CHOWING DOWN: L'A.O.C.
Once in awhile I come across a restaurant I want to like so badly. It probably comes from knowing first hand how difficult it can be in the restaurant business, so this urge may come from a particularly sympathetic proprietor who makes me feel immediately welcome, extremely attentive or knowledgeable staff who go that extra mile, or an inviting dining room that exudes "love" upon entering. L'A.O.C. is all of these things.
It was July and I'd made a trip specifically to the Sorbonne to obtain registration details. With my luck I arrived at the administrative offices just minutes after they had closed for their standard two hour lunch break. At the time I didn't know the area at all so I headed back in the direction from which I had come where earlier I had passed this charming little restaurant. I had even stopped in to inquire about the menu and whether reservations were necessary as if I knew I'd need a lunch spot shortly. The gentleman at the door greeted me warmly and patiently answered all my questions. Normally not one to fall for establishments whose entrances are plastered with qualifying stickers, I did note them all-- Saveur, Guide to Best Restaurants, Bistros in Paris 2003, NOVA, Lebey, Le Petit Lebey, and Le Pudlo France to name but a few. There was also a copy of a favourable review in Le Monde, but it was in French and given that I was here to brush up on my rusty French I wouldn't put too much stock in this last comment of mine.
The menu was a la carte with some daily specials noted on a chalk board brought to my table. I started with Tarte fine aux Sardines confites at 9e followed by the proprietor's recommendation, L'assiette du rotisseur at 15e. I had specifically asked about the house speciality and advised to sample the rotisseur. The presentation of the entree showed great promise; a pretty dish composed of a puff pastry base filled with a diced celery salad topped with marinated sardine fillets. Even the idea of puff pastry and the texture of the diced celery salad suggested a promising backdrop for the sardines. But it was not to be the case. The puff pastry was over baked and the result a little tough. The celery salad was very nice and refreshing but it could have used a bit of salt and this is coming from someone who rarely adds it at the table. As to the sardines, they were very fleshy and so strongly flavoured they almost had a bite to them. Normally I love sardines but I found these overpowering. No quantity of water or bread washed away the taste that all I could do was look forward to the main course to hopefully do the job.
The main was a huge American-size portion of roasted meat on roasted potatoes and garlic served with a light jus. This would have been a great choice if one was on the Atkins diet- chicken breast, wing and leg in addition to perfectly roasted and sliced pork tenderloin. The dish was simply seasoned with just parsley, black pepper and laurel. It was really very good though not particularly inventive or anything to rave on about. But it did do the job of washing away the sardines.
After a rest I went the full nine yards and ordered dessert. After all, I did have two hours to kill before the Sorbonne would re-open. If ever there is Tarte Tatin on the menu there's a good chance I'll choose that over all other desserts at least when in France. At 6e50 it was as good as any I'd ever had. Perfectly caramelized fruit served with a perfect dollop of heavy cream. The crust was a bit soggy but I've never understood how it would be possible to make this dessert with a crisp crust unless one departs from the classic method. But then that's no longer Tarte Tatin now, is it? As much as I wanted to I couldn't finish what was a very generous serving of dessert.
For a restaurant I wanted so badly to like and to be able to share the find with friends, overall, the food was disappointing to average. At over 30e for a 3-course lunch (without wine) one expects and should find better. I inquired about dinner and was told the menu was the same as at lunch giving no compelling reason to try dinner.
Post notes: Even the toilets were lovingly decorated which can be rare in even some of the best restaurants. I remember dinner at Tour d'Argent once (3-Michelin stars at the time) and thinking the toilet felt more like a fancy outhouse. I have come across Patricia Wells' review of same since my visit to l'A.O.C. Not that I always share her opinion of restaurants but she was also disappointed by her visit here.
Coordinates: 14, rue des Fosses St Bernard 75005, tel 01.43.54.22.52. Closed Sun & Mon