28 March 2009

The Crêperie Josselin

My Texan godsons peruse the menu.

I ate a galette maraîchère for lunch today at the Crêperie Josselin, near the Gare Montparnasse. I’ve been going there for more years than I care to count — more than 15, fewer than 20 — and it’s safe to say that I’ve taken more meals at the Josselin than in any other restaurant in France. Bernard has favored the place since he was in college, when the proprietor, Marie-Thérèse, was the young woman we see in the portrait that hangs on one wall: she’s decked out in traditional Breton dress, including the lacy headdress called a bigoudin. (The brushwork is so impressionistic in that section of the painting that I’ve always doubted Marie-Thérèse wore a real bigoudin while she posed.) She still puts in hours in the kitchen, though not so many as she used to: I admire above all her ability to let the galette rest on the griddle precisely the right amount of time, so that the edges are wonderfully crispy, while the center remains soft and tender.

Marie-Thérèse: Her smile hasn’t changed.
(And no, the house does not accept credit cards.)

Precision, to say nothing of artistry, in preparing a crêpe is not something one naturally finds: this is the French antecedent of Le Fast-Food, produced in great numbers and at high speed by someone who, French terminology aside, is essentially a short-order cook. Crêpes are sold from little stands on the streets here, like hotdogs in New York, and the proximity of the Josselin to the train station is telling: people want to be served quickly, and to catch the next train. Even in France, there are occasions when one does not want to linger for hours over a meal.

One finds a lot of crêperies near the train stations in this country, but few can match the Josselin. Marie-Thérèse’s cooking is exceptional, but her welcome is more so, and she has trained her staff unfailingly: one does not enter without being greeted by one or more cries of “Bonjour, Monsieur,” and one does not depart without a chorus of “Merci, Monsieur! Au revoir!” I don’t for a minute believe they recognize me more than dimly, but it feels nice. Though the Josselin is in the big city, it retains its down-home touches. These also include the décor, which is a riot of earthenware tchotchkes and other souvenirs of Brittany, set against dark wooden booths, shelves, and wall paneling. This comforting ambiance made it easier for me to come here by myself, without French friends to mediate for me: a big step in my development as a French-speaker.

It’s important to make the distinction between the crêpe, which is made of a finely milled, white flour, and the galette, which is made of buckwheat flour and consequently somewhat coarser and heartier. Many French people eat their main-course on a galette and their dessert on a crêpe, but Bretons and true aficionados prefer buckwheat for both the main course and the dessert.

One of the greatest appeals of the galette is that very versatility: you can fill it with anything at all, and one reason I take my godchildren and other friends to the Josselin is my confidence that, no matter their tastes, they’ll find something they’ll like. (Little Grace from Los Angeles tested that theory, until she arrived at the dessert menu.) For me, the Josselin represents the height of comfort food, French-style, and if I have ever ordered anything other than the maraîchère, no one remembers it. The galette may be versatile, but I am not.

The maraîchère consists of spinach and crème fraîche (a staple of Breton cooking) on a galette, which is then folded into a quarter. Across this are spread a fried egg and several strips of bacon. Care must be taken when eating to assure the correct proportions of ingredients in every mouthful for the duration of the meal: it is a catastrophe to wind up with no spinach, or no bacon, with several forkfuls remaining of everything else. After my many years of practice, I’ve gotten quite good at maintaining the balance, and now as a challenge I also try to distribute evenly the crispy outer edges and the tender middle.

This is accompanied by a small pitcher of hard cider (and a carafe of water, when the waitress remembers it), and it’s followed by a noisette, a little cup of coffee with a splash of milk. I have never ordered a dessert there: call me crazy, but that’s how it is. Sometimes the staff used to cut me a break, and charge me the price of the set menu; since the economic troubles, I am charged full price: 14 Euros 20. It’s worth it.

The Josselin is listed in a number of guide books, many of which, it seems, are Japanese, and thus it draws its clientele from the world over — and from the neighborhood. There are always a lot of French businesspeople, and at the traditional lunch hour (1 to 2 PM), it’s difficult to get a table, though the staff does its best to jam us in. One hears a buzz of differing languages, and the menu is translated into English and Japanese. That’s not quite enough for the Babel that is Parisian tourism. Once an older Italian couple came in, and I was the only person present who could translate for them. I was extremely proud of myself, until I stumbled over the right word for “apple” in Italian. (I kept trying to say “eggplant.”) But Marie-Thérèse’s daughter was impressed, and she picked up the tab for my lunch.

On a cold, damp day, of the kind that Paris knows so well, there is no better pleasure than sitting down to a galette maraîchère, among folks who act exactly as if they’ve known you for years, and it would make no difference if they really had.

67 rue du Montparnasse
Paris, France, 75014
Phone: 01-43-20-93-50
Tuesday – Sunday
11:00 am - 3:00 pm
5:30 pm - 11:30 pm


Louis said...

Stumbled across the Crêperie de Josselin around lunch today, and I couldn't agree more with your assessment! Can't wait to go back!

Aldo said...

Me also i can't wait to go back! thanks for your post...!

Mary said...

I will try it this summer, althought I think I have been there. But...you won't be with me....sniff, sniff, sniff. Something in me keeps thinking you will change your mind once you get back to the US.....