It has always axiomatic that anyone in search of a serious meal in a fine French restaurant would have to order a la carte. Few of the great restaurants offered a set menu or prix fixe (fixed price): It would have insinuated that the customer couldn't afford the meal arranged for tourists who don't know how to order.
Having just returned from a month in Europe, I am happy to report that things have changed. It was a pleasure to be able to sit back in a restaurant, relaxed in the knowledge of precisely how much the meal would cost.
Even in Paris, we ordered the prix fixe menus now offered by many chefs there. At few places did we feel compelled to choose from the "grande carte."
Outside the capital as well, three-star establishments included complete meals with a set price. Indeed, restaurateurs like the Troisgros brothers in Roanne and Paul Bocuse in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or report that a hefty percentage of their clientele now orders from one of the several menus available.
Despite rumors to the contrary, it is possible to eat like a king in France, and for far less than you might expect: $40 per person for a complete evening of dining and one of the best meals you can get anywhere in the world.
On our first night in Paris we dined at Au Pactole, 44 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75005. The Pactolus was the river in which King Midas went bathing after he was cursed with the power of turning everything he touched into gold. After that chilly bath, the Pactolus (Pactole in French) began depositing golden silt on its banks, and the word Pactole is now used as we use "gold mine" in English.
The chef-owner, Roland Magne, describes himself simply and humbly as a cook. He is famous for his inventiveness and, sometimes, his daring. Such dishes as fish pot-au-feu, fricassee of baby kid with fresh mint, and rack of lamb with violets come to mind as exemplifying at least one side of Magne's talent.
The restaurant welcomes you with open arms. There is an immediate sense of domesticity, of visiting someone in his home. The youthful dining room staff enjoys the work and does it well, with its obvious concern for the guests more than making up for any lapses.
Roland Magne is forever in and out of his kitchen, making sure that everything pleases the guests, greeting and entertaining personal guests, but always keeping track of exactly what is going on the kitchen. Impeccable meats, fish, and produce, and only foods in season, are all that may be used at Au Pactole.
Au Pactole offers a complete menu at about $21, and this includes a plate of three assorted hors d'oeuvre, then a choice of terrine of sole, stuffed mussels, or a light-as-air avocado mousse with kiwi fruit; a daily special or a steak; and finally either cheese or dessert.
On the various evenings we were there, the daily specials included civet de lievre, fricassee of chicken with fresh mint, a nice variation on the kid dish, and sliced breast of duck with a green peppercorn sauce.
The civet, a rich, dark game stew, is an example of Magne's other side, for it is good old-fashioned country cooking; the night we ate it it was perfect. Outside it was cold and wet, and the hare stew, flavorful without being gamy with its garnish of cubes of bacon and tiny onions, was warming and comforting.
The breast of duck might be a surprise to many Americans. It was served rare , and its almost beefy flavor was cunningly balanced by the peppery sauce, thickened only by reduction, the last-minute addition of butter, and, it seemed, a bit of meat glaze.
I didn't taste the chicken, but on another, a la carte, occasion, I ordered the kid with mint.
The nuggets a rib meat were only about an inch across, and most of the bones could be chewed easily. The extreme delicacy of the young meat was not overpowered by the light sauce with its infusion of fresh mint leaves: a great dish.
Desserts included such pleasures as a lemon Bavarian cream with raspberry sauce and an excellent Black Forest cake. There was a dish of wonderful creamy chocolate truffles made on the premises, as was the silky marinated salmon that was offered before the meal as a canape.
Just around the corner from Au Pactole we found La Maree Verte, 9 rue de Pontoise, owned by the imaginative and brilliant Jacques Maniere, whose restaurant Dodin-Bouffant's is one of Paris's finest. Maniere reckoned that he could use Dodin-Boufant's buying power and facilities to open up a second, smaller house serving only a fixed-price meal at 100 francs (about $23) and a fine, generous meal at that.
It is working and for good reason. Where else can you get first-rate, homemade foie gras as part of a $23 dinner? The foie gras comes from the kitchens of Dodin-Bouffant and the extraordinary oysters come from its tanks. There can hardly be many freshner oysters in Paris than Dodin-Bouffant's, amd la Maree Verte is only three blocks away.
Other first courses include homemade marinated salmon, fish mousse, shrimp and artichoke salad, and a clever salad of seafood and pasta with basil sauce. For a main course there are always such dishes as paella, poached Dover sole, lamb chops, and "confit" of duck with sorrel puree.
A confit, whether of duck, goose, or pork, is prepared by slowly and gently cooking the meat in the fat of the animal. It is a semipreserve and will keep for months. When it is serving time, a piece of meat is taken out of the storage crock and sauteed, to warm it trough and crisp the outside.
Daily specials included magret of duck, the breast of a meaty duck treated as a steak and either broiled or pan-fried; poached scallops with roe, prepared with spinach; stuffed sea eel with green peppers; and steamed Bresse chicken with homemade noodles.
Cheese follows, always at its peak, then wonderful desserts, also from the dessert carts of Dodin-Bouffant. On this menu, even beverages are included.