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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dining with History at "Le Procope" in Paris

     For the first day of my first visit to Paris, I wanted to take a traditional approach.  So after a morning at the Eiffel Tower, I walked east, towards the 6th Arrondissement, and headed to Le Procope for lunch.  Le Procope was the first restaurant ever created, which functioned under the concept of what we nowadays today a restaurant to be, where customers were served at the table with porcelain service.  It opened its doors in 1686, at the highlight of the Enlightment Age.  The likes of Voltaire (who considered it his second home), Rousseau and even very American Benjamin Franklin dined here while discussing the politics of the times.  Its owner was an Italian from Sardinia, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who created a pleasant atmosphere in his establishment that made people linger while having a meal.

     As it was customary during those times, Mr. Procopio started serving coffee and hot chocolate on marble tables at his establishment but, as the true innovator that he was, soon added his own distilled alcohols and home-made ice-creams, these latter the first ever to be sold in Paris.

     Dining at Le Procope felt very much like dining in a sort of time capsule.  The restaurant is quite large for Paris standards, and has two floors.  Tables are crammed throughout different areas that don’t necessarily follow a pattern, and all are quite close to each other.  But even though you may listen to pieces of your neighbor’s conversation, the feeling is quite cosy, as in Paris people are reserved and maintain a low tone while sitting at the table.

Crisp white tablecloths, old books and ancient paintings of its regulars.  Le Procope
is a place of history.

Part of a ceiling, showing original text for the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” from August 1789.
     I started my meal with a splendid kir royal, served in the traditional champagne tulip glass.  It was so impressive, it dressed the table by itself.  I’m not sure what champagne was used in it, very it tasted very much like a millesimé (although I'm sure it wasn't.  Probably a high end Pommery).

    Le Procope is known both for its large oyster platters they serve mostly as a tourist attraction, and traditional French bourgeois dishes, such as Coq au vin, or Tete de veau, prepared as it was when the restaurant first opened.  It really intrigued me how some of the biggest minds mankind has produced would have eaten.  I ordered the Tete de veau, which came cooked in its own tarragon-flavoured juice, its recipe kept from the restaurants old records.

     I was quite surprised at the simplicity of the dish.  It was very much like the Argentinian “puchero” my mom used to serve, the meat boiled until it falls of the bone and one doesn’t even need a knife to cut it, served alongside vegetables like carrots, potatoes and some other white one that escaped me.  At first, I thought it too simple for the price paid (27.70€), however, it makes sense that back in 1686, people ate from the land, in a natural, made-at-home way.  I suppose the cost is due to the traditional fame associated with the restaurant, or maybe the fact that it is served in a traditional copper saucepan (yes, they use these things in actual restaurants in Paris!),  which the waiter leaves with you so you may serve yourself later at your own pace, and also dip the bread into the wonderful juices.  A truly convivial dish, which can very well serve two, especially if ordering an appetizer and a dessert.

     As for the proverbial dessert, and continuing with the idea of tradition in mind, the Sabayon Glacé à l’Amaretto fitted the Procope’s beginnings as an ice-cream parlour.

     It was the perfect end to a copious meal, light, a mixture between a mousse and an ice-cream, served along a croquant tuile (which could have been more croquant) and wonderful Amaretto caramel sauce. 

     The whole lunch, with drinks included, cost 57.10€.  I found it overpriced, but then again, at a restaurant where history is its protagonist, one can only expect to pay more.  At least, the food was good, with a nice “homey” feeling, and it set me up for the rest of the day, which turned out to be quite wet and with lots of walking to do.  It’s what Paris is all about.

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