American novelist and food writer Jim Harrison reckons God did not create man to eat small portions. I subscribe to the Gospel of St Jim. That’s why I’ve been in heaven for 30 years.
Yup, 30 years to the month I’ve been going to my kind of heaven, a restaurant in Paris called La Tour de Montlhéry – Chez Denise, a shoulder-to-shoulder eatery set off the old market area of Les Halles. Initially catering for the huge appetites of folk working in the all-night market, Chez Denise procured a cult following of journalists, night-clubbers, hookers and other night-owls who kind of liked the fact that the joint never closed and offered sustenance round the clock. Need a plate of bloody steak tartare at 03.30, Chez Denise is your place.
Currently, saner hours are kept. There is lunch until 15:00, and then the place reopens at 19:30. But – and remember this – you have to be out at 05:00, please.
The tables are adorned in red check. The waiters are male and wear white shirts and black aprons. The wine is white or red – Brouilly. It is loud, small – 35 covers, max – but Chez Denise is about eating and drinking and filling empty holes, with not an iota of the restrained preciousness one finds in so-called “fine dining” establishments. But the napkins are linen and they are big, and you get to use them a plenty.
The menu pays homage to the dead beast. Long before Fergus Henderson was preaching Nose to Tail eating, Chez Denise was hauling out platters of brains, tripes, liver, kidneys, pig’s feet and gut sausages. These items may be the ones attracting my personal taste, but the rest of the menu has a tempting register of less challenging meat. Beef cheeks. Beef steaks of various cuts such as onglet or Côtes de Bouef, mutton braised or in a stew and game. For the faint-hearted, less bloody types, one can find some overfed goose liver, duck confit, chicken or even fish such as salmon or turbot.
My favourite dish at Chez Denise has got to be the tripe cooked in Calvados. Thick slices of cow stomach, carrots, leeks and shallots braised in butter and calvados for hours. Served in a copper saucepan. The portion is big enough to feed four rugby players from Stade Francais, but they ain’t getting any of mine.
The tripe is sweet and unctuous, the sauce rich and sticky so you have to wipe your mouth with a wet napkin. Dunk some bread in the sauce. Wash it down with a half-a-glass of fruity Brouilly. The world is a better place.
Dish number two on the Chez Denise Hit Parade is definitely the calf brains. I am sure there is more than one in there, sliced in cubes, dusted with flower and fried in butter to a saffron-golden brown. Drizzle some lemon juice to cut the fattiness and this dish is addictive of the main-line variety.
And last, but not least, you can’t go wrong with the steak tartare. Raw charolais beef. Cut into small morsels with a knife held by a hand. Stir in some egg yolk, capers, Worcester sauce, anchovy, salt and pepper. Serve with a mountain of golden fries.
Come to papa.
Unfortunately places like Chez Denise are dying out in Paris. Owners of brasserie chains eye these kind of venues like vultures, waiting to pounce and turn the room into a more upmarket, trendy eatery where aesthetics play a more pronounced role and the food costs are cut by 70 per cent.
So, if you are around, get there. By hook or by crook. Experience it. Live it. Get pissed. Eat like a Trojan. Laugh with the locals. Scrum with the barman.
But come hungry.
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