A legendary cafe-restaurant in Paris

David Downie pays homage to Le Pied Rare, a wonderful working-class Parisian cafe-restaurant that is celebrated in mystery novels -- and by its pork-loving patrons.

Published September 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Octopus is one delicacy you will never eat at Le Pied Rare, a homey cafe-restaurant in Paris's 11th arrondissement east of the Bastille. There are wooden tables and bentwood chairs. Blue-collar men and blue-rinse ladies linger over croissants and grands crhmes. Shopkeepers lunch on pig's trotters (pieds de porc) or daily specials. The glassed-in terrace, blue with smoke, gives on the sycamore-lined Avenue Ledru Rollin and its turn-of-the-century buildings.

The Bastille area's hipsters pass Le Pied Rare without a glance. The cafe's no-nonsense decor has elements of French provincial kitsch: a display case full of plastic or ceramic pigs, pig postcards, piggy banks, pig dolls.

The specialty here is pied de porc ` la Sainte Menehould (pronounced men-eu), named after the untouristed village in the unsung Argonne region due east of Paris. The trotter is bound and boiled for 12 hours in stock with white wine, herbs and spices, according to a centuries-old recipe.

Legend has it that when Louis XVI tried to flee France in 1791, he was undone by his love of trotters: He stopped in Sainte Menehould to sup on pieds de porc and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards. Ever since, pig's trotter's have been the edible symbol of liberti, egaliti and fraterniti. A democratic dish with a revolutionary pedigree.

Le Pied Rare's second claim to fame is as the headquarters of Le Poulpe, i.e. the Octopus, the anti-hero of a French underground thriller series that has taken the country by storm since 1995. About 100 Le Poulpe episodes have been published so far and book sales are approaching 1 million. "Le Poulpe," the movie, will be released next month in 300 theaters across France.

Le Poulpe is the brainchild of cult thriller writer Jean-Bernard Pouy. He created the character and wrote the series's first book. Unlike other crime series, though, each Le Poulpe episode is written by a different author. This is pulp fiction with a choral dimension. Several big-name writers have signed on, including Patrick Raynal (editor in chief of Gallimard's long-running Sirie Noir) and bestselling novelist Didier Daeninckx.

Gangling and frumpy, Le Poulpe has long arms and long legs, hence his nickname -- the Octopus. His real name (in fiction) is Gabriel Lecouvreur. Gabriel was raised around the corner from Le Pied Rare in what used to be a bastion of the working class.

A blue-collar boy with an anarchistic streak, Le Poulpe never finished college but he's no ignoramus. He's an ambiguous character, often on the wrong side of the law, at times violent, clumsy or gauche, and always anti-Front National.

The extreme-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic FN regularly wins 15 percent of the French vote. Le Poulpe is no freedom fighter or preachy left-wing ideologue. But he can't stomach racists and his natural curiosity makes him an unusual avenger. His arch nemesis is Inspector Vergeat, of the RG (Renseignements Giniraux), the French FBI, the personification of Big Brother.

Le Pied Rare (re-named Le Pied de Porc ` la Sainte Scolasse in the series) and its democratic pig's trotters is Le Poulpe's HQ for good reason. In both fiction and reality it's one of the few traditional places left in this industrial-chic neighborhood.

In recent years the 11th arrondissement's workshops, variety stores and tumbledown old housing have become fashion accessory boutiques, night clubs, trendy cafes, American ice cream parlors, Tex-Mex restaurants, lofts and art galleries. Dozens of 18th and 19th century buildings have been torn down to make way for upscale developments. Streets are being widened. Blanket gentrification is in full swing.

I had never been to Le Pied Rare nor had I eaten a pig's trotter. But having written a Le Poulpe episode myself, I was curious to check the place out. "What makes these trotters so special is that you eat the bones," said Franck Rebillard as he served me a pied the other day. "The bones just melt in your mouth." Franck looked like a 25ish d'Artagnan: white shirt, dark hair, a Van Dyck clinging to a pointed chin.

Franck's father, Michel, aka le patron, trotted over to see if I had attacked the dish comme il faut. "You can't leave that bone," said he, thrusting his index finger at my plate, a d'Artagnan with graying whiskers. "You break the bone open and suck out the marrow!" His eyes flashed.

I bit. The bone burst, pouring out hot marrow like a liqueur-filled chocolate. I swallowed, tasting chalk soaked in gravy. An acquired taste.

The real Le Pied Rare and the fictional Le Pied de Porc ` la Sainte Scolasse are not exactly alike, I discovered. Michel and Franck Rebillard run the cafe-restaurant-wine bar while chef Eric Roui does the cooking.

In the Le Poulpe series, instead, the owner is named Girard, his wife is Maria, a Spanish woman, and the kitchen helper is the cryptic Vlad, a Romanian refugee. The place has fawn-colored walls, orange lampshades and a smelly old German shepherd named Lion. Le Poulpe himself is a beer-lover who would rather die than hang out in a wine bar.

Fiction and reality blend, however. Le Poulpe fans and authors are now regulars at Le Pied Rare, sharing their tables with salesmen from the discount carpet and flooring shops up and down the yet-ungentrified Avenue Ledru Rollin.

One day Michel Rebillard decided he wanted to know who this famous author Jean-Bernard Pouy really was. He got Pouy's telephone number and called him up. "Gabriel?" he asked. "It's me, Girard, at Le Pied de Porc ..." Pouy was so surprised that he organized a Le Poulpe authors' dinner there. Now the regulars -- who seem drawn from the books, or is it the other way around? -- call Michel "Girard" and needle him the way Le Poulpe would.

"It's the spirit of the place that's the same in the books and reality," said Michel as I paid my bill and confessed that I had joined Le Poulpe's ranks. "You'll see," he quipped, "you'll become a regular, too."

I couldn't help remarking, though, that Michel seemed far too friendly and soft-spoken to correspond to the big-mouthed, pot-bellied fictional Girard.

Michel smirked. He showed me a photograph taken a few years ago. "See, I used to be fatter," he said. "And I can bark as loud as Girard if I want to." He puffed himself up and posed behind the zinc bar, surrounded by framed newspaper clippings about Le Poulpe. Reality follows fiction indeed.

Out on the streets of the 11th arrondissement, legions of trendies were heading for Route 66, the Iguana and other hip watering holes near the Bastille. A cloud of dust blew down the street from the immense work site around the corner, where Gabriel Lecouvreur supposedly grew up. I was glad Le Pied Rare, aka Le Pied de Porc ` la Sainte Scolasse, was still around and thriving. But next time I think I'll order steak and fries.

By David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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