Paris Restaurants: Atlantic bars and grills

A three-page special on French food and wine begins with seafood
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is often said that you can eat fresher fish in Paris than in France's ports and harbours. Perhaps that is an exaggeration but it is certainly true that you can eat fish in Paris as fresh as you can at, say, Le Havre - and a good deal fresher than in many British seaside towns. The explanation for this culinary miracle - this paradox of space and time - can be put in a single word: Rungis.

Rungis is the great market outside Paris that serves the capital itself, and much of the rest of France besides. If Paris is still, in Brillat Savarin's words, "one great refectory", Rungis is its larder. For all of this, there was a time when anyone who cared about food or about Paris could hardly bear to contemplate Rungis, let alone visit it. For Rungis was notorious: it was Rungis that murdered Les Halles. That, in fact, is not quite true - it was Pompidou and the Paris authorities who killed Les Halles when they closed it in 1969 - but it was Rungis that took its place. Where Les Halles, right in the centre of Paris, was old, overcrowded, and overflowing - a place of drunks and prostitutes, artists and writers - Rungis was modern, efficient, sterile and single-minded. It was a bureaucrat's dream.

Les Halles though, is ancient history, and slowly, over the years, it's become increasingly fashionable to go to Rungis. Paris's modern-day gutterati head out there late at night or early in the morning to have a breakfast in one of its many cafes - or better still, a plate of oysters and a bottle of Chablis. Rungis might not be Les Halles, but it has qualities that still appeal to the demi-monde: it's rough, ugly and excessive. In Paris for a weekend, I decided to pay the place a visit, to see it for myself. (It would be nice to pretend that I'd gone with a large bunch of friends at the end of a long night on the town. But my companions would have none of it, and I found myself heading off alone and bleary-eyed at five in the morning, after a restless three or four hours' sleep.)

If you do want to go to the market (and anyone can), it's best to have a car - you can get there by taxi easily enough (it's 12 kilometres from the centre of Paris), but once there, you need a vehicle to get from one hangar to the next. Doing it by foot is tiring and dangerous - 3,000 lorries roll in and out every night, bringing in everything from Agen prunes to Toulouse tripe.

Rungis claims to be the biggest market in the world, and you can only hope to take in a tiny proportion of its 50-odd warehouses in any one night: the meat sector alone includes two football pitch-sized halls given over to lamb and beef, two to pork and its products, one to game and poultry and another to offal. I had time to take in the poultry and game, admiring hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of little quail - and to enjoy a coffee in a small glass cabin in the centre of the hall where Rungis' blood-splattered butchers drink. It was the fish, though, that I really wanted to see and that I liked best. The fish hall is, I believe, the biggest of them all and contains not only dozens of stalls, but half a dozen shops - one sells knives, another tackle and another outdoor gear; there is even a marine vet. The day I was there, the place had taken in around 400 tonnes of fish, roughly half from the Atlantic and half from the Mediterranean. By six in the morning, most had already gone, but the remains were impressive enough - great gold piles of racasse destined for fish stews, huge blue- green mounds of mackerel, and crate upon crate of steely bass. One end of the hall is given over entirely to oysters; there are only two units devoted to snails, but five devoted, logically enough, to lemon and parsley. Paris, it became clear, is a place that takes its fish very seriously indeed.

I was pleased to see Rungis but would not rush back; for all of its spectacle, it's not a place designed for spectators. If, however, the prospect of this great nocturnal market appeals, there are more than 30 places to eat and drink: I am told the Marmite and the Maree are the best, at least if it's seafood you are after. Instead, I decided to follow the restaurateurs' vans back into the centre of Paris and try my luck there. A natural place to go might have been the Dome, an old-style brasserie famous for its seafood. Instead, I did one better and went to La Cagouille, not far from the Dome near Gare Montparnasse.

La Cagouille is 10 years old, sits on the ground floor of a plain, modern building, and deals exclusively in fish. By Parisian standards, it is an unusually light and airy place, with an open kitchen, a warm slate floor, large floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a little square, and lots of shells, sailing tackle, and Cognac distilling equipment artfully built into the design of the dining room.

La Cagouille's proprietors are from Charentes, on the Atlantic coast, and they practise the sort of simple, straightforward cooking for which the area is famous. The region is also well known for its Cognac, and the Gault-Millau guide says that La Cagouille has "the best Cognac collection in Paris, perhaps in the world". From perhaps the best restaurant guidebook in the world, that is praise indeed.

Andre Robert, or one of La Cagouille's other proprietors, goes to Rungis early every morning when the market first opens - the fish is more expensive then, but the choice is greater. The menu, written on a blackboard, changes daily, with five or six choices for each course. I was tempted by the oysters, by the fried whitebait, the haddock salad, and sauteed scallops - everything in fact - but I went for a plate of little langoustines, which proved just that - a plate of langoustines. At first, I thought I might want some mayonnaise or at least some lemon with this, but I was wrong - the crustacea weren't greasy to touch, but had somehow been infused with butter and salt. Shellfish had never tasted so good. Our other starters - smoked eel with a waxy potato salad and a garlic mayonnaise, and roast baby octopus - were just as fine; in each case, the method of cooking was simple, distinct and designed to bring the best out of the raw ingredients. The octopus, in particular, although simply roasted and served as nature made them, were extraordinarily intense in flavour - almost gamey but far from unpleasant. Among our second courses, bream and red mullet were both grilled to perfection. Bream, you could argue, is almost too crude a fish to bear such a simple treatment, but the red mullet, served correctly with its innards kept in, was beautiful. It came with sprigs of roasted thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, and a clove of blanched garlic, still in its skin.

Since my companions and I had apparently wandered in, more or less, off the street, guide books under our arms, the service we received, in the person of Andre Martin himself, was exceptionally funny and attentive; he and his colleagues were clearly enjoying themselves.

I admit that La Cagouille did put a few steps wrong, but feel sure that this was uncharacteristic: a plate of scrambled eggs, with smoked and plain salmon, had been over-salted, and a dessert of macerated oranges ("orange soup") had been over-cinammoned - so much so, indeed, that I had to leave it. Still, other desserts, including a superbly dense chocolate parfait, helped make amends, as did lots of free glasses of Cognac. Seafood of this quality does not come cheap - at least in Paris - and a three- course meal at La Cagouille will cost at least 350ff (pounds 39) a head, (and much more if you start experimenting with the better Cognacs). But our meal was, for the most part, memorably fresh and good; it took me straight back to Rungis and beyond to the fishing ports of Charentes.

La Cagouille, 10/12 Place C Brancusi, (opposite 23 rue de L'Ouest), 14e, 75014 Paris (tel: 43 22 09 01 Fax: 0145 385729). Open 7 days a week, lunch and supper. All cards. Wheelchair access.

Rungis operates from midnight to midday 7 days a week, but the market is much reduced at the weekends when many of the warehouses are closed. During the week, fish is open from 3am to 7am, meat from 4am-9am, dairy from 5am-1pm, fruit and vegetables from 7am-12pm; flowers from 7am-1pm