on May 21, 2008
L'Europeen is a rather large place for a brasserie. We saw four dinning rooms. It was obvious from the seafood stand L'Europeen operated out front that seafood was the speciality, but we had chicken and Choucroute Garni. The dinning room we were in was richly decorated with dark red wallpaper, dark wood, red leather chairs, and bright chandeliers. The Maitre de wore the traditional black tuxedo. In keeping with tradition, there was a separate Maitre de for each dinning room. A proper French Maitre de has a different job than one in America. In addition to taking us to our table and handing us a menu in English after asking, in English, “Would you like the English menu?”, he dished up our food and supervised the waiters serving the room. For example, when the choucrute garni got overly hot, he directed our waiter to turn off one of the burners under the platter. The 2-3 waiters serving our room wore white shirts, black bow ties, red vests, black pants, with a white apron. L'Europeen is a good example of the classic traditional French restaurant scene. It shows good manners in any country, especially in France, to make an effort to show the natives you are trying to do things their way. I do not ask for an English menu, but if offered, I accept. Anybody can translate a French menu with a good phrase book, and the staff will help. Apparently my French is slipping because the Maitre immediately offered us an English menu (years ago, I seem to have spoken French with a German accent. I once asked a concierge who kept insisting I was German, not American, why he thought that. He replied, “Americans cannot speak French as well as you do.” See what fun it is to try to do things their way?). I got back in the game when the waiter came to take the order by ordering in French from the English menu. I screwed up one word. The waiter corrected it. I repeated what he said. He smiled and replied, “Bon” (That's good). Now look at how our meal has started. Before we even finished ordering, we had a happy smiling French waiter, not the surly stereotype. You get what you ask for. The waiter asked if I was familiar with the dish I ordered. I replied, “I've never had it in France, but it is sauerkraut with pork and sausages.” He was happy with that, and once you understand French waiters, you will understand that if I had answered, “no”, he would have explained the whole meal in detail. A proper French dinner is a pageant. After placing our order, the waiter brought an ice bucket and a stand for it to the table and placed a white hand towel over it, to wrap around the bottle so water from the melted ice does not drip when the wine is poured. Meanwhile, the Maitre was at a sideboard filling a carafe from a bottle of wine. When he was done, the waiter brought the wine for the tasting ceremony, and then poured us each a glass. Next he brought to the table a double burner chaffing dish stand and lit the burners with a Bic lighter. While the Maitre was dishing up her chicken at the sideboard, the waiter placed my choucrute garni on the chaffing dish stand, a platter as big as two plates heaped 3-4 inches high with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes and on top of the mountain of sauerkraut, was a large pice of ham, a slab of bacon, and four different sausages. Then the Maitre took a fork and spoon and dished up a load of kraut on my plate. He topped off the kraut with the bacon and one sausage. While he was doing that, the waiter disappeared and returned with a jar of “moutarde”, which he placed beside my plate just as the Maitre finished serving-- note the timing, everything in its place at the right time, part of the pageant. Only once have I ever had a bigger meal, a four course Italian dinner that took three hours to eat, including intermissions.Choucroute garni (literally, decorated sauerkraut) is the classic regional dish of Alsace, which is, along with Paris and Lyon, one of the three great centers of French cuisine. Specifically, the restaurant served Choucroute Garni de Severne, sauerkraut and pork in the style of Severne, the town that more or less marks the northern end of the Route de Vin Alsace (see Journal on). Choucroute garni is often found in brasseries in Paris as the original meaning of brasserie was brewery, and most brasserie owners came from Alsace, the beer center of France. Beer is big in Alsace due to Alsace frequently changing hands between France and Germany over centuries of warfare. By the way, French beer is very good. The most interesting thing about choucrute garni is how nicely each of the meats goes with sauerkraut and mustard. Choucroute garni is a decent example of one of the great characteristics of French cuisine-- putting things together such that the sum of the ingredients is different from and greater than the parts. Think of French onion soup. It is onions, water, and beef, yet properly combined, it is none of those, but something unique and greater than onion, water, and beef. To fully appreciate choucroute garni, it must be eaten so that your are chewing meat, kraut, and mustard at the same time. This combines the three into that mysterious sum that is greater than the parts. Cut a small bite of meat. Put some mustard on your fork. Scope up some kraut, spear the piece of meat, and put it all in your mouth.What to drink with choucroute garni? I've never yet gotten around to trying it, but, considering its origins, beer has to be good (in the USA, go for a micro brew). We fix choucroute garni at home several times a year, and we found that the best wine to drink is a California Gewurtztraminer, which is sweeter than one from Alsace. In France, any white wine from Alsace will work. Start with a Gewurtztraminer, then try a Riesling. Any and all of these would also have been an excellent pairing with her chicken, so we ordered Rose because we were on a Rose kick this trip. Every chance we had, we drank Rose to explore an unfamiliar area of wine. Rose is not a great pairing with choucroute garni. On the other hand, it was a very nice Rose, and at $14 for a liter(a bottle of wine is ¾ liter), a good price.If you grew up hating the common stinking American version of sauerkraut, be prepared for a pleasant surprise. European sauerkraut is a totally different experience (I like the taste of the German, Austrian, and Hungarian versions better than French because of the seasonings used). I'm glad I had a good, authentic choucrute garni once, but I don't think I'd order it again, except to maybe split it with somebody else. Her Chicken Tarragon was excellent. A smallish half a chicken surrounded by excellent sauce was served on a diner plate. Unlike American chicken, this chicken had some flavor to the meat. To avoid cross contamination of flavors, the rather large accompanying serving of excellent mashed potatoes-- as good as I've ever encountered-- were served on the side, in bowl. Had his not been our last night in Paris, I would have gone back to L'Europeen and ordered it for myself the next night. Including tax and tip, and a liter(a bottle of wine is ¾ liter) of the house wine, served in a carafe, dinner for two cost $81, which seems comparable to USA big city prices, if not a better buy. And this at a time when the exchange rate was the worst ever. By the way, menu prices in France as in most of Europe, are inclusive-- tax and tip is included in the shown price. Tax and tip added up to 27% of the total (the bill broke it out for our information).The bottom line is that L'Europeen provides the opportunity to fully experience why France is the world's best place to eat- great food served with great service in an attractive setting at a reasonable price. Understanding how French restaurants work, especially French waiters, is the key to enjoying eating in France. The food is always good, but your meal may not be because you don't understand how the system works. I will eventually post an “Experiences” review in this journal on how that works. Wait until you see how I got free deserts.
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