Some friends claim to be making marks on the wall to count the days until liberation. Ah, the forgotten delights of restaurants and foreign travel. In one long nostalgic phone call, we kept present discontents at bay by discussing Paris. Although I have partaken of three-rosette meals in the capital of gastronomy and was never disappointed, a different experience came to mind. This restaurant has never received Michelin’s highest accolade, not that it would care. It believes itself entitled to at least four rosettes.
Its name is Chez l’Ami Louis, in the Troisième, not far from the Marais. I was introduced to it by Rémy and Mathilde, a couple who knew their Paris. The husband could explain every nuance in Proust and the wife was not far behind. At a glance, they would vet a new acquaintance’s claim to social standing, delicately and ruthlessly. Only in a republic could snobbery become such an art form.
The Ami Louis clientele looked grand enough to me. This was in the early 1980s and old Antoine Magnin was still in charge; he had won the Légion d’Honneur for his chicken. Several of his male customers were sporting their boutonnières. As for the ladies, haute couture danced a gavotte with haute cuisine. But the high style was sometimes deceptive. ‘See that girl,’ Rémy said, discreetly pointing to the most elegant female in the room. ‘Shot her first husband. The lawyer who got her off promptly doubled his fees — and what do you make of her?’ He had picked out a splendidly self-assured creature, who looked like a walking definition of refinement. ‘Madame Claude’s favourite girl until that Marquis took her home.’ Her fellow diner looked much less distinguished. (The Madame in question presided over the haut monde’s favourite bordello.)
‘I daren’t let Rémy come here on his own,’ proclaimed Mathilde. ‘He’d end up having a duel.’ Alas, the couple are no more, but only because of natural causes, if you can describe nearly seven decades of serious eating as natural. But they lived until their late eighties, which is encouraging.
As for the food, my friends counselled simplicity, and we decided to share our main dishes. Before that, escargots were followed by foie gras: both as good as possible. Then, roast chicken, in honour of Antoine’s decoration, along with a navarin of lamb and, I think, a blanquette de veau. This was not only classic French bourgeois cooking: it was the Platonic ideal of French cookery. The chicken was fully worthy of any honours list. I do not know whether it was the kitchen or the quality of the bird, but I can still taste it. To follow, a splendid cheeseboard and then a tarte Tatin.
To drink, we started with house champagne and then sundry more-than-adequate whites, before moving to a couple of bottles of Beychevelle. The aim was to compare 1959, a great year, with 1964, a good but under--rated vintage. I cannot remember our verdict. Rémy then insisted that with the tarte, we had a serious sauternes and chose a ’67 Rieussec: superb year, wine just about ready. Time for a proper drink, Rémy declared. That turned out to be an 1893 Armagnac, which was still in prime condition. The scent filled the dining-room.
By the end, I was in a state of glorious repletion. In the French language, ‘gourmet’ slips easily into ‘gourmand’. So did we. At the outset, Rémy had declared that he was the host; he had just won a big contract from the government. I was never quite clear what he did, apart from winning contracts. But scepticism would have been ungracious. Given the likely size of the bill, I just hoped that it was a huge contract. I have been back to Ami Louis since, but not for far too long. Let us hope that 17 May turns out to be gastronomy’s version of 6 June.