Paris Restaurants: Le Tourne Bouchon
Le Tourne Bouchon
71, boulevard Raspail, in the 6th Arrondissement. 01 45 44 15 50.
Open Thurs, Fri and Sun, 6 a.m.–7 p.m.
There are some places that are so very much a part of my regular routine, it would never occur to me to share them—not out of selfishness but out of mere neglect. And it came to me recently that I have been neglecting to share one of my regular haunts for nearly a decade. Le Tourne Bouchon is one of those blue-collar cafés most tourists walk by without a second thought. Even worse, it is on a stretch of the boulevard Raspail that is a very busy no-man’s land, with dark wood and drab tiles that make it nearly invisible to anyone not on the lookout for this neighborhood haunt, which just happens to be one of my favorite Paris restaurants.
But the dark, seedy interior also makes it a charming throwback to the Paris of 20, even 40, years ago. Less than 100 meters from the rive gauche boutique of Hermès, this is a place where women can come without their designer bags, garbagemen stop at the bar, celebrities relax and employees from la Poste enjoy lunch. Most of the week, it offers standard café fare. With a kitchen the size of an American closet, the cook is not whipping out gourmet meals. But three days a week, a little magic happens.
Every Thursday, Friday and Sunday, the chef starts his morning peeling vegetables, piling up mounds of carrots, onions and turnips before putting them into a ginormous stew pot and seasoning them with a bit of North African magic. As I stand at the zinc countertop enjoying what I consider to be one of the best Parisian café coffees, I watch him through the open window that connects his kitchen to the dining room, and I savor the moment. It may only be 10 a.m., but chances are very good that the man to my right is already on his third drink of the day.
After preparing the vegetarian stew, he attacks the semoule, and finally, as lunchtime arrives, he is ready to start grilling lamb, the final ingredient to his very generous, remarkably delicious couscous that is served with tasty little garbanzo beans and sweet, golden raisins. The vegetables arrive at the table in a white porcelain tureen, cooked to perfection, neither too crispy nor mushy, their stew elegantly fragrant and the semoule refined, exactly the way it should be.
While the recipe is the same on all three days that couscous is served, my favorite day is Sunday, when the organic market takes over the street and the tables overflow with vegetable vendors, butchers and bakers, mixing it up with local stars like Vincent Lindon or Chiara Mastroianni. On a sunny day, the crowd will spill out to the tables that line the sidewalk where I get lunch and a show, as the regulars get up from one table to greet friends at another, nearly knocking over the owner’s son, his arms laden with platters, my glass of rosé gleaming in the rare Paris sunshine.
I am sure that there is a dessert menu, but I have never gotten beyond the main dish except for the traditional glass of mint tea, served with a generous bunch of pine nuts, adding a sweet note to the end of my feast.
In a nutshell: house-made couscous served to a fun, boisterous crowd of locals in an old-fashioned Paris joint.
Price check: mains, €10-12; tea, €2.
If le Tourne Bouchon sounds good, you’ll love Chez Omar. Read the review.
47, rue de Bretagne, in the 3rd Arrondissement.
Lunch and dinner, Mon–Sat; dinner only, Sun.
01 42 72 36 26. No reservations.