I first heard about one of Paris’ most adored left bank bistros Restaurant Josephine – Chez Dumonet, years ago in NYCat Ariane Daguin’s (proprietor of D’Artagnan) surprise birthday party.
Hard to forget since that was the night Chef Laurent Tourondel met us as the door dressed as the chiquita banana girl (but that’s another story) with a pretty woman on each arm. One was his wife and the other kissed my cheek, “You live in Paris on the rue du Cherche Midi, non? You must go to my brother-in-law’s family restaurant on your street, Chez Dumonet!”
My apartment was indeed on the St Germain des Pres end of this long upscale street which extends southward to Chez Dumonet near Montparnasse. From the very first time I heard the roar of laughter on the street coming from the warmly-lit interiors, I knew that this was my kind of place … a silent Thomas Kincade painting come to life each time the doors swung open. It was here that I coined my favorite words “linner” and “dinfast”, where lunches run into dinner and dinners into breakfast. You’ve relaxed, met old friends, made new ones and in no hurry – the kind of meal where slowing down may have taken up the better part of the day, but it was the best part of the day.
Even with the wonderful neo-bistros around the city serving modern versions of classic favorites, sometimes I yearn for grandmère cuisine in an elegant atmosphere; filled with all the homey details that invite you to eat and linger versus eat and run. This dear reader is Restaurant Josephine – Chez Dumonet, a timeless reminder that great bistro cooking still exists and that eating out is an occasion in itself.
The lively ambiance radiates welcome, accompanied by lace curtains, honey-colored walls, zinc bar, photographs of family, brass coat hooks, mosaic tile floors, frosted glass globe lighting, antique mirrors, crisp white linens, heavy handled silverware, pretty porcelain platters and the regular cast of characters that an establishment such as this lovingly refers to as their “habitués”.
Old school without an ounce of old – this vintage bistro stays current with the handsome couple Chef Jean-Christian Dumonet and his wife Lucille at the helm, who want you to come hungry and stay awhile.
Lucille (who could pass for Catherine Deneuve’s daughter) moves as deftly as a butterfly orchestrating the perfect dinner party. She is making sure everyone is comfortable; seating people of common interests next to one another to encourage lively conversation among tables while handing out menus.
Most often, she is taking the coats from their well-heeled clientele – the male habitués easily identified as they race in from the street past their regular table to go directly into the kitchen first to slap the kitchen brigade on the back, before sitting down with eager anticipation to get up to speed on the joke in the course of being told. They explode into laughter at the punch line, the kind of laughter where one is shaking his finger at his friend as if to say “shame on you” when he really means “woo hoo, luck-y you!”
Jean-Christian knows these jokes well, having heard them a hundred times as did his father Jean Dumonet – who had purchased this neighborhood bistro in the 1960’s from M. Duranton when the space was called “Restaurant Josephine” – a classic in its own right having been founded in the late 1800’s (hence the somewhat confusing name Restaurant Josephine – Chez Dumonet.)
The tradition continues today where Jean-Christian is working in both the kitchen and dining room serving up enormous portions of food, decanting wines, filling glasses and ladling out sauces; smiling proudly at the level of enjoyment people are having in his family’s house.
His motto? If you are happy, he’s happy.
On a recent solo lunch visit, Chef was delighted that I wanted the table not most people ask for – the one in the rear with a direct view into the kitchen. Since I grew up balancing on my tip-toes on top of a chair to be able to see what was cooking in the iron skillets on my great-grandmother’s stove, this is the best seat in the house for me to see what’s being prepared and feel like part of the kitchen.
From here I can see Jean-Christian and his team checking doneness, stirring sauces, whisking vinaigrette, grinding black pepper and drizzling sea salt into stock pots … adding a dash of this and that to plates before walking them to their rightful owner.
The adorable young server delivered a “gift” from the Chef to everyone in the room while they perused the menu, a petit pot of creamy cauliflower soup and glass of Chablis. As I plunged my spoon into the bowl with great gusto, I caught a glimpse of JC giving me a “thumbs up” from the kitchen. Nice.
Choosing from the menu is difficult, not for a lack of choices but because of the generous serving sizes. Chez Dumonet is not a place to go for a quick meal or the calorie-conscious. Even with the welcome half-portions (rare for Paris), the menu takes some doing with entrées such as terrines of seasonal country patés and slabs of silky foie gras studded with black truffles, followed by mains of de-boned pigeon layered with crispy golden potatoes, cast-iron casseroles of boeuf bourguignon in red wine and chateaubriand with thin sliced potatoes with a side of bérnaise.
It is on the expensive side without a prix fixe menu, but with whole portions of comfort food that can be shared – there is no chance you’ll leave feeling less than “full, fat ‘n’ happy” (as the old Southern phrase goes.) With platters of food this size, entrees and main courses are great values priced between 13 and 39 euros.
The wine list highlights most French regions and price points, although a bit too Bordeaux-centric for my taste. What else can you expect from a museum worthy cellar collection started in 1898 and given an “official visa” from the Academy of Wine on July 10, 1975? Impressive, but the jaw-dropping titles of rare Armagnac’s, 1835 Madeira, 1898 St. Estèphe, 1929 Romanée-Conti and 1947 Château d’Yquem, 60+ first vintages of Lafite Rotchschild and magnums of Château Haut-Brion are not for sale.
Back down on planet earth, the Bordeaux on the real list are exceptional values around 65 euros, but the price still exceeded my budget so I opted for a 2007 Corbière, equally fair at 34 euros.
The soft leather and spice notes were perfect with the sautéed morilles mushrooms cooked in a rich veal stock,
But it was my turn to signal to chef with both palms facing downward in a pumping motion, “Doucement s’il vous plait” (slow down buddy) on the next course so I could prepare for the food coma to come.
He yelled from the kitchen, “But, were the morilles okay?” He smiled from ear-to-ear with a wink when I replied, “Simply scandalous! You should be ashamed of yourself.”
As I was taking my first bite of this gorgeous duck confit …
Chef came out of the kitchen stirring a Banyuls vinegar sauce in a small pot and drizzled a bit onto the edge of the skin and plate. The touch of acidity was the perfect balance to the crackly-good skin and moist meat.
In the past I’ve been really lucky, ending up in the musuem cave below after dinner with the chef, servers and other friends from the dining room for one heck of a party.
Since this was lunch I thought I’d get out easy – but that was wishful thinking as the table next to me ended up being part of the Chartreuse family (Chartreuse is a French liqueur made by the Carthusian Monks since the 1740’s – composed of distilled alcohol aged with 130 herbal extracts and named after the Monks’ Grande Chartreuse monastery) who insisted we do a tasting regardless of how full we all were…promising “It will aide with digestion!” Oy.
Chef JC would hear nothing less than taking part in serving and sipping, bien sur.
If you think this is where you can refuse dessert, it’s just not done.
The desserts are even more generous if you can imagine that, with Quatrehomme cheeses, mountains of Grand Marnier soufflé and Chantilly cream and raspberry puff pastries the size of small tires all topping the list. When a mound of hazelnut pastry creme and powdered sugar was put in front of my new Chartruese friends, they were speechless. I waved at it dismissingly and said, “It will aide with digestion!” and we broke into such a fit of laughter we were crying real tears for over ten minutes, prompting the diners in the front room to ask if they could have what we were drinking.
I couldn’t take anything else rich, so I choose fruit in the way of a delicious tarte tatin. A fine example of one too, with a thin buttery-flaky crust topped with wafer thin apple slices and served warm straight from the oven.
Several hours later, on the way out the door into the evening linner air, I hugged Chef and said, “I had so much fun!” and he gripped my shoulder and beamed, “We did too!”
We were happy, he was happy.
Based on the number out-of-focus random floor & ceiling photos I discovered on my camera thanks to Chef, apparently another successful linner was enjoyed by all.
Chez Dumonet is the kind of place to come for your first or last night in Paris. Although an elegant table for one, it is probably better for a date or group dinner where portions, prices and laughter can be shared.
If you are looking to slow down, laugh, and eat and drink well – make your reservations now as advance booking is strongly recommended.
Restaurant Josephine-Chez Dumonet, 117 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th arr, M° Duroc or Montparnasse. Tel: 01. 45. 48.52.40.
Closed weekends, open Monday-Friday lunch and dinner. Advance reservations a must.
$$$ = Expensive, 50-75 euros a person.
Random Photo Chef Took With My Camera
Chef Jean-Christian Pours Chartreuse
Perfectly Moist and Juicy Duck Meat
Crispy Skin and Homemade Banyul Vinegar
Crispy Duck Confit & Sarladaise Potatoes
Morilles Stuffed with Foie Gras and Jambon
Roasted Cauliflower Soup Amuse Bouche