Le Chateaubriand - Movin' On Up

That's what I'm talking about - originality, surprise, subtlety, outrageousness. What am I talking about? Last Friday night's dinner at Le Chateaubriand (let's say LC, for short), quite possibly the best meal I've had in Paris all year. LC has been on my radar for some time, but each time I came close to reserving, something held me back. 'You'll either love it or hate it!' 'Noisy and crowded!' And this one from Le Fooding: 'Impossible to get a table. Impossible to get a table: need further explanation?' And also from Le Fooding: 'Gourmet works of art.' There you have it, yin and yang, to go or not to go? Well, when someone tells me 'impossible to get a table' I immediately reach for my phone. Let's face it, if it were truly impossible, how could the restaurant make any business? And sure enough, I was offered a table two Fridays away without difficulty. 'Impossible to get a table' -don't believe it.

LC sits on a busy section of avenue Parmentier in a funky area of the 11th, and that funky atmosphere follows you into LC, an old-style Parisian bistro that once was an old-fashioned grocery, remnants of which appear in their antiquity here and there on the otherwise unadorned walls, save the obligatory chalkboards announcing the available wines by the glass. This is a roomy bistrot that starts feeling more intimate once the room fills, and believe me, it doesn't take long for the place to fill up. Nonetheless, Co. and I were ushered to a cozy corner in the back room, apart from the more hustle-bustle of the larger front room/bar area. And it does get noisy, but in a quasi-bawdy way that adds to the atmosphere, if you get my drift - this is what a Parisian bistrot is supposed to be all about.

But all that noise and crowdedness is for a reason - the evening's 50€ set menu created and prepared by chef Inaki Aizpitarte, who emanates from the French Basque country, and previously held court at La Famille. Alexander Lobrano (Hungry for Paris, Random House) put it very well when he described Aizpitarte as 'a brilliant miniaturist, composing original origami-like compositions of taste that are often potent and pretty.' Our menu for the evening was explained by a young, bearded waiter, slowly, with questions saved for the end. We started off with a set of five amuses bouche, wham bam thank you ma'am, one after the other. First up, a small plate of four gougères - savory little puff pastries, with what may have been subtly embellished by pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. (Photo thanks to the great eye and camera of gourmet traveler.) A low-key start, with hints of the miniaturist concoctions to come. Our empty plate was soon replaced by two small bowls of cheviche with tiny scallops in their liquid, which our spunky waitress informed us should be consumed in a single gulp. Up next came a dish of two grenouille enveloped by a mysterious sauce with bread crumbs. If frog turns you off, never fear, this looked nothing like aforesaid amphibian. The string of amuses bouche continued with a bowl of miso-like bouillon with small cubes of foie gras. And that was followed up by a plate of tiny crevettes grise with berries and pineapple. Bear in mind, this was all to wet our appetite for the set dinner, which hadn't started yet! I suggested to Co. that this wouldn't be a bad time to pay for the wine (an adequate, but rather light, 36€ Bourgueil) and leave, our stomachs filled with the pre-meal tapas selection, but of course, this was solely in jest, as both us really wanted to see what was next.

What was next was a mulet noir, perles du Japon, huitre, cresson dish. My blurry photo will give you some idea, but the photo really doesn't do justice. Next, a cabillaud, pil pil, betteraves dish. Pil pil reflects the Basque origins of this recipe (i.e., the dish was prepared in a special sauce originating in the Basque country), which was highlighted by a delicate, sweet lump of beet, which really brought the steamed cod alive with flavor. Well, it's been two years that the betterave has been showing up in one way or another in finer restaurants around the world (see my Finland reviews), and when this much maligned root is cooked right, it can't be, sorry I can't resist, beat. But I'm starting to get that 'been there, done that' attitude about the beet. With 2011 right around the corner, I say, 'Next trendy vegetable, please!'

At this stage of the festivities, Co. partook of the boeuf, beurre noisette, racines offering, while I was granted an appropriately bloody portion of canard in lieu of the beef. The dish worked well with either meat, and this was just fine. Up next, two desserts, a dish of pommes, butternut, rose, obligatorily consumed before the crunchier chocolat, celeri invention. (You have the option of going with the desserts or the fromages du jour.) And that was that. Each dish reflecting the confidence and skill of the artisan in the kitchen, not a false note during the entire epic meal.

Don't take my word for it, just go. With Rino and LC under the belt this month, I feel like we're movin' on up quality-wise. Yet in both cases, the set menu approach keeps the prices down, with LC topping out at 139€, including one post-meal cafe and the wine, and how many courses, if you include the amuses bouche and two desserts? I count 10. While I also liked Rino very much, if I was stranded on a desert island and could only take one of the two bistrots with me, it would be Le Chateaubriand, hands down.

Note: other than my pitiful photo of the appetizer (Mulet noir), the other food photos from the aforementioned gourmet traveler; others from qype and The New York Times.

129 ave. Parmentier
75011 Paris
tel. 01 43 57 45 95
website: can't find one

P.S. There's another Le Chateaubriand restaurant in Paris, in the 17th. That's not the one I'm talking about.
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