In these wretched times, made worse if you don’t have enough loo roll apparently, I find myself dreaming of Paris again. The problem is that this time around, while we drum our fingers in self-isolation, I can only dream.
Paris once elicited fantasies of gaiety, and nights of absinthe-fuelled romance. Then it didn’t. My go-to brasseries got swallowed whole by a hugely expensive group (which also looks after Burger King). Tourists overwhelmed. Even the city’s best sandwich – baguette, ham, dijon mustard – raced towards ten quid. So, despite oysters, despite Montparnasse cinema, despite Alain Ducasse, I stopped dreaming of Paris.
Little Bangladesh still exists, quirky sex cinemas still lurk down side streets (Hello!? Pornhub!!?) and there are bars you would never grace
But just before going into lockdown, I went back. Like most people I skip off Eurostar and make straight for the Metro, to take me someplace interesting. I’ve had too much of the flotsam and jetsam that lurks outside Gare du Nord, the detritus of the station approach. (Of course right now I’d be wandering there alone). Plus, I once got my laptop nicked while clambering out of a taxi there. The concourse has been smartened up a bit, but more importantly the area fanning outwards, the 10th arrondissement, has been rediscovered by Parisians. Little Bangladesh still exists, quirky sex cinemas still lurk down side streets (Hello!? Pornhub!!?) and there are bars you would never grace. It’s not all shiny and new. The worst indoor food market in France, Marche Saint Quentin, was just beginning to show signs of life before Covid-19 arrived, with an impressive new cheese counter and fresh fish from Noirmoutier.
Walking south down Rue du Faubourg St Denis, a shabby old trading street with a whisper of Baudelaire, now invaded by baristas and Japanese noodle shops, there’s a junction with Rue du Chateau d’Eau which sports a bar at each of the four corners. You just know you can buy anything here.
A few metres further on is the dull brown facade of Bouillon Julien, currently the focus of my dreamscape. It’s over a hundred years old and has been rescued by an Alsace entrepreneur who employed John Whelan, an RCA design graduate originally from Birmingham, to “do it up”. He promptly returned the interior to its former glory: luminous sea green walls, resplendent with Art Nouveau flamboyance. Beatific nymphs pose beneath the stained-glass ceilings, floral floor ceramics and peacock wall panels sing in harmony. An exuberant fantasy anchored by dark notes of deep purple. It is Grand Eating, as opposed to fine dining: a Belle Époque House of Devotion dedicated to gastronomie, egalite, fraternite.
In 1900, a Bouillon was for those who couldn’t afford a brasserie but still wanted decent food in decorous surroundings. There were, apparently, 250 at one time. Today there’s less than a handful.
It may be silent right now but during my first lunchtime visit the joint was proverbially jumping. At night, it was even busier. The photograph is ironically bang up to date, there really is nobody there, but in normal times it doesn’t do this bustling hive of genial activity justice. Staff were in a permanent whirl, happily dispensing copious cocktails to accompany French classics. A most pleasant daydream, I think you’ll agree.
This is a movie set, not a restaurant, and any second now the credits are going to roll
The house special, the actual bouillon, is a deeply satisfying bowl of what we must now call bone broth (stock) with chunks of beef, pasta, ginger and lemongrass – hearty food for the peasantry. Everything else that I got through on the menu, from Œufs durs mayonnaise to Choux Chantilly via a plate of Comte was not only delicious but astonishingly inexpensive. The wine is cheap too. The Parisian couple adjacent were frequent customers. “We adore it” she said, nicking her husband’s chips. I adore it too.
Floating across the street, my dream takes me down a dark lane, to Brasserie Floderer – Flo for short – whose faded signage proclaims Taverne, Salle pour Societes. Inside, a dark wood interior has been lavished over by John Whelan too. It appears empty, save for the ghost of Godard, or possibly Cocteau. You choose. This one’s all about natural light. A silver duck press glistens in the shafts of sunlight streaming through leaded, stain glass windows. My table, covered by the crispest, fresh white linen is set with glistening silverware, water, wine and warm bread, before the liveried maitre’d brings a platter of Guillardeau oysters, France’s finest. No requirement for lemon, tabasco, or shallot vinegar, just a small pinot blanc to underpin their saline sweetness. Followed by choucroute, a huge platter of sausages, pork, and sauerkraut. The maitre’d becomes the sommelier before my eyes and asks if the pinot gris I ordered is OK. It is, but he insists on gifting me a glass of Alsace grand cru riesling, rocket fuel for the taste buds.
This is a movie set, not a restaurant, and any second now the credits are going to roll. But not before the maitre’d/sommelier has completed his hellfire flambé of crepes suzette by my table.
Of course, it wasn’t a dream either, I was there. It’s just that it is now.
I hope they’re both open when I go back. C
Before he woke up, Derek Guthrie swears he was staying at the new 25Hours Hotel opposite Gare du Nord. Precisely 250 steps from Eurostar’s front carriage