There is a fertile smell on our porch. Sherry has planted the pots and boxes, there are petunias overflowing the hanging baskets. To sit out on what is a very rare porch on the "poor" side of Shadyside is a treat in itself, but in June, when everything is fresh and newly transplanted, the perfume is intoxicating.
It takes me back to Chez Juliette.
This was our first meal in Paris. We had arrived, wary and worried at the address that we had contracted for the week. The neighborhood, a working class quartier just south of Montmartre seemed a bit dusty and in transition, but after struggling in French and Spanish with Mme Esteves, our contact-slash-savior we settled in to our, frankly, luxurious apartment. Our thoughts quickly turned to dinner.
Our host had suggested a place down the street, at 42 rue Rochechouart, a Chez Jeanine for their steak tartare. But at 42 rue Rochechouart, we found Chea Juliette instead, a tumbledown open bistro with geraniums at the windows and a large, dirty man in an apron shooing patrons away until 7:30. We walked down the street and stopped at a friendly fromagerie (turns out that Pennsylvania is on the proprietor's hit parade, but Philadelphia ranks higher than Pittsburgh; there was the iconic cream cheese proudly displayed in his case) and a boulangerie.
We returned to Chez Juliette just after the witching hour and was seated in a cozy table near the bar.
The menu was filled with all the things one would expect in a neighborhood bistro, cranked up a touch here and there. We ordered a bottle of the house rosé and studied the blackboard menu propped next to our table. There was a country paté and a salad or wild arugula and beets, an onion tart with hazelnuts, a filet of dourade, a poulet rotie, steak frites and the aforementioned tartare.
I ordered the onion tart, salad and tartare, Sherry settled on a salad and the dourade (a firm white-flesh fish sometimes appearing in a bouillabaisse). The service, talkative, friendly and yet reserved, was everything that service in the US is not: no one wrote a name on a piece of butcher paper, or announced themselves as our server (what else would they be?). Instead, we were treated to dish after dish of the simplest, most lovingly and artfully prepared food.
The salad, dressed only in fruity olive oil, salt and pepper was a soft, fresh crunch in our mouths. The tart, textured and flavorful, was more an onion paté than a tart, studded with the hazelnuts and spiked with thyme. Delicious.
Sherry's dourade was sauteed perfectly, slightly browned on the outside and juicy on the inside. We had never tasted fish like this. The filet was dressed with a whisper of browned butter, which lent a toasty aroma to the dish.
My tartare defined the word bistro. Clean, raw, expertly minced (not ground) beef was mixed with capers. cornichons, red onion and all the condiments and served with buttery soft potatoes. This choice was different for me, as I am used to the standard frites (fries), but I have to say that they worked perfectly. The beef was laced with a touch of Tabasco just to the point of pleasure, the tangy chillie sauce enhancing and expanding the soft taste of raw meat.
The rosé had been set on our table in an open, label-less bottle: Juliette had her own vintage. The crisp, chilled fruit played off both the beef and the fish with highlights of berries and a touch of spice.
Desert was profiteroles with house-made vanilla ice cream, the chocolate sauce sticky and hinting of cinnamon. Espresso finished the meal.
Chez Juliette is one of those places not found in guidebooks, but that defines a neighborhood. By the time we had ordered our entrees and plates, the place had filled up as if on cue. When we left, the streetside tables were full as the low lights spilled into the dark street and bright voices filled the night.
I have rarely been as happy. The quality of the food was enhanced by the welcome, the good humored service and the bustling nature of the kitchen. We would return a few nights later with the Daughter and Friend in tow and the menu would be changed slightly, but the experience would be the same: the thick floral greeting at the windows, the by now friendly acknowledgment of a return engagement, and a meal that sticks to the ribs, the tongue, the imagination.