A few months ago I resolved once and for all to clear out my e-mail Inbox every day. No matter how hard I try, though, some messages seem to stick around. An e-mail that I received a few weeks ago from a mysterious Miss Lunch was one of these. I was intrigued, but wasn't yet sure what I would do about it. Miss Lunch remained at the bottom of my Inbox next to an anxious e-mail from my accountant, occasionally calling out to me in a small voice.
How glad I am that I kept that e-mail from this "artist-cook" telling me about her private lunches in Paris. Clandestine restaurants aren't a new thing in Paris, but neither are they widespread: the two that I know of, Aux Chiens Lunatiques and The Hidden Kitchen, are both run by Americans who cater mainly to English-speakers. The closest I have come to eating at Chez Panisse is my extraordinary lunch at Aux Chiens Lunatiques six years ago (I'll never forget that chunky guinea fowl and wild mushroom risotto), where my lasting friendship with Dorie began.
Miss Lunch doesn't give her real name on her website, which might seem offputting to some but heightens the sense of doing something daring when you commit to having a meal at her loft. I showed up with a friend, which made it easier, but there was still that moment of awkwardness when all the guests had arrived and Claude (aka Miss Lunch) was busy behind the curtain in her Parisian-sized kitchen. Luckily her partner Eric was there to hand out glasses of bubbly Prosecco and get the conversation going.
Sitting next to me was Gérard Vives, a larger-than-life Marseillais with a shaved head who travels the world seeking out the finest spices to sell to French chefs and home cooks. This Sunday lunch had also attracted one of Claude's former Beaux Arts professors who came with his wife and a psychiatrist friend, and pair of French journalists. The conversation was entirely in French and at one point a verbal scuffle broke out on my side of the table. I heard Claude gasp and giggle behind her curtain, and occasionally she poked her head out to keep up with what was happening at the table.
The quality of what she served was astounding, especially considering the size of her kitchen. It turns out that Claude grew up in Ottawa and speaks French with an English accent, but she is one of those people whose cultural identity is impossible to pinpoint: her family is Egyptian, South African and Belgian, she has lived in Paris for 16 years and has spent enough time on the small Italian island of Pantelleria to consider it a second home.
Largely inspired by this island, her autumn menu began with a sweet-tart-salty-spicy caper and sundried tomato dip whose recipe she has generously shared with me along with a couple of her paintings. The dish that most amazed me was a mini-timbale of squid-ink pasta (homemade, of course) with a prawn filling and creamy seafood sauce, though I was also mightily impressed by her homemade baklava and almost chewy mastic gum and orange flower water ice cream. Even the coffee (cinnamon-scented rooibos tea in my case) came with a homemade chocolate macaron, showing that Claude is not one to cut corners. The suggested contribution for the six-course meal and its thoughtfully chosen wines was €45, and Claude admitted to me that she barely breaks even: at the moment she considers Lunch in the Loft more of an art project than a money-making scheme.
The danger of inviting strangers into your home is that they might never want to leave, and it was 5pm by the time we all tore ourselves away, exchanging e-mails and promising to keep in touch. When the food and wine are this good, the only possible result is friendship.
Miss Lunch's caper, chili and sundried tomato spread
Makes about 1 cup
Claude brings back the ingredients for this dip from the Italian island of Pantelleria, but I was able to make a delicious approximation with salted capers, caper fruit rinsed of its brine, half a fresh Espelette pepper (an aromatic, slightly smoky chili from the French Basque region) and sundried tomatoes which I plumped in warm water for half an hour. I found that I needed a little less olive oil than called for in this recipe.
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
50 g capers and caper fruit (the cucunci) in salt, soaked in hot water to remove the salt for half an hour
2 dried bird peppers
3 dried tomatoes, chopped
Put everything together and mix to a fine consistency, taste and adjust with more oil or hot pepper. Let sit at least half an hour. Serve with little pain de mie toasts.
8 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
I read about Aux Chiens Lunatiques several years ago in the New York Times and I thought it sounded like such a fun time! Great food and interesting people.
So funny reading your post when I'm off to Hidden kitchens tomorrow. I went to a clandestine brunch a couple of months ago which was great fun too. I'll have to check out the lunch in a loft too. Thanks for the handy post.
Eileen: My meal at Aux Chiens Lunatiques five years ago was hugely memorable, both for the food and the company!
Lucy: A hoot it was!
Teryll: Thank you for those kind words, they are great motivation to keep posting!
R khooks: A clandestine brunch? Tell me more!
What impossible fun! I love how a lunch at Aux Chiens Lunatiques last for hours and hours. Just read an article in the NY Times about the demise of the French bar/cafe. Very, very sad. Hope you are well, Rosa. I've been out of loop for a while.
Hi Susan, nice to hear from you! I've been having trouble keeping up with things myself. It IS sad about the cafés, but maybe it will prompt them to make better coffee!
Lunch in the Loft is just as wonderful in 2009 as it was when Rosa visited Miss Lunch. We had the pleasure of attending a lunch in the loft this (Paris) Spring and it was brilliant. What a beautiful concept!
The Menu was really innovative and very generous, as were the wines. Indeed, the food is better than most of the restaurants we visited (and we visited a lot!)
But maybe the best part was being able to join in an authentically French dinner party, something that tourists can rarely do. We knew none of the other guests before we arrived, but by the end, despite our very basic and stilted French, we had made some new friends and had gained huge insights into Parisian life. Indeed, we were subsequently invited to one of the other guest's apartment for a very convivial wine and cheese soiree. (Thanks, Elice, if you ever read this!).
Many thanks to Miss Lunch and Eric.
If ever you go to Paris, I would highly recommend a Lunch in the Loft.