Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

The Most Perverse Restaurant In Paris

OK, so this restaurant doesn’t serve human flesh or anything. The perversity is a bit more subtle than that. But it’s still wrong.

In the courtyard of the Musée des Arts et Métiers (technically this means “the Museum of Arts and Crafts,” but that’s a somewhat misleading name for its collections, which I’ll get to in a moment) is one of the most gorgeous places to eat in Paris. The museum is housed in a medieval priory with a more recent (but still quite old) extension, and the open-air restaurant is surrounded on all sides by its formidable walls. There’s room for two or three times the tables, but the proprietors have spaced them out so generously that you can almost forget you’re in a restaurant at all, and just chill in your hôtel particulier like a marquise.

papin

In hindsight, the first hint that something was amiss was the statue of Denis Papin, inventor of the steam digester. Speaking of which, and returning to the question of the collections, the Musée des Arts and Métiers is really concerned with the physical artifacts of human ingenuity. Calculating machines, timekeeping devices, engines, radios, all that stuff. Where the “arts” come in is in the museum’s obvious delight in the cogs and spokes and pistons of it all. The way they see it, these machines don’t just do magnificent things; they do them with surpassing beauty and elegance. It’s a sort of steampunk-with-a-PhD ethos: Where steampunk aficionados are mostly concerned with the polished-copper aesthetics, here the pure mechanics of each device are just as important.

We all admire inventors for their intellect, but this museum will make you see their heroism, their romance, and their sense of fantasy. Too often, we think of engineers and artists as polar opposites, but I now realize that this just isn’t the case. If you are ever in Paris, you should check it out–if for no other reason than the spectacular contrasts that arise from housing modern industrial objects in a building that’s part medieval and part baroque.

But you shouldn’t eat at the restaurant. Have a coffee there, or a beer, but you shouldn’t eat.

Earlier, I mentioned Denis Papin, inventor of the steam digester, whose statue is prominently displayed near the tables. Well, it seems someone in management with a diabolical sense of humor decided to make steam digesters of the customers, too. Of all the possible ways to run one of the loveliest venues in the city, the museum opted to subcontract out to a chain called À Toutes Vapeurs (which means something like “full steam ahead”), and its concept is just the worst.

Remember that we are in Paris, where it rains rillettes, and the streets are paved with croissants. Why is there a single café specializing in steamed food, let alone a whole chain of them? It isn’t just that the food is steamed; it’s that tiny amounts of it are plopped into biodegradable baskets that serve both as steaming vessel and serving container. And it’s not even Asian food–just pan-Euro stuff with no sear on it.

It looks like this:

I mean, really. You’re sitting outside an abbey that was the site of a key scene in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and they serve you an airline meal? (Fun fact: Foucault’s original pendulum was housed in the museum until it was irreparably damaged in 2010. Alas, the one you see today is a replica.)

I wasn’t expecting this. I immediately decided I wasn’t going to waste one of my three remaining meals in Paris on a wet pat of food, but the problem was that I was faint with low blood sugar and desperately needed a snack. There is a lot to hate about how American museums run their overpriced self-serve cafeterias, but there, at least, you can get a chocolate bar. The only vaguely snacky thing here was a basket of steamed eggs in cream with bacon.

What happened next is not that eventful, and I am only writing this down because of what the waiter said when he brought me my eggs (which, by the way, were completely raw, which is remarkable when you consider that the restaurant has one cooking method to get the hang of). You know how sometimes when your food takes a really, really long time to come out of the kitchen, someone in your party is bound to pipe up with “Are they harvesting the beets/milking the cow/cloning the sheep themselves?” In this restaurant, when the waiter finally brought me my dish, it was he who declared, “Ha, ha, I had to go to the farm to collect the eggs.”

Ha, ha. Oh, French waiters. (Shout-out to the one in the Tuileries who wouldn’t give me a napkin after a raven took a crap on my head. Admittedly I was not a customer at that restaurant, but come on. A raven! Their bowels are considerably larger than a pigeon’s.)

By the way, when I started writing this post, I really thought that the steam-powered restaurant was something that the museum had dreamed up as a themed tie-in with steam engines. The fact that there’s a whole chain of them somewhat weakens the anecdote. I did learn, though, that the chain once tried to penetrate the Singapore market, where it went by “Full Steam,” but it has since closed, evidently because Singaporeans are not insane.

Paris! What is up?