What is it about those places where you just feel at home?
You know, the kind of place that's "comfortable." That feels like you belong. Thomas Keller once wrote:
I felt as if I'd been there already, knew the place in my bones, as if the bistro were already a part of me before I was conscious of it, and that by stepping into one, I simply engaged a part of myself that had always been there but until that moment was dormant.
I couldn't have said it any better.
Because that's how I felt the first time I arrived at Washington D.C.'s Brasserie Les Halles.
Maybe it's the tin ceilings, the dark wood, the tobacco patina on the walls. Maybe it's the ice cubes in the urinals, or the humidor of Paul Garmirian cigars. Maybe it's the denim shirts on the waitstaff or the al fresco dining area. Maybe it's all those things combined with some very tasty food.
Les Halles may sound familiar to some of you, the New York restaurant is the home of now celebrity chef Tony Bourdain and one of the focal points in his bestseller Kitchen Confidential. But that's neither here nor there.
My first experience with Les Halles was back in 2002, just after Peter Gunn had opened the eponymous Adam Leaf & Bean tobacco shop. We were invited to attend a cigar dinner at Les Halles hosted by Paul Garmirian. I had heard about Les Halles and their reputation for pommes frites so when they called with the invitation, it was a no brainer. Dinner and cigars and the same time with steak and french fries? I was in and I didn't need to hear anymore about it.
I don't remember too much about that evening other than the cigars were excellent, the wines were flowing and it was steak frites and then more frites on top of the frites, and a very sharp waitress named Aicha.
Since that time, I've been to Les Halles on a somewhat regular basis. Usually monthly, sometimes weekly and, occasionally, more than once a week. In the beginning it was Steak Frites and some Macaroni and Cheese, then I discovered the Onglet a L'echalote, then the moules, then the cassoulet, then the onion soup, then the merguez, then the steak tartare, then the chocroute, then the steak aux poive, then the escargot, then the pate de campagne - in all, we've probably tried just about every item on Les Halles menu.
The question comes up - is it the "best" food available? Probably not. It's not expensive to eat there. The food is standard French workman's food. There's very little of the haute cuisine you'd find in those fancy French restaurants. The plating isn't wild, just relatively simple food prepared in a simple manner. But gosh is it good.
Sad to say that while I've tried most everything on the menu, I had never tried the Confit de Canard.
By now, I've been to a few other French bistros. Places like the old Aud Pied du Cochon, La Madeleine, Marche, La Chaumiere, Petit Louis and Bouchon, but there's no place like home. There's no place like Les Halles.