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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Le Villaret - Mort's Pick

Yes, yes, I know, ‘Mort’s Pick’ is a pretty lame blog instalment heading, but as you probably know if you’ve been a regular follower of this blog, Le Villaret has long been one of my preferred bistrots in the French capital. And if you can think up a snappily witty twist on ‘Le Villaret,’ I will eat my beret. Le Villaret is all about the food, so who needs gimmicky teasers anyway?

At any rate, my last visit to this venue, just a short walk from the Parmentier metro stop on the unimposing and discreet rue Ternaux, was a little unsettling, as all the familiar faces – owner and staff – were gone. As I eventually was informed that the restaurant had changed owners, I was relieved to see the familiar chef Olivier poking his head from the kitchen as he always seems wont to do. Nonetheless, Co. and I arrived on Friday night with some degree of trepidation, not knowing what, if any, changes the V. had undergone. And, I am happy to report, the changes are few and positive. Standing out among the positives is an extremely affordable 32€ menu, featuring three or four choices for a 3-course meal. I always expected to pay a bit more than usual at Le V., primarily because a la carte was essentially the only choice. Now, in addition to the standard menu, there also is an affordable menu de degustation for 50€.

I’ve always found the V. to be comfortable and welcoming. The relatively small-sized interior is handsomely short of who gives a ratatouille, with some timber strips along the walls suggestive of an earlier life as ski lodge. If you arrive shortly after 8 p.m., as we generally do, you can expect the near empty dining room to be filled and convivial by the time you’ve consumed your mis-en-bouche, entrée, and one-third of your bottle of wine. But enough about atmosphere, as mentioned, the V. is all about food. I was immediately attracted to the 32€ menu, and had already decided on the following lineup by the time Co. had foraged her reading glasses out of her purse:
Entrée: Salade tiede de bulots et pomme de terre et vinegrette. Plat: Filets de rouget poeles et pancetta, fenouil a la grecque et olives de sicile. Dessert: Le baba ua rhum, crème vanillas, salade de mangue a la citronelle.

I was smugly satisfied at the alacrity of my decision making, as the ultimately accommodating waitress began to answer Co’s questions about whether it would be possible to order an entrée from the menu a la carte, from which it was mysteriously absent. And by the time I had drifted into contemplation about whatever lofty thoughts had drifted into my Bunnahabhain single malt-crossed mind, I was quickly lured into a discussion about the possibility of swapping the joues de porc offering on the 50€ menu de degustation (MEG), which I do not eat, for a fish alternative. (As is always the case, with the MEG, it is all or nothing – if one person orders it, everyone at the table must abide.) One glance in Co’s direction, and I realized that asking her to forego the MEG, with its promised langoustines and coquille St. Jacques would have serious repercussions during the remainder of the weekend, so the Mort abides, the Mort abides.

As I try to interpret my generally incoherent notes, please follow to the best of your ability my description of the 6-course meal (including two dessert courses), misspellings included. The festivities began with a mis-en-bouche consisting of a crème de courgette, a hint of pleasures to come. First up from the menu was another soup, this time a crème de rouget with small morsels of corizzo and croutons. This was a fish soup off the beaten path, yet without doubt it worked. Moving on to solids, the next entrée consisted of queues de langoustine with salade de mache, round baked potato chips (for want of a better term), and xeres vinagrette. This was excellent – the three meaty strips of langoustine (including two tails) were sweet and delectable, their flavor enhanced, not diluted by the xeres. This dish was followed by another winner consisting of the coquilles St. Jacques simmering in a sea of lentils au foie gras. I suppose these dishes were supposed to serve as entrees, but were uncommonly sized for a degustation menu, which more typical of Paris restaurants substitutes breadth for quantity. As Co. welcomed the arrival of her joues de porc with persil, I rejoiced at the arrival of my replacement fish, the rouget dish I had contemplated from the start. Neither of us found any reason to complain at this fortuitous turn of events. The two desserts represented odd and unanticipated choices. First up was a dish consisting of two ice creams (chocolate and guanaco) and a sliver of qumquat. Long before the finale, some sort of pear concoction with mint grand duque, Co. had grown pale before the quantity of food we were consuming. I was holding up fine, but then I hadn’t eaten a crepe stuffed with confecture before leaving home as had my lovely, but somewhat undisciplined dinner companion. Once again, my philosophy is as it has always been, single malt whiskey, oui, crepe, non, especially when a degustation menu awaits.

By the time I was busy draining the last two drops out of the excellent Corbieres La Pompadour 2007 Castelmaur (25€) and contemplating lofty thoughts involving the aforementioned langoustines, I noticed the elegant chap sitting at the next table offer from his finger (!) a taste of a white sauce that had accompanied his dessert to Co. The finger to finger swap left Co. in a bit of a flustered dilemma, but ever polite, she obliged, and upon tasting the truffle sauce agreed that it was more than inappropriate for a dessert. The sauce was quickly replaced by a more dessert-friendly white sauce which – all things fair in finger to finger combat – our neighbor obliged me to try, only this time it, thankfully, arrived by spoon. Le Villaret – it’s that kind of place. Friendly, subtle, and inconspicuous, but always surprising.

13, rue Ternaux
75011 Paris
tel. 01 43 57 75 56
no web site (too bad!)
Closed: Saturday lunch and Sunday

Note: Valentine's Day dinner at La Dinee, albeit two days before the actual event, was another great choice, as expected. While the meal didn't reach the heights of our visit last summer, it did not disappoint. What did disappoint were the numerous empty tables in the restaurant. A cold, unfriendly late Winter Friday night, two days before Valentine's Day may, in part, explain the lack of diners, but La Dinee definitely merits our support.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Le Vilgacy – Gagny With a Spoon

Continuing the tour of the Parisian Netherlands (aka Seine-Saint-Denis), next up, Gagny, the last stop before I re-focus on Paris. I had eaten at Le Vilgacy once before, a lazy, hazy summer evening about 3 years ago, when it seemed that every other restaurant in the Paris metropolitan area was either closed or sleeping. My memory of that evening is rather dim, but I vaguely remember Co. and I having the place largely to ourselves. Situated on a quiet, residential street—a relatively short stroll from the train station—if it weren’t for the vertical neon “Restaurant” sign out front, you’d half think you were out for a quiet evening at the neighbors. Well, however vague my recollections of that first visit may have been, I do remember that we were surprisingly pleased by the effort made by the chef to add some creativity to traditional French dishes. So when Co. happened to espy Le Vilgacy on a list of Michelin-recommended restaurants in the Paris metro area, we decided it was time for a return visit.

Once again, I’m compelled to say that you can’t go very wrong by venturing out to the Paris suburbs for a change of pace, and with its intimate little courtyard in the front, Le Vilgacy could be particularly entrancing once the weather turns warm (unfortunately, that wasn’t possible during our first visit). The recent visit, deep in the throes of a frigid February, found the warm and welcoming interior close to filled. First to the agenda, then to the details about what Le Vilgacy gets right and where it goes wrong. First up, a mise en bouche, which consisted of a medium-sized shot glass filled with a homard mousse and a tiny slice of magret fumé. As per our usual wont, we went with the three-course “menu,” which to our delight, also included a fourth course of cheese (sequentially, course #3, of course). Co. started off with the entreé croustillant de St. Jacques au coulis de poissons rouge, a delicately prepared dish that I would have opted for had Co. not gotten to it first. Instead, to better sample the carte sans redundancy, I went with the uninspired salad buissonniere aux deux magrets. There’s not much you can do with such a dish, which makes me wonder why it was added to the menu in the first place, but it was a change of pace to have two types of duck slices. Prior to the second course, we were provided with a refreshing palate cleansing in the form of a glass of pamplemousse (grapefruit) ice—non-alcoholic, you can’t have everything. For the main dishes, I selected the ballottine de volaille aux ecrevisse, whereas Co. swam with the fishes with her steak d’espadon roti ratatouille au basilic. Once again, I think for originality, Co. had the edge with the swordfish steak and its subtle tomato-basil accompaniment. My surgical attack on the three crawfish lined up in a row in the savory brown sauce that covered the chicken revealed nary a morsel worthy of ingestion—one by one they ended up in Co.’s delicate hands, which always seem to prove to have more shellfish probing potential than my clumsy mitts. Next up, the aforementioned cheese course, and for a ‘menu’ addition, it was pleasing for once to have the entire array brought by tray to the table for perusal, rather than to have the selection made for us (usually that selection will be nothing more than a dab of camenbert and chevre). For dessert, we were seduced by the delice chocolate framboise (me) and bavarois aux peches au caramel chaud (Co.), both amply satifying terminal stops. All of which was washed down by a vibrant 2004 Saumer, Manoir de la Tete Rouge 253, which I strongly recommend (34€).

In short, after two visits to Le Vilgacy, I’d have to conclude that the restaurant clearly warrants a trip out to Gagny, with reliably interesting dishes that stray not very far from traditional French cooking. At Le Vilgacy, you also will be warmly welcomed by the owner who, I can assure you, will strike up a conversation with you at your table. That is always nice, to be warmly welcomed in a French restaurant without having the waitstaff treating you as if you have plague and, even healthy, would not be worthy of sharing the same air, much less a table in their restaurant. But this is where Le Vilgacy gets into some trouble, the waitstaff. No, it is not a problem of excess haughtiness, it is that there appears not to be a waitstaff. With two rooms to tend to and one owner doing all the work, the festivities rather quickly slow to a crawl (was that an oxymoron?). A slow crawl. No, a very slow crawl. And with extended conversations at each table, my best suggestion is to take along your copy of War and Peace, which you should be able to knock off rather efficiently between courses. The explanation this time, when I sort of “ahem-ed” in response to the query about whether the service might not have been a tad slow, was that the help hadn’t shown up that night. Curiously, the owner had mentioned that as a constant thorn during our first visit to the restaurant. My suggestion—hire someone competent and reliable. Surely, there’s a “Hiring Restaurant Help for Nuls” tome out there for assistance.

Le Vilgacy does a lot of things right—a reasonably priced menu (35€), good quality dishes, warm atmosphere, a couple mise en bouches offered along the way. With the chatty owner, before too long, you find that another table or two have joined your discussion. For our part, it was the implications of the French smoking ban, which according to the owner, has driven some patrons outside for a smoke, left turn to their car, and back on the road. . . without paying! When Co. jealously inquired as to why a couple tables had received a crème bruleé with foie gras (one of her un-guilty pleasures) mis en bouche and we hadn’t (answer: they had ordered an aperatif), it wasn’t long before the owner had brought the tasty tidbit to our table gratis. A bit more courageous experimentation in the kitchen and a waiter or two could propel this restaurant to greater heights.

46, av. Henri Barbusse
93220 GAGNY
tel.: 01 43 81 23 33

website: http://www.vilgacy.com/

Total: two 4-course menus + wine = 104€

Next up: Yours truly will take Co. for St. Valentine’s dinner (two days before the actual event) for a return to La Dinée, a sure thing, you can bet on it.
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