Lunch Croque Monsieur

It goes against stereotype, but I was in Paris for three days before I ate well. I am staying at a small hotel (no restaurant) in the 17th arrondissement, on the borders of the 8th and the 18th, and at first I made the mistake of sticking to the bistros on the Place de Clichy. Place de Clichy can’t be said to be a touristy area, really, but this is Paris, so there are tourists – and, it turns out, tourist traps – everywhere… my point being that I had with mounting confusion and indignation been eating food with pretentions (not quite delusions) of grandeur and disproportionate price tags.

Then I had to go meet a staff member at UC Paris in the 11th, at the UC Paris center near the Place de la Bastille, and after my meeting, I had to have lunch. I found the closest bar to the center, a tiny place with the requisite outdoor seating and a genial, very Gaulish proprietor; I sat down, noticing the Delirium Tremens on tap and taking that as a good sign; and lo and behold! Finally, there was ordinary simple everyday food! Un croque monsieur!

A croque monsieur (literally “bite mister”) is, for those unfamiliar with them, basically the French version of a ham and cheese sandwich. The major and crucial difference is the layer of bechamel sauce on top, grilled under more cheese. (Bechamel is that white sauce you’ve had in at least some of your lasagne.) It is simple and delicious and wonderful – I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad croque monsieur – and conjures up, for me anyway, memories of childhood, though I don’t think my mother ever made them. I think we must’ve been given them for lunch at the day camp where I spent several weeks a year for three summers. I never ate lunch at school, in France; instead I tottered home under the weight of my cartable, hiking up the enormous hill on the slopes of which sat my grandfather’s house.

I love croques monsieurs. This one, though technically missing a layer of bread, did not disappoint. The Delirium didn’t hurt, either… and I finally found myself with a proper French meal, the kind that makes you close your eyes for a moment after you take the first bite.

On a final note, I will be returning to this bar – Bar La Fontaine, on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. The proprietors were almost cartoonishly comical upon first viewing, one fat (sorry, “bien enveloppé”) and one thin, arguing like an old married couple – they were like something out of Astérix; they both resembled Uderzo drawings and bickered in a way reminiscent of Ordralfabétix and Cétautomatix, the fishmonger and smith. Consequently, I think they need funny punnish names of the Astérix variety. I may have to call the fatter one, the one who served me, Génialix until someone comes up with something better.

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