Your First Meal in Paris

When Joanne and I travel to Paris, it seems that we usually arrive around noon. I’m still feeling groggy and cotton-mouthed from the overnight flight, so by the time we get settled into our hotel at around 2:00, all I want to do is take a snooze.

After a few hours of sleep, I’m up and ready to go to dinner. As most of you Paris travelers know, dining out there can be a lifetime culinary experience…..or the ultimate letdown.

I’m not interested in having either of those experiences straight from the airport. What I want when I’m still getting up to speed after a long flight is comfort…in familiar surroundings…cozy…eating well at reasonable prices…and not being dressed up or culinarily challenged. And to me, that’s BRASSERIE BALZAR, at 49 Rue de Ecole in the heart of Saint Germain near the Sorbonne. It’s always, always our first meal of the trip.

The restaurant has been around for over a century, and in the early years was a cheap dining refuge for an endless stream of cash-strapped students and professors. Not so much today. Balzar draws lots of locals, but not many professors or students because of the prices. There seem to be surprisingly few Americans in attendance; maybe because we tend not to want to eat all jammed in, side-by-side. But that’s how it is in a classic brasserie – and I love it.

The dining room is right out of Hollywood Central Casting for a restaurant of this type – big mirrors, Cubist paintings, dark wood paneling, a tile floor, and opalescent globe lights.

Now, don’t be put off by the maître d’ who’ll greet you. He’s been there as long as I can remember and hates Americans (or maybe just me). He’s downright PISSY. In any case, we’ve never had a surly server. They’re always professional, and sometimes even funny.

A word about Parisians’ reputation for rudeness: It’s not entirely undeserved, but for me it’s part of what makes Paris, Paris. Just go with it. You’ll appreciate the friendly Parisians that much more.

I wish I could tell you our favorite table number at Balzar, but I never bothered to get it. I can tell you where it is, though: When you walk in the door, look to your left. You’ll see a discreet table far in the back. Get there early enough and you might be able to snag it (as long as it isn’t occupied by an older gentleman and his…”niece”).

I’ve been scolded by a server here – all in good fun, I might add – that “in Paris we do not eat our salad BEFORE the main course.” The same server, on another occasion, informed me that, “in Paris, we keep our hands on top of the table…not down on your lap. We don’t know what you’re doing down there.”

On to the food: No skyrockets….no disasters.

Crusty bread is accompanied by a crock of Black Olive Tapenade. Nice starters include Eggs Mayonnaise, Duck Foie Gras with Brioche and Seasonal Chutney, and Steak Tartare served by the fun-loving server who, when presenting the dish, asked if I was the one who “ordered zee dog food.”

Salads range from a simple, lightly dressed bowl of fresh arugula to more composed offerings one with Toasted Goat Cheese. That’s a favorite of ours.

In true brasserie fashion, there’s no shortage of Steak Frites iterations – Rump Steak, Steak Au Poivre, Filet Mignon. Veal surfaces in two delicious ways: Blanc de Veau and in Pan Fried Veal Liver. Among the winter specials will be Choucroute Garni, featuring a fist-sized ham hock, sausage and sauerkraut accompanied by a little crock of French mustard. One dish not to my liking: the Pig’s Foot (Was that actually HAIR between the toes?)

As you might expect, fish choices vary day-to-day depending on what’s fresh. But most always you find Balzar’s signature Skate Wings on the menu with steamed potatoes, capers and lots and lots of melted butter.

Grilled Salmon is usually on offer as well, and occasionally Dover Sole, which I’d had both the traditional way with steamed potatoes and also deep fried (get it the traditional way; it’s way better).

Two desserts not to miss: the Millefeuille and the Valhrona Chocolate Profiteroles.

The wine list can get expensive, but our servers invariably find us decent “safe harbors” in the $30 range.

The problem in Paris these days is that with the soaring rise in rents and labor costs, many Iconic bistros and brasseries (some of which you probably know) have gravitated to serving food that is prepared off-premises and delivered to the restaurant. I have no way of knowing exactly which restaurants have surrendered to this practice…..they obviously don’t publicize it…but I’m pretty sure that Brasserie Balzar prepares everything on premises, to order. I’ve eaten there many times over the years, and I think I’d have noticed a deterioration in the quality of the offerings. This place never disappoints.

With three courses and a bottle of modest wine…..expect to pay about $90 to $100 dollars per person at today’s exchange rate.

I can’t think of a better or more comfortable place in Paris to “nurse” your first night’s jet lag.


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