultry in Paris, not to mention a quail pâté cooked in Malaga wine that was “suitable for the table of the gods.” Today, Rue Montorgueil is a fashionable pedestrian street filled with upscale vendors. Not only were fresh oysters still on sale at pricey seafood markets, but I was delighted to find Au Rocher de Cancale still going strong as a lively lunchtime bistro. The florid exterior was unmistakably of the period, although a plaque noted that the establishment had moved from one side of the street to the other in 1846. No matter! It was lunchtime, I was famished, and the fixed-price menu was a decent 20 euros. In the upstairs dining room, I instantly spied a series of unique frescoes salvaged from the 1846 restaurant and preserved under plexiglass like archaeological finds from Pompeii. They had been discovered, the waitress told me, when the room was renovated in the 1980s.

Like some 19th-century graphic novel, they told the story of a Grimodesque gourmand tackling a meal. In the first image, the diner savors an aperitif of Champagne. In the second, he sucks down oysters. In the third, he is enjoying the main course with a wicked grin. Next, he waves away a waiter, unwilling to be bothered. In the last, he holds the bill and ruefully weighs his coins, evidently caught out by the price.

I’m not sure what Grimod would have made of my tandoori cod over fennel and rice, but I personally thought that it would not be out of place on the gods’ table.

Grimod is an indefatigable guide. He barely pauses for breath before directing his readers across the Seine at the Pont Neuf, where he is stopped short on the Left Bank by an “embarrassment of riches.” Today, several of his favorites remain, starting with the venerable Le Procope, once frequented by revolutionary heroes like Danton and Marat. By 1810, Le Procope had been renamed the Café Zoppi, but Grimod still heartily recommends it for “the best ice creams in Faubourg St.-Germain, and also the most copious.” Today, once again named Le Procope, it presents a somewhat kitschy homage to the Revolution, with the symbol of Liberty, the red Phrygian cap, on the menu cover and bathrooms marked Citoyens and Citoyennes. Yes, it’s cheesy, and the food is less than stellar, but after lunch, you can explore the rabbit warren of dining rooms where artifacts hanging on the walls include a 200-year-old Declaration of the Rights of Man and a framed meal check from 1811. And Grimod would be happy to know that the sorbets and ice creams are still lethally good.

Ten minutes’ walk away, Debauve & Gallais, official chocolatier to Napoleon, is also alive and well. This aromatic relic, founded in 1800, still has its original semicircular counter covered with fabulous treats. Grimod was particularly fond of the shop’s so-called health chocolates, which were regarded by Parisians as multi-vitamins are today. Consume them daily, he observes, and “an Adonis can acquire all the virtues of a Hercules.” At more than 125 euros for a 44-piece box, the shop’s wares are now an indulgence; luckily, wafer-thin samples are offered at the door.

By now I had accepted that when you follow a 200-year-old guidebook, you have to take advantage of serendipity. Grimod delights in a soup shop on the Left Bank of the Seine run by one cranky Mme. Deharm, whose Marmite Perpetuel, or “perpetual cooking pot,” had legendarily been on the boil for over 90 years. When I searched the river docks at Le Quai des Grands-Augustins, which still boast many of the oldest buildings in Paris, there was no sign of Madame’s old address, No. 10. But by lucky chance, No. 9 was a lavishly decorated old restaurant called Lapérouse. In Grimod’s day this had been a popular wine shop and bar, but it was taken over in 1840 as a restaurant by Jules Lapérouse, who had the brilliant idea of maintaining private rooms upstairs for married gentlemen to discreetly entertain the courtesans of Paris with Champagne, delicacies and expensive gifts. After yet another excellent, over-the-top lunch, a waiter took me to visit those notorious chambres particuliers, which still survive in the attic. They are suitably cozy, and I observed that the antique mirrors were covered with etched marks, made, according to tradition, when the astute filles de joie tested the authenticity of their diamonds by scratching on the glass.

As the days passed, I felt I was getting a feel for Grimod’s taste in restaurants. But where, I wondered, would he have dined in Paris today? I knew he placed a premium on the freshest ingredients, simply prepared, and he liked inventive twists on classic recipes. He detested intrusiveness in waiters, preferring them to appear only when summoned. And as a down-at-the-heels aristocrat, he also appreciated value for money. “Grimod was always short of cash!” Mr. Flachard, the bookseller, had told me. With my battered U.S. dollar credit card, I could certainly empathize.

Fortunately, on my last day in Paris, the past and present seamlessly met, and for a change the restaurant seemed to come to me. I was strolling the Rue St.-Honoré near the site of another long-gone boulangerie when I noticed a tiny row of medieval structures attached to the Church of St.-Roch. One hole-in-the-wall turned out to be a minuscule restaurant complete with original pot-cluttered kitchen. It was called La Cordonnerie (the Shoemaker’s) and, according to the blackboard, it served cuisine de marché, fresh market food. I had accidentally hit pay dirt: the fantasy of a charming French boîte.

There were fewer than 20 seats in this intimate space, which dated from 1690, with blackened beams against the low white ceiling. The chef was a maestro in his cramped workplace, preparing alone the day’s menu of foie gras in homemade chocolate sauce and roast pork with field mushrooms. He was also the owner, I later learned, having inherited the restaurant from his parents.

I eagerly took a seat in the farthest corner, ordered without restraint, as Grimod might have done, and chatted, between sips of muscadet, with an elderly couple at a nearby table. They said they lived around the corner on the Rue St.-Honoré and came here at least once a week to enjoy the fresh market fare. “Always the full three courses at lunch,” giggled Madame. “Then a nap — and no dinner!”

I felt sure that Grimod must have eaten here at some time or another. He certainly would have approved of the setting. Of one of his favorite restaurants, Le Gacque’s, he wrote: “His salons are nothing sumptuous, but the cuisine is good, the wines excellent, and the prices moderate.” Plus, there was a friendly, unobtrusive staff.

Of course, a gourmand’s work is never done, at least not in Paris. After coffee, I had my guidebook in hand. Now if only I could find Sulleaux’s confectionery store, for some of his legendary petits fours. ...

THE REVOLUTION, HE ATE HIS WAY THROUGH IT

WHERE TO EAT

Le Grand Véfour, 17, rue de Beaujolais, 75001; 33-1-42-96-56-27; www.grand-vefour.com.

Au Rocher de Cancale, 78, rue Montorgueil, 75002; 33-1-42-33-50-29; www.aurocherdecancale.fr.

Le Procope, 13, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006; 33-1-40-46-79-00; www.procope.com.

Lapérouse, 51, Quai des Grands-Augustins, 75006; 33-1-56-79-24-31; www.laperouse.fr.

La Cordonnerie, 20, rue St.-Roch, 75001; 33-1-42-60-17-42.

WHERE TO SHOP

Mustards: Maille, 8, Place de la Madeleine, 75008; 33-1-40-15-06-00; www.maille.us.

Chocolates: Debauve & Gallais, 30, rue des Saints-Pères, 75007; 33-1-45-48-54-67; www.debauve-et-gallais.com.

Pâtisserie: Stohrer, 51, rue Montorgueil, 75002; 33-1-42-33-38-20; www.stohrer.fr.

Gastronomic literature: Librairie Rémi Flachard, 9, rue du Bac, 75007; 33-1-42-86-86-87.

WHERE TO STAY

The Hôtel de Crillon (10, Place de la Concorde, 75008; 33-1-44-71-15-00; www.crillon.com), offering over-the-top luxury, stands right next to the site of Grimod’s family mansion, now occupied by the building that houses the United States Embassy. Doubles from 770 euros (about $1,180 at $1.53 to the euro).

The Hôtel de la Bretonnerie (22, rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie, 75004; 33-1-48-87-77-63; www.bretonnerie.com) in the Marais district operates in a restored 18th-century hôtel particulier, or private mansion, with exposed wooden beams and a magnificent wooden staircase that creaks at every step. Doubles from 135 euros.

WHAT TO READ

Almanach des Gourmands by Grimod de la Reynière. Paper copies are rare, but scans can now be found on Googlebooks.

“The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture” by Rebecca L. Spang (Harvard University Press, 2000).

<i>TONY PERROTTET is the author of “Napoleon’s Privates.” His next book, about the underground Grand Tour in the Victorian era, will be published by Broadway Books.</i>