Chef Christian Etchebest’s justly popular Cantine du Troquet.
Pros: super-fresh, high-quality ingredients; friendly, efficient service; lively ambiance
Cons: noisy, TV screen
At Basque chef Christian Etchebest’s lively and popular La Cantine du Troquet the other night, my dining companion and I couldn’t decide what to order from the many choices on the big blackboard menu on the wall, so we opted for the tasting menu for only €30 each and let the chef decide for us.
Numerous dishes started arriving in quick succession, crowding our little table. In a sign of the affable atmosphere of the place, the older gentlemen eating alone next to us offered space on his table for our bread basket. In the same spirit, the couple on the other side had offered to let us try their gorgeous-looking French fries – rough-cut and sprinkled with fleur de sel – when they saw us eyeing them with lust. We declined, certain that we would be getting our own as part of the tasting menu.
It started very well with tasty shrimp à la plancha, cooked just right. Next came a cold leek-and-potato soup that would have been far too bland if it weren’t for the delicious chunks of spicy, garlicky chorizo in it. Another plate contained an unusual combination of beets and poulpe; we both agreed that the beets rather overwhelmed the delicate octopus, which we would rather have had on its own. A chunk of very fresh-tasting raw salmon was served on a bed of leeks (another combo that didn’t make much sense), and a dish of ratatouille was topped with chunks of flavorful, creamy goat cheese. Etchebest’s version of the typical Basque piperade contained no egg but was just a rich, thick, flavorful bright-red sauce of red peppers, tomatoes, onions and Espelette peppers, served on its own.
The fish course was succulent, perfectly cooked espadon (swordfish) in a lovely oil and basil sauce, the same one that was served on the shrimp. It was followed by two scrumptious little sausages, just out of the frying pan, on a bed of superfine mashed potatoes. The cheese course, one slice of hard Basque cheese for each of us, came with a wonderful black-cherry jam. The dessert was a standout: shortbread triangles with a chocolate/caramel quenelle and strawberries, each element at the peak of perfection.
That sounds like a lot of food, but the servings were small, and it was perfectly manageable for anyone with a good appetite. While we liked some dishes better than others (the shrimp, swordfish, sausages and cheese were standouts), we did get rather bored with seeing capers and black olives on several different ones and wished we could try some of the dishes we saw on the tables around us, including the couteaux (razor clams) and a fresh-fruit soup with a little round pound cake perched on it. And we were disappointed that we didn’t get to taste the French fries.
Like his buddy Yves Camdeborde at Le Comptoir du Relais, Etchebest (who owns two other Paris restaurants, Le Troquet and Le Grand Pan) goes for simplicity in both decor and cuisine, with the emphasis on top-quality ingredients. All the ingredients of the dishes we tried were bursting with freshness and high quality.
The service was brisk and unfailingly friendly in spite of the hungry crowds the two waitresses were taking care of, in marked contrast to the glacial service we encountered at Jean-François Piège’s restaurant at Thoumieux last week.
Unfortunately, those hungry crowds contribute to a high decibel level, which got worse as the evening wore on. The restaurant does not take reservations (tip: go early or late), so people just show up and wait at the bar until a table is freed. Don’t linger too long at your table or one of the waitresses might ask you to leave, as they did with our neighbors. I am usually outraged when this happens (almost never) in a French restaurant, where the whole idea is to linger over and enjoy a meal, but in this case it did seem rather rude for the couple next to us to sit chatting for so long after they had finished their coffee when a big crowd of people was waiting for a table.
With wooden chairs and tables and big blackboard menus, the Cantine has a typical bistro decor that has been freshened up with attractive graphics. One unfortunate touch is the TV screen showing sports at the back of the room, but we were seated far enough away to not be distracted by it.
I would happily go back to the Cantine du Troquet, perhaps for lunch, when it might be quieter. In fact, I must go back, because I have to taste those French fries!
La Cantine du Troquet: 101, rue de l’Ouest, 75014 Paris. Métro: Pernety. No tel. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for lunch only. Tasting menu: €30. A la carte: €35-40.
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