Back in my late 30s, when I lived in New York, I used to go fairly often with my then-husband to a French bistro called Casimir on the edge of the East Village, at 6th and B. Their waitstaff was sleek and snotty, and the food was mostly-hit and sometimes-miss, but the atmosphere was magical: old wood and candlelight and mirrors, great French accordion-and-violin jazz coming from invisible speakers, and, in those days, a tourist-free clientele – everyone in the room seemed to be whippet thin with aggressively understated hair, shining darkly with ennui, disdain, and savoir-faire.
In those days, the late 1990s, New York felt like a different place to me from how it feels now – before the Towers fell, before Times Square and Soho and my former neighborhood, Williamsburg, turned into urban Disneyworlds for tourists, before the police took over the streets, before NYU colonized most of lower Manhattan, the city felt provincial and worldly, sharp and dreamlike, gritty and dazzling, wild and enclosed, an island nation everyone was free to join at his or her own risk.
Of course, I was a lot younger then; things have a way of changing, perspective-wise, with age. Maybe younger New Yorkers find all those things, still, in the city. But as time went on, I found it all ebbing away, heartbreakingly, until I had to leave.
Back in the old golden days at Casimir, we generally scored a table only after waiting with glasses of wine by the bathrooms for what felt like an hour while waiters huffed to and fro, all of them seemingly empty-handed and trailing cigarette smoke. We always started by sharing a “Parisian salad,” which seemed to be the invention of someone in their kitchen, having nothing to do with either Paris or any traditional French dish, that I know of, anyway. But it was the perfect thing to have before their rich, perfectly flavored steak tartare, the other thing I always ordered, which came with a small bucket of perfect fries and a side of house-made mayonnaise. Parisian salad was light and savory and fun and elegant and beautiful – both plentiful and not too filling, the hallmark of a great starter.
Yesterday morning, way up here in bucolic, quiet old New England, I woke up craving those savory lentils and little mounds of beautifully dressed grated root vegetables; I also craved accordion-and-violin jazz blowing on wafts of candlelight over old dark wood reflected in enormous mirrors, but that, unlike the salad, was a little more difficult to come by.
Over my cup of coffee, I looked for Casimir’s menu online, just to doublecheck the elements, but I found that it is not on the menu anymore – yet another part of the New York I loved that seems to have gone forever. I searched for “Parisian salad” to see if it did, in fact, exist anywhere in recipe form; apparently, it does not, at least not the version I know — Elizabeth David offered a recipe for a Parisian salad made with cold sliced beef that looked amazing but which wasn’t, alas, the one I was jonesing for.
So I decided to recreate it from memory, but with a modification: instead of sliced tomatoes and a halved hard-boiled egg, I’d substitute leeks vinaigrette with chopped egg, my other favorite French salad. And I decided to add feta to the lentils just because I love the combination. Somewhere in bygone-menu item heaven, a scornful Casimir chef was no doubt frowning on me with displeasure, but I did not care: up here, I felt perfectly safe from his or her wholly imaginary wrath. It served them right for taking it off the menu.
And so, when Brendan went out yesterday afternoon, I gave him a list: du Puy lentils, baby arugula, feta, celeriac, carrots, beets, leeks, eggs, a red onion. He came back with all of it, and a slender green bottle of vinho verde we put in the freezer to fast-chill and then opened and drank while I cooked.
Tiny, green du Puy lentils are known as “the caviar of lentils.” They’re evidently grown in volcanic soil in the Auvergne without fertilizer, and they cost about $5 a pound, but they’re worth it. They taste richly of minerals and, because they have less starch than other lentils, they don’t get mushy when you cook them, so they are phenomenal in salads.
While a cup of rinsed lentils simmered away in salted water for 17 minutes, I steamed 3 cleaned, trimmed, chopped leeks and hard-boiled 2 eggs. Then I whisked together a strong-tasting, satiny vinaigrette, about 2/3 cup in all, of olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, a glob of Hain mayonnaise, and plenty of black pepper.
After the al dente, toothsome lentils had been rinsed under cold running water and well drained and put into a glass bowl, and the still-bright green but softened leeks had been plunged into an icewater bath, squeezed dry, and put into another glass bowl, I peeled and grated a large carrot, 2 medium-sized beets, and half a baseball-sized celeriac root and minced a medium red onion.
I divided the minced onion between the leeks and the lentils and added a big handful of baby arugula to the lentils. I peeled the eggs and crumbled them over the leeks, then I crumbed a big handful of fresh, mild feta into the lentils. I dressed both the leeks and the lentils with enough dressing to coat.
And then I arranged everything on two plates: a mound of each of the root vegetables, red and white and orange, then a mound of green leeks, and then a heaping mound of lentil salad. I drizzled dressing over the root vegetables on the plates.
And dinner was ready. It was just as good as Casimir’s, and maybe even better because of the leeks and feta, which added their slippery lusciousness and tart crumbliness, respectively, to the whole. My taste-memory was sated. I didn’t miss the steak tartare, but that is high on my list of other favorite restaurant dishes I want to make.