Monday, February 21, 2011

Chez Felix

There is a quintessential French bar in every town in France and it is uniquely ‘French’. It serves the same purpose as a pub in Ireland or a tea shop in England - it is a social centre where news is exchanged, sport is watched and the world is put right.

It is a café, open early serving coffees and croissants to those heading off to work, a brasserie, with the plats du jour chalked up on a blackboard outside just before midday and a bar, serving wine and pression to locals and tourists alike until whatever time in the evening they decide to close (never a fixed time).

It is of another time, another century. It feels out of place and yet is so certain of it’s place. It is shabby and unchanged which somehow gives it more a sense of permanence. Newer bars and cafés come and go around it whilst it remains unmoved. It is so very easy to criticise and so very very easy to love.

In Carcassonne that bar is Chez Felix in the heart of the Place Carnot. It was founded in 1954 by Felix Bergeze and now has the third generation of the family involved. Felix was a legend of post war French rugby league and his son-in-law and current patron of the bar, Jean Cabrol, played for the great Carcassonne side of the sixties and was later trainer of the team. The bar is the spiritual home of the ASC XIII and when the current team won the cup in 2009 there was, for once, no closing time.

Chez Felix has two other claims to fame. When Rick Stein made his French Odyssey TV series he was filmed sitting outside the bar. He read a passage from a book titled ‘Signs of the Heart, Love and Death in the Languedoc’, written by Christopher Hope, which described a perfect fictional bar called Chez Jim - it could only be Chez Felix and all the other identical bars around France.

The waiters wear black waistcoats and trousers, not jeans, and they are waiters in a serious profession with a job for life, not casual staff awaiting their big chance. It would be unthinkable that Jean-Jacques, Herve and Michel would not be serving you. Each has their own character, their own idiosyncracities but they all know what they are doing - even at the busiest times they know who arrived when and in what order and they will get round to you. Arm waving, whistling and shouting “Monsieur” are only going to delay that moment.

The orange cushioned outside chairs have all seen better days, the inside tables are impossibly cramped for space and the single toilet is controlled from behind the bar - you need to catch their attention on your way to the loo so they can press the button that unlocks the door - I kid you not.

Despite all that seems wrong with it, there is in fact nothing wrong at all with it - it is what it is and it does what it does. So when the sun shines and we want some air or don’t want to cook lunch for ourselves, we take the 2 minute stroll down the hill from 42rvh to the Place Carnot. We often consider eating elsewhere but always end up at Felix. We always consider the other daily specials but always order the bavette and frites. It is our guilty secret - steak, chips and salad, rosé, perrier and coffee for €20 for two all in - perfect.

Considering that the bavette frites is the one thing that’s on the specials board every single day of the year, you would think they would have it down to a fine art by now - but in fact the only consistent thing about the dish is it’s inconsistency.

So I am hereby instigating ‘Bavette Watch’ to keep track of the nuances of my beloved lunch in the square. So to kick it off this was the last time I visited.

Date: Friday 4th February
Weather: sunny, tad under 20C, hot for time of year
Waiter; Jean Jacques (JJ), amiable mood
Steak: small but cooked to order (saignant)
Sauce: pepper, gooey, no peppercorns
Chips: lots, lightly fried
Salad; crunchy with good dressing

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