I am not a great lover of steak. I mean, I get swept up as much as the next guy in the animal appeal of sitting down to a slab of meat, the King-of-the-Food-Chain thrill of it, but frankly I get bored easily. Twenty bites into the same massive, bloody thing, it's a little painful to feel myself start dinner lustily and finish it by going through the motions, like a joke about marriage in fast forward. But the steak I had last night was truly revelatory, giving me a new idea of what beef can be, and it's just gravy that it also happened to be one of the cheapest meals I had in Paris.
Robert et Louise is the kind of straight-up restaurant you feel you can trust. A pot of good, strong mustard on the table counts as sauce. A jar of chunky salt, too, if you're fancy. It's not no-frills as much it's like, "Frills? What are frills?" Despite the fact that you'll hear English spoken at every other table, it's a place that suggests authority and authenticity (whatever that means to you). The meat, grilled in an open fireplace, is served on wood cutting boards, cratered with the millions of cuts made on it before yours. The room is all smoke-stained rafters and wood -- dark and beautiful and permanently slightly sticky from the decades of vaporized meat juices floating through the air. A savvy, nostalgia-peddling restaurateur could have a field day with this décor, but, instead, the room is lit too brightly and the fireplace is fueled with what looks like wood boards the cooks happened to pick up on the way to work. The owner sits at the end of her bar, content to say hello to tourists in warm but businesslike manner; just another day serving grilled meat. It feels like there is a good chance that this restaurant is older than your country, especially if you sit in the dining room in the cellar, which may in fact be older than humanity. The solidity of all this inspires trust.
And trust is important when you go to a place and order a steak saignant, which is how they recommend it, and which is a really beautiful-sounding word that means "bloody." I'm not talking about "rare." I'm talking about black-and-blue, just barely seared on the outside and essentially raw inside; the meat is actually still cool in the center, and if you've never had steak this way, it's an ... experience.
I eat raw fish without even thinking about it. I eat raw meat, in the form of tartar, without too much pause, mainly because it's all chopped up and mixed in with other tasty stuff. But there is something about cutting into a big steak and having it look like it could still be in a butcher's case that is a little bit disconcerting. It's vampire-red. The fat cools off quickly to an unpleasant waxiness that you'll want to cut around. And it's actually not very juicy, but on the plus side, that's because the heat hasn't had a chance to tighten up the muscle fibers and make them expel their juices.
Maybe that's why the flavor of Robert et Louise's bloody cote de boeuf (extra-thick ribeye) was phenomenal, totally different than any beef I've ever had. It was very lean, having hardly any marbling, the whisper-thin ribbons of tender, melting fat streaking through the muscle that I've always looked for as a sign of quality. And so it didn't have the rich unctuousness that I used to think was the hallmark of great steak. But this meat was incredibly lovely anyway, full of clean, complex mineral flavors and a literal sweetness. Flavors so different they struck me, and I was compelled to savor each bite slowly, teasing them out. (And, because the thing didn't start out very hot to begin with, there wasn't much of a hurry to eat it all before it got cold.)
It's an accepted wisdom that marbling is what makes for tender meat, and yet, while lean, this steak had a silky texture. Saying meat "melts in your mouth" is a cliché that was literally forbidden from being printed in Gourmet magazine, but for once in its miserable life, that phrase actually fit. Cutting it into small bites, it didn't feel like I was chewing on it so much as making it dissolve into a rush of flavor so intriguing it captivated me from start to finish.
I have to admit that I didn't ask about the breed of cattle the steak came from, or where it was raised, or play any of the favorite ask-the-cook games of the fancy food lover. I kind of wish I had, so that I would know whether I'd have to get special French beef to ever have such magnificent meat again, or if I could get most of the way there by cooking my next steak bloody rare. But as we left, I walked over toward the grill and saw the cook cutting steaks from a massive haunch, dotting it with salt the size of peppercorns as it sat at the butchering table waiting for the fire. And I was content to leave with that in my mind, that scene playing itself over and over again for the rest of forever.
Robert et Louise
64 rue Veille du Temple - 75003 Paris
+33 1 42 78 55 89
Open Thursday-Sunday for lunch and Tuesday-Sunday for dinner
Get the Cote de boeuf for two (40 Euros); its extra-thick cut gives you much more rare meat than the thinner entrecote steak. The fresh sausage appetizer is also fantastic.