English menus, when in France

A contact here in Sydney recently revealed that her aunt had booked them into the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Running 24 restaurants in eight countries, Alain Ducasse Entreprise presumably ensures a decent experience, on top of the view. But I was disconcerted that the aunt had apparently over-ridden my Paris suggestions, because “this should be less touristy”.

Just checking, Tripadvisor had attracted 2504 reviews for the Jules Verne (1380 or 55% “excellent” ratings), against 423 (289 or 68% excellent) for the most touristy of my recommendations.

The lesson here is that even the most touristy among us would rather dream that we weren’t.

Which brings me to complaining about being handed English menus in France. If only those establishments realised how insulting that was. Sure, some tourists complain they couldn’t order until the waiter translated. But many of us prefer the “real” menu.

The thrusting of English menus so offended me recently at a bistro in the Marais that I tried to persuade my companion to leave. If you must know, it was the Café Charlot (236 Tripadvisor reviews, with opinion spread from 48 or 20% excellent to 33 terrible).

It is not just that the waiter showed off that he immediately recognised us as foreigners. More to the point, it declared the place’s pretensions to being a tourist trap. The Café Charlot wanted to give no impression of authenticity. We stayed, and the lunch was otherwise unmemorable.

It put me in mind of our evening at the l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, aka the Bocuse restaurant, outside Lyon (936 reviews, 615 or 66% excellent). I can’t imagine it keeping its three stars without Paul Bocuse. I mean, fancy taking a star from among the greatest twentieth-century French chefs, well on the way towards his 90th birthday! His picture adorned the walls, and he was there in person, shaking hands and posing for photographs. In fact, he posed at every table, so a photo was hard to avoid.

IMG_0317 (2)Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time. The food might have been variable, but the heights were high. I imagine that the quenelle was definitive, also the Loup en croûte feuilletée (à partir de 2 persons). If you insist, “Sea bass stuffed in puff pastry shell, Choron sauce (two or more persons)”. The cheese board was top-level. And the ambiance was of a joyously elegant funfair.

That was after being automatically handed menus in English. Don’t they know that food tastes so much better in French! More to the point, the French name is often more recognisable for those with even a moderate appreciation of the cuisine. For example, which is the more understandable – “pâté” or “rich paste of mashed and spiced meat”? On top of that, English menus in France are often dismayingly translated.

We sat there stonily until they brought replacements, and I like to kid myself that the maitre d’ appreciated us all the more for it. The menu came with only a short wine selection, so we also asked for the full list. Here, the gains were measurable. A young sommelier helped us drink really well for less.

More considerate places offer a choice, announcing, “Here is the menu, or would you prefer one in English” (even if spoken in English).  Somewhere off the beaten track is likely to say, “We have an English menu somewhere.”

Also, there’s a simple improvement on separate menus – a single version with English translations in small print underneath. From the online menu, that’s the answer at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel tower.

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