Friday, December 17, 2010

La Citrouille

Back in 2007 I was living in an apartment on Rue Guénégaud in the 6iem Arrondissement of Paris. When I didn’t cook in the apartment, but, instead, went to a restaurant for dinner, I went quite some distance from the immediate vicinity of the Rue Guénégaud. That was because over the years leading up to 2007, my restaurant experiences had been associated with somewhat different locations to that of 2007. And my style has always been, having found something that I like, to do it again.

One evening, just prior to leaving for a significantly long walk to dinner, I had a minor revelation. “There are lots of restaurants within two blocks of here; some of them must be good” an internal voice said to me.

A possible background driving force to that revelation was the fact that one of my favored entry and egress routes from the apartment to many of the places that I went to, and back to the apartment from many of the places that I had gone to was Rue Gregoire de Tours. Rue Gregoire de Tours was alive with restaurants: traditional français, Chinois, Indien, and a couple of crepe restaurants. I had noticed these restaurants with every trip up or down the Rue Greg, and wondered if they might be any good. But since I had never been to one of them, and therefore my ingrained habit going back to places that I have enjoyed, had never had a chance to kick in on behalf of the restaurants of Rue Gregoire de Tours, I continued to wonder, but the thought of actually trying one of them never occurred to me.

That had been true until the evening I just described.

The proposition the voice within me was posing was certainly a reasonable one. So I set off for Rue Gregoire de Tours to pick one of the restaurants that I had been seeing and had been wondering about.

I remember which one it was, and I remember quite a bit about the dinner. What I don’t remember is what, if anything, caused me to select it over all the other equally interesting looking and enticing options. By that I mean that I remember being in the one I chose, but I can’t remember in the context of that evening what had made it stand out. I’m making a distinction here between remembering and knowing.

That is because I don’t remember; but I do know.

We’ll get back to that a little later, because “knowing” is at the heart of the matter of one of my now favorite places here in Paris. And the “knowing” has come from the “observing” of certain activities that are a part of that restaurant’s mode of operation.

But, briefly, what I remember is that, after once entering the place for whatever reason I had done so, being quickly and graciously conducted to a wall table, being presented with a menu and being left to ponder my choices. I remember my server being totally not there hovering around me while I was in choose mode, but I also remember that the minute I had made up my mind, probably due to some form of telepathy, he was right there asking me for my choices. I remember that they had Corbières wine, which I had never seen in a restaurant, even in Languedoc, where it comes from. I remember having a pretty good onion soup, and, what I thought to be, really good – and interesting (the chunks of beef were about three times as big as any I had ever seen in the dish anywhere else) – boeuf bourguignon. I remember that even the pommes vapeur were good.

It had been a very pleasant experience. And before I had left Paris in 2007, I had experienced it a couple of more times with similarly pleasant results.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that, with my habit for repetition of things pleasant, that I have gone there a number of times since.

Oddly enough that hadn’t been the case. Until recently.

After leaving Paris in 2007 – that had been a six week stay – I had only been back briefly, for two weeks in 2008, and not at all in 2009. And the 2008 stay was for only two weeks and I was in an apartment toward the Eiffel Tower end of Rue de Grenell, making Rue Gregoire de Tours an awfully long walk for dinner. (That particular part of town – by Tour Eiffel - has the oddity that there really are no good metro routes to a lot of places one might want to go.) So if I ate at my newly found member of my list of favorites on the 2008 trip, I don’t remember it.

I don’t think I ate there, because as I always do, I ate in the apartment until a few days before departure so I had an accumulated budget surplus to spend like a drunken sailor. And I remember staying fairly close to Rue de Grenell.

(I will mention that on that trip I again violated my habit and tried a restaurant that was not on my previously-savored list – it was just toward Invalides down Rue de Grenell , one door from the door to my building. It turned out to be a North African restaurant, and it was really fun – and really good.)

So now we can move into the here and now of mid December 2010.

I am back where Rue Gregoire de Tours is close to where I live. I have eaten at the place I found in 2007 a number of times, both for dinner and for lunch, and I now feel as if I need to share it with the world – or at least the amazing shrunken subset of the planet who might ever read this blog.

I should mention that the name of the restaurant is La Citrouille – The Pumpkin.

From the vantage point of quite a few meals there I would say the food is on the quite good side of average.

The service is excellent.

The pots of wine are good and reasonably priced.

But it is the people, and the entertainment value that they add to the overall experience that would cause me to put La Citrouille on the top of any list of restaurants that I would ever assemble, if I were ever to assemble one, which I seriously doubt I will ever do. Even I draw the line at some forms of pretention.

So, let’s talk about the people.

The reason I know – now – even though I can’t remember what caused me to go to La Citrouille that first time instead of any of going to the other choices, is that I have been able to observe how the two waiters work the crowd. By the crowd I mean the endless queue of aimless lookyloos that pass by the glass front of the restaurant and its glass doors. That queue constantly devolves into little increments of one, two or, sometimes three, who stop and appear to be examining the menu. I can with some degree of certainty say that, while they may well be reading the words on the menu, what they are really doing – most likely without a clue that they are doing it – is they are trying to get a “feel” for the place in front of them. They are trying to see if it is “right” for them. They are trying to get a feeling if it is going to be a “welcoming” place.

From the first time Mysti and I took a side street off of the Champs Elysées and entered into the interior of some restaurant that we had decided to try, since we were starving, and since we had not eaten at McDonalds with Mary Ann and the crowd, I remember that feeling of wanting to be welcomed and accepted.

I can’t shake it. To this moment, every time I enter a restaurant that is new to me in France I crave that feeling of ok-ness. And to this day, my looking-at-the-menu-outside ritual – because I do do that - is really nothing more than hoping to be able to plug into the vibrations of the place and see what my comfort quotient might be.

And I know that that is what all those other people doing the menu examination ritual are really looking for. They are really not looking at what the offerings are – unless they are just plug stupid or really uninformed. The offerings from place place are just not that different – (they might be checking prices, but that is nothing more than the first layer of the palimpsest of “comfort”). What they are really trying to ascertain is “will I fit in here?”

And that is where the guys at La Citrouille are geniuses.

On my first visit of this 2010 trip I hadn’t seen the grand scheme of things as clearly as I do now.

But I had been able to acquire inklings.

As I had approached the entry – I didn’t need to lookyloo the menu posted outside - I was going to La Citrouille, and that was all there was to it – just before I could push the inward opening door, the waiter standing behind it opened it with a hearty and pleasant “bon soir monsieur, bon soir” and showed me to my table. How welcoming is that? (I am comparing this to a possibly more typical case, where one might have been, as I wasn’t in this case, a first time enterer of some randomly chosen restaurant door, with myriad deep seated concerns about being welcomed and accepted, and having to remember – again I am assuming a non-French tourist – what poussez might mean, and then trying to tirez unsuccessfully first, then poussez successfully, but with the embarrassment of having stood there rattling the door rather than opening it, and then entering the unknown inner sanctum, and hoping that someone would – quickly - help them to a table.)

The second trip to La Citrouille in this Paris interlude was the one that opened my eyes completely.

It turned out that the place wasn’t too full yet – I usually try to beat the hoard of Parisian diners that begin to appear about 2000, by showing up at places at 1930 or so – and they put me at a table right in the front, facing out to the windows and the poussez- activated front door.

Since the crowd so far was sparse, both the waiters had time on their hands. So they manned the door in sporadic shifts. And I don’t mean they stood there waiting for lookyloos to become customers.

First, it needs to be pointed out that these guys are psychologists. The bottom line of what they do is that they sense the comfort level, or lack of comfort level, on the part of the passersby and lookyloos – they are keen observers – and they then do – something – to raise what they perceive to be that comfort level as high, and as rapidly, as possible.

They – each in turn - stood there by the glass entry door, at parade rest, looking out - left, right, middle, left, right, middle – continually scanning Rue Gregoire de Tours.

Their major follow on activities to their observations out the windows took several forms on the night that I saw the act. I’m sure that there are many more such forms, but I am only a neophyte in the watching of these geniuses, and I know that I can’t possibly have seen anywhere near the entire show.

Observed Form One: Two mid twenties lookyloos at the in-front-of-La Citrouille menu, apparently trying to delve the depths of the cuisine de la maisson. Waiter waits until they start – the menu lookyloos seldom make a self directed move to enter La Citrouille - out and off up the street, and, opening the door he says with a pleasant beyond belief tone “bon soir, et bienvienue”. That is, anybody who ever had anything to do with IBM sales training, would know a classic example of the assumptive close. In this case it works. The young couple, as if mesmerized sheep, enter the place, take a table and become almost immediately, members of the deeply loved client base.

Observed Form Two: Same as previous form, except the lookyloos, with deep expressions of respect, and perhaps, regret, decline the offer of the open door. By this time I had become an identified co-conspirator in these activities. On a couple of occasions, when the post guy had had to attend to duties that took him off point, into the kitchen, and when, what appeared to me to be perfect configurations of lookyloos developing, I had gotten up and shouted back to the kitchen “monsieur, monsieur, les gens”. I had no idea; that was the best I could do. But the guy immediately knew that I was signing up for the game. And that made it even more fun. It was more fun because he and I exchanged observations and intelligence – everybody in the place speaks good English – but they are very respectful of my , one could only surmise, apparent desire to try to communicate with them in their native tongue – and we made non-binding bets about what was going to occur next with this or that group of recently departed menu scrutinizers.

In the case of the ones just gone, he had said “back in 5 minutes”.

That group re- appeared just about at that point and my friend opened the door as they approached it. “Bon soir, bon soir; deux personnes?”

Observed Form Three: A larger group – maybe five or six of the endless queue – stop briefly in the middle of the street (“ we don’t want to get to close to that menu; that might show commitment”) and stare myopically – they are all my age – at the general area of the menu.

My friend wastes not a moment.

He opens the door, rushes into the street shouting “bonsoir et bienvienue, monsieurs et madames; nous allons”. And he gestures to the door of La Citrouille.

And they follow him like sheep


There is a lot more. But this post is getting long. And, if there is any value to this one, then won’t it be fun to have another one?

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