No trip to Paris is complete without experiencing some of the many culinary delights in the City of Lights. There are thousands and thousands of restaurants, brasseries, cafés, bistros, and neighborhood favorites to choose from. How do you determine which ones to try and which to miss? In researching our options, the trendy Le Chateaubriand ranked as No. 21 on the list of the World’s Best Restaurants with one of the “hottest” chefs around, intrigues us.
When dining in Paris it is best not to pick a restaurant near any major tourist attraction. Le Chateaubriand is away from the center, on the # 11 Metro line, four stops (Goncourt) from L’Hotel de Ville in the trendy 11th arrondissement.
It is the brainchild of self-taught, Basque chef, Iñaki Aizpitarte, who describes his creations as “Cuisine de Vagabond” or the “Cuisine of the Tramp.” It is eclectic, ranging from Asian, South American, and Basque to Classic French cuisine. The style of cooking features unusual flavor combinations and makes use of a lot of raw and sous-vide preparations. In fact, most of the dishes on our menu that night are either raw or barely cooked.
Aizpitarte is part of the “Bistronomy” movement, which has seen a number of chefs in France drop their prices and create unique settings in which to serve innovative and affordable dishes.
This is a very popular restaurant, meaning that making a reservation can be a bit of a challenge. There are two sittings each night. You can reserve a table at the first sitting between 7 pm and 9:30 pm. Or you can take your chances and wait in line for the second sitting that is supposed to start at 9:30; however, this is Paris so it could be as late as 11:00 pm before you are seated
We opt for the first sitting, calling the restaurant three weeks in advance. On the appointed day,we arrive early only to find that the doors open on the dot of 7:00 pm. We spend some time at a local watering hole down the street, watching a soccer match over a glass of wine until it is time to eat.
Le Chateaubriand’s décor can only be described as minimalist, as is its cuisine. The façade, with the wood-and glass-doors that are open in fine weather, is barely noticeable amidst the storefronts on Rue Parmentier. The plain, cream-colored walls are bare except for large, black chalkboards on which the menu of the day is scrawled.
On your left, a long rosewood bar topped with zinc sits unadorned except for the espresso and slicing machines. Bread, waiting to be freshly sliced, is piled on a nearby serving station.
There are no tablecloths on the brown bistro tables that match the color of the floor. Simple silver cutlery tops white linen napkins. Porcelain plates of different colors serve as the canvas for Chef Aizpitarte’s creations.
As we are the first ones through the door, we are given our choice of table. Within a few minutes, Chef arrives, bearded and jauntily attired, to explain the evening’s menu. He stops to chat a few minutes, asking where we have come from and how we are enjoying our trip to Paris. He hands us a photocopied piece of paper that constitutes the menu. (Chef is kind enough to sign ours, and it has joined the framed gallery of other memorable meals on our kitchen wall). He explains the concept of the meal we have selected – a ten-course tasting menu that features whatever ingredients he and his team have found at the market that day. Chef stops by a few times during our meal, sometimes even serving us himself.
Our server places a plate of gougères, cheese puffs crusted with poppy seeds in front of us. They are crisp on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside. Fortunately, there are only two each – you could make a meal of just these tasty morsels. On the other hand, the basket of bread slices –Pain de Levin with crusty tops and soft crumb, is magically refilled as we devour it.
Our meal starts with a succession of small plates. A bowl of pretty pink cold liquid arrives. Our server explains that it is ceviche of dorade (sea bream) in a concoction of seawater and lemon juice. As you lift a spoonful to your mouth, the aroma of the sea excites your sense of smell as the smoothness of the raw fish contrasts with the tartness of the lemon.
Another broth follows – watermelon soup served with bits of anchovy in the bottom, decorated with a drop of emerald-green Calamata olive oil that shimmers in the light. The sweetness of the watermelon tempers the strong flavor of the anchovy – an unusual combination
Two more small plates follow. On one a crunchy potato fritter tops a thin slice of soft eel. The contrast of the two textures on your taste buds is perfect. A sprinkle of fennel adds a slight flavor of licorice.
A small mound of crabmeat is served on a slightly metallic plate that softly reflects the reds of the tomatoes and the bright green sage leaves, artistically laid out on top.
Three main dishes follow. A piece of mackerel sashimi peeks out shyly from a mound of vibrant, green, peppery, salad leaves, sprinkled with goat cheese, accented with morsels of sea asparagus and cucumber. The combination of flavors leaves your tongue tingling.
A shiny slice of barely cooked whitefish served on a dark plate, is overlaid with lardoons and sliced almonds. As you bite into it, the firmness of the fish contrasts with the softness of the lardoons and the crunchiness of the almonds.
Finally, slices of red onion, sprinkled with blades of purple basil, crown a paper-thin, slice of rose-colored beef, almost raw except for its outer edge, intensely flavored with chili. A few red currants scattered on top give an unexpected sweet bite.
We are starting to flag when Chef sends out a cherry pit sorbet to “cleanse the palate.” There aren’t any real pits in the sorbet but you can taste their woody flavor, nicely offset by the intense, savory flavor of capers!
For dessert, a round ball arrives on a caramel-dusted macaroon. Our server explains that it is a lightly poached, raw egg yolk! As the spoon breaks through the outer layer, a bright yellow stream of yolk flows into the macaroon, subtly mixing with the flavor of the caramel.
Finally, a mound of fresh, sweet, plump strawberries topped with bits of mint and anise provides a natural palate cleanser to finish the meal. A tiny cup of espresso, accompanied by a plate of petites-fours, rounds out the meal.
Chef Aizpitarte’s eclectic creations certainly push the boundaries of our palates. If you are visiting Paris and looking for an unusual culinary experience, Le Chateaubriand is a must.
IF YOU GO
Chateaubriand is at 129 Ave Parmentier, Paris. Tel 33-1-43-57-45-95; Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations for the first sitting at 7:30 pm can only be made by phone between 3:00 – 7:30 pm Paris time. The second seating, starting at 9:30 pm., is first-come, first-serve. The dinner tasting menu is 70 euro per person. If you pair your menu with wine the price will double but you can also order wine by the glass. Lunch is a much more informal affair.