Paris is a city that often leaves me cold. Even though I lived there for 6 months and have returned umpteen times (thank you Free Movement), I’ve never been massively impressed by its dining scene. This may seem an odd thing to say about Paris but it really isn’t. As a general rule, it’s a tale of two cities: on the one hand you have bog-standard bistros serving tiresome staples like steak frites which are often sub-standard; whilst at the other end of the scale, you have to re-mortgage your house or sell both your kidneys just for a side salad. There is very little in the middle ground and my many subsequent visits to Paris have not really disabused me of this conclusion. Therefore, I only have a handful of tried and tested places in this city that I go back to time and again. One of which is Le Fumoir: it’s reliable, doesn’t break the bank and the staff never change (though they may pretend they don’t recognise regulars in that aloof Parisian way, you know they do).
I was always aware of the legendary Chez La Vieille just a hop and a skip away from Le Fumoir but only recently got round to trying it out. After a Negroni at Le Fumoir, it was time to head 3 minutes up the Rue de Rivoli for a slight change of scene.
The French language is often a lot more poetic than English: “la vieille” is a nice way of describing an old biddy, really. The “vieille” in question is former owner Adrienne Biasin, a rather formidable lady who was known for her brusque manner whilst celebrities and businessmen enjoyed long lunches (perhaps back when French wines had naturally lower ABVs and one could linger for longer without getting pissed). But after “la vieille” retired, the restaurant drifted a bit and no-one could really make it work. A two-floor venue in the dense first arrondissement can be a tricky proposition. Spying a golden opportunity, Chicago-born Francophile Daniel Rose bought it and set up Chez La Vieille 2.0 in 2016.
Chez La Vieille is one of the good ones. It might even be added to my handful of go-to places
I had read mixed reviews in my due diligence beforehand. One had complained that the upstairs dining room lacked atmosphere. I suppose it depends when you go but on the Saturday night I went that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every table was taken in the rather cramped dining room. It was buzzing. Meanwhile, the ground floor bar was standing room only. One thing was very noticeable though: there wasn’t a single French customer. They were all Americans. I don’t know if this is truly representative of its regular clientele but it’s perhaps understandable considering the chef patron’s background. But at least the cuisine is still very French, with nods to the restaurant’s illustrious past. All the staff were French too (and unusually friendly for Paris) and perhaps it was some relief to them that I conversed with them entirely in their language. (Certain co-diners, by which I mean all of them, didn’t even try to speak the lingo. They just spoke English even louder. I know it’s easy to pontificate when you once lived in France, but there’s no excuse not to cobble together a few words in your host country’s language. When in Rome and all that).
As I sat down at my table I was enveloped by an extremely inviting smell of cooking – like when you return to your cosy holiday cottage after a bracing autumnal walk and there’s a casserole bubbling away in an aga and a bottle of Pomerol breathing on the side cabinet. Meanwhile, the soundtrack in the background carouseled between REM, Blur, Duran Duran and INXS – all fine by themselves, but as I said about Roganic, I’m not sure that middle-of-the-road Anglophone ‘wedding rock’ is appropriate for a restaurant, especially one that purports to be French. I don’t think Adrienne would’ve approved either.
The music, tight space and the conspicuous absence of French clientele aside, the food itself was utterly delightful. It’s the kind of simple yet well-executed French comfort food you just want to eat.
Celeriac rémoulade with crab was light and perfectly made with pink grapefruit that cut through the mayo with a little bitterness. I loved it. In many ways the perfect starter.
I then caved in with the blanquette de veau. Some criticise this classic beige stew as boring, but have the one at Chez La Vieille and you’ll be converted forever. It was restorative, gorgeous, creamy and gelatinous. As the steaming stew pot was conveyed to my table, it got a lot of oohs and aahs from envious co-diners, though the stiff and clumpy rice it came with was a slight let-down. You could mould the rice into any ancient or otherwordly structure of your choice. A monolith or a ziggurat, perhaps.
The desserts are also homely and straightforward. The tarte au citron meringuée was huge, with zingy lemon and wonderfully light meringue that had just the gentlest caress of a blow torch. It sounds simple but it takes a decent pastry chef to get this right.
There is no skimping of portions at Chez La Vieille either. By the end I was full as an oeuf. And it was duly noted that the little bread basket on the side was regularly topped up – some of that bread soaked up the remains of the blanquette de veau beautifully. In addition, the wine list is uncontroversial and reasonably priced, though I would be more impressed if there were more wines available by the glass (Paris is still very resistant to solo dining).
A three course meal with two glasses of wine and an espresso came to around 60 quid, which is fair for this part of Paris.
I will always have a conflicted relationship with Paris and its often disappointing dining scene but Chez La Vieille is one of the good ones. It might even be added to my handful of go-to places.
1 Rue Bailleul
by J A Smith