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Classic French food with taste turned up to the Max
Every now and then an Anglophone journalist will write a very long article on the demise of traditional French food. They will point to the proliferation of Starbucks and McDonald’s in French cities, the popularity of Vietnamese food, the dwindling number of bistrots in Paris, and Michelin-starred chefs creating – heavens above! – vegan menus.
Indeed, a few years ago a group of Parisian bistro and café owners, headed by Allain Fontaine of the lovely Le Mesuret on the rue de Richlieu, got together to seek Unesco world heritage status for these proper, traditional establishments. Presumably the problem lies in defining what would be covered and what would not, but I gather nothing much has happened yet.
Twenty years ago Alain Ducasse, who at various times has had more Michelin stars than anyone else (if you care about such things), and whose approach to food is both meticulous and often wildly inventive, bought Aux Lyonnais, the resolutely traditional Paris bouchon (as they call such restaurants in Lyon) in order to keep it just as it always was. I strongly recommend it if you’re looking for somewhere really authentic in the French capital; the food is excellent and the service exceptionally friendly.
A more traditional example of the stripped back, simple and essential bistro, for me, is probably La Cabanon de la Butte in Montmartre with its glorious views over the rooftops of Paris and its essential snails in garlic butter. It’s basic but brilliant and nobody seems to rave about it.
However, if a trip to Paris is not yet on the cards, you can repair to a spot just off Dame Street in Dublin, hard by the entrance to Dublin Castle, and you will be transported to France in terms of sights, smells, sounds and flavours. Chez Max is an immersive experience and it seduced me when it first opened back in 2005; returning, I fell in love with it all over again.
One of the dishes for which it’s celebrated is the Saint-Marcelin fondu a vin blanc: that richly creamy cheese baked briefly with a dash of white wine, scooped up on croûtes, or pieces of toast to you and me. It makes a perfect lunch with a glass of cool, crisp white wine.
But it’s not what you have before the two main courses upon which we had set our hearts. That would be, as they say, de trop. Instead we went classically conservative, on the one hand, and a bit off piste on the other. Incidentally, one of us chose from the €35 menu, the other €40, both for two courses.
Rillettes du Mans come originally from the Loire region and they are both a celebration of fat and of the pig, and they are not for the faint hearted. Roughly one-third meat strands to two-thirds rendered fat, rillettes du Mans are my ideal pâté and stand second only to Irish butter as something I like to spread on crusty bread.
The rillettes du Mans at Chez Max are perfect. It’s the only word for them. Intensely rich, redolent of pure porkiness, two large scoops came served with cornichons and pickled
CHEZ MAX IS AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE AND I FELL IN LOVE WITH IT ALL OVER AGAIN
onions. And mindful of a main course, I managed only half.
The less traditional but no less lovely other starter was glazed pork cheeks – so tender you could eat them with a spoon – varnished, in a sense, with a profound reduction of glossy meat juices and counterpointed by crisp shreds of Jerusalem artichoke. This is something for which I’ll be returning.
And then to the cassoulet, that rib-sticking winter dish from the south of France that combines confit duck, Toulouse sausage, belly pork and haricot beans. The Chez Max version, very correct and traditional, came in a cast iron pot and was enough for two hungry people. Maybe more.
There are times, especially when I know that I’m in good hands, it doesn’t really get any better than steak, chips and Béarnaise sauce. This was one of those occasions. The rib-eye was impeccably mediumrare (being a cut that needs to be cooked a bit beyond rare and is actually inedible if served bleu or needing its blood vessels clamped).
The Béarnaise was faultless, with just enough tarragon flavour, the chips were crisp, the little salad just right.
Is it any wonder that we didn’t even contemplate dessert? Although it was rather a shame as Chez Max does a memorable chocolate mousse.
We concluded, instead, with two French coffees (€9 each) which are the same as Irish coffees but made with Cognac in place of whiskey. Sweet and strong they came beneath a mountain of thickly whipped cream which meant they had to be consumed through straws. Not that this was a hardship.
There are times when you don’t want to ooh and ahh over clever cooking, new culinary experiences, fascinating combinations of flavour and texture. There are times when we all like to go back to classics that have brought us comfort in the past, when we don’t want to be challenged. At times like that, Chez Max is an obvious choice.