Monday, July 20, 2009

Chateaubriand: substance and style in equal proportions

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. I’m not a nouvelle cuisine kind of a guy. Whether it’s because I actually like to feel as though I have eaten when I go to a restaurant, or because my palate is not so refined as to appreciate the subtle flavours of half-a-parsnip with a side order of air, I’m not one to recommend restaurants where style is more important than substance. Which is why it surprises even me that I can call myself a hand-on-heart, card-carrying member of the Chateaubriand fan-club.
Ever since this unassuming eatery set up shop in Paris’ relatively non-descript Goncourt quartier, it’s been on the receiving end of all sorts of good press. If you gave the place nothing but a cursory glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the lavish praise heaped on the resto has been largely due to the stylish art deco interior and an employment policy of only engaging dark-haired, slightly scruffy, intensely Latin-looking waiters with five day growth. People seem to like a pout with their Paris eating experience – go figure. But get yourself a table at Chateaubriand, as I did on Friday night with a group of friends, and you soon discover that this is one Parisian bistro a la mode which is not simply floating along on a cloud of mousse, jus and undue hype. Or, to mix metaphors completely, this particular Emperor definitely has clothes.

Each Friday night, chef Inaki Aizpitarte presents a set menu that simultaneously pays homage to his Basque roots while hinting at his bold sense of gastronomical adventure. There’s no choice. If you want to eat at the restaurant, you get what you’re given. Basta. It’s a bold business strategy, and, given there was standing room only in the room on Friday, one that appears to be working.
For 45 euros per person we were treated to a five course “taster meal”. The menu is prepared so that each dish finely complements the next one, and builds in a pleasant palate crescendo. We started with an amuse-bouche, which, to be honest, left me cold. A few cubes of sardine, some finely sliced radish, a few other shavings of similarly raw legumes and a cold jus of some description. It wasn’t the most promising harbinger of things to come, but nor was it offensive. I’m prepared to give Inaki the benefit of the doubt and say my palate isn’t sufficiently sophisticate to appreciate whatever he was trying to do with the amuse bouche.

Things started looking up when the next course arrived. Described on the menu as “mackerel, green vegetables, cucumber water” (whatever that may be), it was delicious. Not least because of the “salicorne” – a type of seagrass – the raw cornichons and almonds with which it was served. Next came the “lotillon au foin, carottes” a finely balanced dish of white fish and fresh vegetables. I love a bit of lotte in my life – it’s a fish with a fantastic texture, cooked to airy perfection by Mr Aizpitarte & Co. (forgive me if I , keep gratuitously keep dropping his name into this blog entry – I just find Basque names with their x’s and z’s and general unpronuncability brilliant). Easily my favourite dish of the evening was the pigeon (and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d utter). We were gravely informed at the start of the meal that the pigeons were sourced direct from the (apparently) reputable pigeon farmer, “Paul Renault”. I’ve no idea who Paul Renault is, but his name was whispered with such reverence by our waiter, I can only assume he is the king of pigeon farmers. Though I can’t help but speculate the provenance of the pigeons was emphasised lest any of us clearly uncouth diners worried Mr Aizpitarte had spent a profitable couple of hours pigeon collecting down at the Pompidou Centre or Les Halles. Wherever the pigeons came from, they were extraordinarily good. Served with finely sliced beetroot, a bitter radicchio-type leaf vegetable and cranberries, it was melt-in-the-mouth good.
Things went a little downhill in the dessert department, when a promising-sounding “fraises chantilly” came out as a bowl of strawberries swimming in cream. I guess it was nothing less than what was advertised, but it seemed a kind of clumsy, heavy exclamation point on which to end an otherwise delicately balanced meal.
Overall, an excellent meal. And one that even managed to sate the Showgirl’s impressive apetite. And believe me, in the words of Bananarama, that’s really saying something.

No comments: