Reading Jonathan Nossiter’s musings on wine, the universe and everything, reviewed here last week, and Hugh Johnson’s delightful A Life Uncorked, a Christmas gift, has made me eager to delve deeper into the dreadfully complicated world of wine, so I rather pushed the boat out at Au Bascou, where Bertie the gastrohound and I dragged my girlfriend, Katherine, and John, a long-time friend, the other evening.
The wine list is concise and, this being a Basque restaurant, includes a strong contingent from Southwest France: Irouléguys and Madirans and Jurançons, along with a generous sprinkling of bottles from the other French regions. We chose a half-bottle of 2005 Chablis for the first course and followed that with a 2001 Château Maucaillou Moulis. Both were excellent, the Moulis still having quite a lot of mileage in it, judging by the tannins, and the Chablis with a big, honeyed nose.
We took to the place as soon as we crossed the threshold, where we were greeted warmly by the serving staff and chef Bertrand Guéneron, who took over Au Bascou last year after loyally serving Alain Senderens at the three-star Lucas Carton and his subsequent upscale eponymous brasserie. Guéneron has tweaked the menu of Bascou, a long-time favorite of many a discerning Parisian, but has left the down-market decor as it was: wood paneling, ocher walls stained a deeper yellow by cigarette smoke (no more of that now, hallelujah!), posters for all the Basque apéritifs you could want and a pictorial course on pelota, not to mention the mandatory strings of dried Espelette peppers.
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I don’t see why French restaurateurs are so attached to the folkloric aspects of their terroir that they must festoon their dining rooms with dusty bric-a-brac. Still, that was a small price to pay for an excellent meal comprising first courses of a sautéed shrimp and fennel salad, scallops with a serving of slightly cooked mushrooms, and snails and ham cooked with Patcharan. This last was as earthy as it gets and warmed to the Chablis.
Main courses included a juicy pyramid of hen pheasant on a serving of Savoy cabbage, the whole topped with a sliver of pan-fried foie gras – lovely to behold and completely lacking in artifice. A veal hanger steak was served on a heap of carrots cooked with orange, ginger and parsley, a fine way of dealing with a vegetable I find a bit boring without a little help from its friends, and a joue de boeuf vigneronne, beef cheek stewed for an eternity in a red-wine and a shallot reduction as black as tar. This cheap cut absorbs all the flavors and is nowhere near as stringy as other stew cuts can be. It melted all too quickly in the mouth, along with the circle of mashed potatoes it sat on.
Katherine sipped a sweet Jurançon, which came with a haunting nose of quince, for dessert. I had a Basque cheese served with preserved cherries – a bit too much for the subtly smooth cheese – while John opted for the gateau au chocolat coulant, satisfyingly chocolatey and runny in the middle and complemented by the house vanilla ice cream.
Altogether a standout meal. I don’t think even fans of Au Bascou’s genial former owner, Jean-Guy Lousteau, will be disappointed by the restaurant’s new incarnation.
Au Bascou: 38, rue Réaumur, 75003 Paris. Métro: Arts et Métiers or Réaumur Sébastopol. Nearest Vélib’ station: 57, rue de Turbigo or 7, rue Sainte Elisabeth. Tel: 01 42 72 69 25. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner. Closed Saturday and Sunday. A la carte: €35-40.
© 2008 Paris Update