The French for “gannet” is fou de Bassan: “the fool from Bass Rock”, an island in the Firth of Forth where many of my avian relatives are wont to gather. I mention this only because I have always felt thoroughly at home in France, however rude the French might be about my cognitive abilities.
And, if I had to choose one place where I feel most relaxed, it is in a Parisian bistro: at La Fontaine de Mars, perhaps, with its candy-cane-striped awnings and gingham tablecloths, perched cheek-by-jowl with like-minded gourmands and perusing a menu – a litany – of French cuisine’s greatest hits.
There is a daily-changing special: Wednesday means coq au vin, Thursday is blanquette de veau, and there is roast chicken and purée de pommes de terre each Sunday. My last visit was on a Monday, so it was pièce de boucher: bavette steak, the idea being that it is a cheap but flavoursome cut that the butcher might take home for his supper. It needs to be rare (it was) and sliced thinly across the grain (I did) and it is a treat, especially in a peppery sauce with a bowl of finger-scorching frîtes maison, some healthy spinach (just to look at) and a glass or two of good claret.
Before that, there were Gillardeau’s superb sweet and salty oysters from the Ile d’Oléron; oeufs en meurette (eggs in a sticky red wine sauce spiked with shards of ham); and a splendid duck terrine studded with foie gras, a rich fig chutney alongside. La Fontaine de Mars is as French as Edith Piaf singing La Marseillaise with a string of onions around her neck.
One dish missing from the Fontaine de Mars menu, however, is lièvre à la royale, the classic Carême dish of hare cooked with foie gras, wine, cognac, a vast quantity of shallots and garlic, and its own blood. Fortunately, it was on the menu at Chez Casimir which – apart from being a terrific little bistro – has the merit of being just around the corner from the Gare du Nord: try not to miss your Eurostar while lingering over the superb cheeseboard.
I warmed up for the hare with just a few langoustines and mayonnaise: lièvre à la royale is a hefty dish for which a bon appétit is de rigueur. Under a voluptuous, wobbly tranche of seared foie gras, hare fillets – perfectly pink and delicately gamey – had been wrapped in pork forcemeat and more chunks of foie gras, the whole then bathed in the richest of sauces. It was fabulous.
And, finishing my plate, I earned a nod of respect from the waiter: in Paris, I may be a fou, but I have always been suffered gladly.