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Paul Ben-Itzak
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Le Refuge des Fondus / Chez les Fondus
Paris, OT (France)

Le Refuge des Fondus - Just say 'Beef'!

by Paul Ben-Itzak
June 29, 2009
Le Refuge des Fondus / Chez les Fondus
17, rue des Trois-Freres
(Metro Anvers)
Paris, OT (France) 75018
01 42 55 22 65
PARIS — If you're just getting out of the Theatre les Abbesses in Montmartre after a heady evening of dance (click the link to read about a couple I caught), and want to stay in a theatrical mode, after (and definitely not before) the dance you might try Le Refuge des Fondus at 17, rue des Trois-Freres (don't ask me who the three brothers are; a French dancer once explained it to me, but I've forgotten), a few blocks down the street from where 'Amelie' lived in the already classic 2001 Montmartrois film "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain."

Let's start with the only thing I don't like about Le Refuge des Fondus, a.k.a. 'le resto rigolo de la butte' (rigolo = funny, la butte = shorthand for Montmartre, Montmartre being one of the peaks of Paris and 'butte' meaning mountain-top). This must be the only restaurant in France where the patron rushes you, supposedly to make way for a long line of people waiting, but when we were there there was no one waiting and he rushed us anyway. My date and I had struck up a lively conversation with our neighbors, which apparently perturbed our host because it slowed down our eating. "Talk, talk! Enough talk! Eat!" If being rushed to make way for others is nothing new to New Yorkers, here in France it's forbidden; if anything, one typically has trouble hailing the waiter to bring the check. Except at the Refuge of Fondus, apparently no safe harbor for slow diners.

Otherwise, eating at the Refuge is a socially as well as gastronomically engaging, at times even thrilling, at times even spine-tinglingly thrilling experience.

For me and my date — a Japanese woman I'd met at the School of the Dry Tree, where we were both taking French for foreigners — the thrills started before my date even sat down, the owner hoisting her up and over the long wooden picnic-like table where people eat 'elbow to elbow,' as it was the only way to wedge her into the side against the wall. (Who knows what would have happened if I'd have remembered to be polite and take the wall-side myself; catastrophe!)

There's really only one menu at the Refuge of Fondus, the "Menu Sympa," with one price (18 Euros), and two variations: Fondu Savoyard (cheese to you, bub), named after the mountainous Savoy (or "Savoie') region where it's popular (those winter nights) — and Fondu Bourguignonne, or beef, so called because it comes from the Burgundy. (Normally I'd suggest an Apremont or other white from the Savoy for the cheese fondu, and a Pinot noir for the beefy dish; here we had to take what was fed to us in the baby bottles. Read on.)

The menu starts with a 'cocktail bidon' (roughly translated: joke cocktail) and amuse-gueule, a sort of mystery aperitif accompanied usually by small chunks of spicy salamis, cheese, and olives. The meal itself is accompanied by red or white wine served in… baby bottles. (In French: 'biberon'.) One bottle is included in the 18 Euro price; you and your 'baby' can order more at 2 Euros a pop. (Click here to see pics, of the resto as well as the bottles.)

For the main course, we chose the Fondu Bourguignonne, which involves dipping lean morsels of beef into hot oil, served in the same kind of apparatus as cheese fondu — a metal pot over a 'rechaud' — except that it's deeper and instead of being open, has a wide lip around the edges with a hole in the center for the beef-skewered forks, to protect you from the hot oil. (When I made this at home — just ask for 'beef for fondu' at the butcher's, which comes already cut — I just used my normal open fondu pot. Only one guest ever got splattered, and she asked for it.) As the 'rechaud' — the little fire beneath the pot — is not hot enough to keep the oil sufficiently hot over the course of a meal, the waiter frequently takes your pot to the kitchen to heat it up, crying "Chaud! Chaud!" — "Hot! Hot!" — on his return as he lifts the scalding pot over your neighbors' heads.

With the plate of raw meat we got boiled potatoes and, most critically, different flavored mayonnaises for dipping, including bourguignonne. (When I made it, I whipped up a bourguignonne mayonnaise, a curry one — by simply mixing curry powder and mustard seed with the mayo — and a caper mayo. I also made an anchovy butter, which was delectable, but as you're already deep-frying your red meat in oil and dipping it in mayonnaise, the anchovy butter may be a bit too much fat… even for a French dish.) Of course what's great about this dish is you get to decide how long to cook your beef — and it's always hot; as you're devouring one morsel another is getting ready. The dessert choices were negligible — a fruit salad or a so-so tomme savoie (mountain cheese) — so I suggest you do as my neighbor did, and for a few extra Euros order the 'mystery' dessert, a sort of individual baked Alaska.

And speaking of neighbors, the college student living across the hall from me who recommended the refuge of fondus told me that when she dined there, she and her friend ended up spending the rest of the evening hanging out with their table-mates, and the same thing happened to us. He was an English-speaking French painter who restored master-works for a living, and who'd hitch-hiked across the States in his '20s. His wife was a Filipino transplant. We were in our early '20s to early '40s. The reason I mention all this, as well as the reason I noted my date's ethnic origin earlier, is to illustrate the variety of dining neighbors one can find at the Refuge of Fondus, and how easy it is to find enough in common to want to prolong the evening elsewhere even with people you just met.

We ended up at 75 rue des Martyrs and the nightclub now called the Divan du Monde, but which you may know from the famous Toulouse-Lautrec poster as the Divan Japonais of an earlier time. (Dance angle: in the linked art, that's the pioneering can-can dancer Jane Avril on the left.) We lucked out because at that time, admission was free before midnight and the drinks half-price (read: normally as opposed to outrageously high), plus we got to listen to a French folk singer. We capped the evening off with a hike up to the top of the Butte and Sacre Coeur, and its extraordinary view of the Eiffel Tower. If that's too much hiking for you, you might want to follow the rue des Trois-Freres, straight into 'Amelie'-land, past the epicerie or general/fruit store featured in the film, to the Place Emile Goudeau where, at 13 rue Ravignan, you'll see the Bateau-Lavoir, where Picasso co-invented Cubism. Then head down the hill to the rue des Abbesses, cross the street, turn right and continue until the rue Lepic. Head left down the hill sticking on the right-hand side of the street and voila, les Trois Moulins, the cafe where 'Amelie' was filmed. (So named for the three moulins or windmills, including a certain Moulin Rouge, that once reigned in the neighborhood. ) I don't recommend eating there — the service is brusque and the prices take into account the tourism cache — but if you want to soak up the 'Amelie' ambiance you can't go wrong with a coffee. (Hint: In Paris, counter-coffees are cheaper.)

If high art is more your thing, don't turn left at the first rue Lepic, but turn right at the second. Heading up hill on the right hand side of the street, you'll shortly find yourself standing before 54, where, if you look up, you'll find a plaque informing you that Vincent Van Gogh once lived there, with his brother Theo. If this gives you a sudden burst of energy, keep going up the rue Lepic until you get to Sacre Coeur at the top of the Butte. Once there, look around for the rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — whose compositions have served many a choreographer, from Massine to Merce to Moses Pendleton to Eliot Feld — once lived. Look for the plaque… and listen for the music.

Le Refuge des Fondus is open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, with service from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Bonne promenade!

Paul Ben-Itzak writes about French culture and politics from Paris and the South of France for France Insider.
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