The Neighborhood Joint – Le Petit Celestine

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How can a traveler authentically experience a place when only visiting for a short time? I ask myself this question on all of my trips, and my quest for authenticity is the reason that the more I travel, I try to stay in one place a little longer. It’s surely a trade-off because there are so many places I want to see. But which path is better – seeing the main sites in many places or developing a relationship with fewer places? We could debate this for a long time.

Either way, I’ve wanted to get to know Paris better, which was the goal of this trip. I wanted to experience  its details, not just visit the iconic sights. I wanted to get lost in its neighborhoods, wandering down tiny alleyways, popping into shops and cafes and galleries whenever inspiration struck. Serendipity was my guide, not any travel book or iPhone app.

I eschewed any sort of schedule even to the point that we found restaurant reservations to be too burdensome as they mandated that at some point we abandon our exploration to get to a preset location for dinner. This may have seemed contrary to my usual focus on finding the best food. But getting a taste of the ‘local life’ was also important, and, similar to the Belgium trip, this included having “regular local places” that we frequented multiple times during the trip and became recognized by the owners as best we could during the short trip. In Houffalize it was Cafe le Rallye. In Paris it was Le Petit Célestine.

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Touted by Paris restaurant reviewers as an excellent new addition to the Paris restaurant scene, this gem  was but a 7 minute walk from our apartment. Being a bit out of the way, it seemed to be frequented more by the neighborhood locals than tourists. It even has a cast of what appeared to be expat regulars attempting to re-create the Paris literary scene of the 1920s when Hemingway and Gertrude Stein held court. This seemed very apropos in this cozy, low-lit, quintessential French bistro-style spot that looked much like what one would imagine bistros did in those days. But its short, rotating menu is a decidedly modern upgrade to the traditional bistro fare, featuring locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients.

We ate there first on Wednesday night  because we wanted a place close to the condo so we weren’t out late prior to our early Thursday wake-up call to drive to Normandy. And we’d had a really  long day of wandering through the Musee d’Orsay, to the see the Eiffel Tower, to the Grand Palais, to the Champs Élysées, through the Tuileries Garden, and to the Louvre. (I would have continued to walk all the way back to the apartment, had D. not been the voice of reason, nearly demanding that we get a cab at the Louvre. It was a smart, smart move.)

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Since the weather was spectacular again all day and into the dusky evening, the terrace was packed. But all of the front windows open, and the place is so small that our table at the banquette still afforded us some of the gorgeous night time air. We were seated next to a young French woman, and her equally young, heavily-bearded male companion, animatedly conversing non-stop the entire time we were there.

Gesticulating with a vigor most Italians would envy, the two were leaning across the already tiny table, emphatically punctuating every point with barely a breath in between. I still can’t figure out when they had time to eat their food in amid all of the words flying fast and furious. The verbal sparring continued when they took two breaks during dinner to stand outside and smoke.

With my penchant for restaurant eavesdropping, I was incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t follow any of the conversation. I mean, I love to talk and tell a good story, but what could one possibly have to discuss non-stop for 2 hours? It looked as though she were trying to convince him of something – to leave his girlfriend, that he was not gay, that he should not move to the US to become a musician – I couldn’t tell. But even without the benefit of understanding their words, it was fascinating to watch the non-verbals and hear the cadance and rhthym of the French being spoken.

The menus are all in French, and we were waited on by the guy I’ll call Very Young Server. (I really wish I’d asked everyone’s name!) He spoke a bit of English, but I was able to hack my way through mostly speaking French. We started with the Terrine de campagne maison – the house made terrine – and the Carpaccio de tomates (noire de crimée , green zébra, coeur de boeuf et vinaigre Balsamique 35 ans d’âge). The terrine, cited by many restaurant reviewers as a must-try, didn’t fail to deliver. Thickly sliced and crowned with a layer of lard, this rich savory pork studded with earthy liver, was served with cornichon, moutard, and local arugula to balance it, and hearty, locally baked bread to put it on.

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The tomato carpaccio were thinly sliced heirlooms – beefsteak, green zebra, and black Russian (noire de crimée) –   tasting as fresh as if they’d been picked that morning, artfully arranged by color on the plate, topped with minced garlic and drizzled with fruity olive oil, and sweet 35-year aged balsamic vinegar.

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For our mains, I had the sesame-encrusted tuna filet with braised fennel (Mi-cuit de thon au sésame, fenouil braisé). Shockingly large for a European portion and barely balancing atop slowly roasted fennel and a beurre blanc style sauce, the fish was incredibly fresh and seared to perfection on the out side, but coolly medium-rare inside. I would have not thought to pair tuna with roasted fennel, but the delicate flavor of the fish married rather well with the subdued anise flavor of the gently melting fennel.

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D. ordered the burger. He didn’t want to because it felt too “touristy American,” but we had been noticing that the burger has become rather popular in Paris, and the Parisians sitting next to had ordered it, and it looked and smelled so appetizing – particularly because of the caramelized onions.

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Nestled on a buttered and toasted brioche bun, this house-ground meat tasted like it started as a very good steak. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, draped with a salty slice of hearty English cheddar (yes, not even a French cheese), and topped a small mound of sauteed onions and peppers, it was still juicy and flavorful despite our request for it to be cooked bien cuit based on previous experience of “medium” coming out more like seared tartare.

D. followed the example of our chatty neighbors as well as the other diners, removed the top of the bun and at the burger and bottom bun with a knife and fork. (See, even if we did get an “American” food we ate it a la Française!). A precious miniature fryer basket full of fresh-cut frites was served alongside. Clearly just pulled from the hot oil, these were mouth-burning crunchy-exterior, soft-interior, salty potato goodness.

We washed it all down with organically produced house côtes de rhône, lightly earthy, with hints of pepper and leather. Probably one of the better house reds I’ve had outside of Italy. (And, as we had quickly learned, a much better deal than ordering sparkling water in the restaurants.)

We returned to Célestine just two nights later after we got back from Bayeux. Since we’d opted to linger in Bayeux, it was almost 9:45 by the time we dropped off the rental car. Not knowing about other restaurants in the area, and not really having time to get anywhere too far away before closing, we had two options – take a gamble on something we walked past, or go back to Célestine. Exhausted and not terribly hungry – but knowing we would be come 2 am if we didn’t eat before going to bed – we went to Célestine. Admittedly, his burger from the previous visit was so good that I wanted it again. Well, half of it. We ordered one to split from Different Server Who I Think Was A Manager and an absolutely incredible bottle of champagne.

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We lingered over both, soaking up the atmosphere again. Seated at the banquette that runs in front of the tiny wooden bar, we were particularly entertained by listening to the Gertrude Stein-Hemingway-Struggling poet trio at the bar (the very same ones from the previous visit) arguing about the made-up words that Struggling Poet was using in his poetry. “It’s a concept!” he argued. “It’s gibberish!” Ms. Stein argued back. This was better than watching a movie! Finally Struggling Poet left, but then Mr. Hemingway joined Ms. Stein, and she continued her complaints declaring Struggling Poet “always made it about himself.” Sated and greatly amused, we wandered back to the apartment.

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Our third trip to Célestine was Sunday night on our way home from dinner. It was once again a gorgeous sultry evening – we’d been spoiled by the fantastic summer-like weather – and there was one remaining 2-top on the terrace. Wanting to soak up the outdoor atmosphere, we snagged it and ordered the housemade crème brûlée  that we’d been wanting to try and another bottle of that incredible champagne. Because champagne goes with everything, especially crème brûlée.  Served in a casserole dish, this skating rink of creme brûlée had a very large surface area, and, thus, the perfect ratio of velvety vanilla crème to sugary, crackly brûlée.

 

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To our left was a foursome – two of whom looked uncannily like people D. and I previously worked with. (This was apparently a theme of the trip, as we’d also run into a man at the Galerie d’Orsay who resembled my father in looks, mannerisms, and dress so much that we repeatedly did double-takes every time we saw him in the museum even though we knew very well that my father was at home in New York.)  They were clearly having a wonderful evening with many bottles of wine drunk and hand-rolled cigarettes smoked.

As we finished our dessert, Very Young Server and Server who I think was Also a Manager (or Owner) were efficiently cleaning the inside of the restaurant. Mr. Hemingway, who had been at the bar, slunk out onto the terrace looking particularly melancholy, and assisted in the clean-up by dumping leftover wine from glasses on empty tables into his own glass. He slumped down into a chair at the opposite end of the terrace, and stared gloomily into his improvised wine blend. A somber, but very dapper black gentleman drove up on a scooter, chained it to the metro entrance fence, removed his helmet to reveal a thick set of neatly-coiffed braids, and joined the foursome next to us.

When the cleaning was complete, Also Manager (or Owner) started an impromtu party, cranking up the music and dramatically opening bottles of champagne by slicing off the cork with a long knife and releasing a waterfall of foamy bubbles. He poured free champagne for all of us. The work-look-alike gentleman next to us began to sing along to the music with a most incredible voice. Another woman in the group started talking to us in French, and when I told her in French that I can’t really speak French, she paid a most lovely compliment saying “Oh I thought you two were French!” The female work-look-alike introduced herself as Kate, and we started chatting with the group, in between everyone singing and dancing to English and French favorites, including Sylvie Vartan’s L’Amour est comme l’cigarette which is written to the tune of Sheena Easton’s 9 to 5. (Who knew?) Even the morose Mr. Hemingway joined in when the Stones “Jumping Jack Flash” was played, leaping up from his seat to dance and sing along.

Could we have sought out different restaurants each of these nights? Absolutely. But then we wouldn’t have had the experience of chatting with the locals, of seeing their idea of a fun night, of being recognized and welcomed back by the staff. And that’s precisely what we were looking for on this vacation.

Le Petit Célestine
12 Quai des Célestins
75004 Paris, France
+33 1 42 72 20 81

 

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