The long April weekend I spent in Paris back in 2002 was largely a miserable one. It rained, it dropped into the 30s, and it all generally seemed to make grumpy Frenchmen more pissed to hear that I couldn't speak a lick of their language.
My mood got considerably better when I finally figured out what the French do when it's nasty outside. They sit in the brasseries that seem to occupy every corner. They drink hoppy beers, sip café au lait, and eat baguette smothered in pâté. It figures that the culinary-minded French have perfected how to use eating to transform a rotten day.
Saint Tropez Bistro certainly looks the part of a French brasserie. Simple tables line the front and continue down the alley walkway on the side. A dark-wood bar dominates the entrance, and bare tables line the L-shaped space. French newspapers plaster the walls. The ceiling is covered in messages sprawled in French with chalk. Even the employees fit: In my couple of visits, most of them had thick accents and an air of hospitality that I've heard dominates Paris when the weather's better.
On my first visit, I ordered the same type of lunch that kept me occupied those rainy days in France. The sandwich ($11.50) came on baguette bread and was stuffed with tender mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, a generous bunch of basil, and French ham.
My raving about it didn't make the two women I was eating with that day feel any better. They were chewing their way through the beautiful-yet-disappointing quiche of the day ($14.50). The quiche Lorraine appeared to have been baked in a mold that made them look like cute, perfect little egg tarts. Then there was the cheese; whatever it was, it was too gummy for an egg dish, its stringy texture, along with an overcooked undersection, making it a bit of a mess to cut with a fork. And if you're slicing your eggs with a knife, you've got a problem.
But it was hard for me to walk out with anything but the feeling that I needed to come back and waste a few rainy days and nights at Saint Tropez. I got my chance a couple of weeks later. It was pouring when we got there, and the rain seemed to keep everyone away except for the French. The couples at the three other occupied tables were all speaking French to the waitstaff, and there's something that just makes a place feel that much more authentic when you wish you had brought a translation book.
The problem with our lack of French became clear right off with the appetizers. The escargots ($9) didn't come as described in the English translation on the menu "with garlic butter" but instead in a garlic-laden red sauce filled with onions and red peppers that made me glad I hadn't ended up with the standard preparation. I had saved the baguette they had brought earlier, so I used no fewer than three pieces to sop up that amazing sauce.
My wife's French onion soup ($8) also warranted the bread-dipping treatment. It came in traditional style with melted Gruyère that hid perfectly caramelized onions and bits of bread. But most memorable here was a beef broth that was rich with the taste of slow-cooked marrow bones and onions. After I finished the snails, I reached across the table to dip my bread several times in her soup.
But then the translations failed us again. For my main dish, I ordered what was described on the menu as "shrimp, scallops, red snapper, lobster, crabmeat, and mushrooms in a champagne sauce" ($23). A light champagne sauce sounded perfect after the loaf of bread I had used to finish the appetizers. What I got instead was a casserole smothered in a béchamel sauce and topped with swiss cheese. Now I should say that the garlicky sauce was full of cheesy favor and bursting with huge bits of scallops and lobster and the like. But it wasn't the light champagne sauce I had envisioned (although the sous chef told me champagne is added to the béchamel). Despite my initial disappointment, I finished every bite, and if I had bread left, I would've dipped it again.
The menu's coq au vin that my wife ordered ($18.50) included the classic bone-in chicken, slow-cooked in red wine. It also featured bits of crispy bacon that gave it a pleasant smoky and salty bite. The dish was big enough that I was pulling meat off the bones the next day for lunch.
The coq au vin came with a side of perfectly crispy fries sticking straight up out of a tall bowl. I was pretty sure they fried those suckers twice, and I kept eating them just to make sure. My own sides, though, seemed like they'd been made at a different restaurant. A pile of what looked and tasted like previously frozen spinach cooked nearly to mush, without a pinch of salt or pepper, arrived on a small plate; next to it was a perfectly shaped quenelle of equally bland potato. But with dishes as big and bold as our entrées, the sides were easy to forget.
Somehow we kept going, ordering a couple of coffees and a dessert each. The coffee was freshly brewed, perfect in strength, served brasserie-style with a sidecar of steamed milk. Then came a luscious bowl of chocolate mousse (the $8 mousse au chocolat is translated as "chocolat mousse"). I got a slice of cinnamony apple tart ($8.50) covered in a sweet caramel sauce and made crisp on top, it seemed, by a trip under the broiler.
The rain had begun to break before we got that round of desserts, and as we sat there trying to get the last of the caramel sauce with the side of a fork, it occurred to me that Saint Tropez is a lot like a trip to Paris. If you ignore a few details — like the weather and the need to speak the language — you just might find the perfect place to eat a chocolat mousse on a rainy night.