Café Jacquemart-André

A Tale of Two Cafés

Diners are watched over by a Tiepolo painting on the ceiling.

A couple of months back I mentioned lunching at the café in the newly refurbished Petit Palais and, to put it mildly, not having the time of my life. This week, I had a far, far better time at the café of the Musée Jacquemart-André.

The Petit Palais was built to house part of the Great Exhibition of 1900, at a time when France was back on a roll after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The palace’s decorative excesses were too much for the prissier tastes of the post-WWII period, however, so a lot of it was covered up. It has now been restored to its former glory, and glorious it is, except for the café.

Quite frankly, the café needs bulldozing. The PR people might talk about the fertile dialogue between classic and contemporary, but there is a four-letter word for that sort of verbal excess. If you go at lunchtime, you join the line and shuffle along until you get to the counter, where three people who have been taught not to smile or even look you in the eye will take your order for pre-packed sandwiches or the cook-chill daily special. You then wait in line again at the check-out.

For my sins, I tried the daily special, which was, if memory serves, “turkey à la guyanaise,” which came, airline-style, in a little plastic box, complete with lid and plastic flatware. The ladies in front of me in the line were slightly anxious as to whether it might be too spicy, to which the correct answer, I found, was: “About as spicy as a barium meal for diabetics, lady.” It came with a little pat of cook-in-bag rice, although the staff had done me the courtesy of removing the bag.

One despairs that anyone who could dream up such a system of customer-abuse would be able to imagine serving proper food, and, short of replacing its with a McDonald’s, my advice would be to take a lesson from one of the sandwich chains and put all the pre-packed sandwiches and daily specials on open access, and put the three counter employees on checkout. That would at least shorten the lines. My advice to visitors is see this great, free collection of artworks on a full stomach.

Another thing that visitors and Petit Palais customer-abusers could do is to take a leaf out of the Café Jacquemart-André’s book. Winter and summer, you can lunch in the elegant, spacious former dining room of this restored city mansion, under a pretty Tiepolo-painted ceiling in which bright young 18-century things laughingly observe the antics below. Better still, in summer, you can eat on the shady outdoor terrazzo overlooking the courtyard. The place is popular, and they don’t take bookings, so you may have to wait in line for a little while before being seated.

The menu offers upward of a dozen salads named after artists represented in the collection. My companion had a Mantegna, and I chose the Van Dyck. I had meant to try the daily special and did ask what it was, but it was sooo popular that the Maîtresse d’ had to go back inside to ask.

Still, the salads were attractively presented and there wasn’t a distressed leaf in sight. Whoever prepares them has an eye to presentation and cares about ingredients. The centerpiece of my Van Dyck was a generous helping of foie gras, surrounded by scrumptious roast figs and lightly sautéed apple slices, served on a restrained underpinning of garden-fresh oakleaf lettuce.

There wasn’t a leaf in sight on my companion’s Mantegna, whose protein component was sliced chicken. Segments of mango and grapefruit lined the edges of the plate, while the center contained a mound of feisty snap peas and bean sprouts in a ratio of about 8:2. The dressing was a delicate Thai reminiscence, with hints of sesame oil, fish sauce and mint – a refreshing delight.

Now, because the Café Jacquemart-André is a place for ladies who lunch and who take tea (three times more ladies than gents were seated on the terrazzo), pastries are served. And my, what pastries! You can ogle them on the trolley of temptation while waiting to be seated. Or you can have sorbet or ice cream. My dessert – I didn’t catch the name – was a flat pistachio macaroon with a filling of cream and fresh raspberries that was in no need of any adjectives, leaving me speechless with sheer sugarblast pleasure.

Clearly, my two cafés are as unalike as Ceausescu and Mother Teresa. The Café Jacquemart-André has a chef and manager who, like the saintly nun, care about the little things (although they could train their waiting staff to be a little friendlier). The Café du Petit Palais, while probably not deserving the fate of the erstwhile great leader, does need a very good shake.

Richard Hesse

Musée Jacquemart-André: 158 bd Haussmann, 75008 Paris. Métro: Miromesnil or Saint Philippe-du-Roule. Tel.: 01 45 62 11 59. Café open daily 11:45 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fixed-price lunch menu: €15.50. Sunday brunch: €25. A la carte: about €20. No reservations taken. www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com/fr/

Musée du Petit Palais: Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 75008. Tel: 01 42 65 12 73. Métro: Champs-Elysées-Clémenceau. Café open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

© 2006 Paris Update

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