Upon arriving in Paris, one can take pleasure in almost any characterful feature of the city, regardless of fame or exclusivity. For six years the bins of Chinese vegetables in Belleville and the hair-weave tumbleweed around Barbés fascinated me more than the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay. But conversely, as earlier this summer I prepared to leave Paris, I found myself drawn to the old, uncurious Paris, and establishments such as Le Dôme Café, the historic Montparnasse seafood brasserie whose iconic fame and ludicrous price point had heretofore completely repelled me.
What changed? I guess I just didn't want to leave the city with the nagging doubt that, in my peregrinations around rive droite wine bars, I was merely nibbling at the edges of what the city had to offer its wealthier diners.
Moreover, the Native Companion was leaving the city too, headed for a different destination. I thought I would mark the unbearably sad occasion by a kind of financial suicide, blowing memorable amounts of euros at Le Dôme on fresh fish, François Côtat Sancerre, and cinematic décor - all the accoutrements of turgid, laurel-resting Paris that, in our time together there, we'd been doing our best to ignore.
It was an entirely unregrettable experience. A visit to Le Dôme - armed with low expectations on what, I suppose, was a good night - can be transportative as many of Paris' more mass-market food writers would have you believe. I think it helped that my dinner companions and I had all long grown tired of the pugnacious bistrot service surrounding us in east Paris. Le Dôme's silver-haired, paunch-bearing waiters offers a kind of deliciously rote dinner theatre, where every joke is scripted, every movement practiced and unhurried. As diners we dread those moments when the plate-rattling suspicion arises that a server is doing something for the first time. That could simply never happen at Le Dôme, where the servers have been ladling pitch-perfect fish soup since the dawn of time.
Fish soup and a clumsily plated, but pleasantly piquant mackerel are among the most economical of Le Dôme's starters.
In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I got the abalone, which at Le Dôme is served in slivers resembling porcini mushrooms. The dish works on the same chew-reducing principle as those finely sliced pig-ear salads, except that replacing the fat of the pig is the fine texture and iodised, curiously wintry flavour of abalone.
Le Dôme's wine list, while burdened with an obscene amount of Bordeaux for a seafood restaurant, is better than it needs to be. There is even the odd (relative) bargain, like the luscious, spearmint-toned bottle of François Côtat Sancerre "Monts Damnés" we began with.
(Not even the Sancerre was spared a note of bittersweetness this evening, for the Native Companion and I had visited the winemaker one summer a few years back.)
My lobster, in keeping with what I presume to be Le Dôme's geriatric (gerontocratic?) clientele, arrived expertly broken-down for easy consumption. Its decadent, enveloping butter sauce was - like the meal as a whole - very enjoyable pre-nouvelle cuisine. I have nothing against the reigning ideology of contemporary Parisian cuisine, in which the farmer or éleveur of a component contributes as much to the flavours of a dish as its chef. But the monolithic, constructed flavours of traditional transformative cooking can be eye-opening in comparison.
In this way, as with its gloriously fusty service, Le Dôme gives life to the hoary cliché upon which its continued success is founded: that here one may hark back to the turn of the century era when the restaurant's format was bold and revolutionary, when it attracted a legendary circle of artists, writers, and their entourages.
|The tarte aux fraises was a significant blunder, overwhelmed by flavours of lemon.|
In that era, according to Wikipedia, one could get a sausage for the equivalent of euro. Le Dôme's century-long evolution into a stratospherically expensive, museum-like enclave for stodgy fat-cats and gawkers like ourselves therefore mimics Paris' own. No artists that I know of dine here now. Many artists I know avoid Paris as a whole, for the money isn't young or adventurous enough.
The upside of a city that trades on history, however, is the persistence of such majestic creations as Le Dôme's airy millefeuille, gargantuan portions of which are hacked off a tree-trunk-sized whole that the servers parade around the restaurant with justifiable pride. If heaven has a landscape, it is probably millefeuille as far as the eye can see.
I foisted as much as I could on the NC, who was visibly disappointed with her lemony tarte aux fraises. In a better life I would have ordered three rounds of green chartreuse and returned the following evening for an encore. As it was, I took consolation in how the agelessness of our surroundings evoked the idea of eternal return - of events recurring infinitely, given infinite time.
Here's to another go round sometime.
Le Dôme Café
108, boulevard de Montparnasse
Tel: 01 43 35 25 81
François Simon delivers a lovely turn of phrase when he describes Le Dôme's millefeuille as "gothic."
Dorie Greenspan cites Le Dôme's plateau des fruits de mer as among her top ten Paris "must-tastes."