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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pleine Mer - Oyster Heaven

The allusion to oysters in my last review - L'Aquarelle in the Charente Maritime region- was no accident. By some strange turn of events, I didn't have an opportunity to to sample any oysters in that oyster-rich part of the country during my recent visit, so I brought my oyster - hereafter 'huitre' - craving back to Paris. What better way to bid 'adieu' to 2011 than by ingesting a dozen huitres and a bottle of muscadet?

There are many options for huitres in Paris, needless to say, from the highly touted Le Bistrot du Dome to the higher (Le Bar a Huitres) to lower (La Criee) chains. Co. and I, however, opted for the one that sounded most authentical and unpretentious, and, based on our meal there, hit the nail on the head.

Just the huitres, Jack, just the huitres. Pleine Mer is located an easy six-minute walk from Gare du Nord on the funky little rue Chabrol. Along the route, be sure to step into the immense (and also funky) Marché Saint-Quentin which, easily enough, is found on rue Saint-Quentin. As we approached the petite restaurant, we espied Sylvain Bertheau, propriétaire-ostréiculteur, in front finishing up a smoke in the pouring rain. M. Bertheau is Pleine Mer - shucker, waiter, owner, cashier, etc. - at least for our end-of-year visit. Once through the entrance, you pass a couple of large stainless-steel refrigerators for upcoming take-out orders and crates of freshly-packed oysters stacked on the floor.

We installed ourselves at one of the 8 or so small square tables, and were immediately informed by M. Bertheau that he had no smoked salmon for the evening, but plenty of huitres of the Cancal region of France, numbers 1, 2, and 3. Pleine Mer typically promises varieties of huitres ranging from 1 to 6, the lower numbers denoting larger (and higher priced) options. A 'formule' of a dozen huitres, a dish of tarama, and smoked salmon is possible, but as bears no explanation, only on days when M. Bertheau has smoked salmon on tap. This was not one of those nights, but never fear, we came for huitres, so huitres it was. Not that we had a choice.

Co. and I each selected a dozen no. 2 huitres (16.50€ each), which arrived on a bed of algae and plenty of fresh sea water in the shells, three slices of lemon, a basket of brown sliced bread and butter, and a bottle of muscadet (13€). M. Bertheau also offered us gratis a little dish of tarama cabillaud to smear on the bread. Now I ask you, what could be better on a chilly, rainy, end-of-the-year night in Paris? For dessert, we finished up with the one option available, a large slab of the buttery/sugary Breton cake, Kouign-Amann (3.50€ per slice), with its crusty, slightly burned top. This is a deadly guilty pleasure guaranteed to add a few notches to your cholesterol level.

With Pleine Mer, simplicity, authenticity, a lack of pretention, a convivial host, and some of the tastiest huitres you can imagine tell the story, all at the humble price of 54€ for two (including wine). What else is there to say? If you are in Paris and you crave a little huitres house by the sea, without actually being at the sea, you couldn't do better, in my humble opinion.


22, rue de Chabrol
Paris (75010)
TÉL : +33 1 53 34 64 47

Notes: On tap to start off the new year is a return visit to Table d'Eugene. I also promise to work up the energy to compile a 2011 recap, as soon as I chase my new year's hangover.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

L'Aquarelle - A Pearl in the Oyster

If you are headed down to the Charente Maritime region of France (La Rochelle, Rochefort, Royan, St. Palais-sur-Mer, Santes et al.), there are probably two things on your mind: oysters and wine. Once you get beyond the seafood, however, this is pretty much a gastronomical wasteland. One glaring exception is the Michelin-starred L'Aquarelle, a pearl in the tiny village of Breuillet, a hop, skip, and jump outside of St. Palais-sur-Mer, home of the alleged best zoo in France.

Co. and I happened to be in these familiar stomping grounds for a pre-holidays visit, just in time for the latest sou'wester tempest to hit. With 120km/hr winds and torrential rain lasting the night before, we were just hoping the restaurant would still be standing for our Friday evening reservation. Sure enough, there it was, all aglow in the quiet, quiet still-rain soaked streets of Breuillet, not another human, animal, or vegetable in sight. Upon entering the restaurant you get the feeling of being home, a nice refuge from the imposing climatic forces of a late December by the sea.

L'Aquarelle details all are available at their informative website, once you get past that weird condom transforming into a dinner plate introductory motif. Twenty years my junior, chef Xavier Taffart brings his strong credentials to the kitchen and flaunts his creative skills well (be sure to check out the food images there). Tapping into our collective unconscious, Taffart's cooking seems to draw from the Jungian archetype of the circle - yin/yang, anima/animus - which is apparent in several dishes. That he has more up his sleeve than is apparent at first glance was clear when we ordered the 6-dish 55€ menu degustation and found that it consisted almost entirely of items that were not available on the regular menu. (For another 20€ the menu degustation is accompanied by five glasses of pre-selected wines.) When in Rome, or in this case, Bordeaux country, order a local wine. And so we did, and this turned out to be a real gem, a 2009 Villanova rouge. Fruity and midway between light and strong, this wine reminded me of some of the top riojas I have sampled in Spain.

The meal commenced with a three-part amuse bouche: a bettrave mousse, cigarette lardons et creme, and a celery mousse, all outstanding, but the highlight was the beet mousse, which was served in a candied shell resembling an egg (yin). My photo shows what it looks like when you crack the egg before snapping the picture.

The first official dish was a warming combination of a couple tender gnocci in a soup comprised of onion and cheese. There is no photo, which demonstrates what happens when you completely eat the dish before thinking of snapping a photo. Up next was a circle of foie gras pot-au-feu (yang), with herring eggs and haddock mousse. This is what it's all about, really put me in the holiday spirit - or was that the third glass of Villanova?

Dish 3 was comprised of a creative combination of cabillaud 1/2 sel, pulpe de topinambours, mayonnaise vanille, and citron. Yes, the topinambour raises its ever prevalent (in French restaurants) head again, with some flowers and mushrooms thrown in to round out the (this time) square-shaped dish.

The next dish was my personal favorite (Co. would vote for the foie gras hands down) lotte curry (anima), with sweet onion, asparagus and seminole, betraying my predilection for Asian spices.

The obligatory interlude before dessert was next on the agenda, as the fully-stocked chariot of cheeses was brought to our table. I savored a few choice morsels, the slab of comte, strong and essential.

Next, we were informed by our attentive yet not quite ready for prime-time waiter (youth!) that our next dish was not dessert, but pre-dessert, which was a way to tell us that there were, in fact, two desserts. The pre-dessert was less ordinary than it may have appeared - mango creme sandwiched between a wave of sugared potato (quick: potato. Fruit or vegetable?), its delicate curves reminding me of the turbulent waves of the sea a couple kilometers to the west. This was damn good.

Not to be outdone, however, was the actual dessert, or dessert no. 2 for those of you who are counting - a trio of edible, miniature geodesic domes (animus): a candied shell encapsulating jasmine creme, with a couple faux cherries to boot, the latter composed of crushed apple. Visions of Futuroscope, the science theme park 60 or so kilometers to the north, entered my mind.

Along with the post-meal cafe came a cart jam-packed with any child's fantasy of stocking stuffers - candies, cakes, macaroons. At this point, no sense overdoing it, but what harm can a couple of little cakes on the house create?

So, overall, I am more than satisfied that the tempest did not blow away L'Aquarelle before my scheduled visit. The price/quality ratio is a deal closer: a six-course meal, a bottle of wine, coffee, and some extras thrown in came to a mere 138.50€. It's hard to find fault with anything food related, but if there is a nit to pick it would have to be the piped in music that further confirms Frank Zappa's famous quote that people wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass. Muted, but not quite enough, just go with the subdued baroque under these circumstances. And that white concept spoon - I go one way, it goes the other - really needs to be rendered to the trashbin. But these are minor quibbles. L'Aquarelle is truly deserving of its Michelin star. It's not around the corner, but add this venue to your reasons to venture southwest of Paris, even during the off-season.

22, rte Cande
17920 Breuillet
website: http://www.laquarelle.net/accueil.html


1. According to Aurelie Taffart, our proprieter-hostess, the restaurant's current location is a rental and the couple is in the process of building a permanent home for L'Aquarelle, which will remain in Breuillet, so it shouldn't be too hard to find.

2. Thanks to LB, whose Google search was better than mine, and who recommended L'Aquarelle as a can't miss option.

3. With one of our mainstays by the sea in Royan - Le Petit Bouchon - closed for the season, Co. and I gambled on La Jabotière, which sits next door to the casino - and lost. Nice waitstaff, a view of the sea, and they really seem to try, but the food just wasn't up to snuff.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chatomat - Dumb Name, Great Restaurant

If you have to ask "Who knows what a Chatomat is?!" as Le Fooding Guide recently did while naming said restaurant the "Meilleure Table" of 2011, chances are you've got a dumb name on your hands - almost as dumb (or presumptuous) as claiming to know what is the 'best table' in a city with more than 40,000 restaurants (see 'Paris'). No, it's not a distributor of 'chats' (cats), nor is it a Facebook or Twitter competitor. Paris Update's Grégory Picard suggests the name is 'a punning response to Chateaubriand,' the terrific Parisian restaurant that I have often lauded at this site. If so, I don't get the pun, but who cares anyway? I can't put it any more succinctly than Le Fooding, that 'one thing's for sure, it's a damn good restaurant.'

A short walk from the Menilmontant metro stop and just around the corner from the little bistrot La Boulangerie, which I wrote about a couple months ago, on a street that is oh so typically Paris - how did the Woodman miss it as a locale for Midnight in Paris? - Chatomat is a diminutive spot that seats no more than 24. Tiny, in the sense that you'll have difficulty discerning the ongoing conversation at your table from the one next to you - speaking of oh so Paris - but comfortable enough not to let that detract from the understated, joyful dishes brought to your table. Co. and I arrived at 8 p.m. on the dot and had our choice of tables, selecting one in the back against the wall that allowed Co. to keep tabs on the efficient goings-on in the kitchen, helmed by Alice Di Cagno and Victor Gaillard, a multicultural coupling that brings a fusion of flavors to the meal.

If you are a regular reader, you know how I am a sucker for the little things - a finely appointed 'amuse bouche' offered before placing one's order goes a long way to endearing me as a loyal patron. Well, Chatomat has this one down pat, with a pair of succulent oysters and toast appearing before us, a fine omen of things to come.

The well-balanced (whites and reds) and fairly-priced wine list made for a difficult choice, but I was satisfied with our Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, Domaine Du Mortier (32€). The food carte is sparse, with 3 options for each course, and no 'menu' offered. A no-brainer for Co., as she went with the pan-fried foie gras, which turned out to be very special indeed (12€). I glommed onto the salmon dish: saumon fumé mi-cuit/velouté de fèvettes/clémentine (10€). This dish worked well without setting off fireworks, yet with each component nicely complementing the other. I wasn't so bleary-eyed from the wine yet as the photo suggests - does anyone want to buy a nice ASUS smartphone with a lousy camera?

For the main course, Co. went with the bar (sea bass) with round rice and leeks(18€) and I opted for the volaille fermier (20€)- both turned out to be delicate and creative surprises, the fish enhanced in part by jus de betterave, and the chicken structured in two facons with creamy semoule. Forget my smartphone, here are some more accomplished images of Chatomat offerings from Google images:

We split a dish of two slabs of tart and excellent Comté cheese served with quince confeture and raisin toast (10€), and thankfully, there was still some Bourgueil left to wash it down. The desserts did not disappoint - a pain perdu (8€)and a mousse chocolat (6€). As is wont to happen - maybe it's me - my dessert - the mousse - started off slow, but I figured it out by the end and wanted more. What we got, eschewing a post-meal cafe for a change, were two tiny lemon tarts, another freebie that iced it for me.

So there you have it. Two three-course meals, cheese, and wine clocked in at a reasonable 116€. There appears to be good reason a lot of folks are chatting about Chatomat. It doesn't go out of its way to 'wow' you - there is nothing ostentatious about the the food, decor, or service - but that understated approach goes a long way to charm.

6 rue Victor Letalle
Paris 20
tel. 01 47 97 25 77
no website

Note: there's a hot little nightspot a couple doors down from Chatomat, Le Feline, perhaps a noise nuisance for Chatomat's owners, but the throng outside simply adds to the ambiance of the setting.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Le Guide Fooding 2012 - Winners' Circle

Although the 2012 Fooding Guide has been sitting on my table for the better part of a month, I have been remiss in sharing their latest list of top tables for 2011 - the so-called Le palmarès, blame it on the day job. But I'm psyched - on the list is the last venue I favorably reviewed - Septime - and at the top is where Co. and I are heading this coming weekend - Chatomat. In the groove, and a nice list to start off 2012 with - I already have Au Passage in the radar. What am I waiting for, drum roll, please . . .

A bit closer look at the Paris establishments follow, photos (click to enlarge) courtesy of Le Figaro:

If there is more buzz about another affordable restaurant gastronomique these days than Chatomat, I haven't heard it. According to Fooding, "Who knows what a Chatomat is?! One thing for sure it's a damn good restaurant!" Enough said for now, my review is forthcoming.

Well, I've been pretty clear that I'm not on the Frenchie bandwagon, but maybe there's something to the wine bar.

I just read a favorable review of Au Passage at one of the Paris newsletter sites, and I'm definitely intrigued. Per Fooding, "The food is jazzed up a bit by a former Spring cook, but really it's just good, simple, and inexpensive." Sounds like the place to go for lunch, but I'll probably opt for a dinner, early 2012.

Ah, Septime, one of my personal favorite discoveries of 2011. "Food not quite spot on at first but seventh heaven really can't be that far off..." which is why I'll be returning as soon as possible.

I like to think of myself as a man of substance, so why not a restaurant of substance? Fooding says "dazzling" and who am I to argue until I get there and try it on for size firsthand?

So many restaurants, so little time, as I've intoned on countless occasions, but where, where, I ask you, can you "watch the barge-boats pass by from this lone spot on the Ile Seguin, a temporary restaurant managed by the South West chef Arnaud Daguin. His concise, unpretentious and delicious vegetarian menu uses all organic produce." But does "temporary" mean Les Grandes Tables won't be back as "best decor" restaurant next year?

So that brings us to Pantruche, none other than 'best bistrot' of 2011. Hmmm...never heard of it, but "something on the menu to please everyone.." I'm sold.

I haven't thought about it too much yet, but I guess having 4 or 5 of these as destinations for 2012 is a pretty good start for New Year's resolutions. Check out how I'm doing by regularly returning here for concise, pithy, witty, and anything but objective reviews.

For a complete listing of Le Guide Fooding palmare winners dating back to 2000, check out this link. The Guide Fooding 2012 now available at newsstands for a mere 9,90€.

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