Food and Memories in Paris

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I remember a lot of food from our first trip to Paris in 2009, but I don’t remember anything as vividly as our dinner at A La Biche au Bois.  I remember eating at Le Timbre and having a delicious mushroom soup, but nothing else about the experience.  I remember eating our first escargot, but not where. I remember strolling through an outdoor market and getting baguette and my first taste of real goat cheese and falling in love. 

But when it comes to A La Biche au Bois, I remember sitting at the end of a longish booth; I remember how deeply flavored the coq au vin was; I remember the beat-up orange pots the coq au vin was delivered in; I remember the incredible cheese course; I remember the people sitting next to us giving us half their mashed potatoes because they were so good we couldn’t miss out on them—and they were; I remember being incredibly full but my girlfriend at the time, LeeAnne, forcing herself to finish the chocolate mousse because it was that good; I remember she couldn’t button her coat after dinner; I remember getting crepes on the way back to our hotel anyway.

I’ve been thinking about A La Biche au Bois and their coq au vin for 11 years now.

Over the summer, when my sister and some friends and I went to follow the Tour de France, I extended our trip by a day in order to be in Paris on a night they were open and finally go back to Biche au Bois.  We were arriving for our trip on July 20; I called for a reservation a few weeks in advance to find they, like much of the city, would be starting to take a month-long sabbatical starting—you guessed it—the day we arrived.  I think the lady on the phone could sense my disappointment, as she offered to let me join them on their holiday.

Champagne to start the evening in celebration

Luckily for my now-girlfriend Kaitie and I, our friend Nina moved to Paris in January to study, and we could justify a trip with a free place to stay.  I usually don’t go back to a place twice, let along three times—and especially less than a year after the previous visit—but the stars were aligning for us to justify the trip. I made a reservation for Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day, remembering LeeAnne and I had first been to Paris thanks to a long Valentine’s weekend flight-and-hotel deal. I don’t remember which day we went to Biche au Bois, but my return could very well be 11 years to the day from the first time I was there.

As we made our way to the metro from Nina’s apartment, my excitement turned slightly to nerves.  2009 was a long time ago, and I knew nowhere near as much about food as I do now.  What if I had completely misjudged the food, and it really wasn’t that good? I had suggested the restaurant to Nina when she had visited Paris in 2017, so in addition to talking up the meal to myself for 11 years, I had been talking it up to her for almost three.  I had been talking it up to Kaitie for, I’m sure, as long as I’d known her.  What if I was giving up a quick, easy answer to any future “what would be your last meal” hypotheticals?

We walked in and, despite appearing smaller that I remembered, nothing had changed.  Coat rack immediately on the left, long booth where I had sat the first time on the right. We were seated in the very front of the restaurant at the window, and chatted up by the host/owner who had chatted us up 11 years ago.  I had worried that they might have a special menu for Valentine’s Day, because why not once again destroy my dreams of eating here, but they only had a few additions.  We looked over the menu and decided to start our celebration of my triumphant return with some champagne, and Nina ordered us a bottle of wine as well.

I can’t quite remember what we started with in 2009—nothing I’ve eaten before that first coq au vin matters anymore—but I will remember our first course from this year.  Kaitie ordered a ravioli salad, which came with a poached egg perched atop and covered in pickled red onion.  I had a special of the day, which was two poached eggs in a mushroom sauce—a deep, earthy, umami dressing that gave off the pure taste of mushrooms; and once the perfectly-poached eggs were broken and the yolk mixed with the sauce, we couldn’t get to the baguette on our table fast enough.  I think we went through a second round of baguette for Nina’s order of escargot, which weren’t only hiding in shells filled with perfect buttery parsley sauce, but were also sitting in pools of it.  We knew a lot was coming and we shouldn’t fill up on bread, but the food in France makes that an exceptionally difficult principle to stick to.

Next, the main course. On the strength of my recommendation and years of guarantees, we all ordered the coq au vin.  The pieces of chicken, cooked tender and floating in the dark sauce with potatoes, came out in the same battered and chipped orange pots I remembered.  And that’s not where the memories stopped—as I spooned a portion of chicken, potatoes, and sauce onto my plate, the smell was immediately familiar, despite not having smelled it in over ten years (and only having attempted to make it at home twice).

I am also happy to confirm the coq au vin at Biche au Bois will remain my last meal candidate.  The chicken fell off the bone, the potatoes were creamy, bits of bacon and mushrooms were a pleasant surprise when they came up, and I couldn’t get enough of the thick, meaty sauce.  When we ran out of baguette (our third serving, I believe), I resorted to spooning sauce from the pot directly to my mouth. It was thick enough that the spoon left a line in the bottom of the pot before it slowly filled in. I could not have been happier.

After we had finished with the coq au vin, we were presented with the cheese course: a large plate of cheese that you can take as much or as little from as you desire.  How much better could life be at this moment, transitioning from one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten to the promise of, should I so choose, unlimited cheese? While Nina and Kaitie were a little more discerning with their selection in order to save room for dessert, I asked for a piece of each cheese on the plate. And ate them with more baguette.

Finally, on to dessert. We had to decide which we were each getting, and briefly considered some sorbet to cleanse our palates, but then gave up on that idea. Nina ended up ordering the daily special apple tarte, and I went with the house opera cake.  We had looked up opera cake to see that it was a cake of layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, which sounds incredible. The Biche au Bois version, however, was more along the lines of a traditional chocolate cake, though gooey in the middle, and sitting on a pool of crème anglaise. As a non-chocolate person, it was a little too chocolatey for me, which is a surprise, because I had convinced Kaitie to order the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier, and I couldn’t stop eating it. The slight orange flavor countered the deep chocolate flavor, as did the fact that the mousse was so light and fluffy it was like eating a chocolate-flavored cloud. As someone who has hated chocolate his entire life, I was as surprised as anyone to not be able to stop eating this.

In addition to the food being just as good as I remembered—and in some (chocolate) cases, even better—the price hasn’t changed much either.  Even with the glasses of champagne, a bottle of wine, and the extra supplement for the escargot, the entire meal for three ran us about €150. This was as reasonable a price for the quality food we got as I’ve ever had.

I know I can eat at the upper boundaries of gastronomy in France, and especially Paris; the French, afterall, practically invented cooking.  But it is this kind of food—the homey, slow-cooked dishes that are somehow comfort food even though they have no ties to your childhood. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, onion soup—these are what I crave in Paris.  This is what I go there for.  And these are the memories I will always keep of Paris, no matter how long it takes me to get back.

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