Lively Alsatian eatery Bofinger — the city's oldest brasserie — dishes up a grand dining experience in a Belle Epoque setting. Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley says it's both a historic symbol and a temple to the French way of eating.
Paris: Bofinger Offers Elegance Sans Pretension
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR
A waiter at Alsatian brasserie Bofinger carries one of the eatery's signature dishes — a platter of fruits de mer, or shellfish. Bofinger is the oldest brasserie, or brewing house, in Paris.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR
The crowning glory of the restaurant — which dates back to 1864 — is the colorful, domed, stained-glass ceiling above the central dining room.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR
Tucked away on a side street off of Paris' lively Place de la Bastille, Alsatian brasserie Bofinger — the city's oldest brasserie — dishes up a grand French dining experience in a Belle Epoque setting.
Frederic Bofinger (pronounced bo-fan-jhay) came to Paris from Alsace in 1864 to open the capital's first "brasserie," or brewing house. He introduced Parisians to draft beer, first serving it up with sausages and other traditional pork cuts from his native Alsace, and the restaurant has remained popular ever since.
Today, a walk through Bofinger's revolving wooden door offers a trip back to Belle Epoque France. Brasseries like Bofinger are grand, high-ceilinged places that bustle with activity, where black-and-white-clad waiters wearing bow ties and aprons crisscross the floor bearing enormous platters of food.
The restaurant's two floors offer several dining rooms and nearly 300 seats. The entire interior — a winding wooden staircase, brass light fixtures, tile floors, black leather banquettes, mirrors, ceramic sculptures and even the porcelain urinals — are all original and now protected as national heritage.
The eatery's crowning glory is a colorful, domed, stained-glass ceiling above the central dining room. This work of art by master stained-glass craftsmen Neret and Royer was added in 1909.
Though grand and elegant, Bofinger is also friendly and unpretentious. You need not be intimidated here. It offers standard, hearty French brasserie fare. Starters include foie gras, soupe a l'oignon (French onion soup), escargot and some original dishes such as Saint Marcelin cheese roasted in bacon.
Main course specialties include steaks (cut from fine Burgundy-region Charolais beef), Cote d'Agneau (lamb), Sole Meuniere and top-quality AAA andouillette with fries.
But Bofinger is famous for two things: its seafood — especially shellfish (fruits de mer) — and its sauerkraut (choucroute), a dish native to Alsace.
I began my meal with a selection of clams and oysters. My oysters were Fines de Claires from Brittany and Girardeaux, which are raised exclusively on Utah Beach in Normandy. My waiter told me Girardeaux are considered the best oysters in France.
After sucking down about 10 of the voluptuous delicacies in their cool, fragrant sea water, I had no doubt he was right. I washed them down with a glass of 2004 Meursault white wine.
For my main course, I ordered the daily special, Cocotte de Coquille Saint Jacques — a light stew of giant scallops, green beans, large lima beans and mushrooms in a buttery sauce. My dining partner had a Charolais entrecote. We shared a light Pinot Noir wine from Alsace, which went well with both fish and meat.
I am not a huge fan of sauerkraut, but I'll order it the next time I dine at Bofinger. It looks so enticing and is presented with such flair. Choucroute for two at Bofinger arrives beautifully presented on a two-tiered silver platter with a flame underneath. The mound of tangy, white sauerkraut is neatly encircled by sausages and various thick cuts of pork.
Bofinger also offers a seafood sauerkraut, which features monkfish, salmon, haddock and prawns, instead of pork.
For dessert we had two French classics: profiteroles and a baba au rhum. The spongy cake of the baba is decorated with diced pineapples and raisins. The waiter leaves a bottle of rum on the table, so diners can decide how much spirit they need.
The profiteroles — flaky pastry shells filled with vanilla ice cream — are drowned in a hot dark chocolate sauce poured from a ceramic pitcher at the last moment.
Bofinger's food is good French fare, done well. In the context of Parisian restaurants, it's not particularly pricey — a steak or choucroute for two costs about $50, while a three-course menu is about $45.
What is extraordinary is the setting and the experience. Lively, friendly and fun, Bofinger is both a historic symbol and a temple to the French way of eating.
About one-third of the restaurant's diners are tourists, the rest real Parisians. This is a place where French writers, academics and politicians meet: Almost every French president and prime minister of modern times has eaten here.
But even if you don't run into Nicolas Sarkozy, it's entertainment enough observing tout Paris conversing, gesticulating and slurping their oysters.
Bofinger — 7, rue de la Bastille in Paris' 11th arrondissement. Metro Bastille. Telephone: 33 (0) 1 42 72 87 82. Web site: http://www.bofingerparis.com/.