Salt of the Earth
It’s not that Le Villaret is hidden away, but it certainly doesn’t get much passing trade, of that I can be certain. You have to want to find this quiet side street in the 11th arrondissement, and unless you know any fans (and there are plenty) or are an avid reader of restaurant guides, you would be unlikely to stumble over it.
Jonathan Rossiter, the maker of Mondovino, a documentary film on the global wine trade, calls Le Villaret a “sensationnel restaurant à vins” in his new book*. The “sensationnel” certainly applies to the wine list: it is heaven on earth for wine buffs with deep pockets who are partial to a morsel with their favorite tipple. Not everyone can order a bottle of Romanée Conti at €2,400, but the wine list also features offerings for the more financially challenged, among them pleasant, well-chosen wines, overwhelmingly from the French terroir.
Sensationally, too, Le Villaret is a place where people come to eat and drink with friends. This is not a place for posturing, as the half-timbered brick decor tells you instantly – someone, sometime long ago, must have thought that faux-Normandy chic was just the ticket. No, the important people here are the doughty staff, who keep you supplied with food but leave you to top up your own glass. They are very good at their jobs: a table of four or five, for example, is served by two waiters when the food arrives, so no one has to watch her food getting agonizingly cold while the waiter goes to fetch the next couple of plates. Here, you marvel at the perfectly oiled machine.
Another thing that enchanted me was Le Villaret’s secret ingredient: salt. (If you’re on a salt-free diet, Le Villaret is not for you.) Tasting just the right amount of top-quality sea salt as a key ingredient in a dish, elevated to the level of the other components, was a new experience. The chef is a master of salt.
This dawned on me as I put away the amuse bouche, a large thimbleful of cream of lentil soup with mini croutons. You could taste a lot of cream in it, but also an excellent stock. With a speck more salt, it would have overbalanced into salty.
The same sensation returned with the rissole of foie gras served with a clutch of roast root vegetables – carrot, turnip, but also parsnip and black salsify (scorzonera). My companion had a soup of celery and Spanish chestnuts, again with that magical ingredient in evidence, and a most welcome guest. I’ll spare you the subjective descriptions of taste sensations. Let’s just say it was “ineffable,” D.H. Lawrence’s word of last resort when his descriptive powers failed him. When the ingredients are so good and their preparation so four-square and entirely un-tricksy, why reach for the straining adjective?
I would say as much for the main courses: a daube, a sophisticated stew of seasonal wild boar; and hen pheasant, served on a bed of Savoy cabbage and diced bacon and topped with a glistening spoonful of black trumpet mushrooms, also wildly in season. But it was the celery purée accompanying the boar stew that had us both moaning in ecstasy. Nobody noticed though, as all were hunkered down in their own little private pleasure domes.
The only slight disappointment of the evening was the uninteresting addition of fresh mandarin orange segments that accompanied an otherwise splendid millefeuille of guanduja chocolate mousse. At the very least, they could have been sliced. As I worked down through the layers of own memorable dessert, I came across wickedly scrunchy almond pralines (right on top but mostly saved till last), orgeat almond cream, pistachio cream and sharp acacia honey.
Another drawback, but one that will change forever after January 1, 2008, when the ban comes in, was the number of 30-somethings smoking as if their lives depended on it, although to be fair, the extraction system was pretty efficient.
Excellent food, great wine, a genuinely convivial atmosphere: this is as good as traditional French dining gets.
* Le Goût et le Pouvoir (“Taste and Power”), published by Grasset, October 2007
Correction: Julie Ferrault, of L ’Entêtée, reviewed here last week, tells me she is not the 24 I took her to be, but 30 (you can never check your facts enough), which does not detract from her achievement in the least.
Le Villaret: 13, rue Ternaux, 75011 Paris. Métro: Oberkampf or Parmentier. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 104 bd Richard Lenoir; 82 avenue Parmentier. Tel.: 01 43 57 86 76. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Fixed-price lunch menus: €22 and €27. Fixed-price dinner menus: €30 and €50 (tasting menu). A la carte: around €40.
© 2007 Paris Update
Les Sutton writes: I had dinner at La Villaret in mid-December 2007 on the second night of my short stay in Paris. Having travelled from London, where I had just attended the triumphant return of Led Zeppelin to the stage after 27 years, I wanted to take what little time I could to visit Paris and take in what we so often see in magazines and old Cary Grant movies.
Being that I am an Australian, had just left a warm start to summer and had mostly forgotten what French I was taught in high school 30 years previous, I relied on my Lonely Planet guide.
Of course when I arrived on the doorstep I had no reservation, and the proprietor (I assumed) spoke no English so I was off to a great start!
I was presented with a menu and that wine list. I stared at it and the dishes listed stared back in Gallic defiance. Luckily a waiter cheerfully appeared and translated for me (bless him!) although there were some things that could not be given an English equivalent.
I settled on a pork cannelloni entree, followed by a Lamb rib dish with truffles and a divine sauce. I finished with a dessert based on chocolate brownies purely because I recognised the word “brownie.”
I do apologize for not correctly identifying the dishes I had but I wanted to say that it was the culinary highlight of my trip. By the time I had left, there were people waiting at the bar to be seated; when I had sat down the place was empty and slowly filled to maximum during my stay.
A colleague of mine has a French wife and they are travelling to Paris soon so I had no hesitation in recommending La Villaret to him.