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Certa, Paris – Where It’s Colder on the Inside

Paris on 27th December last was cold. Bitterly cold. It was so horribly cold that I figured Jack Frost was out and about, only this time on on steroids. In spite of coats and scarves and gloves with thermal lining it was too cold to venture across town in search of an evening meal; on this, Monsieur and I were agreed. Any sort of food-seeking trek was out of the question, however, in a demonstration of true courage (motivated by hunger) we did eventually manage to leave the hotel, although no further than crossing the street.

Luckily for us, on the rue de l’Isly, where we were staying, there were a few restaurants that had fairly decent internet reviews, including Certa – an informal bar-cum-restaurant. In our big, winter coats we ended up walking out of the warm hotel, several yards across the chilly street and straight into Certa. Our coats came off again mere minutes after we’d put them on.

The front of Certa was for drinking, filled with low, informal clusters of chairs, sometimes with a small table, and generally populated by hip young things with cocktails. As we’d indicated that we were here for dinner, our waitress led us to a table at the rear of the establishment, where the serious sport of eating was dealt with. We were the only tourists (pseudo-tourists at that, as Monsieur is genuine French produce); back here the people ranged in age from six to sixty and there was a happy burble of conversation in the air.

Unfortunately, that same waitress looked after us for most of the evening. If it was cold outside, it grew colder every time she passed by. This girl was so grumpy, surly and devoid of courtesy that by the end of the evening, if I’d seen her crack even the glimmer of a smile, I would have fallen straight off my chair. She seemed to have been born without the pleasant gene. I hate that. Angry wait staff affect my digestion (I kid you not).Thankfully, Monsieur and I were at Certa to eat, not to make friends with the grinch in the apron.

It was happy hour. As all true bar-hoppers know, ‘happy hour’ can mean many things: two for ones, half-price bottles, discounts, free glasses, silly hats and vouchers. At Certa, happy hour meant that Monsieur’s beer was cheaper, and my small glass of house rosé was upgraded from a measly 150ml to a slightly less measly 200ml.

What can I say to that? Quite a lot, actually. France is a land of fine wine, filled to the gunnels with grapes, vines and vintners, but can you ever get a proper English-size 250ml glass of wine? Not on your Nellie. If you want 250ml of your favourite grape, you have to order a pichet or small carafe and if you’re not sharing, you might get a look as if you’ve fallen off the latest twelve step programme.  I digress. I’d been looking forward to this particular glass all afternoon and 200ml, even if 50ml of that were free, simply did not cut it. Added to which, the aforementioned happy-happy-waitress prevented me from ordering a second glass through negligence, so 200ml had to last a whole two courses. That’s simply not the way I was raised.

So far, so bad. We had grumpster in charge of our supper and ridiculous happy hour ‘bargains’. Heaven only knew what the food would be like.

Monsieur and I both decided that the Salade Italienne sounded good so ordered a matching pair as starters. We expected a modest selection of salad and antipasti. Instead, our plates arrived piled high with ingredients – like a small Matterhorn of Italian foodstuffs. The price per salad was misleadingly modest for central Paris. What sat on the table before us now was remarkably good value. Perhaps we hadn’t made such a dire mistake by coming here. This Certa place was finally showing promise.

A pillow of crisp, green leaves peeped up at us from beneath a panoply of colours and textures. Folds of paper-thin prosciutto, wedges of avocado pear, grilled rounds of marshmallowy eggplant and a rainbow of marinated capsicum – just looking at the array made me think of Arcimboldo, the artist who invented the vegetable-face portrait. A dollop of creamy ricotta sat on one side of the plate, artichokes hid beneath greenery on the other. It’s not possible to assemble an Italian salad without tomatoes, so they were there, too. A mosaic of slim, hard cheese (parmesan? pecorino?) squares sat  like a tumble of upturned scrabble squares atop all, a shower of pinenuts and balsamic vinegar completing the composition.

The presentation of our salades Italiennes might well have been impressive, but Monsieur and I bore the brows of concern. Our plan for a light meal looked as if it had just been blown out of the Seine. These salads were immense and we’d already ordered main courses. Ah well. The diet would have to start tomorrow.

Surprisingly, once our cutlery got busy, we found that the salads were lighter than we’d presumed. I finished every last bite of Italian goodness without a problem. Monsieur also cleaned his plate. And yes, there was still room at the inn. Our mains would not be wasted.

But first, Grumplestiltskin made a rare appearance. She cleared the table, grimacing in her attempt to leave us with our cutlery from the first course, only to realise that it was too covered in olive oil/balsamic/ricotta to rest on the table without causing mess that inevitably she would then have to clean up. With an audible harrumph, she removed the cutlery with the crockery and returned to drop new knives and forks on the table with the careless tingtingting of metal on metal. Grace was definitely not a virtue with which this waitress was endowed.

As a main, Monsieur had carefully selected a beef burger with fries and salad. I’d be lying if I said it looked inspired, but my own, private carnivore declared it excellent – both in the quality of ex-livestock, and the special, spicy sauce which looked disturbingly like thousand island dressing. Burger aside, if Monsieur’s happy, I’m happy, so, as he munched happily on his side of the table, I tucked into a plate of pommes de terre écrasées (roughly translated as squashed potatoes, not to be confused with mash) served with a drizzle of sour cream and a gluttonous spoonful of caviar.

For anyone who has not yet tried potatoes with sour cream and caviar, please do so immediately. The combination is Guilty Pleasure with capitals G and P. On the menu, the pommes de terre écrasées were listed as NEW, their description appearing in its own little text box and the proprietor must have been interested to see which of his patrons had ordered this wicked dish, for he appeared table-side, genial in plaid shirt, suggesting that I sprinkle some sel des algues, or seaweed salt, over the potatoes. “Yes, please!” I enthused. My advisor’s face lit up with joy, for he had an adventurous eater at his restaurant. Too soon, he disappeared back into the kitchen, just as I started flailing about like a shipwreck victim at sea, trying to gain the attention of the waitress so I could enjoy another (small) glass of rosé with the potatoes. Apparently quite the invisible woman, I failed in my quest for pink grape juice, but the potatoes were such a success that a smile slowly spread across my face and stayed there for some time after.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we weren’t asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee (we didn’t want either) or that Grumplestiltskin effectively forced us to approach the bar in order to pay (no bill was forthcoming). She managed to charge our card on a machine, return it with paper chit and effectively ignore both Monsieur and me as she carried on a grumpy little conversation with the barmaid. She did not thank us or wish us a good evening. In fact, she was such a fine example of how NOT to treat paying customers in a dining establishment that I’d have to say she’d turned it into an art.

Would we return to Certa? Even though the food was excellent, I’d have to say no. Firstly, Paris is overflowing with opportunities to eat well in environments non-conducive to Grumplestiltskin-style staff, so why go to Certa if you prefer to be treated like a visible human being? Secondly, I have since successfully made my own pommes de terres  écrasées with sour cream and caviar, hence removing the need to revisit that meal option at Certa. Admittedly, if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat around the Gare Saint Lazare, Certa will tick a few boxes, but if, like me, you resent feeling like poodle poop on a Christian Louboutin heel when paying for food, this is a place to avoid.

***If you work at Certa and happen to read this, please note that, by the simple act of ignoring my husband and me, Grumplestiltskin shaved a potential of at least 2 desserts, 2 double espressos and a pichet of pale pink wine off your takings from our evening with  you. Worse still, she has lost you the value of repeat business from a couple who often stay at the hotel just yards from your door. The bottom line is this: in tough economic times, restaurateurs can’t afford to pay staff who lose them money, even when the quality of what you serve is high. In summary, it’s time to lose the sourpuss. Can you really afford not to?

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