Le Beurre Noisette - Just In Time

This is a modern world - thank you Paul Weller for that great song - and I like to think of myself as a modern guy, so as I went down my list and through my guides trying to find a last minute place to reserve a Friday night dinner slap-dab in the middle of August and the annual restaurant closing period, I hesitated when I came to Le Beurre Noisette. Hadn't I been there before? After some research, it appeared that in fact, I had not. Something about the name - hazelnut butter - no, maybe not. But the more I read, both hot and cold reviews, the less excited I became about BN. No promises of dramatic, revolutionary, over the top, creations from the kitchen. What is a modern guy to do?

Although the words 'steady,' 'refined,' and 'imaginative' kept popping up in reviews - and there's certainly nothing wrong with that - comments about the 'coldness' and 'slowness' of the staff, 'nothing special about the dishes,' etc. were evident as well. But as a modern man, I prefer to march to the beat of my own drum, and after all, every place else was closed. So Co. and I reserved for the 9:30 pm second serving (the first was slated for 7 pm - hell, I'm just waking up around then), trekked across town to a remote area in the 15th, and bopped in an unfashionably half hour in advance to find a nice little table against the wall available. Obviously, we weren't the only ones with BN in mind this Friday evening - both relatively small rooms were packed ('seats about 40' is becoming a familiar refrain in the capital), and so were the five or six sidewalk tables on a rather chilly Friday evening. Patrons of all ilks - a heady mix of tourists (Japanese to my right, Italians directly in front) and regulars (obvious from the familiar greetings they received at the door). And then we proceeded to have a surprisingly terrific dinner in a convivial atmosphere, waning days of summer evident amidst an atmosphere that conveyed a kind of 'it's now or never' feel about it.

If chef Thierry Blanqui has an imaginative flair in the kitchen (and photos online - here or here, for example - suggest that he does), it wasn't very evident during our evening, which reeked of French tradition and Blanqui's Auvergne origins. Having previously passed through some of the top French kitchens, such as La Tour d'Argent and Pavillon Ledoyen, Blanqui set up shop in the 15th back in 2001. Over that time, BN has apparently accrued a number of faithful regulars, who keep going back to an ever changing menu - scrawled, erased, scrawled, erased ad infinitum on those dastardly portable slate boards that they bring to your table. I yearn for the day when we can just call up the daily menu on a little screen embedded in the table top - probably just around the corner for most of the world, and a few decades away for the French, who appear to have a certain fondness for chalk.

The animated, amiable, hard-working, but largely over-matched waitstaff - all two to be exact, immediately pointed out the dishes that weren't available, only a couple of which either myself or Co. had actually contemplated. Which could only mean one thing - they are emptying out the fridge and about to close shop for the conges annuel. But in this case we were informed that the - indeed - impending respite would last two full months, bearing promise of a renovation of the restaurant. Judging from the decor, which I will politely describe as, uhm, rustic, that renovation is coming none too soon. We definitely got there just in time. So no time to lose, let's get to the food.

Co. started off with a carpaccio de pied de couchon, prepared with lentils, croutons, and a few swirls of extremely sharp cheese. Not one to go any nearer to a pig's foot than possible, I took Co. on her word that this was an excellent entree, elegantly simple, yet nonetheless original. With few options available, I was torn between a gaspacho with melon and shrimps (on the side) dish or an entree of sardines with grilled bread. Not a great fan of sardines, I took my chances and was pretty satisfied - the sardines steeped in marinated onions in one of those mad scientist glass beakers. Along with the basket of thick slices of fresh country bread on the table, and a 50 cl pichet of a recommended wine, a VDP d'Orange 2005 (20 euros), I could not complain and so I did not.

For once, Co. and I were hesitating between the same two main courses, so we ordered both, along with the pre-order nuptual agreement that we would switch plates at the halfway point. The clear winner, and a big hit, was the torte de foie gras de canard, which came with a helping of magret de canard - pretty simple - the foie gras pastry and the slab of duck, with a side dish of green salad. Which is not to deny the success of the other dish - a filet de paigre (a type of dorade fish) with green lentils. The fish was quite tasty, but the tort de foie gras was wow. Not very summery, true, which may explain Co.'s choice of a pineapple dessert, which came in a martini glass, topped with a healthy dollop of mousse de noix de coco. As I contemplated my own dessert choice, I was struck by the three Italian men at the nearby table, about to dig into their own desserts. For some reason, person A couldn't quite bring himself to initiate the festivities by dipping into his strawberry dish - which appeared to be concocted as a two-story tarte. He then passed the tarte to person B, who thought for a while before passing it to person C. As I predicted - you can ask Co. - it wasn't long before the tarte was resting back where this game of musical desserts commenced, whereupon person A who, by the next time I looked, cleaned his plate of any evidence of what had laid there before. Maybe this is some sort of Italian dessert eating ritual I never knew about before, but as I am easily amused, I found this rather amusing. I decided to forego the strawberry dessert nonetheless. Still thirsty after our humble pichet, I was drawn to what is more or less, apparently, a BN standard, their homemade baba au rum. What was particularly conforting about that dish is that the rum was on the side, in the form of a large bottle of Saint James. My eyes are bigger than my brain, or something like that, and before I knew it, my dessert had turned into rum accompanied by a little baba, rather than the other way round. Whoops.

Before the end of meal cafe, we were treated to a small plate consisting of a couple madeleines and a couple homemade marshmallows. With one cafe, the pichet, and the two 3-course 32€ menus the cost of the meal rounded out to 86.50€, yielding one of the best price/quality ratios I've seen in a long time. In two months, you can check out BN for yourself, assuming you haven't already. It will be interesting to see what the remodeling yields and what sorts of dishes Monsieur Blanqui conjures up for the rentree.

68 rue Vasco de Gama
75015 Paris
tel. 01 48 56 82 49
no website, but apparently, word of mouth rocks!
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