by Zoe Messinger
L’Avant Comptoir is right off from the Odeon stop on the subway in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the 6th arrondissement. It translates to “before the counter,” the place you go to have a glass while you wait for your table at Relais du Comptoir—the prix-fixe fine dining spot nextdoor. I’ve made it beyond the counter, but L’Avant Comptoir is the real destination. It has allure, sex appeal, legs. Pictures of the dishes to come hang from the ceiling, each on their own little carte with the prices underneath: croquettes, escargot, foie gras macarons, boudin noir with truffle, waffles au jambon, Comté crème brulée. These one-off dishes tempt you in mid-air, cracking your restraint, sending you into a crazed hunger.
L’Avant Comptoir isn’t your typical white-tableclothed bistro serving omelets and cassoulet. It’s the edgy bistro, the one that broke the mold, yet it feels more French than all of them. No tables or place setting, no servers or fish tanks, no archaic niceties. French rap was always blaring in here, and I liked it. The long bar is lined with mounds of salted Normandy butter and loaves of fresh-baked bread. Everyone flocks to the butter, dipping into it and tossing it back like bar peanuts. I go there for the artichoke with hand-whisked aioli. But if you want the best part, you have to know the ritual. When you finish the artichoke, you have to ask them to dress up the heart. They cut it out, clean it, cover it in caviar, caress it with chive vinaigrette. If you want to unlock the secrets—of a restaurant, of a person, of the universe—you have to ask.
“Two glasses of the best burgundy,” he said. It was drizzling, so we sought salvation inside the blue door. It was an off-time, 3-ish. We were the only ones inside, an unusual occurrence. It was usually jam packed by 5pm, so much that you’re practically feeding your neighbors charcuterie off your fingertips, smoking cornichons like cigarettes. The guy tending the bar was one of the owners, I could tell. Not by his behavior—culinary experience doesn’t provide psychic powers. I recognized his face from an article in The New Yorker. When you’re an American in Paris, you eat on their terms. They’re not there to please you. He was French for sure, but he was there to serve, to entertain. He just wanted his guests to be happy.
“The best burgundy?” he said. “It’s all the best. We source every single bottle, know all the producers, visit all the vineyards.” He spun around, swooped a bottle from the shelf behind and pressed it into the table. “Start with this one.” He poured us each a glass and gave us the look—the look that we’d be spending the rest of our evening here, drinking countless glasses of burgundy, eating up the whole ceiling.
He was more than the owner and bartender—he was the somm, waiter, chef, dishwasher, plumber, and schmoozer. We talked to him about wine, pretending we knew more than our college-level sommelier exam afforded. We knew a lot, sure, but not half as much as he did. He let us have the moment as our tête-a-tête rolled on, pretending to be awed by our insight. “Look at these two young American lovers,” he must’ve thought, “trying to impress each other, to impress Paris.”
And then I ate the heart—creamy, meaty and tender all at once, with a tuberous flavor that’s hard to describe beyond sweet earth. An artichoke takes work. Some people see an artichoke at the market and think they can just throw it in a pot, serve it with some Hellman’s and call it a night. Before you boil it, you have to trim it, maybe rub the exterior in lemon, or throw some peppercorns into the water, a bay leaf, salt the pot—something to soften the bitterness without losing its flavor. Boiled or steamed, you eat away at the layers, leaf after leaf, until you reach the heart. It’s guarded by a coating of razor sharp spines, the hedgehog’s dilemma. You’ll need a paring knife to cut away the rigid exterior, or at least a spoon. If you’re not careful, you’ll cut away the best part, the part that makes you fall in love. Once you’ve ordered the artichoke, it’s what you always come back for. The heart is what all its admirers crave, a mystery to discover in and of itself.
Zoe Messinger’s work has been featured in ONTHEBUS, HOBART, LITBREAK, (mac)ro(mic), GOOD WORKS REVIEW, PENUMBRA, AVALON LITERARY, and PETER GREENBERG WORLDWIDE. As a cook, she ran a food truck in Milan and Amsterdam, worked in LA-restaurants, and ran a popup called Hot Tart. She’s performed comedy in venues from LA to New York City to Paris.
Photo: Julia Kuzenkov/Unsplash