Before travelling, I ask people whom I trust where I should eat. Especially when going to a place like Paris, which is so dense with restaurants one might never know. And at the end of a friend's email on that subject, there were a few lines that went something like this: "Near Montparnasse there's a fish restaurant called La Cagouille. Unassuming. Very good seafood. And it's open on Sunday."
La Cagouille was then forgotten.
But two Sundays past, in Paris, my wife and I found ourselves wandering around hungrily. The cheese shop I had found the day before was shuttered, scrapping our plans for a picnic. And then I remembered the email, and the seafood restaurant that was open on Sunday. And so we jumped in a taxi and zoomed across town on a crisp, clear afternoon.
La Cagouille is unassuming. There are understated nautical touches in the dining room, there's a simple patio, and it's located in a recently constructed apartment building on a quiet residential street. It does not magically transport you to the Paris of accordions, roses and cobblestones. In fact, it feels more like a chain restaurant somewhere in Boston.
Then the first course comes. Cockels, swimming in Breton butter. You scoop the tiny shellfish up and slurp the sweet, tiny pieces of meat. If you're me, you then use the shell as a ladel to pour butter in your mouth.
After that, the mussels arrived, which were thrown on a hot iron plate to ease open, then simply dusted with sea salt. They were tender and sweet and as we drank a bottle of white wine from the Rhone that was perfectly complimentary my eyes started to roll back into my head.
Then the Fines de Claires were thrust in front of us, freshly shucked, and as I squeezed a half lemon atop them their edges slowly curled up in the sunlight. The oysters were so rich and briny, so expressive of a cold, clean sea, that I shivered as they slid down my throat. "That's the most intoxicating thing I've ever eaten," muttered my wife. I smiled at her, gulped more white wine, and grunted affirmatively.
The final thing we ate that afternoon -- an afternoon meal which neither of us will forget because of the perfect combination of summer sun and tastes -- was a plate of grilled sardines. Each table of middle-aged Parisians was picking at the little fish and so we followed suit.
The rich, oily fish slid of the bone and melted in your mouth. The fish were also, gleefully, slicked with butter. There was smoke and sea and salt that was about it, and it was about the best thing one could ever eat. And we did, hushed, scraping meat from the feathery bones. And as we finished the meal I felt a rush of sadness, because I knew that I wouldn't eat anything so elementally good in a very long time.
Then we left the restaurant and walked through a market where painters sold bright canvasses and odd sculpture and moody photographs. But my mind was still spinning from the beauty of the food.