It was a sunny Sunday afternoon after a winter of cold and misery. Carmen and I had scheduled a rendezvous, but after my disastrous choice of a pleasant but seedy guinguette for our last meeting, I put her in charge of restaurant reservations. She chose Au Chien Qui Fume–which, it turns out, positively bristles with history. Not to mention extreme nuttiness. According to its own take on things, this restaurant started out in 1740 as a small inn in the heart of old Paris, right off the Pont Neuf…but it was blasted away by the Haussman reconstruction and only reappeared in 1920 when a new restaurant was opened by a man who owned a poodle that smoked cigars and a terrier that smoked a pipe. I don’t know about you, but I am taking all of this cum grano salis. Au Chien Qui Fume was the belle of the old Les Halles ball, until that febrile “belly of Paris” moved to Rungis in 1971. Now it remains popular–yes for its food, but obviously also for the novelty of its dog theme–and it sits at the corner of a clean and odorless green space in sight of the storied Saint-Eustache gothic church. It’s a darling restaurant; it’s completely ridiculous; and it serves excellent food.
Ten guesses on my first course. Soup, of course: la soupe de poisson from Provence. It was a selection on “Menu Bazil à 33,70 €” and it was yummy, served with the traditional crouton, parmesan, and rouille (recipe for rouille on soupsong’s Aziminu). Second course La Daurade Royale Grillée au Thym, Tomate, Epinards, Pommes Safranées, a great fish platter–I was actually shown the whole freshly grilled fish in its wire cage before it was deconstructed into fillets and served with thyme, tomatoes, spinach, and saffroned potatoes. A glass of white wine, coffee and chocolates, a stroll in and around Saint Eustache to see where Richelieu, Mme. Pompadour, and Moliere had been baptised–an absolutely delicious day.
But what about that Soupe de Poisson? Please note its particular construction: la soupe DE poisson, not la soupe AUX poissons–intimating it’s the very essence of fish, not just made of fishes. Surely it started out with fishermen and their wives making do with the small and broken leftovers of the daily catch–smooshing them in a pot and straining the flesh and goodness out, leaving the bones and skin behind. Then, it being France, it got improved over time until at a certain point it became a masterpiece. I love that about France.
In fact, though, the soup is not that hard to make, as Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential demonstrates:
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves
2 small onions, thinly sliced
2 leeks, whites only, washed and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 can (18 ounces) plum tomatoes, chopped
2 pounds tiny whole fish (such as porgies or whiting), gutted with heads intact, or 4 pounds fish bones and heads
1 Bouquet Garni
zest of 1 orange
3 strands of saffron
1 ounce Pernod
salt and pepper
Garnishes: Rouille, freshly grated Parmesan, croutons
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy pot, add the garlic, onions, leeks, and fennel, cover, and let them sweat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Add tomatoes and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, then add the small fish or bones. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water to cover, as well as the bouquet garni and orange zest. Stir well; add saffron, a dash of salt and pepper, and Pernod. Lower the heat and simmer for about an hour.
Remove pot from heat and let soup cool slightly. Strain the liquid into a large bowl. Crush the remaining solids in the pot, then add them to the strainer and press as much liquid as possible from them. Return all the soup to another pot, reheat, ladle into bowls, and serve with croutons, rouille, and some grated Parmesan on the side.
Whether you make it yourself or order it out, you’ll love it. And I recommend you try it, if your travels bring you this way, at:
Au Chien Qui Fume
33, rue du Pont Neuf