CONVERSATIONS WITH L: LA TOUR D’ARGENT
“You must get the Champagne,” L. told me. He hadn’t aged a minute since I’d last seen him. A dashing gentleman in an impeccable gray linen suit. Clean shaven. A new look. “They serve the best. Not too cold. Deliciously French.”
We were in the lobby of the Tour d’Argent, if you could call it a lobby. It felt so much like a strange, antiqued little house. Under a glass casement was a what looked like a miniature canon. It took me a moment to realize it was a wine rack in the shape of a canon. Perhaps it would blast the cork. Phenomenal.
It was August, and I had never before been to the restaurant. L. had been many times. It was one of his favorites. He happened to be in town at the same time I was, happened to have a reservation at the same time I did, and had convinced that maître d’hôtel that we should sit together, ignoring my protestations that we should not—because we were not friends, and though I found him interesting, I rarely enjoyed his company. He was always trying to get something out of me.
I told him I couldn’t afford the Champagne—even if it was very French Champagne. As if it could somehow be more French than any other Champagne. L. has always had a way of describing things that I find infuriating. He signaled the waiter with his finger and told the man to bring two glasses. And to me he said, “I’ll pay of course. In one manner or another. You simply cannot come here and be cheap. Be cheap every other day. You only have so many chances to be extravagant.”
When he spoke, I found that he seemed to be singling me out quite apart from himself, his use of the word ‘you’ being specific and not generic, the implication being that he himself was often extravagant and seldom if ever cheap. Quite belittling. Rather rude.
After downing the lovely drinks, we were whisked upstairs in an elevator and brought out into the most spectacular dining room I’ve seen: windows all around opening onto views of the streets of Paris, of the Seine, and of Notre Dame looking like an enormous, metallic Horned lizard.
Since I was a child, I’ve many times heard the story of my mother’s trip to the Tour d’Argent with her parents. She was a teen. Her father was a businessman and gourmand. She spoke beautiful French. He had a thick American accent. They were seated toward the back wall, as far from the windows as the room permitted. Then my mother began to order in French, and the waiter was so impressed that he reseated them on the lowest level, directly before the windows, offering up the best view. This story has always impressed upon me the importance of eloquence, accent, and learning new languages. Sadly, such understanding has done nothing to actually help me with my facility with French (or for that matter, Italian or Spanish). I knew that opening my mouth would do nothing to improve our standing in the eyes of the waiters who oozed class and unapproachable sophistication the way maple trees ooze delicious sap. I let L. do the talking. His French is perfect if also, at least to my ears, syrupy with pride. In the end, I’m not sure the wait staff or sommelier much appreciated him.
After ordering, L. said to me, “Did you know, in the second world war, that they built a false wall in the wine cellar here to save their best wines from being stolen from the Nazis?”
“I’d heard something about it.”
“They even added cobwebs to cheaper bottles to make them look vintage and expensive. Quite ingenious. One of the bottles they saved was a 1921 Chateau Margaux. I had the pleasure of drinking one myself the other year. Supple. Liquid velvet fit for a prince. Really, you must make some money so you can afford to broaden your tastes.”
I quoted Ian Flemming, saying that the only money worth having was was not quite enough, and we argued over finances and pretentions and the wars while enjoying quenelles de brochet André Terrail (pike dumplings), saumon chaufroité à la Parisienne (cold salmon Parisian style), soupe de poisson au fenouil et à la badiane (fish soup with fennel and star anise), and of course the filet de canette de Vendée, chutney de tomate au citron et wasabi (roasted ducking fillet with a wasabi and lemon flavored tomato chutney). The Tour d’Argent is famous for their ducklings, having served over a million (each diner served gets a postcard that contains the number of his specific duck: mine was in the 1.03 million range). It was, undoubtedly, the best duck I’ve ever tasted. I told L. as much.
He said, “The best duck I ever tasted was a freshly killed pintail that had been roasting over an open flame in the Adirondacks. I had just tricked a starving man into trading it to me in exchange for a quarter million dollars. Of course, he died of malnutrition before spending the money. I have always enjoyed having my canard and eating it, too.” He smiled wickedly.
As I have said, the man is unbearable.
When the bill came, L. was conveniently was in the restroom, taking his time, doing lord knows what. I paid. Our glasses of Champagne had cost 60 euros apiece.
– Thomas McCafferty
La Tour d’Argent
World-class food. World-class view. Perfectly stuffy service. Bring your French and your appetite, too.
15 Quai de la Tournelle
75005 Paris, France