Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Henri + Jacqueline

Chez Henri et Jacqueline:

It was a cold, damp day that could only call to mind the winter months that sat looming in the all to near future. I usually regard our loft-like space as a positive thing, but when it’s cold and gray outside, it can be just as cold inside. So I sat downstairs trying to write, shivering in a wool sweater and wool scarf because I refused to turn on the heat before November 1st. Lunchtime rolls around and M descends from his much more cozy, upstairs studio, wondering what we should eat. Ignoring my budgetary crunch and the fact that we had just done a huge grocery shopping yesterday, I subtly suggested we go visit Jacqueline and Henri. The thought of spending the next hour or so in that warm, aromatic space, sipping a glass of red wine and no doubt feasting on the heavy, Norman fare sounded ideal and I wondered what the menu might be today. I could see M’s eyes light up and I knew his Mediterranean blood was just has unhappy as my southern California blood in this sudden change of weather. “Yes, he said, lets do it.”

“Chez Henri et Jacqueline”, is an affectionate name that we invented one afternoon for the little restaurant that thankfully sits about 100 feet from our front door. It’s truly the French version of the mom n’ pop diner. Floral curtains adorn the windows, paper tablecloths and tiny fake potted plants and posters of some “tourist destinations” in the Norman countryside decorate the interior. I love every inch of it, but particularly I adore Henri and Jacqueline, whose names are not at all Henri and Jacqueline. She, who by fortuitous timing we learned recently is normally called Nicole, is of a bit more stern façade, suggesting perhaps a slight familial connection to the German neighbor to the north, he of ample build and literally possessing a Santa Claus smile. If he is not cooking in the tiny kitchen (the restaurant boosts just 20 seats), then he is outside chatting with the neighbors. I remember clearly when he finally began to recognize me and would start talking about this and that with me as I passed by on the way home. M would laugh as I walked in and gleefully retold my encounter with Henri, like I had maybe, at last become a local.

We walked quickly over, we are always the last lunchtime diners at 2:30, but they welcomed us with warmth and kindness and I knew that we’d made the right choice. The menu du jour typically consists an appetizer of salad, rillets or foie gras, followed by offerings from the Meat family; filet de bouef for the simple minded (aka me), andouilette or boudin noir. If the Menu is not grabbing me there is always the option of taking the “lighter” fare by selecting one of the many options of galettes, large wheat crepes filled with numerous choices from spinach and ground beef to eggs, cheese and ham. Today, M and I both settled on the menu, with all thoughts of a quick, lighter lunch out the window. We started with the rillets du saumon, which could roughly be described as a gratin of salmon. Sounds weird, tastes great with a piece of fresh baguette and red wine. I tried to pace myself for what was to follow, although of course with the quick French exchange, I was not entirely sure what I was about to eat. What arrived can only be described as potato heaven. Two slices of roast beef sat seductively besides two versions of potato I had never tried before, likely because they would be treated like terrorist suspects at JFK by the ever health conscious/weight wary American public. Well, ‘when in Rome’, I thought and dug in. One version was a half of twice-baked potato cooked with cheese and little nuggets of bacon, and I am pretty sure a kilo of butter, perhaps cream. The other was a gratin which included sautéed potatoes, zucchini and onions, which were then (I am assuming because modesty prohibits me asking), baked together with again, a bit of hard cheese and butter…yum. I had to force myself to stop because I had a flash of me eating the last bite and keeling over sideways like some mafia figure after a feasting on lasagna made by one of his enemies.

Henri soon approached asking with a sly smile whether we’d take the tarte-de-pomme. On our last visit to H+J’s they offered the tart and as I spooned the last bite into my mouth Henri asked if I liked it. Non, I said, c’etait horrible (trying to be funny in French). He laughed, made some joke to M and then brought out another slice! We soon learned that Monsieur had once been a baker (boulanger) and he had a passion for tarts. Me too, I thought, having a sudden vision of becoming the wife of a baker/restaurateur in a small French village. We decided to get two slices of tart to go, god forbid we give a flat no thank you, and as we left, Henri mentioned that if we ever wanted a nice Norman Calvados to sip on, he has some special bottles for sale. Oh, I thought, we’ve made it. Maybe this winter won’t be bad after all.

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