In a case of life imitating art, I started coughing and sneezing before we even got off the Metro at Place Pigalle. We passed all the grimy little porn shops, and by the time we reached our destination, I felt dizzy. The famed Moulin Rouge is now just an overpriced tourist trap -- we gazed at a building that wasn't any more glamorous than the one that houses Bazooka's Showgirls in Kansas City. (In fact, what Bazooka's may lack in historical importance, it makes up for in architectural integrity).
My friend was sullen and petulant all the way back to our friend's apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement, a neighborhood usually filled with very good cafés and bistros. To make matters worse, it was a Sunday night, so lots of those restaurants were closed. "I'm hungry," my friend growled menacingly, "and we're never going to find anything good to eat."
But as luck would have it, we turned a corner and stumbled upon an unassuming neighborhood tavern. Without knowing a thing about the place, we pushed open the heavy door and begged for a table. After removing our wet jackets and scarves, we sat down to one of the most simple but delicious meals I'd ever eaten. And my grumpy friend? His spirits were restored so quickly that he could even laugh at his Moulin Rouge fantasy.
The word restaurant is based on the French restaurer, meaning to restore. Inns and taverns and coach stops served meals to customers in Europe and America before 1765, when a Parisian shopkeeper employed the word in a sign extolling his culinary "restoratives." Obviously the name stuck; these days, any joint that serves food can call itself a restaurant, even though some don't offer much in the way of true restoratives.
Brookside's Café Maison, however, is all about restoration. Eating lunches, dinners and Sunday brunches in this sunny, attractive dining room, I've had my hunger pangs relieved, my sniffles cured (the tomato-basil soup is a miracle worker), my bad moods soothed and my tension headaches banished. Sometimes a double espresso and a slab of Café Maison's lemon cake work better than Excedrin.
One reason I love the place is that it still hasn't been co-opted by the snob set (though the snootier A-list gays evidently prefer its Sunday brunch to the more plebian Sharp's a few blocks west). And even though the dining room is small, it's still possible to stroll in on a Saturday night without a reservation.
"Do you think it's because we're on the east side of town?" asks Jeff Fitzpatrick, the bistro's normally cheery proprietor. "I thought when we started serving wine we'd be much busier."
Fitzpatrick set up his lunch counter and espresso machine five years ago in a 1928 building that also houses the wildly popular J'Adore antique and gift shop. In fact, the neighboring businesses are as snazzy as any in Brookside, but Fitzpatrick worries that the perception that he's too far east might frighten some potential customers, such as those uptight suburbanites who won't even venture to the urban jungle of the Country Club Plaza.
That's fine with me. Without them crowding the place, there's more room for me to spread out my newspaper on a Sunday afternoon and leisurely eat one of the best brunch deals in the city: $12.95 for a big plate of excellent smoked salmon hash or, if I'm feeling really self-indulgent, the French toast stuffed with spiced Granny Smith apples and walnuts, or a crêpe wrapped around a heap of shrimp and scallops. And for an extra four bucks, I can pile a plate with cold chicken salad flavored with fresh dill, tiny croissants, cheese, ham and sweets from the cold buffet table.
Actually, I can understand why Café Maison has yet to be discovered. Unless you happen to notice the hand-painted sign on the sidewalk in front of the building, it's easy to pass by without giving it a second glance. The night I took my friend Carol Ann for dinner there, she was so bedazzled by the bright lights of the Blockbuster store in the small strip just east of the restaurant that she barely noticed where we were really going.
Carol Ann had just returned from an extended stay in Ireland and desperately needed a European fix of some kind, so she approved of Café Maison's soft lighting, its periwinkle walls, the warm baguette served with orange-flavored butter, the bowl of oily olives -- and the square-jawed, swarthy server.
"He's a darling waiter," Carol Ann noted softly, before turning her attention to a quivery custard of baked eggs and crabmeat. "And so attentive to my every need."
She had clearly been watching too many Claude Chabrol films, but I ignored her coy flirting and found real passion in my dinner. Chef Amaro Yaffe had beautifully prepared a roulade of tender chicken rolled around a stuffing of chopped zucchini, celery, carrots, mushrooms and shallots. Carol Ann also nibbled elegantly on roasted ruby trout lightly glazed in white wine and cream. "This restaurant reminds me of why I love Europe," she said. "I like the attitude. I like the lifestyle. People there know how to live!"
Having made that pronouncement, she wasn't ashamed to order that night's dessert special, a bread pudding made with the ingredients of crème brûlée. Our server informed us that the day chef, Morgan Roseburrow, had invented the dish. "He was making crème brûlée, and he noticed we had some leftover baguettes," our waiter said.
"It's delicious!" Carol Ann gushed. I thought it was an odd concoction, not quite custardy enough to be crème brûlée or bread pudding. Clearly, my attitude was too American for Carol Ann. "You need to live ... like a Frenchman!" she said. By the time we walked out the door, she was humming Edith Piaf's "On Danse Sur Ma Chanson."
I tried to behave with more Gallic sensibilities on my next visit, bringing jazz singer Queen Bey (who said she preferred French men to French food) and my friend Bob, a longtime fan of Café Maison. I needed to be restored to sanity that night, because I was on the verge of another head cold, and, worse, Miss Bey had launched into a monologue about running into an old flame that started during the first course and would continue well past dessert.
I can't remember a thing about her story, despite the fact that I'd started with a bowl of that healing tomato-basil soup. (Bob enjoyed a visually sumptuous salad of amber roasted pear slices on spring greens with generous dollops of gorgonzola.) But I can recall every intimate detail about my flaky hunk of sautéed halibut, drizzled with creamy tarragon-scented sauces. While Lady Bey was busy chatting, I took a bit of her dinner, too, a moist pork tenderloin discreetly dressed with a bourbon and mustard sauce. Bob had ordered Café Maison's signature dinner dish, the classic braised beef stew known as boeuf bourguignon, which was wonderfully comforting and hearty. Having taken lots of bites from everyone's plates, I was living like a true Frenchman all right -- the ninth century King Charles III, better known as "Charles the Fat."
I was better-behaved when dessert was served. The Queen devoured a triple-chocolate mousse, and Bob had a flourless chocolate torte, but this Charles the Fat simply sipped a cup of hot tea and enjoyed the soothing friendliness of the dining room and its chummy staff. That included the swarthy waiter, who pointed to a very chic matron at an adjoining table with an imposingly tall, stiff coiffure.
"She's had that same hairdo since 1962," he whispered.
Well, some works of art don't need to be restored.