So, I've raved about my 'bistronomic' meals in Paris (and boy will I be glad when I don't have to type that word again). Le Comptoir was robust French food, with no holds barred in the richness department. The suckling pig dish was phenomenal, one of my top ten dishes of all time (maybe). Chez Michel did regional specialties with the care of a fine dining restaurant. At Le Pre Verre, vegetables were the stars of the dishes, and the price couldn't be beat.
While all of those meals were excellent, it wasn't quite fine dining, nor was it trying to be. Though the skills in the kitchen and the quality of ingredients were top notch, these restaurants are still bistrots. I went to Le Beurre Noisette the night before I left expecting a similar experience. Instead, I ate one of the finest meals I'd had in a long time.
Le Beurre Noisette is located on a very residential side of the fifteenth arrondissement, close the edge of the Paris banlieue. The restaurant's decor is much more subdued that most of the other restaurants I'd been to on this trip. The tiny dining room packs in around 40 diners. There are no printed menus. Instead, the wait staff bring you a large ardoise with the day's choices, a 32 euros three course menu. In addition, there is a 6 course tasting menu available for 40 euros, which, judging by the variety and portion sizes that I saw on the table next to us, is an amazing deal. We didn't really have time for it that night, but it's definitely the way to go.
So, first cost-saving measure: the ardoise. It's big and heavy, and though they bring it to you, it's your job to hold it up as you decide. Is it smart? Maybe. While some customer satisfaction may be lost at the idea of working out your forearms and shoulders during dinner, the losses are surely recouped as the customers must decide quickly and not waste time chattering. Which brings me to something I've neglected to cover in these last few posts: the service at these restaurants is generally sub-par. I'm one of those people that doesn't really care about service if the food is excellent, but if you were looking for attentive, competent, caring service, you won't find it here. This is probably why I enjoyed these types of restaurants so much, and also one of the reasons why they can charge such low prices. Of course, the service wasn't terrible: our food was hot, not spilled all over us, and came quickly. And of course, it was way better than the crappy service we're used to in the US, especially in San Francisco. Still, at Le Comptoir, the waiter had the traditional 'French waiter' indifference going on; at Chez Michel, the grungily dressed waitresses always seemed to be in a panic; Le Pre Verre actually had excellent service, though the host was rude; and at Le Beurre Noisette, the two waiters/cum hosts/cum sommeliers were rushing around frantically, and managed to serve the table next to us their main courses twice.
In any case, the food was quite sublime. The meal starts off with gougeres, those little gruyere studded pate a choux balls. While in most restaurants where they've served these as a canape/amuse they've often been reheated, these tasted right out of the oven, and they're probably the best ones I've ever had. Of course, I haven't been to the French Laundry, so my opinion on gougeres is probably irrelevant.
I had a tough choice with the appetizers. Thierry Blanqui is famous for his carpaccio of pig's foot, and though I really wanted to try it, I'm a sucker for boudin noir, which was on the menu that night. I went with the boudin noir, which was phenomenal. House-made, of course, then smashed and seared, and served on a top of a caramelized apple sauce and a gorgeous salad of winter greens. The flavors were very traditional, but perfectly executed. Even more impressive was my dining partner's celery root soup, served over sauteed pieces of foie gras, breadcrumbs, and parsley. It was reminiscent of the artichoke soup at Le Comptoir.
The main courses really sealed the deal. My braised pork belly with celery root-truffle puree was wonderful. The piece of pork belly had been braised with with whole truffles, which had subsequently been used to scent the celery root puree. The pork belly itself was astoundingly meaty, showing again that it's not just technique that differentiates the US from France, but ingredients too. The additional licorice foam added a lovely touch of anise flavor. I was also impressed by the other dish, which was a brandade of haddock. Brandade has a very negative connotation for me, as it was a stodgy regular item in my primary school's cafeteria that I absolutely loathed. This one, however, was nothing like my childhood nemesis. Light and fluffy, with home-salted haddock retaining a somewhat fresh fish flavor. It was top with a perfectly poached egg, likely done in a controlled water bath, and the yolk enriched the brandade and cut through the salt of the fish. The dish was finished with crispy cabbage for texture and a parmesan foam.
Dessert was also excellent. My gateau breton, a sort of extremely buttery pate sablee topped with sliced poached pears (poached in almond milk), sliced almonds, cocoa powder and an exquisite caramel sauce would have been just fine on its own, if a little predictable. The biscuit was crumbly and not dry at all, and the pears had imbibed the almond essence, which paired very well with the caramel. However, the dessert was pushed over the top with a quenelle of honey-lavender ice-cream. It was a clinic in ice cream making, and the slight floral flavor turned something delicious into something refined.
As for the other dessert, it was one of my favorite chocolate desserts of the last year. A perfect dacquoise of milk chocolate and hazelnut meringue had pieces of roasted pears interspersed through it, and was draped in a thin layer of high quality dark chocolate. It was accompanied by two sauces, one white chocolate, and one dark.
To top it all off, we were served an excellent guimauve, and the best madeleine I've had in a long time. Petits fours? Not bad for 32 euros.
Le Beurre Noisette was a little finer than the previous meals I had on this trip. There's more flair involved in the food, and the dishware is more modern. Again, it is an exercise in restaurant management and business as much as a show of culinary artistry. You'll notice in my writings and in the pictures that several ingredients were repeated (pears, celery root, etc.), something which tends to be avoided by chefs here and in more expensive restaurants, but which I have no problem with. It eliminates waste, shows off the versatility of ingredients and unless you're ordering everything on the menu for yourself, isn't boring at all. Most importantly, all the dishes were well composed. I've been thinking a lot about composition lately, and how many 'modern' chefs are losing the flair for it, preferring a list of 'surprising' ingredients which give a shocking, sometimes pleasant, but rarely outstanding combination of flavors. I'll write more about it later, but needless to say, there is no doubting Thierry Blanqui's composition skills. Having had no expectations for Le Beurre Noisette, it was a tremendous meal, and my highest recommendation for those looking for a great meal at a reasonable price in Paris.
Le Beurre Noisette
68 rue Vasco de Gama