Since I write occasionally about food, wine and restaurants, let me say off the bat that it would be inappropriate for me to accept an invitation to a restaurant that I didn’t intend to take seriously.
So maybe I came to Quai Ouest, a Seine-side restaurant just west of Paris in Saint-Cloud, with the wrong attitude. By wrong attitude I mean a slight headache, a poor night’s sleep, and beaucoup fine wine testing in Burgundy over the previous weekend. This, then, isn’t a restaurant review so much as a story about going lunch with fellow members of the foreign press.
Saint-Cloud is pronounced something like “san clue,” as in the French linguistic joke: “Saint-Cloud very much.”
This is a well-heeled town, home to the attractive national domain Parc de Saint-Cloud. The Seine winds past Saint-Cloud as it leaves Paris before snaking northwest, carrying its memories of Impressionist outings into Normandy and then to the English Channel.
On the day of the foreign press lunch the weather had just turned from Indian summer to Celtic fall. Paris, though, is a walking (and biking) city in any season, so I looked at the map and saw that I could take the metro to the western end of line 10, Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud, then have a nice half-mile walk along the Seine to the restaurant. It was only when I arrived at the bridge over the Seine that I remembered that while Paris is indeed a walking city the suburbs are not necessarily a walker’s delight.
There is much to recommend Saint Cloud as a suburban habitat, but a walk along the river is not one of them due to the heavy traffic obscuring the Seine. Nevertheless, I arrived safe and sound and 20 minutes late and would later elect the same route home.
Upon arrival I was handed me a glass of Champagne before I’d had the chance to kiss anyone hello. Even if it was too early (or too late) for me to begin drinking Champagne, I pride myself on knowing proper French etiquette, including Rule #1 Never arrive on time and Rule #2 Never refuse a glass of Champagne.
I’d dined at Quai Ouest once 12 or 13 years ago when the Champagne flowed and everyone was magnificently late. That was during its heyday under previous ownership, a time when Quai Ouest attracted beautiful people, businessmen with thick wallets, chic suburbanites, foreign fashion folk, and Parisian party-goers. (I can’t remember what brought me here then but it must have been an invitation since I don’t see myself in any of those categories.) In the evening, with its Seine-side wall of windows open, as they are in spring and summer, this 350-seat restaurant—part barge, part factory, part nightclub—would vibrate with see-and-be-seen joy and sweat and décolleté.
That heyday was long gone by the time current own Valérie Thomas-Colin purchased the restaurant in 2010. Personally, I don’t see high times at Quai Ouest returning on a regular basis anytime soon, but if anyone has the will, the dynamism and the financial background (as a trader in Hong Kong) to do so, it is likely she.
However, it’s difficult me to judge its nightlife potential though, since I’d come for lunch. That afternoon there were no beautiful people or Parisian party-goers or foreign fashion folk to be seen (or at least recognized as such), but there were foreigners—us, the contingent from foreign press association.
After the Champagne and the greetings, the 10 of us sat down with the owner for lunch. The server soon came around offering to pour a dark red Bordeaux—2004 chateau something-or-other, read the label, but I didn’t give it much of a glance before saying “Non merci.”
“You don’t drink?” said a knowledgeable wine writer seated nearby to my right.
I said, “I’ve just spent the weekend drinking Burgundy and can’t deal with Bordeaux after that.” This was supposed to be journalistic code for “I’ve been drinking too much the past few days and shouldn’t have come here in the first place because I have a slight headache, besides which it’s too early in the day to be drinking alcohol and didn’t we just clink Champagne glasses a minute ago, Saint-Cloud very much.”
But she took my words at face value because it turns out that nowadays not only do people have no sense of irony and nuance in e-mail or on Facebook but in person as well. And the truly knowledgeable (I’m not kidding, I’ve read her work) wine writer announced to all who would hear: “My neighbor here thinks that you can only drink Burgundy with a meal.” She then went onto explain that I obviously know nothing about Burgundy because there are hundreds of Burgundies, not just one. Furthermore, she drinks different wines every day because she’s a wine writer so I should at least give the Bordeaux a try.
There are indeed free lunches, you just don’t get to choose who’s sitting next to you.
For the next hour I generally preferred the bright and charming conversation with the German radio correspondent to my left rather than with the wine expertise to my right. Whenever I succumbed to the tug of dialogue from my right, the wine expert seemed to pick out a few words at whatever I said and then to rearrange them in a different sentence to which she would then reply. We actually had some pleasant exchanges that but overall I was reminded that as members of the foreign press it is less the press that we have in common than the foreign.
At the end of the meal, after the earnest chef had come to the table to greet us, the wine writer asked me what I thought of the food. I’d chosen a bass tartare, a thick fillet of beef with steak fries, and strawberries and raspberries with whipped cream. I told her that I’d liked it well enough and that it was like a good brasserie meal.
She shook her head and announced to all that would hear, “He doesn’t even know what a brasserie is! He thinks this is a brasserie. Would you come all the way out here for a brasserie?”
In our mutually foreign way we’d actually understood each other. But this is not exactly a restaurant review, Saint-Cloud very much.
Quai Ouest, 1200 Quai Marcel Dassault, 92210 Saint-Cloud. Tel. 01 46 02 35 54. Open Mon.-Sat. noon-3pm and 8-11:30pm (main course ~23€), Sun. brunch noon-4pm (39€). Vast separate smoking area (see right-hand section in top photo above). Access by taxi, car (valet parking) or ratp.fr.
(c) 2011, Gary Lee Kraut