Dining in Hemingway's Paris

By William C. Dowling

At the foot of the ancient Rue Mouffetard in the fifth arrondissement, just down the hill from Hemingway's old writing studio, we discovered a small restaurant straight out of the romantic Paris immortalized in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Intimate in scale and warm in ambiance, Le Refuge du Passé offers the savory specialties from the Auvergne and Les Landes regions of France's southwest—both chef Stephane Durand and patron Hubert Dupont hail from the area near Pau. In recent years, after the elaborate and costly gastronomic innovations of la nouvelle cuisine and fusion cooking, Parisians themselves are returning to this kind of authentic cuisine de terroir: hearty, old-fashioned dishes cooked with care and without pretension—cassoulet au confit de canard, piquant blanquette de veau, meaty yet meltingly tender jambonneau aux cèpes (pig's knuckle with capers).

Open every day of the week, every day of the year, Le Refuge du Passé attracts a local—and loyal— clientele. But Americans in search of the classic French restaurant du quartier will feel wonderfully at home here too. M. Dupont, who has traveled widely, speaks English charmingly, having spent several years as manager of La Petite Bouffe in the Colorado ski town of Breckenridge. He takes obvious pleasure in introducing American guests to the secrets of chou farci, his transcendently succulent version of stuffed cabbage, or in discussing with great humor and tact the momentous questions of the day. Amidst the whimsical decor of Le Refuge, however, all pressing political issues quickly recede. You feel as if you've entered a magical space. Gilded bird cages, feathery garden hats and old coffee mills hang from the ceiling. Old theatrical posters and 78 rpm records cover the walls—Feydeau's farces, Maurice Chevalier, Piaf—it's an indeterminate past stretching from Hemingway's 1920's to Romy Schneider's 1960s. In the dusky light, the effect is charming and friendly—"sympa," as the French say.

On three visits to Le Refuge du Passé, we sampled a variety of dishes from its compact and reasonably priced menu. By common consent, the winners among the starters were the salade de Rocamadour, an exquisite salad featuring foie gras and an especially lusty jambon d'Auvergne, and Les blancs de poireaux gratinés, homely leek whites ennobled by silken Cantal cheese. In the main course division, those accustomed to thinking of canard à l'orange as a culinary cliché will find the magret de canard aux oranges confites a minor revelation.

At dessert time, we found the tarte Tatin—served in every Paris bistro and brasserie—among the best we've ever tasted: presented in its own piping hot skillet, its richly caramelized apple slices achieve a calvados-like depth of flavor. If you incline to sinful self-indulgence, order the fondant au chocolat,"maison"—darkly moist chocolate sponge cake welling over with melted chocolate, nestled against a boule of coffee ice cream and a flourish of whipped cream starred with lacy caramel crisps.

The wine list at Le Refuge de Passé consists of a limited number of reds and whites carefully selected to go with the main items on the menu. With the jambonneau aux cèpes we had an excellent Madiran Domaine d'Hechac 2002, with the cassoulet an equally good Cahors Moulin Lagrezette 2001. With the magret de canard, the youthful ebullience of the Morgon "Les charmes" 2004 turned out to be the perfect complement to the piquant play of flavors of the main dish. As digestifs, the list offers armagnac (Saint-Vivant), calvados (Coquerel), cognac (Courcel), and Grand Marnier.

Like most secrets worth keeping, Le Refuge du Passé is unlikely to remain a secret forever. (If nothing else, the rating recently awarded to the restaurant in the Gault Millau, the bible of French gastronomes, is sure to raise its visibility outside its own arrondissement.) In the meantime, however, this superb little establishment remains one of the hidden treasures of the quartier Mouffetard. As Hemingway might have said, it is a small, good place.

Bon Séjour April 2006