Last night, I had the best meal I've had in Paris. Singlehandedly, this restaurant supplanted my previous three favorites (Cafe la Jatte, Le Petit Musset, and Siamin').
A few weeks ago, the president of my company had charged me with taking the steering committee of my client to a fancy dinner to celebrate the beginning of the pilot phase of our project. The pilot phase had been delayed for 6 months due to unexpected complications, and a big payment was pending this phase, so when we entered it on 1 March, the president was understandably excited.
"No budget," he told me.
"Impress them," he said.
I spent days researching restaurants before settling on Les Bouquinistes. I knew, in my heart of hearts, no budget really meant - lavish but not ridiculous. It's easy, in Paris, to find lavish and ridiculous. It is not easy to find a place that will impress a cosmopolitan group of Parisians that is lavish but not ridiculous.
I had often heard of a very famous French restauranteur/chef named Guy Savoy. He has a string of restaurants here in Paris, as well as one somewhere out West in the US. His flagship restaurant is called Guy Savoy, appropriately, and can run about 275 Euro (450 USD) for a tasting menu - a small portion of most dishes on the menu. Ok, lavish AND ridiculous. That was out. But what about one of his so-called "baby bistros", a Guy Savoy-designed place run by someone else? YES. There are 3 in Paris - and I chose the one in the middle of the road, an intimate venue called Les Bouquinistes.
Les Bouquinistes is named after the "bouquinistes" along the left bank of the Seine. On either side of the Seine, you will find painted wooden stalls selling STUFF. On the right bank, it is the artists - selling paintings, postcards, posters, etc. On the left bank, they sell books, magazines, and printed materials. The people who sell books are called bouquinistes, and the restaurant is on the left bank, facing a row of bouquinistes, just outside of St-Michel.
The restaurant itself is sleek - outside walls are practically floor to ceiling glass; the inside walls are white with some exposed brickwork and vibrant modern art. The tables are elegant: white and cream linens, modern flatware, and low floral arrangements. The staff is dressed, predictably, in black; unpredictably, the entire staff is composed of adorable young Frenchmen trained to cater to your every whim. Case in point - I arrived only semi-dressed. I could not completely zip my dress by myself; such is the burden of living alone. When I got there, they took my coat AND zipped my dress. Then, they showed me a selection of 5 person tables, from which I was allowed to choose (I chose the table with the highest ratio of radiators nearby!).
The food was...divine. There is no other word. To start with, they bring gorgeous mini baguettes and olive tapenade (which I do not eat). Then, they bring an "amuse bouche" gratuit - on the house. The amuse bouche for last night was a shellfish and carrot veloute - a very finely blended mixture of carrot, oysters, and cream.
And that was all before ordering!
The menu was absolutely perfect - they had so many interesting and inspired options. Unfortunately, it isn't the kind of place where it's appropriate to photograph every course (nor was I with the kind of company where that is allowed), but I can, and will, describe what I enjoyed last night for you in great detail.
"Creme de chataignes et champignons grilles" - Cream of chestnuts and grilled mushroom soup
This soup was heavenly - salty and sweet, with a dollop of heavy cream right in the middle of a smooth, silky soup. There were lovely chunks of grilled mushrooms waiting at the bottom, as well.
"Faux filet d'Hereford et pommes paillassons a l'echalote" - Faux filet of Hereford beef with potato-shallot pancakes
I asked for the steak to be medium rare, and truly, the French take the "cuisson" (cooking) of the steak very seriously. It is an art to cook the steak perfectly and shame on the man who ruins a beautiful steak by requesting it too cooked! This steak came with a beautiful jus - a lightly sweet and tangy sauce drizzled over it; it was sliced, which facilitated its consumption AND jus absorption. The potato pancakes were crispy on the outside, soft and delicate on the inside, and just the right amount of salty-onion flavor. This steak ranked among the most memorable steaks I've had - tender, easy to cut, melted in my mouth. It MAY have been better than my previous favorite steak - a filet mignon from Ruth's Chris in Minneapolis.
"Creme brulee amande et clementine confit avec sorbet clementine" - Almond creme brulee with crystallized clementine "jam" and clementine sorbet
The creme brulee was very, very light. Usually creme brulee is quite heavy, but this was soft, creamy, and mellow. At the bottom of the ramekin, there was a smear of tangy, rough-cut clementine marmalade, for lack of a better word. Topping the creme brulee's burnt caramel, there was a preserved half-clementine topped with a delicate scoop of homemade clementine sorbet. The sorbet was FABULOUS. I did not eat the clementine itself - as it still had the rind and I am not an enormous fan of citrus zest. While the creme brulee was delicious, it was not the BEST creme brulee I've had. One of my coworkers tried the panna cotta, which she said was delicious. There was also a moelleux au chocolat (chocolate lava cake) on the menu, which I would be very interested to try in the future.
Chateau Chasse-Spleen 2005, red
Despite having lived in France for 2 years, I do not know a lot about wine. This was chosen by one of my coworkers who, in his spare time, takes honologie (the science of wine) classes. It was a very mellow red wine that seemed perfect with my steak and was chosen to pair with both steak and "coquilles St-Jacques" (scallops).
All in all, the meal was amazing, the venue was gorgeous, the company was great, and it was the best business dinner I've ever had. If you're ever in Paris, I highly recommend that you make a reservation at Les Bouquinistes. However, be prepared to open your wallet. A three course meal for 2, including wine, could easily be 300 Euro ($450).