In 1935, when La Poule au Pot opened in a side street near Les Halles, the French capital’s main food market, a vast, heaving complex of glass-and-cast-iron pavilions, was just down the street (it was later moved to suburban Rungis in 1969 and the old buildings were knocked down to make way for a mall and transit hub). This is why this bistro stayed open late into the night, to serve an upstairs-downstairs clientele of market workers getting off their shifts and a sprinkling of well-bred Parisian night owls who loved the bawdy atmosphere of the quartier. What the lorry drivers and hauliers and aristocrats and demi-mondaines loved was the restaurant’s hearty, homely namesake dish: chicken poached in its own stock with vegetables – and also the louche atmosphere of this snug dining room with a big copper bar and walls lined with banquette seating. During the 1950s and ‘60s it became a favourite canteen of French show-business and film people, which is why there are still the brass plaques bearing their names on the bar today.
Now this legendary address has a new owner, Michelin two-star chef Jean-François Piège, who already has three other Paris restaurants: Le Grand Restaurant, his two-star gastronomic table; the Clover Grill, a steakhouse, which is also in Les Halles; and Clover in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Piège says that when he learned that this legendary address was for sale he immediately knew that he wanted to buy it. “It’s a piece of living Parisian history and a place I’ve always loved,” says the chef, who lives in the neighbourhood.
This is why he deftly freshened up the vintage décor created by mirror-tiled pillars, oral wallpaper, wooden chairs, a workaday tile floor and the copper bar with a big old-fashioned radio in a wooden cabinet, without changing it in any immediately perceptible way, aside from better lighting and tables set with pink linens and new glasses and flatware. Piège also drew up a new menu, a sort of personal homage to la belle cuisine bourgeoise his mother and grandmothers cooked for him when he was growing up in the Rhône Valley city of Valence. “This is the food I really love,” he says. “It’s the food I crave all the time, and even though I think culinary innovation is wonderful and necessary, this cooking is the real glory of Gallic gastronomy – the terrines, the sauces, the pastry… All of it.”
Dining here a few days after it reopened, the dining room reflected the new reality of Les Halles as a popular neighbourhood among Parisian millennials including digital media executives, fashion marketing people and various other influencers, along with several tables of artists and musicians and a sprinkling of tourists who were probably surprised to come upon a new version of the famous Paris bistro they’d read about in their outdated guidebooks. Dining with one of my oldest Parisian friends, an endearingly grouchy antiques dealer who’s a fantastic cook, we started off with a suite of dishes neither of us could resist, including oeufs mimosa – stuffed hard-boiled eggs garnished with riced egg yolk, chives and crackling; a salad of haricots verts; frogs’ legs in garlic butter (the chef had already told us that these were real French frogs’ legs from the Drôme, as opposed to the imported ones from central Europe or Asia) and a galantine de canard – a luscious, pistachio-studded forcemeat of fowl surrounding a lobe of foie gras. All of these were delicious. And deliciously retro, too, since they reminded me of why French cooking had so easily seduced me as a 15-year-old on a first family visit to Paris a long time ago; and my friend of the food he ate at his family’s château in the Bordelais.
Our mains were similarly old-fashioned, but brightened up by more precise cooking times and Piège’s passion for sourcing the best seasonal produce. We ate perfectly poached turbot with Hollandaise sauce, and veal sweetbreads with girolles in Savagnin wine sauce. On a future visit, I’ll try the blanquette de veau – veal in cream sauce with baby vegetables – and the beef filet au poivre– the pepper steak – since both looked excellent on their way to other tables. The dessert not to miss is the sampler plate of three tarts – apple, blackberry and chocolate – and the wine list is outstanding. This delightfully sepia-toned restaurant, a real bastion of Gallic good times, is open daily, too.