June 26, 2007By Richard HesseArchive

French Lessons

Benoit Paris
Alain Ducasse may have a few things to teach his fellow Frenchmen about running restaurants.

At the root of the word “benoît” is the Latin “benedictus,” which means “blessed” or even “happy.” This is an appropriate name for the restaurant where I took my girlfriend, Katherine, the other evening. The word also has modern connotations of “silly,” which was what we felt like after a truly self-indulgent time feasting on the robust fare offered by this old-style bistro owned by a man with a record number of Michelin stars to his name, Alain Ducasse.

Ducasse, a serial entrepreneur, has put plenty of noses out of joint in the bitchy world of haute cuisine. When it was rumored that he was to take over this venerable institution (it was founded in 1912 and remained in the same family until Ducasse bought it in 2005), knives were sharpened and garlic necklaces and miscellaneous cruciform neckwear dusted off. He is, after all, an entrepreneur on the anglo-saxon model, as the French say.

What that means, of course, is that he is very good at what he does and can command the best talent around. The profit motive is kept well in the background. Ducasse does not want to suck you dry. He wants you to enjoy his food and drink. Take the wine steward: She had transferred to Benoit, she told me, from the Plaza, Ducasse’s three-starred Paris flagship. She was a supremely confident treat, gentle in her handling of ignorant know-it-all patrons and bar staff alike. Her wines have quality written all over them, even when you’re drinking from the cheaper end of the list, as we were.

And Benoit is a real brasserie. It hums, unlike the still-hushed interior of Alain Senderens’ deliberately downscale place on Place de la Madeleine. You know you’re on to a winner the moment you walk through Benoit’s door – provided you have a reservation. The service is impeccable: no rush, no banging of doors or pots. No shouting. But Benoit has attitude.

The food, as I said, is robust and plated up for healthy appetites. Katherine began with a Dublin bay prawn bisque soup, whose crustacean chunks had been sautéed in nutty butter before going into the soup. “Hallelujah,” she breathed. My starter was langue de Veau Lucullus, a scarcely believable invention made with the thinnest slices of calf’s tongue imaginable, interleaved with foie gras. It was new to me, but the waiter said they had been eating it in Valenciennes, in northern France, for generations. I can see why.

Next came a piece of roast pork for me, served with a slice of incredibly fine-tasting blood sausage atop a round of tart, hardly cooked apple. This was accompanied by exquisite pommes boulangères, which seemed more butter than pommes. But the pièce de résistancewas Katherine’s cassoulet, a traditional bean casserole that’s a house specialty. The recipe for cassoulet in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking goes on for page after page, and you only have to taste one bean of Benoit’s rendition to see why. That bean concentrated the flavors of all the different meats that had cooked, so slowly, alongside it. “Hallelujah,” said Katherine again.

Dessert was a fetching slice of nougat glacé that came well up to expectations, accompanied by a glass of almost copper-colored Sauternes with a deeply mature honey finish. Little dishes of fine chocolates appeared at our elbows before and during coffee.

This being a brasserie, diners are not seated a million miles from each other. But this being a Ducasse place, smokers – the main drawback of crowded dining rooms – are banished to an area of their own. Benoit is a blessed oasis in a seemingly mad world.

Benoit: 20, rue Saint Martin, 75004 Paris. Métro: Châtelet. Tel.: 01 42 72 25 76. Open daily. Closed one week in August and in February. Fixed-price lunch menu: €38. A la carte: around €70.

Richard Hesse

© 2007 Paris Update

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