Monday, July 28, 2008

L'Ecailler du Bistrot

One of the few French pop songs I truly like is Vincent Delerm’s Tes parents.”  In it, the singer envisions how his girlfriend’s parents might be and describes a few different familial scenarios, each more horrifying than the last.  The happy ending is that Vincent is willing to put up with a lot—slideshows of vacation photos, slobbering dogs, opera music—to make things to work out with his lady.  Je suis prêt à faire des concessions...manger des huîtres au Reveillon,” he sings (“I’m ready to make some oysters on Christmas Eve”).

My first glance at the dozen raw Belon No. 5 oysters staring glossily up at me from a bed of root-like seaweed last Friday night made me understand why Delerm might think of eating oysters as making a concession.  I was eating one of my last meals in Paris (and, if all goes according to plan, one of my last meals as an omnivore) at L’Ecailler du Bistrot.  I had been tipped that this seafood restaurant on rue Paul Bert served oysters farmed in  Southern Brittany that were not to miss. 

I had never encountered an oyster up close, and the ones in front of me looked like slimy alien mushrooms.  Once I worked up the nerve to disengage one from the grip of its shell and put it into my mouth, its flavor was a shock of pure salinity—nothing I’ve ever eaten has tasted so much like the ocean.  I didn’t think that I really wanted to eat all twelve if each was going to feel like the equivalent of an unintentional swallow of seawater.

I went for a second, though, and a third, and these had a pleasantly sweet dimension that the first had lacked.  By the time I got to the sixth, I had hit my oyster stride and was letting them slide down with pleasure.  With a spritz of lemon, the flavor improved even more, and I began to enjoy the slick pop of unsuctioning each animal from its shell with my miniature fork.  By the time I swallowed the last I was feeling a nice clean buzz, as though I had downed a black espresso or other mild stimulant.

If my dozen Belons got me high, my main dish, homard frites, brought me back to earth.  No meat I’ve eaten has looked so much like the animal it once was as the half-lobster curled pathetically on my plate, its legs limp and easily snapped off, smothered in rich hollandaise sauce.  I thought of a short, charming essay Sam Sifton recently wrote for The New York Times Magazine about how to cook and eat lobster for “a weekend of simple excess.”  The author urges, “Don’t consider the lobster.”

So, as is par for the course for me these days, I stopped considering the lobster.  Unfortunately, actually consuming the lobster took a bit more effort.  The waiter had given me two shiny, cryptic tools—a cracker and a pick—in addition to my fork and knife, but I had no idea how to use them.  I ate the delicious, loosened bits of flesh that were easily extracted with my fork, then I turned my two mystery utensils about in my hands, occasionally grasping a section of the lobster’s red shell with the cracker and poking at the flesh with the pick.  The yellow hollandaise sauce was starting to  smear.

Eventually, the two men on a dinner date next to me could no longer pretend to ignore the increasing volume of the utensils clacking at their neighboring table.  With some kind instruction on their part, I managed to extract and devour all the butter-tasting lobster meat I could find.  Still, the claw remained intact.

I think that the middle-aged couples who made up the majority of L’Ecailler du Bistrot’s clientele were staring at me as the waiter (who maintained a stoic look on his face that made me think that this was not his first intervention between a lobster and a diner) finally cracked open the lobster’s claw for me and told me how to pull out the meat.  I can’t be sure, since I was keeping my eyes on my plate.   It was the most embarrassed I’ve been in a restaurant in recent memory. 

But my sheepishness was worth every bite of the lobster, which lived up to Sifton’s description:  “sweet and buttery, packed with protein, succulent, rich as bosses.”  (The evenly golden frites served in a trough-like plate as an accompaniment to the lobster weren’t bad either.)

While my companion went to the restroom in between the main course and dessert (a rich fondant au chocolat that was twice as good as it had any right to be in a seafood restaurant) an elderly man with a lumpy face at the table adjacent to ours asked me a question mostly in English:  “Was that your first homard?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then you’ll eat it again,” he declared.

“Maybe,” I said, laughing. He told me not to be afraid of dismembering it with my hands. 

I had a fleeting vision of what it might be like to eat lobster without embarrassment in an idyllic American setting, perhaps during a weekend of simple excess at the beach with friends.  Then I had a thought of what it might be like to eat oysters on Christmas Eve, when they’re plump and really in season.  And I wondered what kind of concessions I was willing to make.

Image © E-person |

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