The decor could be cooler at Chalbens, but the welcome couldn’t have been warmer.
Pros: sincere, solid food; romantic atmosphere; impeccable service
Cons: off-the-beaten-Métro track; cuisine and atmosphere lacking in edge
Okay, I am no Anthony Bourdain, who ventures to far-flung regions in search of seriously good food on his Emmy-award-winning culinary show “No Reservations.” Yet I did feel a little like the globetrotting guru while wending my way to a little family-run restaurant on the smallest Métro line in Paris, “3 Bis,” which has a mere four stops. Chalbens sits inconspicuously near the Pelleport station, on a dark corner in a somewhat distressed though not-too-dodgy hood.
Husband-and-wife teams are all the rage lately, and I’m all for it, but trust me, as someone who was raised in a mom-and-pop restaurant, it can either make you or break you. As for Julien and Sophie Jérôme at Chalbens, it’s probably too soon to tell, but for nearly three years running they’ve proved an impressive duo, having managed to run their off-the-beaten place while raising three children, and with a tiny staff, if any. I’d like to chalk it up to their dynamic of femme in the kitchen and homme front-of-house: Hear, hear!
Anyway, the welcome couldn’t have been warmer, and I landed the best table in the house: front corner, near the window and an excellent spot for engaging in recon. The surroundings balanced chic and cozy: candles, lanterns and mirrors casting romantic shadows; wooden floors and tables; half casks-cum-lampshades hanging above the tiny bar; and in the center a round antique table with a huge vase of orchids surrounded by food and wine guides. The homey, sitting-room style was completed by swathes of lime green curtains, which concealed the somewhat dingy view outside. Soft jazz and blues played quietly in the background.
Waiting for my tardy friend also afforded me a long gander at the menu, which was free of offal and organs, trotters and udders, intestines and spleen – “nasty bits” as Tony Bourdain calls them – damn, my friend would probably be disappointed, although there was a starter of blood sausage and apples. Other first courses included ubiquitous French dishes like foie gras and sautéed girolles with a poached egg.
Though the ultra-cool and conscientious Julien edged me towards the pumpkin and orange velouté with glace à la moutarde de Meaux, I ended up going for the coleslaw of red cabbage, carrots and onions, accompanied by soy-marinated, sesame salmon, which turned out to be fine and fresh, but strayed toward the staid.
“I’d have this every day,” said my friend, who by now had joined me, while drooling over his simply but exquisitely prepared girolles, which exploded in the mouth, enlivened by a perfectly poached egg.
Another question: “What should I be drinking right now?” That was Bourdain again, whispering in my ear. We started with the Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Pascal, which settled on the light side, then moved onto a more preferable Côtes du Rhône Villages, Les Genestas, a medium-bodied, strong-tannin wine with vibrant blackberry, plum and cherry flavors and hints of Asian spice.
Speaking of Asian flavors, I’ve recently fallen head-over-heels for fresh, unpreserved green peppercorns while trying my hand at Thai food, but here we had them, so French, in a sauce that didn’t overpower but perfectly accompanied my friend’s filet de rumsteak, which was served up medium rare (perfectly pink), along with an equally tender spinach-stuffed zucchini, which Chef Sophie substituted on the spot for potato gratin to accommodate my friend’s low-carb diet. My main course, scallops dorées, came out as golden as promised, beautifully executed and sitting comfortably on a gargantuan bed of cauliflower purée.
For dessert, we gobbled up a cheese plate – chèvre, Brie de Meaux and Swiss gruyère – served with lamb’s lettuce and membrillo (quince paste) on a slate slab. It hit the mark. Then, taking another look round, at the fuddy-duddy-ish drapes, the paper napkins, the plastic-coated menus, the understated paintings of pears on the walls (it’s so easy being green), I kinda wished I’d ordered the pear-and-quince dessert just to match. I also kinda wished the place had more youthful vibrancy and vigor, like the couple I saw in action.
Okay, who cares if Sophie wouldn’t give me the recipe for her peppercorn sauce: was it chèvre, olive oil and mustard or just plain butter, cream and stock? I’ll nail it someday. Who cares if it’s almost in the middle of nowhere? I’ll go back for the no-nonsense, no-pretense food, clean and counterbalanced, deftly and deliciously prepared by people who clearly care. What’s even better, the set menus were cheap (25-30€) and the proportions generous. Ah, as Bourdain would say, “Taxi! Taxi?”