On the sort of cold, blustery night we’ve been having in Paris recently, my thoughts turn to comfort food and my abiding passion for couscous. The vegetables in broth and the hunks of meat, meatballs or spicy merguez sausage served on a bed of steaming rolled semolina (the actual couscous) are peasant food elevated to the status of a national dish. And along with steak frites, couscous is a national dish of France, just as “curry” is in the United Kingdom – both hangovers from colonial times.
Like curry in the UK, couscous is ubiquitous in France, and you will rarely be disappointed, since there’s no reason to have high gastronomical expectations in the first place. It’s a firm favorite with students, too, since most restaurants will give you all the vegetable broth and couscous you can eat.
Le Clair de Lune is an institution and was a student hangout in the days when French students’ mothers didn’t spend their weekends washing their offspring’s clothes and making up a week’s meals for them. Today, it’s patronized by those self-same students, now middle-aged.
On my most recent visit, the patrons included a young professional woman dining alone, three freemasons on the razzle, two German ladies of a certain age (Parisiennes through and through but with the appetites of teenage boys), some IT students and a brace of gay couples, all quietly getting on with their lives in subdued, but not hushed, tones.
A nice hum comes from the adjacent kitchen, and the irresistible smell of freshly grilled lamb greets you as you walk through the door. The decor is the usual ethnic clutter, but the walls are hung with some pleasant-looking kilims. Through one door is a café/bar where older locals watch football.
The menu offers a long list of daily specials, most of them French, like the calf’s liver chosen by one of the IT students, who was given a choice of fries, string beans and endive on the side. He asked for, and got, all three. There are tagines, too, served in a clay dish with a conical top that is whipped off to reveal a generous heap of smoking vegetables with meat or fish. Tagine is my girlfriend Katherine’s favorite, particularly the quail and the mutton (and this is real, strong-tasting mutton). Last time, the waiter cocked an eyebrow on seeing her empty dish and suggested, with gentle wit, that if she didn’t like the food, she should tell him.
My “Berber” couscous came with stewed beef and mutton, a spicy meatball and a merguez sausage. The massive “Couscous Royal,” which the German ladies ordered, comes with deliciously melting slow-roasted lamb, bite-sized bits of barbecued lamb or veal on skewers and chicken.
I generally skip the starters, but the restaurant offers, among other things, a traditional brik – an egg and/or tuna cooked in filo-style pastry – and chachouka, a stew of onions, peppers, garlic set with beaten eggs. If you have any space left for dessert, I suggest the honey-drenched “oriental” pastries, washed down with sweet mint tea.
Another popular place for couscous is Chez Omar, which offers good food, but serves it rather expeditiously, as there is usually a crowd of guidebook readers waiting for your table. At Le Clair de Lune, you buy time and gentleness. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as we Brits say…
Le Clair de Lune: 11-13, rue Française (27 rue Tiquetonne), 75002 Paris. Tel.: 01 40 26 12 39. Open daily for lunch and dinner. A la carte: around €25*. Métro: Etienne Marcel. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 6 rue Française, 32, rue Etienne Marcel.
Chez Omar: 47 rue de Bretagne, 75003 Paris. Tel.: 01 42 72 36 26. Open daily for lunch and dinner. A la carte: around €30*. No credit cards or reservations. Métro: Arts et Métiers. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 10 rue Perrée; 67 rue des Archives.
*three courses, not including wine
© 2008 Paris Update