A Bistronomy is a classic bistro restaurant that seeks to bring an eating experience rivalling or even surpassing the classic gastronomic restaurants on a vastly more moderate budget. It does so by stripping away some of the more expensive extras normally associated with these restaurants and more or less only focus on the food. There’s no army of waiters, the dining rooms are packed much tighter, it’s a relaxed atmosphere and the menus range from laser printed leaflets to chalkboards. What they do have though is a focus, dedication and joy for the food that’s simply spectacular.
It all started when Yves Camdeborde at age 28 left Les Ambassadeurs at Hôtel Crillon after working under Christian Constante and set up La Régalade in the mid 1990′s. He wanted to create creative, intelligent food based on the classic French kitchen with the same kind of care and good quality ingredients that they used at Les Ambassadeurs but accessible to everyone and with a more personal touch. It was an immediate success and the waiting list started to add up to many weeks.
However, Camdeborde sold La Régalade and opened up a new bistro in Hotel Saint-Germain de Relais which is run by his wife. The 22 table Le Comptoir du Relais Saint-Germain (a few more outside when the weather is good) is now the hippest and most popular place to eat haute cuisine in Paris. They serve a five-course €40 dinner menu on weekdays that’s constantly changing and there’s currently a 5 month waiting list. However, they’re open for lunch (from 12.00) and on the weekends for an a la carte bistro menu with daily specials without the possibility to reserve tables. Just get there in time and spend some time in the queue outside. The Comptoir has recently opened a Crêperie next to the restaurant for those who want something on the go.
Since I failed to reserve a table (I only started to plan this trip 2 months before I actually went to Paris), I had to chance on getting a seat at the Comptoir through a cancellation or by taking a lunch or a weekend dinner there. Since the multi-course menu is only served on weekdays I decided to take my Saturday lunch there. When I arrived at 11.50pm Jessica and I were number 15 and 16 in the line. The other ones waiting were a combination of singles, couples and a few parties of 2-4 persons all of varied age. Not much tourists though and many greeted the staff in a familiar way.
We were swiftly and friendly seated on a two-person table in the middle of the room, our neighbours were close but we had at least a gap between the tables. The daily specials are written on the big mirror on the centre wall, they are written in French as is the menu. The staff willingly answers questions and a few of them were really fluent in English. The room is mostly in yellow tones and set in an art déco theme. The bistro menu is all about going back to the roots and perfecting classic French food, we chose a beef with vegetables for €20 and tenderloin on a pepper salad for €18.
Both dishes were beautifully displayed and perfectly cooked. The vegetables and own sauce made the beef taste more and stronger, this was all about the beef and it was perfect, one of the best I’ve ever tasted. The salad of large peppers provided just the right amount of sweetness and flavour, although not much spice and bite, and the tenderloin was so tender I couldn’t believe it. The portions were big, you won’t be leaving hungry.
After second thoughts about not ordering entrées after two of the best main courses in my life we decided without hesitation to go for desserts even though the clock was 12.30 and we had a five-course dinner planned later in the evening. A personal favourite of mine is the Crème Brûlée so I decided to test their €7 version with some arabica coffee in it while Jessica took the milk sorbet and mixed nut ice cream. The brûlée was the creamiest and most delicious I’ve tasted; no temperature differences and a small hint of coffee. The crust was irregular and had the right thickness but was a little tuff and sticky in the teeth. The ice cream was very good as well, it felt home made, creamy and crunchy.
What struck us was how fast the chefs must have worked, every dish to every person were delivered without seemingly any delay at all. I can’t wait to go back the Le Comptoir and experience the fixed dinner, I just have to remember to book in time.
Three other of Constantes protégés left Les Ambassadeurs and set up their own bistros as well, Thierry Faucher at L’Os a Moelle, Thierry Breton at Chez Michel and Rodolphe Paquin at Le Repaire de Cartouche.
L’Os a Moelle was reserved for Saturday night at 19.30 and I couldn’t help smile when I saw the restaurant on the corner close the Lourmel Metro station. If you don’t know what it is you would mistake it for just another local bistro. The chalkboard sign displaying the 5-course menu for €36 is a hint that there’s something unusual inside this place. We were greeted by the sommelier behind the bar when we entered and shown to our table in the only room of the restaurant. The next table was just a few inches away and its occupants looked a bit suspicious when I uncovered my camera. The restaurant filled up with a very mixed crowd right after we arrived and it was filled when we left some 2 hours and 40 minutes later.
They have no menus in the classic sense, your choices are presented on big chalkboards that the staff carries around the room (and they have one in English, thankfully). The menu is based on a soup, a cold entrée, a main course, an optional bit of cheese and salad and dessert. When looking at the menu nothing feels budget or held back here when compared to the gastronomy restaurants, there’s quail, oysters, duck, forest pigeon, foie gras and so on. Every dish has 2-4 choices where some command a premium in the order of €4.
We were first treated with a small glass of mushrooms and chorizo soup below some kind of foam. I’m not usually a big fan on mushrooms but this one disappeared in about 2 seconds. The cold leek soup came next, it was presented as a bowl with chorizo slices, crutons and sliced leek. It was light and fresh with the right amount of bite from the chorizo and a few chilli flakes to make it interesting.
Next was a chest, thigh and egg from a quail and bacon, coleslaw and some salad. The bacon was very hard fried but had a strong lovely taste which the egg, coleslaw and salad provided some freshness and refuge from.
We chose duck and forest pigeon for mains, both commanded a €4 premium. The duck was very delightful with its acacia honey glazed skin, although I was a bit surprised to see the entire foot and claw still attached to the thigh. The pigeon was accompanied by roasted potatoes and wild mushrooms, it was a little bit too rare for us and there were some unidentifiable bits we really didn’t want to eat.
The optional cheese was a creamy, mild version served to calm you down from the mains, I suppose. It was served with a red baby spinach salad with a light vinaigrette and was the perfect thing to prepare me for the dessert. We had a chocolate dumpling with saffron-sauce and poached apricots with mandarin sorbet. The nougat in the dumpling was one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted, the chocolate was creamy and yet firm and in plenty abundance. The poached apricots left more of a mixed impression, sure it was good but it was just not that special. The mandarin sorbet tasted very good and strong but slipped around on the plate when I tried to carve it with my spoon.
When all was finished I ordered some espresso with a dash of cream in it. Literally within 10 seconds I had my arabica coffee which was served with a bowl of the best chocolate truffels I’ve ever had. When I later checked my tab I saw that this cost a total of €3, I believe insane value is appropriate here. The total tab landed on €104 for two with a bottle of Riesling that went well with the mains.
Every dish was special and craved for attention without resorting to molecular gastronomy or other spectacular tricks, they are all based in the classic French kitchen but with their own twists. Some work better than other but you can really feel that Faucher has really tried in creating something with every one. The most amazing thing about L’Os a Moelle is the special feeling of a food temple once you enter though; the humble staff, the happy diners, the unpretentious design, the warm atmosphere and the focus on creating a culinary experience in a relaxed setting.
Although not part of the original group of bistronomies originating from the Crillon my journey also took me to Macéo. They take a slightly different route in that it has a more formal setting with lots of room between the tables and a slightly stiffer ritual. Where they don’t differ is in the joy for the food.
Guests at Macéo arrives slightly later than L’Os a Moelle and Le Comptoir and it never fully filled up during our visit. As a result the service was very attentive and quick without rushing us being obtrusive. Macéo offers a a four-course fixed dinner for €48, a vegetarian for three-course €32 and the Discovery three-course for €36. The staff speaks excellent English in which the menu is also available. The other guests seemed to be mostly families out on a Friday night dinner.
We were served an appetizer of delicious chestnut cream while reading the menus and then it started with a rabbit salad. It was a little cold and bland at first but it really started to shine when I had sampled every part of it. It had sweetness and bite from figs, smoothness from a jelly, warmth and creaminess from a paté, resistance and texture from the meat and freshness from the salad. In a word, it was fabulous.
Our mains consisted of a duck with fig shavings and wild mushrooms and wild bream with beans. It was a complete and total enjoyment of everything that’s good with the autumn. It was even more special for me though, it made me enjoy mushrooms for the first time in my life. The skin was full of flavours and the parsnips provided sufficient volume to which the mushrooms and chestnuts worked so well. The fish was one of the best cooked I’ve encountered, tender and brittle yet with texture and taste. It was served with beans and tomatoes which worked really well. An artistic pile of bread was served with the main courses, which was filled up as soon as they seemed to run out.
Just before the dessert the waiter cleared the table and combed off all bread crumbs. My choice was a poached pear with a vanilla and blueberry sauce, the flavours combined very well and the sauce had a slight texture which provided some contrast from the pear. The total landed on €134 for two persons with two glasses of wine each.
How did the three restaurants compare to each other? The dinner at Macéo was one of the best multi-course dinners I’ve had, the beef and tenderloin at Le Comptoir rivals the best individual dishes I’ve had and the atmosphere and ambience at L’Os a Moelle is among the best, if not the best, I’ve encountered in a restaurant.
So, this was my first visit to Paris with the mission to eat good food, did it succeed? Oh yes, indeed! Will I go back? I just have to have the dinner at Le Comptoir and then also try the slightly more upscale places such as L’Astrance and Senderens, so yes absolutely. And then finally, can you eat gastronomic haute cuisine on a budget? Yes, these were some of the most extraordinary meals I’ve ever had.