Story and food photos by Manos Angelakis
Architectural photos courtesy Brasserie Mémère
107 Vervalen Street
at Closter Plaza
Closter, NJ 07624
Brasserie Mémère is a restaurant, near me, where I can have dishes very similar to the cuisine bourgeois that I’ve loved since my days in Paris, in the very late ‘50s, early ‘60s.
In Paris, I lived for a while in the run-down Chez Rachou, at 9 Rue Gît-le-cœur in the Quartier Latin near the Place Saint Michel. When I lived there, it actually had no official name, it was just another rooming house of the Left Bank. It had a bistro on the ground floor where all the residents would congregate, when flush, for glasses of cheap Beaujolais, sometimes pastis or low priced cognac and whatever food we could afford.
Now, the building has been completely refurbished and is a hotel that has four stars. The 42 flea-bag rooms of my time were converted to 13 rooms and 6 suites, all with private bathrooms; which has been a major improvement compared to the flop-house it really was when I lived there, with a single bathroom at each end of the central corridor on every floor and an actual bathtub at the ground floor, which you had to “reserve” when you wanted to take a bath and pay a surcharge for the hot water!
Individuals, that later became to be considered famous American expat’ writers and poets, were living there in abject squalor but it was inexpensive and Mme. Rachou, the blue-haired hands-on owner, would allow you considerable leeway to pay for your room or even allow you to pay with a manuscript or a painting, if she thought that you could be discovered as the artistic genius she though most of her residents to be. My friend, Greg Corso, who lived in one of the attic rooms, named it “The Beat Hotel” and the name stuck!
As an “art student” I was on a very limited budget, so to make pocket money I worked some nights at Les Halles, the Parisian Central Food Market, unloading frozen lamb and beef carcasses. Before work, I sometimes ate at Chez la Vieille, a bistro nearby, where locals ate from l'ardoise, i.e. the blackboard menu that showed all the dishes cooked for the day. “On mange bien ici” was the slogan of the proprietress, and she was true to her word!
That’s where I became addicted to cuisine bourgeois. Since then, I’ve loved the Parisian bistro classics.
The team of Chef Thomas Ciszak (Chakra, Blue Morel), Evelyn Ciszak (Chakra, Jean-Georges) and Michael Chin (Chakra, Montrachet, Red Rooster) opened a venue in New Jersey called Brasserie Mémère, a French-style brasserie whose food is similar to the dishes I enjoyed in France.
Mémère means grandmother in French, and the food at Chez Ciszak, seems to be the kind of dishes that a French grandmother might cook for her family.
French culinary technique seems to meld with warm hospitality in this restaurant whose food could compare with such a representative of the Parisian brasserie milieu as the famous La Fermette Marbeuf.
The New Jersey's brasserie's premises are definitely not an Art Nouveau masterpiece, like the Parisian stalwart. It is a typical upscale restaurant.
At Brasserie Mémère, the room is very large and airy, featuring long windows overlooking a patio, with burnt-caramel colored banquettes along the walls and room-dividers, and numerous tables of different sizes. Unfortunately, much of the seating also includes very small tables with Thonet bentwood backed chairs and bare wood veneer seats that are uncomfortable. We were seated at one of those tables and I gave my companion the leather banquette seat, while I sat at the uncomfortable chair.
I love the classic bistro dishes: Pâté de Campagne, Foie Gras Torchon, Soupe à l’oignon, Escargots Persillé, Steak Tartare and Moules à la Provençal, to name but a few. Give me a couple of those and a glass of Pastis, finish with a café espress, and I’m in heaven!
The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday at 4 pm for dinner and, as of January 26, 2022, is open for lunch as well.
I was an interesting taste experience!
We started with Soupe à l’oignon gratinée. This was very close to the traditional version. Made with oxtail stock that here is slightly underseasoned, this is one of the classic dishes one would have at any self-respecting Parisian bistro or brasserie. The melted gruyére cheese topping covers the entire top of the individual crock, instead of just floating on a couple slices of farm bread, as is the usual French version. It was quite enjoyable.
Foie gras is the fatty liver of a duck or goose; a succulent, mildly flavored delicacy that – quite literally — melts in the mouth. Torchon de foie gras (a cylinder of goose liver formed with the help of a kitchen towel) is usually a bistro’s choice, but at Mémère, their foie gras is made as a Terrine, with a layer of goose fat on top, served with pieces of toasted brioche and a sweet apple compote.
The Steak Tartare is typically served pre-mixed in most bistros and is a blend of finely chopped raw beef fillet or sirloin, with raw egg yolk, capers, onions, herbs and spices; tender as it can be and usually served with the best tasting, non-greasy, French fries (frites).
The more upscale brasseries would bring all the ingredients to the table and let you mix them into the meat yourself, to your own taste, or le garçon, i.e. the waiter, would mix it for you.
The Mémère version was a small portion, made with wagyu beef instead of the bon fillet or sirloin; it has more fat as opposed to the French dish that is made from leaner grass-fed beef, but the ingredients mixed in were far from the traditional mix. Interesting, but nor the classic taste I expected. Unfortunately, there was also the taste of too much vinegar, an ingredient not used in the classic version.
Escargots au Beurre Persillé, is another of those classic dishes served in every bistro and brasserie in France, and actually every good French restaurant in most of Europe. They are best enjoyed with a piece of very fresh baguette to sop-up the butter. There is specific crockery to nestle the snail shells as they are cooking in the oven. At Mémère, the snails are, thankfully, served out of the shell so that you don’t have to go looking for the meat. The peasant-style bread that came with the dish was good for sopping the butter and ground parsley, so I did not miss the baguette.
I like the anise taste of Pastis with my escargots, and that's what we had.
The Pâté de Campagne, is actually a rustic preparation; the meat is ground through a large die or hand chopped to achieve a coarse texture. This delicious appetizer is made in the provinces from trimmings or inexpensive cuts; but in Paris, they use better quality meat, goose fat and pork liver mixed with cognac and the traditional quatre épices (four spices) that season the pâté. They usually serve it with cornichons (pickled baby cucumbers) and Dijon Mustard. I liked chef Ciszak’s interpretation, made in-house, which came with cornichons, baguette slices and a coarse, whole-seed mustard.
Moules à la Provençal is mussels, traditionally steamed with shell-on, in a mixture of shallots, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and a dry white wine. If you make them at home, and they are easy to make, please use a good quality wine, something you would drink. Also, use the best extra virgin olive oil you can lay your hands on. The dish is so simple that any low quality ingredient will show immediately. In Southern France, you’d get moules-frites; that is the mussels in a cream sauce with French fries. See our story in Sud de France.
The mussels at Mémère came from Canada's Prince Edward Island, are cultured, and the broth they were cooked in had, in addition to the traditional ingredients, baby tomatoes halved, and a stalk of chervil that added its delicious taste and aroma. Very enjoyable!
Tarte Parisienne, is Mémère’s version of a “French” pizza. It is made with very thin, flaky pastry and it is topped with foie gras, red shallot confiture, taleggio and arugula. Not a traditional Parisian dish, but we took whatever we didn’t finish home with us, so I’ll consider it a successful interpretation.
Pastis is a high alcohol drink (90 proof); a distillate from fermented grape juice with star anise and herbs steeped in, and is usually the beverage of choice at any Parisian bistro or brasserie together with Pernod Ricard, also a distillate using anise. It’s my beverage of choice with classic Parisian fare. Similar in taste to ouzo or arrack but much sweeter; it is served with a splash of ice-cold water and a couple ice cubes that create a cloudy, almost milky look.
The desserts were also French classics.
My Crème Brûlée could have come straight from Fauchon, the Parisian sweets store that symbolizes the exceptional French patisserie style. The Valrhona Chocolate Pot de Crème with the salted caramel, was just fine but just not as outstanding as the Crème Brûlée.
The café espress, was a well drawn espresso cup with lots of crema.
© March 2022 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.
In this issue: