I have nothing but great memories of Paris. In the hazy hinterland of my twenties, I spent a year living there in the week, before jumping on Eurostar on Friday evenings to spend my weekends in London.
Since then, I’ve largely admired the city from afar. So when I got call from an old and very good friend asking if I wanted to meet up in the French capital for dinner, I jumped at the chance. Since moving back to the United States from London, she spent most her time jetsetting, barely stopping for a few days in any given city. My busy lifestyle also gave me very little wiggle room, so our evening needed to be special. I needed a place that served exceptionally good cocktails, offered a late and light supper, and where we could hear each other talk. A phone call or two later and I knew where I was going: Café Moderne, a place famous for two things: its cocktails and its meatballs.
This wonderful place is, above all, a neighbourhood cocktail bar and restaurant. Located a stone’s throw from the Place de la Bastille in the trendy 11th arrondissement, it is co-owned by Ahmed Yahi (‘Mido’ to his friends) along with his partners Lucile Gargasson and Thierry De Vissant. In a span of just four years, this trio of French artisans have created a gem of a place, racking up rave reviews and garnering panoply of awards. (One of the bartenders, Jennifer Le Nechet, only this week won the WorldClass France 2016 cocktail title.)
Mido’s great talent – beyond owning a fabulous bar and serving seriously fabulous cocktails – lies in his humanity and warmth. He treats everyone as an equal, and leaves you feeling like you’re a friend, rather than a paying customer. There is something of the Marcel Proust about him, from the natty sharp bow tie, to the dapper moustache, he is an immediately likeable character.
As it happened, that night coincided what would have been my late father’s birthday, so I decided to make it a gin-themed evening, in memory of his love of the juniper berry. All of Mido’s cocktails were made off-menu; all were utterly refreshing, light and airy and landing right on the mark, time after time and drink after drink. For someone who has no formal training in the industry, this place is an unalloyed success, boasting two national cocktail champions, and some of France’s best cocktails.
The bar itself is a thing of beauty, more of a pharmacological miracle where drinks are invented and dispensed with a classic sense of French esprit. The glasses are beautiful, from the champagne flutes to the heavy, thick Scotch tumblers, and each cocktails is decorated and treated like a tiny piece of mixological art.
Nor are the cocktails the only things that are out of this world. Mido loves getting the food pairing spot-on, with the constituency of each drink carefully tailored to the food menu. The tables are typically French in their layout, set out in a classic uniform style. The paper menus are a nice touch, allowing patrons to place a simple tick next to their meal of choice. Again: simple, effective, and distinctively French. I spotted the foie gras (*tick*) and my friend quickly followed. After that came some of the famous meatballs one of Café Moderne’s signature dishes, one bite and it become obivious why people rave about them. I opted for the Tartare du Moderne, a French classic that is one of my favourites, the portion was generous and it was just the right side of spicy.
Café Moderne is what still makes Paris such a great city to visit. The fare is a mix of the classic and modern: thick, old-fashioned dark-wood veneer blended with the best modern levels of imagination, creativity, and service. There is no stuffiness or pomposity here, only a group of gregarious owners happy in their own skin. The décor is aptly eclectic, from the gentle lightening to the sweeping mahogany bar to the comic magazine-themed walls. Bravo, Mido. Bravo, Café Moderne. And Viva Paris! This is why I fell in love with this great city all those years ago. And why I will always come back.