Le Ptit Troquet
28, rue de lExposition
Tel. 01 47 05 80 39
Closed for lunch Saturday and Monday, all day Sunday
Metro Ecole Militaire
Troquet is an old-fashioned word for a restaurant, and this one is undeniably ptit: no more than a dozen tables in two small rooms. About seven or eight years ago, I ate there a couple of times, but there was something wrong I no longer remember what and I stopped going even though, for me, this is truly a neighbourhood restaurant. I can get to it without even crossing a street. However, the Troquet consistently shows up on Chowhound lists of Paris favourites so, last weekend, I decided to give it a fresh try.
Going in, one has the impression of entering a Victorian dollhouse. There are cute drawings and illustrations on the walls, interspersed with the old advertising plaques that many French people like to collect. There is a wonderful genuine zinc bar (people used to throw these out when bistrots were being remodelled, now they fetch enormous prices). The bar is topped by a giant antique coffee machine, all valves and pipes and spigots. Many of the tables are those charming marble-topped affairs that you used to see in outdoor cafés all over France. The disconcerting thing (and adding to the dollhouse effect) is that the furnishings are so tiny. I have had the same impression in other old-fashioned restaurants in Paris, and I have this theory that the effect is quite real, and due to the change in the physical size of men and women. Im not joking: it is a proven fact that people have increased in height and girth in all well-fed modern countries, nor is the effect a small one, as clothing manufacturers will attest.
As promised by other chowhounds, the hostess had the most charming smile and, indeed, throughout the whole evening the service was impeccable.
On this particular Saturday evening, the clientele was exclusively Anglo-Saxon. Now I know that many chowhounds would be put off by this, and posters on this board often ask for recommendations of non-touristy places. No greater mistake can be made in Paris. It is the tourists and other visitors who are responsible for maintaining such standards as still survive here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who walks into a restaurant and sees nothing but locals should promptly pat his coat pocket as though searching for lost car keys, mutter something apologetic, and scram!
The menu is as ptit as the troquet, but full of promise. There is the obligatory foie gras, but that is only to be expected. But then there is a wild roquette salad, carrot soup with cumin (which could be cumin or caraway), and an interesting confit. I was tempted by the latter, partly because it was goose instead of the usual duck, but also because I suspect that menu items of this kind will soon permanently disappear (along, I very much fear, with many of the patrons). But I decided to begin with a wild boar terrine, and here my misadventures began.
I judge any dish on the basis of appearance, smell, taste. There are any number of ways to enhance the colour of food, but this slice of pâté had a flaccid, sickly grey look. Because it was much too cold, it had no discernable smell, and the flavour was completely dominated by allspice. My wifes lentils with Lyonnaise sausage suffered from the opposite problem: the lentils lacked salt (which should have been added at the end of the cooking process) and the sausage was no better than what can be bought at the supermarket down the street.
For my main course, I selected a fish that I have never seen at the poissoniers or even heard of: a maigre. The dictionary is not very helpful here, since this denizen of Atlantic waters is variously called a meagre, bubbler, Jew-fish, croaker, sea-sheep, and herring hog. The flesh seems to most resemble a cod. It was correctly grilled and served on a nice bed of sautéed onions and leeks. My wife was less lucky. Her pork stew was completely bland, even though the meat was very tender. The accompanying carrots and potatoes were overcooked, and the sauce lacked even the most rudimentary stew flavourings (bay leaves, peppercorns, baby onions, juniper berries, bits of smoked bacon, etc.).
The wine list was respectable, but unambitious. There was, for example, a well-known chinon, Les Gravieres from Couly-Dutheil. This is by far the biggest producer in Chinon, with a spectrum of wines that runs from Les Gravieres on the low end to the legendary Clos de LEcho Crescendo made from grapes picked in the vineyard of the Rabelais family across the road from the ruined medieval Chateau de Chinon. This wine can stand up to twenty, even thirty, years in the bottle. Since I know all these wines very well, and have any number of bottles dozing peacefully in my cellar, I opted for another standby, a menetou-salon.
But back to the Troquet. In spite of all the meanderings and digressions (midget Frenchmen! Rabelais! herring hog!) the truth must finally be faced: the food here is boring. Boring, boring, boring, boring! By the time I am asked to pick a dessert, heavy stalactites of ennui are drooping down from the ceiling, and all energy has been drained from this meal. I had been thinking about ordering a moelleux au chocolat (a sort of chocolate cupcake with a liquid center) when I remembered that I had all of the ingredients at home: the finest Hevin chocolate from Madagascar, the freshest organic eggs, butter, sugar, flour and crème fraiche. So I asked for the check and treated my wife and guests to some piping-hot homemade moelleux, served with a coulis of wild strawberries (the real thing, picked by village children in the forests of eastern Poland) plus a bottle of 1999 Austrian Eiswein from Hoepler. Now theres an antidote to boredom!
The bottom line is that I cannot think of a single reason to ever go back to the Petit Troquet. At thirty euros, the three-course menu could be an excellent value, but there are too many lapses in the front office and in the kitchen. Even in a completely middle-of-the-road establishment, there must be some spark, some originality of conception or execution. For any decent cook, to grill a hunk of fish and to put it on a bed of leeks and onions, topped with a garnish of crisp-fried onions, is the work of half an hour, at most. But I want more, if only just a tiny bit more. When I spend money to go out for dinner, I dont just want to duck out of doing the dishes. I want something special, something that will surprise or inspire me, something to take me out of myself and give me a glimpse of a different, better world, something to prove to me that mankind, in its long wretched struggle, has learned to do more than just simmer lentils and add a few slices of store-bought sausage (while forgetting the salt).