eating and drinking at a bistro in nice
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” ―Julia Child
The other day I was meandering around Vieux Nice, and lunch time was approaching. While passing the Bistro d’Antoine, a favorite restaurant of mine where I have eaten many times, I saw on le menu posted outside the restaurant, as is typically done all over France, that I could order une cuisse de canard sur grille for lunch. Basically, it is grilled duck with potatoes and other vegetables, depending on the restaurant.
The previous week I had ordered a similar dish at le Comptoir du Marché, a restaurant not far from Le Bistro d’Antoine that has a similar style.
I wanted to compare the preparations for this dish, which is a typical plat français. I wanted to know if the two dishes were correct, as my French tutor might say, that is, were they proper, accurate, right.
I made reservations for 12:15, even though the church tower clock over my shoulder said 11:45. From previous experiences with Le Bistro d’Antoine and other popular restaurants, I have learned that arriving at noon and asking for a table without having reserved one may result in being turned away because the restaurant est complet, is fully booked.
“Il faut manger pour vivre et non pas vivre pour manger.” –Molière, L’Avare
My table was ready when I arrived. After getting settled, the waiter asked if I wanted an aperitif or something else to drink, which could mean an aperitif, a glass of wine, or some water. Typically, I say, “no.” If I want to practice my French, I mention that I will order some wine once I have decided what I will eat. Why order a glass of red wine when the main dish will be a delicate fish in a cream sauce?
The first order of business then is choosing something to eat. Typically, that is a bit more complicated in France than in the United States. Will you choose la formule? Which might consist of one, two, or three dishes, and sometimes four dishes? Will you choose a combination of the three? Or, will you go with one of the many suggestions du chef? Or, will you look past those options and decide from the à la carte menu?
I decided easily enough, because I was going to order the cuisse de canard sur grille. My only hesitation was what I wanted for the entrée, the first course.
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ―W.C. Fields
Grilled duck was to be the main course. Meat. Red wine.
In the United States one has generally two options when ordering wine during a meal–a glass or a 75cl bottle.
In France, depending on the restaurant, one can order a glass, un quart de vin (25cl), a half bottle (37.5cl), a half bottle (50cl), a bottle (75cl), or a liter (100cl).
Lately, and depending on the restaurant again, I have been ordering bottles of wine–37.5cl or 50cl. (The reasons are many and should be explained later.) At Le Bistro d’Antoine I opted for the 50cl of a Côtes du Rhône, a nice red wine that I know well. (I will never finish the bottle.)
In addition to the wine I might ask for a bottle of water or une carafe d’eau, a pitcher of water.
“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.” ―Charles Baudelaire
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” ―François de La Rochefoucauld
While deciding on the first course, I was intrigued by the mysterious ingredients of one dish–egg, smoked fish, and cabbage-like greens. (I need to write down the items on the menu. The descriptions of courses are fun to read if not enigmatic.)
The greens and smoked fish were mixed with mustard. The combination of the strong flavors of the smoked fish and the mustard made for a two part pronounced flavor that could not be ameliorated or tempered by the greens and the egg. The wine could not compete.
“Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive.” –George Bernard Shaw
The cuisse de canard with grilled potatoes and a purée vegetable was delicious, and correct.
I had asked that the duck be rosé. And it was perfectly so, and tender.
When ordering meat, especially beef, one must be prepared to choose the cuisson. Do you want the meat to be rare, medium rare, medium, well done? In France that corresponds roughly to bleu or sanglant (rare), à point (medium), or bien cuit (well done). It is rare to hear a French person order meat bien cuit.
Notice that I did not mention a French word for medium rare. For example, why not ask for la cuisson to be rosé?
For beef, although I see that changing, one has the three choices mentioned above. There is no such designation as medium rare for beef. Most French will say sanglant or à point.
However, if one orders duck, rosé becomes an option: one should choose either rosé or à point. Never never say bien cuit for duck. Most French chefs will say that the best cuisson for duck is a reddish interior.
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” ―David Mamet, Boston Marriage
Finally, is there room for dessert? Usually not, after eating two courses. I have noticed that many French prefer ordering the combination plat du jour et dessert, rather than my habit entrée et plat du jour. The French love to eat desserts.
« La caféine est cette drogue au puissant effet bénéfique—elle aide à se concentrer et à rester attentif, évite la somnolence et accélère la fréquence d’apparition des nouvelles idées— qui comporte seulement des inconvénients minimes. »
I will always order un espresso, a small café, that punctuates the meal and allows me to relax. Time passes that is well spent before paying the bill.
Sometimes a small chocolate or a small cookie will come with the coffee. I will then have a sweet moment.
Monsieur, l’addition, s’il vous plaît. Sir, the bill, please.
Balzac drank copious amounts of coffee. For those who read French, I offer two excerpts, one from an essay on coffee, and the second from the novel Eugénie Grandet.
« Ce café tombe dans votre estomac (…) Dès lors, tout s’agite: les idées s’ébranlent comme les bataillons de la grande armée sur le terrain d’une bataille, et la bataille a lieu. Les souvenirs arrivent au pas de charge, enseignes déployées; la cavalerie légère des comparaisons se développe par un magnifique galop; l’artillerie de la logique accourt avec son train et ses gargousses; les traits d’esprit arrivent en tirailleurs; les figures se dressent; le papier se couvre d’encre, car la veille commence et finit par des torrents d’eau noire, comme la bataille par sa poudre noire. » Balzac, le Traité des excitants modernes
« Eugénie apporta le verre. Grandet tira de son gousset un couteau de corne à grosse lame, coupa une tartine, prit un peu de beurre, l’étendit soigneusement, et se mit à manger debout. En ce moment, Charles sucrait son café. Le père Grandet aperçut les morceaux de sucre, examina sa femme qui pâlit, et fit trois pas ; il se pencha vers l’oreille de la pauvre vieille, et lui dit :
— Où donc avez-vous pris tout ce sucre ?
— Nanon est allée en chercher chez Fessard, il n’y en avait pas. » –Balzac, Eugénie Grandet