Le rosbif is an excellent husband: loving, supportive, and, I should stress for the sake of this blog, a very fine cook. But he has his foibles, as do we all, and those little flaws can sometimes cause great trouble – as in the case of le rosbif’s tragic pursuit of satisfactory steak frites in Paris and the terrible pressures that his quest has placed on our marriage. I only hope that one day I can look back on this situation with humor.
My husband shares with his fellow countrymen the great love of beef that has earned Britons the sobriquet les rosbifs from the French. Rather than feel insulted by this nickname, the British have long been proud of their beef-eating ways. English satirist James Gillray used the image of John Bull tucking into roast beef to prove the superiority of British monarchy over French liberté during the era of the French Revolution. Today, no amount of bad press about mad cow disease will persuade the Brits to rename their beefeaters to chickeneaters, or to replace the classic Sunday roast with seitan.
Of course, the British give as good as they get, calling the French “frogs” in return. There is some debate about whether this insult emerged in reference to la cuisine française, but there can be no doubt that it holds that meaning today. The French are forced to consume frogs, the thinking goes, because of their lack of better options. According to many robust British nationalists, the fancy sauces that characterize la cuisine française are intended to disguise the poor quality of French meat. This tradition of thought dates back at least to 1791, when the Rev. Richard Warner, author of Antiquitates Culinariae, disparaged French cookery as the “art of making bad meat eatable.” The salubrious British climate made for finer quality meat that would be spoiled by French sauces, he warned. (Curiously, Warner’s nationalism made an exception when it came to frogs. He celebrated the French ingenuity of creating a delicious morsel out of this amphibian disdained by the British as “disgusting” and “unfit for the kitchen.”)
Perhaps it is this long history of Anglo-Franco rivalry that dooms le rosbif’s quest for a satisfactory steak frites in Paris. Perhaps he embarked upon his quest with a hidden agenda, secretly hoping for its failure in the wish to establish British superiority once and for all. But since he has always insisted on his great admiration for France and French food, another party has to take the blame for his repeated disappointments. He needs a scapegoat, and that, sadly, is me. (Actually, considering my name, maybe I should call myself a scape-sheep.) For wherever a steak frites disappoints, it appears to le rosbif that I am to blame.
We stumbled across “Robert et Louise” while wandering the Marais looking for dinner. It was growing late, we were hungry, and we couldn’t agree on where to eat. I wanted to join the crowds sitting outside at one of the many packed cafés, but le rosbif worried that the crowds were there to drink and we wouldn’t get a decent meal. It may have been 10:00 by the time we walked past Robert et Louise, saw the steaks cooking in the open hearth, and made a swift decision to go inside. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Robert et Louise has been very popular among tourists ever since Anthony Bourdain filmed a television episode there several years ago. We sat downstairs in the stone-walled cellar with all the other Anglophones. I read the plats du jour off the chalkboard to le rosbif, whose familiarity with the French language remains limited, and suggested that he would like the special côte de boeuf. For myself, I order the rack of lamb, because I love lamb and eating those little chops always feels like a luxurious treat. All the meat at Robert et Louise is accompanied by lovely roast potatoes and salad. Sadly, as the reviewer for Le Figaro notes, la viande is of a qualité inegale. My lamb chops were delicious, we agreed, le rosbif’s steak was not. The blame fell squarely on me for recommending the dish.
It was le rosbif who chose Le Verre Siffleur for a dinner out one evening with the children. Around the corner from our apartment, this casual eatery is always crowded. Unusual for a Paris bistro, it takes a more creative approach to cookery, mixing Asian ingredients with French. Our son ordered the cheesburger, our daughter, who eats like a bird, made do with baguette and bites from everyone else’s plates. I ordered the gigot d’agneau because – as I mentioned before – I love lamb, and le rosbif ordered the steak frites. Or, I should say, I ordered it for him. When asked how he wanted it cooked, I answered saignant, or bloody, because I knew the word, and I didn’t know how to ask for medium rare. Plus, I love my meat rare. Le rosbif, however, does not. It was my fault for ordering wrong. When his steak came to the table mooing, I volunteered to change plates, and asked the waitress – who happened to be English – how to order next time. Perhaps à point, she said, which translates to “cooked to the right temperature” (which, according to French opinion, is saignant). The only other phrase I know for ordering meat is bien cuit, which means well done, and no one wants to eat that.
We ate at La Vagalame, an open-air rotisserie café beside the Seine, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Under a great white tent, we sat on high stools at a wooden bar and gazed out at the river along this eastern stretch of the Left Bank. I ordered the poulet crapaudine, a grilled butterflied chicken, our son had the travers de porc au miel, honey pork, our daughter ordered an extra plate, and le rosbif ordered the pork plat du jour. Malheureusement, they ran out of the plat du jour, so I ordered him the entrecôte steak instead. It came with a side of potatoes dauphinois. It wasn’t what he wanted, my fault for ordering it. Luckily, our son did want it, and halfway through the meal they traded plates. After lunch we sat in canvas deck chairs by the water’s edge, feeling grateful for the September sun after several days of rain.
On one of those rainy days, le rosbif and I had lunch together at Chin Chin, a bistro overlooking the Parc Montsouris. The weather was overcast as we walked from our apartment. As soon as we sat inside at a table by the windows, the rain came down in great pounding sheets upon the pavement. There is nothing quite so cozy as looking out on the rain from the safety of a friendly restaurant. I ordered the saumon façon gravelax, le rosbif had the bavette steak with frites. The salmon was fresh and sweet, accompanied by a salad of shaved heirloom carrots that I have tried several times since to recreate. The steak was unaccompanied by sauce. Le rosbif poked at it disconsolately on his plate. Finally he asked for mustard. Mustard with steak! I worried that the chef would be offended. Soon afterward, the Frenchman at the table next to us asked for mayonnaise to accompany his own bavette after it arrived at the table similarly unadorned. Refused this condiment, he too asked for mustard. Le rosbif felt vindicated. Just as we finished lunch, the rain let up. Out we strolled into the breaking sun, to circle the park, while listening to the calls of ring-necked parakeets from the buttonwood trees. Perhaps this time the disappointing steak frites could not be blamed on me. But the next time…
Well, the next time we were on our way to go shopping for dinner at the marché aligre, and I hoped to eat lunch next door at Le Charolais, a tiny restaurant run by a rugby-loving Frenchman, but le rosbif’s new shoes gave him blisters before we had walked halfway there. So we stopped by the nearby rue Mouffetard instead, a market street in the Latin Quarter much visited by tourists. We bought two maquereaux (mackerels) from a poissonier, a saucisse de canard (duck sausage) from a charcutier, and we were on the lookout for some watercress when suddenly hunger descended on me like a thunderclap. I had to eat immediately, and so I darted into the next restaurant we passed on Mouffetard, a tired-looking, mostly-empty, cavernous place. A signboard outside advertised a very inexpensive (by Paris standards) formule huîtres: 9 oysters, a glass of white wine, and a dessert for 18€. It appealed to my frugal side. Le rosbif is not quite so frugal, and was not excited by the 9€ formule midi, of entree, plat, and dessert (half the price of most restaurants). He ordered a steak frites. The atmosphere at the table was frosty. The first sips of wine foreboding. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the oysters if I were on my own, but watching le rosbif poke morosely at his filet de boeuf en sauce mystère (maybe Rev. Warner had a point), my own oysters did not taste so sweet. I am not sure that I will ever be forgiven for this unhappy choice.
If le rosbif considers me, his dear wife, to be at fault for almost every unsatisfactory steak he has eaten since arriving in Paris, the only consideration keeping our marriage from dissolution is that he also gives me credit for the best he has enjoyed. When we happened across boucherie Hugo Desnoyer near Mouton Duvernet, the name immediately rang a bell. A magnificent côte de boeuf stood regally in the shop window, but le rosbif lost his heart to the filet mignon inside. Shocked at the price per kilo demanded by this famous “butcher to the stars” I asked at first for the faux filet, a cheaper cut, instead. But when I saw the look of disappointment crossing le rosbif’s face, I swiftly reversed my order and asked for the real filet. Instead of reaching into the case, the butcher disappeared into a back room and returned with an aged tenderloin of unrivalled beauty. He trimmed the meat with great care and cut us a fine-sized piece for four. Later that night I cooked the beef with salt and butter, and served it with cèpes, champignons de Paris, and roasted potatoes. Each bite contained a universe of flavor, meaty, minerally, luscious. There were no complaints at the table that evening.
Perhaps it would be wise for le rosbif to quit his quest for a satisfactory steak frites, and order other dishes from the menu. It would be a small price to save our marriage. But I feel positive that he will continue bullheadedly down this beefy path. Perhaps the steak frites that will make him happy is just around the corner. We’ve been wanting to take the kids to Le Relais de Venise l’Entrecôte, the famous French steak house with branches now in New York and London. Le rosbif ate there by himself in New York one evening, in preparation for our year in Paris. Soon we’ll go back to Le Charolais, and I know he will order the bavette when we do. Many people regard the steak frites at Le Severo, in our arrondissement, to be among the best in the city. We will have to find out. Somehow our marriage must weather these experiences. Perhaps if I can teach le rosbif how to order for himself?