It’s the same as it has been since I’ve known it, just across the street from the Gare to Nord, the Brasserie Terminus Nord. It’s all there, the art deco posters, wall decorations and lights; the tiled floor in flower motif; the mirrors reflecting the choreography and drama of the room; the crisp white table cloths and gleaming glassware; the battered cutlery; the sense of hierarchy and smoothness of long practice; the waiters in white shirts and long black aprons,; the deft, world-weary professionalism of the maitre d’s. You feel they are unsurprisable, unshockable, have seen everything, have dealt with every human behaviour and folly.
There’s the same clatter of plates, the same buzz, sense of purpose, sense of disciplined hedonism, the same mixed box of humanity – a young couple on a lunch break; a man reading his news paper, forking his food unseeing into his mouth; a table of four businessmen with shiny red faces and respectful suits; an old woman with a Maltese poodle which she feeds titbits; English husband and wife newly arrived off Eurostar; one solitary young woman talking into her mobile phone without break throughout her lunch; any number of middle-aged, middle-weight French couples out for a decent feed. This is where they come, quite possibly every day, because they know what they’re going to get and they like it that way.
I like it that way, too. Here are the oysters that I remember, les Fines Claires, Les Speciales Selection Terminus Nord, Les Creuses de pleine mer. Here are Les Entrees: soupe a l’oignon, gros escargots de Bourgogne au Chablis, soupe de poisons. And Les Plats: aille de raie Grenobloise; tartare de boeuf Charollais,; poêlon de ris de veau aux morilles et pommes fondants; fillet de boeuf Chateaubriand. There’s the nod to contemporary fada in the form of thon mi-cuit au piment d’espelette; tartare d’avocat et gambas a la plancha; dos de saumon cuit a la plancha aux coquillages, jus emulsionné au curcuma bio; and risotto bio Carnaroli aux noix de Saint Jacques et cèpes, coulis de potimarron, but that fashionable finesse isn’t what I’ve come for. I’ve come for half a dozen Fines Claires of blessed memory, and, well, perhaps not the full choucroute alsacienne, but the jarret de porc with the same cabbage from the daily menu (E31), and a carafe of Riesling from Alsace, as I had in times gone by.
So I had the oysters, opened by two blokes in blue overalls in front. They were croquantes et vigoureuses as the menu promised, saline and minerally and slippery. The craggy jarret de porc with choucroute was just the ticket. The meat eased off the bone in plump chewy nuggets, lightly salty from their cure. A smear of mustard set them off nicely. And then there was the cabbage, seductively squelchy, with that shimmer of acidity from the choucrouting. It was filling and fulfilling, noshtalgic if you like.
You see, there was a time years ago when you could dine splendidly in the Brasserie Terminus Nord, walk across the road, board your sleeper in the station, and wake up trundling through the Kent countryside, ready for a kipper, a pot of tea and a slice or two of toast. The couchette carriages were loaded lock, stock and slumbering travellers, onto the waiting ferry at Calais. That service stopped years ago, sadly. However, the Brasserie Terminus Nord continued to play a vital part in my life. It was the place where a few like-minded fellows and I used to meet for lunch before the France-England rugby internationals in Paris. Oysters, choucroute, cheese, bottle or so of Riesling, a quick glass of calvados, then the mad dash across the city to the game. Ah, happy days. In all those years, the Brasserie Terminus Nord never disappointed, was never not itself.
To be absolutely honest, the food is dependably good not great; decent, bourgeois stuff; perfect for time and place. But there’s a fabulous snappy clip to the service, and grace notes you don’t often see elsewhere. I watched a waiter mixing the steak tartare at his station, according to tradition, and, I assume, his personal recipe. And when I asked for a glass of eau de vie de poire, it came resting on a bed of ice. The bill was E55, 20; let’s say £45. Not cheap for one, but for an experience rich in such pleasure, such culture, such theatre, it was worth every penny.
That isn’t really the point of the Brasserie Terminus Nord. It’s about memory and survival. It’s still here, still doing the business, still unmistakably, unshakably, immutably gloriously French.
Brasserie Terminus Nord, 23 rue de Dunquerque, 75010 Paris.
Tel: 00 33 1 42 85 05 15