We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: an interview with Dean Peter Awn; the quixotic quest for a Quidditch team; and a reflection on Columbia’s recent media malaise. In “At Two Swords’ Length” two writers take opposing sides of a truly contentious collegiate issue and duke it out with their sheer wits. This month, Brian Donahoe and Sam Schube, our men in Paris, take on the truly contentious dilemma: should you order the prix fixe?
I snap the menu shut with something like élan, turn to the waiter, and announce that I’ll be having the prix fixe. I’m spending the semester abroad in Paris, you see, and I’ve determined to make the absolute most of it, despite the often great cost to my wallet, my dignity, and my imagined competence as a master of romance languages. No struggling-student buffets for me, and certainly no Hemingway specials—there is an apocryphal story that the author, scraping his way in gay Paree, would make regular forays into the bourgeois wilderness of the Luxembourg Gardens to capture pigeons for dinner. I’m not too good to eat pigeon, of course; all’s I mean to say is that if I eat it in Paris, I’d like it to be prepared by a chef with a particularly dramatic moustache. I do not believe this to be an unreasonable request.
At the bistros and brasseries found on every corner, one can order from the carte, which means “menu,” or the menu, which does not. The latter is what we Yanks typically call a prix fixe: usually three courses (appetizer, entrée, dessert) offered for, yes, a fixed price. The prix fixe, I’ve decided, will serve as my sentimental education (ahem) to Paris. Because if you can understand something of New York’s character through, say, its public transportation system (loud, sometimes efficient, beloved only to its partisans—who will tell you it’s far superior to any alternative), you can learn as much about the Parisian mien from its food: impossibly rich, steeped in equal parts tradition and duck fat, and occasionally standoffish.
My lunchtime companion, Brian, takes the opposite tack. He seems to enjoy the freedom in ordering straight from the menu: an entrée here, half a roast chicken there—in short, more freedom than I know what to do with. I would rather bow humbly to the grand tradition of French cuisine (and boy, do these Parisians enjoy being bowed humbly to), and let the chef do the thinking for me. While I’m here, I’d better make the most of it. I want the Frenchiest and most plentiful food I can afford.
And, mon dieu, that triumvirate of dishes is something. Green beans that just taste more like green beans than you ever thought possible; foie gras—the provenance of which you’d be better off not thinking about, ever; other proteins are stuffed with the same foie gras, accompanied by humble and unbeatable frites. French cooking is a testament to the simple genius of the brilliant caveman who, bored with a diet of rocks, raw veggies, and buffalo sashimi, asked: how about we cook this beast in its own fat? And wash it down with a carafe of vin rouge?
All this, of course, is not without a price. In two too-short months I’ve acquired, in no particular order, three-and-a-half inches on my waist; between eighty and ninety-five pounds; an occasionally crippling addiction to duck confit; and the loss of most, if not all, of my willpower. However, I have also come to the realization, unthinkable in my Mesozoic age of semi-regular exercise, that these trophies are not only rightly deserved but well worth the trouble. Sure, the delights of France come at the price of occasionally funny looks, and a dispiriting tendency to froth at the mouth at the mention of cassoulet, the canned iteration of which might be renamed pork-crack. But I’m here to immerse myself, right? Who doesn’t want that? So yes, monsieur, I’ll be having the prix fixe. And a minor coronary, while we’re at it.
– Sam Schube
Hold up, Big Spender. We’re in Paris; yes, it’s lovely, but you’ve got to do this right. On the surface, the prix fixe lunch special would seem to be the perfect way to indulge oneself–for something around 20€, that placard by the café’s front door tells, the diner on a budget can have two courses, entrée and plat or plat and dessert with a glass of wine thrown in to boot. What could be wrong with that?
A hell of a lot, that’s what.
Having now spent nearly a full semester in the City of Lights, I think it would be fair to say that the question of whether to order the prix fixe lunch is one of the central dilemmas of the study abroad experience. It does, after all, pose itself nearly every day, and the consequences of your decision can stay with you until dinner if you’re lucky. So you’ve got to be smart about this and consider the situation rationally.
At this point, I would note to the reader that, while the crisis of the prix fixe is especially acute here in Paris, it is a problem that affects all of us, on either side of the pond. What Manhattanite, hungry on a lovely spring day, has not faced this question? And who, I might add, has never felt a tinge of regret at their decision?
From the perspective of your pocket book, the supposed “bargain” one gets when ordering the prix fixe is in fact somewhat deceptive. While, yes, it is true that ordering the prix fixe lunch typically costs between five to ten euros less than ordering two courses and a glass of wine individually, the student lunching on a budget is rarely making a decision between these two courses of action. More often than not (and I dare my opponent to disagree), the choice is one between the prix fixe and ordering a single course a la carte.
Thus, most of the time, the prix fixe costs more, not less, than what you would have ordered otherwise. However, there are, of course, those days (I call them Wednesdays) when you really do have to treat yourself, when a single mid-day course just won’t do. For those days, and I think we all have them, I still maintain that the savvy student out to lunch should forgo the prix fixe and just go all out and order the dishes his or her heart desires. If you’re going to splurge, splurge.
It’s simple: quality. Those who would tell you to order the prix fixe lunch (ehem) imagine that it is a charming dining tradition, a menu thoughtfully planned out by an aproned and loving chef. They kid themselves into believing that the kitchen staff, whether on Mercer Street or Montparnasse, couldn’t possibly have ulterior motives. But they do, I assure you, they do. They’re thinking about their bottom line.
Where the prix fixe lunch menu is unchanging, it is made up of the cheapest dishes on the menu (if you would care to “indulge” yourself with these, who am I to stop you?), but where the prix fixe is changed regularly, amounting more or less to a gussied-up blue plate special, the truth is far more sinister. In these cases, shamefully more often than not, the ingredients of the dishes on offer are those the restaurant needs to unload—that is to say, ingredients that either proved unpopular or are inching close to expiration. Filets of white fish, previously unheard of cuts of pork, and “very special” scallops are being pawned off on the likes of my dining partner like aged ladies of the night, no longer (or perhaps never at all) beautiful, but sufficiently concealed in cheap rouge, garlic, and low lighting so as to be passed off for an easy 20€, 25€ with extras.
And who wants that?
– Brian Donahoe