Given comparable levels of food quality and cooking skill and slightly off-the-beaten-track locations, what makes one bistro a popular success while another has a feeling of doom hanging about it?
Last week, I ate in two bistros on successive nights. The first was the Bistro des Gastronomes on Rue Cardinal Lemoine in the 5th arrondissement, which I chose because it was conveniently located near a meeting I was attending with two friends. When we arrived with another friend at 8pm, we assumed that the restaurant was empty because it was a bit early for French people to start eating. An hour later, when I looked up from our lively conversation, I realized it was still empty, which might have been quite uncomfortable if we had only been two. Later in the evening, two other parties arrived, but the small restaurant never came anywhere near filling up.
The reactions to the food were mixed. Mary and John absolutely
adored their foie gras fried with bourbon and Espelette chilies. I thought I had the best starter: a marvelously light and refreshing carpaccio of wild sea bream with lime and red peppercorns. Susan had ordered the couteaux (razor clams), which came in a generous serving with an overcomplicated and unnecessary tomato sauce full of cubed vegetables. We all agreed that they would have been better in a simpler preparation.
John and I were both disappointed with our main course, the “chef’s” bœuf bourgignon, which had a nice winey sauce but seemed to have been sitting around for a few days – not necessarily a bad thing for bœuf bourgignon, but the potatoes had that unpleasant reheated taste and texture. Mary and Susan had made the right choice in ordering the delicious fried calamari with rice and Espelette chilies.
For dessert, John and I had the wonderful lemon tart. Tart it was indeed, and it looked beautiful on the plate sprinkled with zest of lemon and lime. Mary ordered dessert only because we insisted, but she was glad she had when the crème brûlée with Bourbon vanilla was flambéed at
the table and turned out to be an excellent example of the genre. Susan’s moelleux au chocolat came with a passion-fruit sauce, adding acidity that nicely balanced the sweetness, but – like her starter – was a bit too much.
Fast-forward to the following evening in the all-organic Les Trois Seaux (which means “three pails”: there they were, hanging from the ceiling in the guise of lampshades). My
friend Helen and I were greeted so warmly by the owner that I thought they were old friends – not so. The large tray of cheeses displayed near the door next to shelves full of wine bottles made an immediate good impression, as did the real tablecloths and napkins, and the lively buzz of the full restaurant.
The owner was the lone server, which meant that the meal progressed at a snail’s pace (those creatures were not on the menu, however), slightly speeded up later on when a shy young kitchen helper occasionally came out to serve a dish. I started with the pétoncles (tiny scallops) sautéed with
pleurotes (a type of wild mushroom) and devoured this comforting and perfectly sauced dish with great delight. Helen was equally happy with her boudin (blood sausage), supposedly made with chestnuts, although she couldn’t taste them, and served with cooked apples.
For my main course, I opted for the rather pricey (€28) “belle” veal chop from Aubrac with mushrooms, which I asked to be cooked rosé (pink). Was it because of my American accent that the huge chop came out well overcooked? I’ll never know. I didn’t send it back as I normally would have because I feared another long wait while a replacement was prepared.
We sampled some of the excellent cheese, then shared the crème aux œufs, a delicious, creamy cross between crème caramel and crème brûlée. When the bill came, the sharp-eyed owner, who had inspected our main-course plates as the assistant carried them back to the kitchen and must have noticed the nearly untouched veal chop, announced that he was deducting 30 percent from the bill, a gesture that was greatly appreciated.
My answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this review would be “warmth” and “ambiance.” While the waitress was perfectly polite and pleasant at the Bistro des Gastronomes, there was no real feeling of welcome (more like relief that some customers had arrived) or much enthusiasm about what was being served, in contrast to Les Trois Seaux.
Just a year ago the Bistro des Gastronomes was getting rave reviews in the press, so its emptiness on a Thursday evening seems strange – or perhaps we just hit it on an off night. I certainly hope its demise is not imminent. The prices were quite reasonable (€28 for a three-course menu, with no supplement for foie gras), and several of the dishes were excellent, while the prices at Les Trois Seaux were rather hefty, and it can’t be said that everything was perfect there either. The former, with just a little more attention to the consistency of the dishes, rapport with customers and maybe a more personal touch in the rather sterile decor, would be a great little place for a meal.