We strolled through Saint Germain des Prés and I daydreamed of a life there. The librairies, cafés, vintage cinemas seduced me and I pictured myself a Sorbonne girl running off to class with a backpack full of books ´n autres choses. Some day maybe…
For lunch we chose a brasserie named Café Bonaparte, which faces a plaza across from the Église de Saint Germain des Prés. We sat at a small, round table out on the tightly packed sidewalk terrace, on two chairs pulled close side-by-side with a view of the street, like everyone else. We had some bread, a mediocre “ham and cheese” salad and two beers that cost a whopping 14 euros each, also like everyone else. And we smoked cigarettes, and we delighted in the sunshine, and we complained about the price of our beers – again – just like everyone else.
But we also had two wonderful dishes that hit the spot perfectly and made that meal especially memorable for me (despite that disappointing salad). There are probably no two French dishes as dissimilar as the following, but the melange kept things exciting on the laziest summer afternoon.
Soupe à l’oignon. A sweaty, stinky, steaming bowl of soupe à l’oignon in the 40° August heat on a terrace with the sun glaring straight down at us. And it’s gratinée, which means an inch-thick blanket of stretchy, chewy, oozing gruyère melted over the top, with caramelized patches that burst forth nutty, tangy flavor and a very thin sheet of melted cheese-grease hydrating the surface. Manage to dig through this and there’re slippery smooth strips of tender onion and half-crunchy-half-soggy chunks of baguette right below, floating over a wonderfully putrid broth laced with garlic. This dish is criminal. It’s gooey, crunchy and soft in all the right places and the combination of these textures makes it a pleasure to sip and chew. When you eat soupe à l’oignon it stays with you for a while. The pungent stank of the stuff comes seeping through your pores for the rest of the day, turning your breathe positively hostile. But in a good way. When it’s hot out it makes you sweat; it’s piping hot after all. And it’s amazing, like a big, sweaty hug from a man you love after a long jog on a hot summer day.
Tartare de boeuf is the ying to soupe à l’oignon’s yang. It’s clean, cool, raw. Fresh, beautifully bright red and blue beef is ground to a fluffy, crumbly texture and fork-smashed onto thin strips of toasted bread. It’s seasoned minimally with mustard and maybe some red wine, with a bit of good salt and fresh, zingy chives sprinkled over the top. At Bonaparte the tartare comes on easy-to-share, easy-to-eat toast tips with a side of fresh arugula, boiled, buttery smooth wedges of fingerling potato and a small ramekin of slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauce, reminiscent of Russian dressing. It´s the best dish to balance out the heat and stank of the soup. An easy, breezy summertime snack perfect for two.
These are two widely known staples of Parisian brasserie food, which, along with a good croque monsieur, a good steak frites and a good blanquette, I had long kept on my culinary bucket list to try. I did, and it was especially comforting to see that they exist just as I had imagined them.