Restaurant Androuet

by Brenda Athanus
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androuetcheeseHow did it happen that the Androuet Restaurant in Paris could quietly disappear without fanfare or protest? How could it become a dilapidated sign over a store front; soulless, diluted and gone? Why have I waited so long to write about it? Secretly, I hoped that somehow it would come back to life.

The original cheese shop, ripening caves and restaurant was located on Rue Amsterdam. Rue Amsterdam was quirky and not so nice an area. The street was long and one-way. We would circle around for half an hour to be able to park close enough to be safe after dark. It was Mecca for a cheese lover - I am a zealot.

The tiny, refrigerated shop on the first floor was filled with every cheese made in every corner of France. Each one was ‘a’ point’-- perfectly aged and ready to eat. The three tiny, older women tended the inventory of cheeses constantly. When you walked in there was no grand greeting, only a quick look up and aloof ‘Bon jour’. I always wondered if they knew how difficult a place it was to find. If they did know how much effort it took maybe they would have been kinder. It doesn’t matter now because the best cheese shop in the world is gone. Maybe their intense concentration is what it took to maintain such high quality.

Cheese is like wine; it opens in your glass-the first long sniff of its’ aroma to the last sip of perfectness. Cheese is like that as well - birth, aging and perfection and it then it gone, too. These three women struggled to keep so many cheeses perfect. Most, barely lasting a day or two. I understood why they never looked up from their arduous work.

 

Below the main floor were three levels of caves: blues, goat/sheep and cow. All properly separated, all needing very different conditions. Off to the side there was someone creating platters of cheese on wooden trays much like a 2-kilo Brie comes packed in. The trays were made of fresh and still fragrant pine. The platters were arranged carefully in a circle with directions on which cheese to start with—you always proceeded counter clockwise. I never asked why they arranged them counter clockwise. I never asked enough questions. They seemed too busy to disturb - I wish I had asked.

androuet0011-462x346At first, we would buy 5 or 6 morsels of rare cheeses and then I realized how special the platters were: after all they were hand picked and placed in the proper order for a reason. Because, that was perfection and they knew what perfect was as they had aged every cheese from birth.

I adored this place, as worn out as it was, it was Old France in all its glories and idiosyncrasies.

It took 2 years for us to realize that there was a cheese tasting restaurant on the upper level. No signage to indicate it and certainly not enough engaging dialog with ‘the ladies’ as they wrapped our cheeses. Perhaps, it was a secret or an earned invitation, who knows? Not me. On a visit before the shop closed I held the door for a well-dressed older couple thinking they were going into the shop, but they didn’t.

They pushed an elevator button, the door opened and they disappeared. In my best French I asked where was the couple going? “The restaurant”, she answered in a short tone. “THE RESTAURANT! WHAT RESTAURANT?“ There is a restaurant upstairs? Really?” You think I had discovered the world was no longer flat. I asked her to call for a reservation for this evening. She conceded reluctantly. I waited for my cheeses to be placed in the plain brown shopping bag and thanked her for her efforts. We walked to the elevator, pushed the button and disappeared as well.

The old elevator groaned under our weight as all 3 of us squeezed into it. I pushed the only button, #2. It stopped abruptly and shook. The old doors open slowly-behind us. We remained motionless, jolted by the deep voice of the maitre D’. Our backs were to him, we turned around and our faces turned red. He looked bored, annoyed and wondered, I’m sure, what we were doing there.

He showed us to our table, a hidden table in a dark corner next to the flapping kitchen doors and handed us the menu. Half an hour went by before he came back, it didn’t matter to us we weren’t going anywhere, no matter what. We all ordered the same thing: the seven course ‘cheese tasting’ menu. His eyebrows rose to his hairline in shock. “This is only cheese, you know.” “Yes, we know. Thank you. We should order a salad as well. You choose the salad and a wine list would be nice to see.” He left quickly and returned with a wine list. I ordered a bottle of obscure Beaujolais thinking that would bridge all 7 cheese courses; at least 6. The 7th course was a whole rolling cart of Blues so maybe a Sauternes to finish our feast would be in order.

cheesecartThe 1st cart was filled with tiers of young goat cheeses—not aged, sweet and delicate. The 2nd cart was goat cheese with age, some barely, others aged to a strong, peppery bite. We nibbled at the palate cleansing salad - a white as snow blanched endive salad dressed with toasted walnuts, walnut oil and aged vinegar. I began to budget my salad to last till the end-it became an integral piece. The 3rd cart was laden with soft ripening cheeses covered in brain-like folds of soft coverings, some barely white, others the deepest orange yellow and wet, oozing from cracks as it acclimated to room temperature. The 4th cart held an array of hard cheese: some displayed in small piles of straw - their birthplace and others covered in small irregular holes.

We tried as many as humanly possible. I admit I barely remember cart 5 or 6, sadly. I could research it and tell you but not remembering is part of the story. We had consumed well over 50 different cheeses at that point and somewhere in my memory there is a void. Lost in time, lost in pleasure and painfully full; very ready to have it end with cart 7 - The Blues.

The Blues, ah, the Blues. We ordered a half bottle of a reasonably priced Sauterne because there truly aren’t any bad Sauternes in France. We waited for the fog of over indulgence to lift as we sipped our wine from the tiny glasses. I asked that the cart be left in front of us to study. As full as we were, seeing 6 different Roquefort’s excited us again. The maitre D’ brought a perfectly peeled Bosc pear and a pot of honey to accompany cart #7. I said, “Please serve me what ever you want me to try, choose for me” and he did.

When it was my sister’s turn she told him about a cheese she had in her childhood from Sardinia, explaining how she had searched for it since that first bite. She had never found it again. He declared he knew of it and disappeared. He returned with the elusive Niola Blue on a woven straw platter and placed in front of my sister - she cut off a piece and tears filled her eyes, again.

On our next visit we knew to turn around before the elevator stopped, the maître D’ never gave us another menu, he rolled over cart #1, brought a salad and a bottle of wine to show us before he opened it and we never sat by the kitchen, again. We earned each other’s respect having gotten all the way to cart 7, a very heroic undertaking.

 

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