|The best way to clear up the mystery of the Clos du Vert Bois is to patronize it.|
What makes a restaurant click? Why do some take off instantly and others bomb for no apparent reason? Five years ago, a restaurant named La Perla opened on Rue Montorgueuil at the same time as another one, Gildas de la Mer, started up over the road. Within days, La Perla was heaving with customers, and the crew at Gildas could only sit outside in the street and look disconsolately at the successful operation across the way. I’m still mystified.
And why was Le Clos du Vert Bois, a major discovery and just about the best value for money I’ve seen in a long time, almost empty on both occasions when I ate there recently? Granted, a World Cup match was playing the second time, and that’s bad news for a place without a big screen.
Perhaps it’s the fussy, fusty decor, which could do with a helping help, to put it mildly. Or the lack of a sassy presence up front. The food is brought up from the basement, so there’s no sense of kitchen bustle. Or perhaps it’s that old chestnut, location – Clos du Vert Bois is hidden away on a quiet back street.
Whatever the reason, the Clos du Vert Bois is an underused resource. The place seems to be a stealth eatery, flying under Parisian radar. A trawl on the Web for the chef, Franck Pinard, revealed only a couple of noncommittal mentions on U.S. foodie sites.
On the strength of the menu I’d salivated over a couple of evenings before my first visit, I’d have expected to see crowds outside the door, fighting for a seat inside. Not a bit of it. After a short negotiation about the presence of Bertie the gastro-hound, we were seated by the truly polite waiter (who later told us the place had been open for 10 years). Bertie sat quietly under the able making eyes at the only other diners, a table of four, providing them with the evening’s entertainment.
The food is the thing here: good, inventive food and sound, inexpensive wines. The €23 menu offers the usual starter/main course or main course/dessert, while for €27, you get all three courses. The other two menus are for the whole shebang, including drink. Brilliant value for money, as I said.
I started with oeuf mollet en gelée de truffes, salpicon de tomate, d’asperge et saumon fumé, i.e., a soft-boiled egg in a savory jelly with bits and pieces of tomato, salmon and asparagus. My girlfriend had the briochine de foie gras de canard poêlé aux langoustines – pan-fried foie gras with a meaty chef’s sauce and grilled Dublin bay prawns on a brioche: an odd but satisfying mixture that works.
I was a bit worried that the rack of lamb she had next might prove hard work, as she was given only an ordinary table knife to cut it with, but the chef was showing off. You would have to go a long way to find a tenderer, more flavorsome bit of lamb. I had the fillet of beef with snails, another original and successful combination. It arrived perfectly bleu – simply seared on the outside and raw inside, but hot all the way through. The main courses are pretty well evenly split between meat and fish, including deliciously nutty scallops provençale, my choice on my second visit.
The dessert list is a haven of creditably made good old standbys, with no hint of Parisian trends. Apart from the cheese and sorbets, there’s a soufflé glacé au Grand Marnier, pancakes flambéed with Grand Marnier, a nougat glacé, and profiteroles.
The best way to clear up the mystery of the Clos du Vert Bois, I reckon, is to patronize it.
Note: A word of warning to those who have not yet tried Pharamond: The Cornuts are hanging up their aprons at the end of this month. The word is that the people taking over are pretty damn good, but my Paris eating scene will be much the poorer for their departure.
Le Clos du Vert Bois: 13 rue du Vert Bois, 75003 Paris. Métro: Temple or Arts et Métiers. Tel: 01 42 77 14 85. Closed Saturday lunch and Monday. Reservation required on Sunday. Fixed-price menus: €23, €27, €31 and €34.90.
© 2006 Paris Update
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