The fashion company I work for used to have a shop not far from métro Abbesses in Montmartre. I think the original commercial rationale was: it's a picturesque neighborhood, with a lot roving tourists - surely they'll purchase accessories ?
The shop didn't work for several reasons. To put it simply, the neighborhood wasn't 'there,' yet; nor, with the constant influx of panting tourists looking for the Amelie café, was it clear it would ever get 'there.' All the knick-knackery shuts out higher-end retail. Tourists hiking towards Sacre Coeur, if they did stop to shop, did so in places that looked scruffier or more classically Montmartrois than our brand. (Paris tourists generally seek either the mythical cosmopolitan Paris or the mythical village Paris. The city's actual charm is that it contains both myths, often simultaneously, on the same street - but tourists in Montmartre are hunting for the latter one.)
I am getting around to discussing a neighborhood restaurant - Miroir, also located quite near Abbesses. I visited during Fashion Week in October on the recommendation of my favorite lunch purveyor and wine aficionado Balthazar de la Borde. On the one hand, I agree with Balt that Miroir is a godsend, given its location: an unfussy place to get a tasty and well-sourced, mostly-traditional meal, replete with a good, mostly-natural wine list. (The proprietors of Miroir also run the Cave de Miroir across the street.) On the other hand, I suspect that Miroir, like the neighborhood, is not 'there' yet, and on the night we dined there, one major service bungle made me despair of it ever getting 'there.'
Some background on the service bungle: most Paris expats will have heard, at some time or another, what once struck me as an unconscionably simplistic explanation of the native mindset: in France (someone explains to you), people are very ashamed to be wrong.
It's not like people in non-French or specifically non-Parisian cultures adore being wrong. Being wrong is only enjoyable if you are Fyodor Karamazov. But in Paris one encounters people - particularly in the service industry, but elsewhere too - who go to absurd, self-defeating lengths to avoid admitting error.
I have heard this explanation applied to the question of why servers are reluctant to take back bottles of corked wine. (There are other structural micro-economic reasons, I think.) It also probably applied to the execrable, dishonest behavior of one of the owners of 2ème restaurant Saturne after that restaurant ballsed up my reservation, in what became a particularly memorable scene. At Miroir, our server - totally understandably - misheard the plat ordered by my friend R, an exceedingly soft-spoken and elegant Basque lady who, when in Paris, speaks in a mélange of Spanish, English, and French. R ordered beef; the server arrived with fish.
The server then began hysterically accusing R of having ordered the fish. R, in addition to her other qualities, is an enormously strong-willed former bar owner and was, quite rightly, having none of it. I made sincere and reasonable attempts to arbitrate, explaining that, with all the languages spoken at our six-top, there had simply been a misunderstanding - no one's fault. (I had, in fact, distinctly heard R order the beef.) But the server continued behaving as though we'd just willfully sacrificed the Last Fish On Earth. She claimed the kitchen was closing, even as she wasted five minutes pursuing her argument well beyond the realm of propriety. As I continued my attempts at diplomacy, she twice became so enraged that she stormed off as I was still speaking.
The second time this occurred, I followed her up to the restaurant's service bar, where she was burning off her misplaced fury polishing glassware. I then had a surreal reenactment of those moments when, managing a team of servers back in LA, I had to take one aside and explain basic principals of hospitality, such as how it's never worth arguing at length with clients, and how the best thing to do for all concerned when there has been a misunderstanding is to assure clients you are working in their interests, and not maniacally attempting to divest yourself of blame for whatever has transpired. The thought then occurred to me: why am I managing this restaurant ? Where is the manager ? Was I speaking with the manager? She couldn't be the manager. Had she slain the manager and hidden his body in the meat fridge? Where is the manager?
In the end I extracted a vague, grudging assurance that the kitchen was cooking the replacement steak, which arrived, finally, with the desserts.
R maintained good form throughout the fiasco, and the meal wasn't unsalvageable. Appetisers had been pleasant staples like charcuterie, a terrine, and foie gras, along with the ubiquitous and innocuous stab at what-bistrots-call-ceviche (nothing like ceviche).
Most memorable was a ludicrously enjoyable plate of beans, chorizo, egg, and foamed hollandaise - like huevos rancheros à la Francaise.
My duck suffered from poor presentation - the sight of a thick sauce congealing on magret is never pleasant - but the bird was in itself very well-cooked.
And while R picked at her late steak the rest of us dared each other to take more bites of a strange variation on chocolate mousse, which had weirdly been decked out with what my friend E identified as Pop Rocks.
The wine list at Miroir is sturdy, well-written, and timeless in the sense that it's not especially current. Like the list at 10ème restaurant Albion, it contains a lot of retail-friendly, acclaimed producers whose wines are available in America.
But at Miroir there are a few more interesting selections handwritten in, including some well-priced bottles from the Courtois clan.
Another friend of mine called J-M has recently (after this visit) begun working in the kitchen at Miroir, so I would still entertain the idea of returning. But it's hard to recover a sense of welcome after such a scene as we went through. Here's a fact, not a hex: any restaurant where such server-Fukushimas incur no managerial intervention will never improve. It will remain a decent neighborhood restaurant - a good back-pocket address on the tarty side of Montmartre, nothing more. If one considers restaurateurism and hospitality to be aesthetic fields, one might as well graze elsewhere.
94, rue des Martyrs
Tel: 01 46 06 50 73
A pretty spare but enthusiastic post on Miroir @ PerfectlyParis
A typically ditzy unreflective endorsement of Miroir @ LeFooding
A notably price-focused piece on Miroir @ VinsAParis (I feel cheap just reading posts like this.)
A brief 2009 piece on Miroir @ HiPParisBlog