Dinner at L’Incroyable

Saturday, July 17, 1993 3:26 AM

[The European]

Within a small passage just outside the limestone walls of the Palais Royal, at the very center of Paris, there is a very small restaurant called L’Incroyable. In the 1970s the place was frequented by denizens of the quarter and a handful of tourists. The interior furnishings were sparse, threadbare and dilapidated, but the food was excellent, simple and cheap.

One night an American college student wandered in by chance and had dinner there alone. Directly across from his table, he observed a cluster of fish skulls arranged on the wall. They were positioned so that the fish seemed to be crashing through the wall. Their mouths were open and fierce, as if on their last trip up river.

The American was sitting on a banquette, whose springs felt as if they were ready to burst through the dark burgundy leather at various angles. The leather did not look exceedingly old, certainly not as ancient as the restaurant. He estimated that perhaps fifty years ago, during the 1920’s, the leather had been changed, but the original springs from the 19th century has been left in place.

A young waitress took his order. Her cheekbones and chin were unmistakably French. She was the most beautiful brunette he had seen in Paris in a month. He guessed correctly that she was the daughter of the owner, who was preparing the food in the kitchen, which was the size of a closet. There was a waiter on duty as well, and he looked to be the brother of the chef. The establishment was so small that it could only be a family affair. The wife must have taken the night off.

The American was eager to ask the waitress a question that would be unrelated to the menu and the food. So he asked her the meaning of the name, L’Incroyable. Her response was an enigmatic smile and, “C’est difficile à dire.” He liked the smile and was intrigued by the answer. He was hoping for something more.  He wondered if his college French sounded terrible to her, and if that made a difference. He didn’t think so. He had noticed that the people of Paris loved Americans who made a sincere effort to speak French, however haltingly. He turned his attention to dinner.

He began with terrine de canard, an old favorite. It was composed primarily of duck meat, not liver or pork, and came with those wonderful crisp cornichons and cool, sparkling gelatine. He had never found anything like it in America. Then a simple salade verte with moutarde de Dijon and olive oil dressing. Next a steak au poivre vert, with fresh, hand-cut pommes frites. All this was accompanied by two medium carafes of red vin ordinaire. For desert he had a tarte aux fraises, a café filtre and then an Armagnac. Every time the waitress brought over a dish she smiled and said “Bon appétit, Monsieur!” or “Et voilà, Monsieur!”

The American gave the waitress a thumbs-up sign after each serving, and he was not kidding. He lingered longer than necessary, hoping that she might become less busy and more talkative. But after the other patrons cleared out, she went directly to the kitchen and started doing the dishes. He found himself alone with the Armagnac and the fish skulls.

He decided, finally, to have a farewell drink with the chef and waiter. They were not in the kitchen with the dishes. They were outside, taking a break in the passage, sitting at a wooden table. The chef was in a simple white uniform, sans toque. The waiter kept his apron on for some reason and, like with the chef’s uniform, it had plenty of stains on it. The waiter had spent some time in the kitchen, assisting his older brother. The two were into red wine and Gauloises cigarettes.

Without hesitation or fanfare, they welcomed the American to the table. They looked beat. The American was relaxed and resigned, as he sipped some vin ordinaire. It was close to midnight. Offhandedly, he put the question to them, about the name, L’Incroyable.

The chef, who was a heavy-set, easy-going fellow, stated that the passage was ancient, and that the restaurant itself dated back well over 200 years, like the three-star Le Grand Véfour, which was in the same quartier, inside the Palais Royal. In the beginning it was a small hangout, a kind of club, whose eccentric patrons were known as Les Incroyables.

These “incredible ones” were wealthy men-about-town, many of whom were aristocrats, and all of whom were monarchists. On top of that, they were dandies. During the terrible years of the Revolution, Les Incroyables did not go into hiding. They continued to dress outlandishly, as a way to emphasize their loyalty to a lost cause.

Their symbolic stronghold was the Palais Royal, once the residence of Cardinal de Richelieu, chief minister for Louis XIII. Their special haunt was this narrow passage, leading from the gardens. A dressmaker for Marie Antoinette owned the house through which the passage passed.

The waiter, a sandy-haired gentleman in his mid-thirties, volunteered some additional facts. He claimed that pitched battles were fought inside the passage. The bloodthirsty san-culottes invaded it time and again. The waiter further stated that the favorite weapon of Les Incroyables in such confrontations was the knot-stick, a simple old-fashioned cane with a natural wooden knot at the receiving-end. Armed with these cudgels, the royalist youths instigated “une petite terreur” in the name of the King.

To amplify his remarks, the waiter felt called upon to rise form the table, and adopt a pose as if holding a baseball bat in his hands. In an unusually serious manner, he brought his two clenched fists over his head. Shouting “Boom!” violently in a French accent, he swung the imaginary bat up and down five or six times in front of him, while bending slightly at the knees. Then he fell back on his chair. The American immediately poured him a glass of wine, which the waiter drained. He beamed as if resurrected.

The chef, not wanting to be outdone, took over from there. He related an incident which supposedly took place in the passage during the month of January 1793, about a week after the guillotining of Louis XVI. It was important to remember, the chef confided, that Les Incroyables were known for wearing bright green scarfs as a mark of allegiance to the King. He did not know the reason for the color green.

The story goes that one night, around four o’clock in the morning, a solitary Incroyable was making his way back to his apartments after an unprofitable sojourn at the roulette tables. The Incroyable had been drinking and was not in the best of moods. Out of respect for the recently-executed King, he was wearing a black scarf instead of the customary green one. Otherwise, he was bedecked in the usual extravagant manner, complete with a red fox fur cloak.

About midway through the passage--that is to say, right in front of where the chef, the waiter and the American were sitting--a Republican agitator suddenly emerged from the shadows. The lout demanded to know, in a most uncivil and disrespectful tone, “For whom is the black scarf being worn, Monsieur?” To which question the unfazed, but irritated Incroyable responded, “Pour toi, Monsieur!” as he threw open his fur cloak, removed a gigantic hunting knife, and promptly dispatched it into the intruder’s chest.

The chef and waiter burst into peels of laughter. The American voiced his own approval with a shout of “Vive le Roi!” The trio then began to pound their fists on the little wooden table. A wine bottle fell to the pavement with a crash, splattering red wine everywhere. The commotion brought the waitress from the kitchen. Despite the dishes, she was still smiling. The American  asked her to please bring another bottle of red wine. Then, with the waitress now free of her chores and at their table, the American, the chef and the waiter proceeded to get just slightly drunker than they were, in homage to a lost cause.

--Copyright 1993 Patrick Foy--