When I first moved to Paris I was thrilled to have my own apartment and to be able to host my friends. I used to throw these chic dinner parties complete with place settings and flower arrangements. There would be several dishes, a selection of meat or fish, several side dishes and several store-bought desserts.
I would spend hours in the kitchen preparing, plating, then bussing and serving my guests tableside. I refused to let them clear their plates, thinking it was impolite to let them help in any way or even see my disastrous mess of a tiny kitchen. My French friends would ooh and ah, saying, “Je suis très impressionné!”
Also almost always feeling underdressed and a little surprised, “Je ne savais pas c’était un dîner si chic!” It was always said with a sincere tone of appreciation tainted with a tinge of embarrassment. It was never my intention for it to be a particularly chic dinner or to make an extra effort to impress them; coming from the Philippines with a plethora of help and where buffet dining was the norm, frankly it was the only way I knew how to receive!
Even dining out was a similar experience. My first few weeks there I would get dressed to the nines for dinner wearing a cocktail dress and heels, only to find myself like an alien wedged between black cashmere sweaters, torn jeans and Converse sneaks. It didn’t matter if there were escargots and a good burgundy on the menu; I was always out of place. After a few encounters like this, perhaps my good friends had decided to kindly take pity on me and discreetly teach me a valuable lesson in Parisian ways. They invited me to dinner at their apartment, specifically stating over the phone (yes, over the phone as SMS was really strange to them back then), “No need to dress up! C’est bonne franquette quoi!” What was that?! I frantically called my French-Filipino friend, asking for some sort of an explanation. “What do I wear? What do I bring? What on earth is bonne franquette???!”
I did what I was told, I wore a T-shirt, jeans and sneaks, came with a bottle of wine and unkempt hair and I fit right in. The vibe was warm, friendly and relaxed. No fuss and no stress. The hosts had prepared a great simple meal and the kitchen was not at all in a shambles. We sat around the coffee table on the floor, laughing and talking till the wee hours of the morning.
“A la bonne franquette” was one of the first true familiar French expressions I ever learned. An expression that can somewhat be translated to “without fuss” or “unceremonious,” or even simply put, “informal.” It has, however, in practice, a far warmer or cozier allusion. It’s almost about keeping things simple during a gathering so as to focus on the essential.
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In most of my Parisian experiences dining in homes, evenings consisted of a large platter of cheese, a big bowl of salad and a fresh, crusty baguette casually left unsliced on the table for people to tear off pieces with their hands. There was some saucisson on a wooden board with a knife left for guests to slice. There would almost always be only one main course (if you had food restrictions you would never make it public and politely refuse and eat what you could) with one side dish and one dessert, everything served with copious amounts of wine from mismatched glasses. Guests would never show up empty-handed and would always pitch in with the serving and clearing of dishes. There was always a feeling of ease, a warm symbiosis between host and guest, culminating in a night of long conversations and deepened friendships.
This is the main underlying principle behind a Parisian bistro. Born out of the kitchens of grand Parisian apartments catering to tenants who lived there with full board. To increase revenue they would open up the kitchens to non-tenants serving simple, home-cooked food. True bistros are the antithesis of restaurants, forgoing the starched whites and tournéed vegetables. The servers are sometimes gruff, sometimes friendly, but always efficient. Wine bottles are quickly opened and left on the table for self-service. And food is rustic, simple, without much adornment and nevertheless often cooked with a lot of love and even more butter. Many times you may even know the owners or the chef and they’ll send you little extras with a wink. It is where you go to share a good meal in good company with, most importantly, lots of wine.
Bistro du Vin is not a French restaurant. It is a Parisian bistro, in every sense of the term, from its warm, cozy banquettes to its large, unfussy servings of French home classics, and above all, its cheery atmosphere. Don’t expect fancy degustations, the menu is — as it should be — decidedly simple. Onion soup, a good steak frites, roast chicken, crisp duck confit, big salades composes, escargots drowning in garlic parsley butter, desserts that could have come out of your French granny’s oven.
Last Saturday, my husband and I went on a double date with my parents had one of the most enjoyable meals in a long time at Bistro du Vin. Having opened just two weeks ago there is still a need for fine-tuning; however, the entire experience was more than promising. The fact that they could serve me a good, homemade duck rillettes and pate with hot, crusty bread and a really delightful, reasonable bottle of wine — oops, make that two! — just made me a return customer.
Pair that with some good French cheese and that it is literally minutes away from where I live (call me lazy; I shall graciously accept the criticism during this crazy, traffic-filled season) and, well, I feel like I am back in one of my favorite neighborhood haunts in Paris.
Don’t come in large groups. Come just as you would in Paris, snuggled up next to your close friends on a banquette, happily scattering crumbs on the table as you sop up butter and sauce with bits of baguette. Share stories as you share dessert and by the time your digestif comes, hopefully you’ll have covered everything from gossip to politics to philosophy. Most importantly, have copious amounts of wine and remind yourself that sometimes the best meals are beyond the white tablecloths and more often à la bonne franquette!
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Bistro du Vin is located on the ground floor of Edades Tower, Rockwell Center, telephone 958-6712.