PARIS — A grand survivor of France's storied Belle Epoque, Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon is a stunning reminder of when train travel was an exquisite sort of luxury. Not 1 square centimeter of wall or ceiling space is unadorned in this palatial restaurant, one grand staircase flight above the tracks. Nymphs and gods loll indulgently above tall banks of windows amid miles of gilt embellishment. Massive chandeliers illuminate colorfully painted ceilings and walls, many with scenes of various locales in southern France. (The train station primarily serves southern and eastern France.)
There's a grand, romantic swirl to the place, which was inaugurated by the French president himself April 7, 1901. Just as M.F.K. Fisher, America's greatest food writer, argued that the Gare de Lyon was "not a station but a place," so is Le Train Bleu not just a restaurant. Fisher wrote about that in her book, "As They Were," recounting her first lunch in the station's restaurant. Her meal? A simple repast of bread, good butter, Parma ham that tasted like violets and a half-bottle of Champagne. Memories were coined and a silent vow made to return.
Fisher did go back, but this was the late 1960s. Both the train station and the restaurant were distinctly down at the heels. Learning that the building was destined for destruction, Fisher urged friend Janet Flanner, the famed Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, to visit the station. Flanner did; deeply moved, she persuaded Andre Malraux, then France's very influential minister of culture, to take steps to save and ultimately restore both as symbols of French heritage as worthy of protection as any cathedral or monument.
Today, the china plates at Le Train Bleu carry this designation: "classe monument historique" (designated historical monument). That it is so architecturally, visually and spiritually — your emotions swell in such palatial surroundings — is undoubted. The restaurant deserves a visit on these grounds alone.
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Whether Le Train Bleu merits a visit today for its food is debatable, unfortunately.
For years there has been talk of lackluster fare or fluctuating quality. Of-the-moment foodies sniff at the very traditional menu and the old-fashioned style of tableside service and rolling carving stations. For the prices Le Train Bleu charges, one can do better, they say.
Up until my last visit I might have debated that. I would have recalled a plate of oysters preening in their shells that were as cold and shockingly briny as a rogue wave crashing on a beach. I would have remembered fondly the ruddy Lyonnaise-style sausage wrapped in pastry, the sweetbreads silkily poached and the quenelle, a fine fish mousse served in a hearty Provencal sauce.
But this last visit was different. The food was good but not great. My starter of white sausage served with seared foie gras and apples in a rich veal sauce drizzled with a touch of honey was quite nice, with the savory plushness of the fatted liver playing off the sharp tang of the apples and the porky sweetness of the sausage. A nice first step, but the dish was served lukewarm. A lobster bisque was served searingly hot, but the turnip-thickened soup offered just one flavor note: lobster. Roast lamb carved rosy rare tableside had a pronounced muttonlike flavor — an acquired taste. The meat was enhanced by a hearty serving of potatoes swimming in melted blue cheese. Pork cheeks slow-cooked in a Madeira wine sauce had the toothsome, wine-enriched flavor and texture that invited one to pause and savor. I did. Yet this stewlike dish was arranged around a polenta cake, a forgettable cardboardlike disc. Le Train Bleu's desserts are either traditional or silly. Delightfully in the latter category is its vacherin — meringue shapes topped with ice cream, fruit sorbets, syrups and whipped cream.
The service team was not on its game. Our reservation was for 9 p.m., but no one came to fetch us out of the adjoining Big Ben Bar (a grand spot for collecting one's thoughts and luggage over a glass of wine). We finally walked up to the captain's station on our own. Our waiter disappeared halfway through a meal whose pacing started out like gangbusters but dragged slowly to a tired halt around midnight.
But what saved the night was a comment from the old waiter who appeared to take the tab. When asked how customers had changed over his 18 years there, he slightly shook his head.
"People still come up the staircase with anticipation," he replied in French. "And it's our job to fulfill their dreams."
What can one say to top that?
Admittedly, my dreams were not completely fulfilled that night. But as I walked down that dramatic staircase past tracks that stretched out into the cold Parisian night, I felt warmed by his words. The magic of Le Train Bleu so eloquently spun by M.F.K. Fisher still held sway.
So, if in Paris and especially if one is bound for the south of France, plan to arrive two hours before the train departs to relax amid the splendor of Le Train Bleu.
IF YOU GO:
Gare de Lyon, Place Louis Armand, 12th Arrondissement. Telephone: 33-01-43-43-09-06, le-train-bleu.com.
Terminus Nord — Le Train Bleu is not the only food solution for hungry train travelers. Directly across from the bustling Gare du Nord in the 10th Arrondissement is the Terminus Nord, a brightly lit Art Deco-themed brasserie dating from 1925.
Terminus Nord is part of the Groupe Flo network of brasseries, and it's very proud of its shellfish. You'll find boxes of oysters, periwinkles and shrimp preening in the window. Start the meal with six or more oysters served on the half-shell atop a platter of chopped ice. Or consider cold poached eggs — the creamy yolks are startling deep orange — topped with a creamy tarragon sauce.
23 rue de Dunkerque, 10th Arrondissement; 33-01-42-85-05-15. Open daily 8:30-10:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. terminusnord.com.