It had been far too long since I'd spent much time in the city, so we made plans/reservations for a food orgy/coma last weekend. Somewhat to G's dismay, I was adamant that we'd only go to restaurants we'd not tried before, and keep the old favourites for another time. Our first dinner left me thinking that I'd made a horrendous mistake with this approach, but things got much, much better by Sunday lunch:
AU PETIT MONSIEUR (formerly Au C’Amelot)
A howling disappointment. Both G. and I took the 35 € menu – potage St-Germain, mille-feuille aux asperges with sauce mousseline, côte de veau with purée de pommes de terres and sauce aux girolles and morilles, and soufflé glacé Grand-Marnier. I can’t even be bothered to recount most of the meal’s inadequacies. Suffice it to say that the asparagus were overcooked, the veal was dry, the purée was tepid and the horribly salty sauce carried no discernible trace of mushrooms. Never again.
I don’t know if the large man we saw in the oh-so-small kitchen was in fact chef Bertrand Bluy, but he was doing a more than adequate job turning out lunch for 35 or so covers in a 4 m2 space. The atmosphere’s the thing here – warm and welcoming, with a long zinc bar set against one wall and a stunning range of wines available for purchase massed against the other. They had an extraordinary selection of Burgundies, but we stayed reasonable with a 2005 Languedoc (Pic St-Loup) – Clos Marie “Simon” (23 €). It was a bit thin for my tastes, but had a lovely nose of prunes, tobacco and – oddly – marshmallow.
We worked our way through the menu, starting with a velouté of pumpkin soup (the bowls set before us contained a melting dollop of whipped cream with chives, slivers of bacon and – oh happy day – chunks of chestnuts, with the soup itself ladled out at table from an elegant tureen. Chestnuts, bacon and pumpkin = lovely.
Next up, copper marmites of pork belly with Tarbais (coco) beans – a sort of Provencal cassoulet, accompanied by a tiny pitcher of lovely pesto for drizzling. Decent, but snow peas and marinated tomatoes seemed rather out of place in an otherwise traditionally hearty dish. (I also entertained panicky thoughts about how best to disguise the evidence of the fact that I can’t stand fatty pork. G. didn’t go for my suggestion that he distract everyone by staging an epileptic fit while I hurled the massive, fatty rind out the front door.)
Cheese course was a very nice Fourme d’Ambert with a prune and red wine coulis, and dessert was caramelised pineapple chunks with a cloud of vanilla zabaglione atop.
L'OS A MOELLE – 15th arr.
I’d been looking forward to this visit for some time, anticipation stoked by reading stories of the miracles Thierry Faucher was turning out and by my admitted soft spot for the restaurant’s little sister, la Cave de l’Os à Moëlle. Those expectations were probably a bit high, and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact we’d already gorged ourselves at lunch a scant six hours earlier. However – once more unto the breach, dear friends, all in the interests of gastronomic scientific enquiry.
The crowd was a mix of tourists and obvious regulars, including two elderly couples who showed up at 11pm and launched themselves with enthusiasm on the oysters and foie de veau. The five-course, 36 € menu started with an amuse-bouche (call me superficial, but I do like being spoiled as soon as I’m seated) was a tiny glass with layers of meltingly tender rabbit in jus de volaille and an emulsion of radish leaves. G. enjoyed it, but I found it overly salty and was disappointed that the radish leaves didn’t contribute a more bracing flavour.
We started with soup – a cold crème de choux fleur with chorizo and cilantro for G. and a classic soupe de poissons, tweaked with a dollop of garlicky crème fraîche (I was starting to sense a trend this weekend) and chunks of Comté for me. The cheese was an unexpectedly lovely addition to the fish soup, and G., though not a cauliflower fan, had no trouble dispatching his bowl.
We moved on to a brouillade d’oeufs d’oie à la crème truffée, served in the goose eggshells with delicate silver spoons. I actually found this rather revolting; I think my reaction was due to the cream quotient, which turned the eggs into a thick liquid, with no discernible curds, which evoked not even a hint of truffle.
In a shocking affront to Flynn Restaurant Etiquette, which holds that a maximum of dishes must be tried on any one menu at any one time, we both ended up with the coquilles St-Jacques rôties au jus de volaille, tagliatelle de céléri et endive aux noix truffée. After a couple of bites, G. said, “Is this just trying too hard?” He was right. Just too much going on, with no opportunity for any of the ingredients to shine through. And again, the chicken broth seemed really, really salty. I would have forgotten the truffles (which were noteworthy only by their absence, anyway), moistened the scallops – which were, horror of horrors, slightly overcooked – with a reduction of veal demi-glace and a touch of white wine, and drizzled a touch of walnut oil over all just before serving. But I wasn’t asked.
Cheese – a lovely, lovely, lovely St-Nectaire from the fromagerie Dubois, on rue de Lourmel near the Dupleix metro, handicapped by a handful of salad veritably drowning in oil and vinegar.
Last but not least – dessert. I’d spent the last 24 hours telling G. how much I hate dessert, but the caramelised bananas, topped with an incredibly good and not-sweet-at-all sorbet au fromage blanc and a scattering of raspberries, changed my mind. G. said his gratin de fruits frais was also yummy.
We drank a 2004 Canon Fronsac – Chateâu Mazerin-Bellevue – for about 25 €, one of the cheapest offerings on a surprisingly pricey – though by no means extensive – wine list.
Overall, it was okay, but as it’s a long way out, I’m still more inclined to visit la Cave instead. Cheaper, cozier, and more prone to encouraging one to linger over that last glass of wine.
MON VIEIL AMI
This was without a doubt the highlight of the weekend.
The second we were seated, chilled glasses of Alsatian pinot blanc were set before us. The wine (Kientzler, 2004) was lovely and clean, the apéritif par excellence.
We agonised over the menu choices while casting envious glances at our neighbours’ bread basket. (When ours arrived, it fully lived up to its promise – massive slabs of darkly-crusted peasant loaf with a springy, slightly tangy crumb.)
G. finally settled on a starter of pâté en croute with céléri remoulade and compote d’oignons rouges, and I went for the soupe de topinambours à la noix de muscade avec gambas roties. The pâté was deeply porky, and the compote was really what every good little onion would like to be when it grows up – sweet, tangy, peppered with dried raisins that I think must have been from Champagne grapes. The soup was spectacular – earthy and nutty, with grilled shrimp whose mix of salinity and sweetness was perfectly and oddly echoed by the garnish of (radish?) sprouts. The nutmeg was a subtle, perfectly calibrated presence.
The mains – after the previous evening’s scallop disappointment, I thought it was fate to see scallops with endive on Westermann’s menu, and couldn’t resist a comparison, while G. opted for the navets et fenouils en tagine, semoule aux fruits secs et Osso Buco. I told him he was insane (my dislike of Northern African cooking coming to the fore). The scallops were outstanding – as far from the previous night’s rendition as Britney Spears is from Billie Holiday. Six meaty, perfectly cooked scallops, strewn with sautéed but still crisp chiffonade of endive, bathed in an elegant mustard sauce and crowned with a slice of sautéed jambon de Bayonne. And to send me into chicon ecstasy, the scallops were accompanied by two braised-then-grilled endive halves. Salty, sweet, bitter, tangy – I despise the phrase “a symphony of tastes,” but that’s pretty much what it was, in a straightforward and utterly unpretentious way.
I lived to regret my mockery of G’s choice, too – the veal shank, nestled in a mountain of couscous in a cast iron Staub cocotte, was tender enough to eat with a spoon, and the couscous and turnips were simultaneously sweet, earthy and meaty.
The wine. Oh, the wine. Blessings upon our waiter, who – prompted by my request for an Alsatian pinot gris with a bit of meat on its bones – steered us toward M. Schoech’s 2004 Cuvée Justin from Ammerschwihr (39 €). He opened, I tasted, and he laughed out loud at the look of uncontrollable bliss on my face. Round, silky, with notes of honeysuckle and pineapple and just enough zip and acidity, it went spectacularly with everything we ate.
I opted for cheese rather than dessert. The cheese, accompanied by a pear chutney whose only note was sweet, struck the only false note of the meal – an Alsatian chèvre was insipid, and the Comté prompted me to offer G. a taste and say, “Do you see the difference between this and the Platonic ideal of 36-month aged Comté we tasted at Bathelemy yesterday? Do you? Harrumph.” Only the St-Nectaire was worth finishing. G’s dessert was good, he said – salade de fruits frais with mango sorbet and a crisp, not-sweet waffle.
We were splurging and ordering off the more expensive menu (41 € and worth every penny), but if the lunch plats du jour are prepared with the same care and passion, they would be, at 15 €, one of the city’s great gastronomic bargains.
Two additional food notes – on Saturday morning, we stumbled across the marché des Enfants Rouges near République, where we were staying. I was intent on not eating outside of our lunches and dinners, but G. had a galette de sarrasin stuffed with long-sauteed onions, Italian ham and Gruyère. Very tasty indeed. And we found incredibly good cannelés at the patisserie Lemoine in the 7th on Rue St Dominique, when I was checking to see what had happened to Jean-Louis Poujauran’s bakery and reconnoitering Christian Constant’s mini-empire on the same street.