Les Banquettes has many things to recommend it, including a terrace and a whimsical decor.
Pros: Adorable atmosphere; no-slouch service; simple, sincere cuisine
Cons: Food lacks the kick of the decor
I had checked out the place often when cutting down an alley near the Marché d’Aligre and was always charmed by the burgundy facade and ecru chairs on the small terrace. I vowed to try it someday. That someday came delightfully sooner than I had hoped, on a sunny April afternoon, with two fellow writers who, like myself, had been cooped up for too long and were greedily seeking the sun. But little did we expect that at 12:30pm, it would already be too late to snatch an outdoor table.
No complaints. Inside, the restaurant offered a warm, whimsical environment with its Victorian-style floral wallpaper, mosaic-tiled floor, rustic wooden bar, antique chandeliers and lamps, and assorted knick-knacks (framed pastorals, retro vases and vintage clogs), not to mention the eponymous Art Deco gray banquettes. Allowing us time for a friendly catch-up, the composed but cordial host (one of the owners, Xavier or Sebastien, I suspect), arrived with a short-and-sweet verbal menu: two choices per course along with coffee or wine at an ultra-reasonable €13.50. No time for dithering, the dining room was filling up; we decided quickly.
Our wine – quaffable Côtes de Gascogne, a Marcillac – came in a squat green ceramic jug decorated with vine leaves, and the starters on mismatched antique China. For my British companion, a velvety disk of boudin noir (blood sausage) atop a creamy potato galette, dribbled with gravy and topped with chives; for us fellow Americans, a wild mushroom and coconut soup, purposely served tepid, with a few drops of truffle oil but also a boring blitz of plain ol’ whipped cream. So far, no smack, and on an unseasonably warm day, the food hardly seemed seasonal – which the restaurant prides itself on – but it was certainly regional (Aveyronnaise) and fresh.
Onto the main courses: for one companion, a pasta dish that arrived rather ascetic-looking, containing an odd mix of penne and fusilli – intentional, or had they run out of one and substituted the other? – accented by chopped carrots and zucchini and crème de crustacés. Subtle to the point of bland, he thought at first, though it gradually grew in his estimation.
The other two of us, less squeamish, ordered tripe – though we both had to put on a brave face, as it was my friend’s first experience with stomach linings, and I am accustomed to Livornese-style preparations of entrails slyly swimming in tomato sauce. This time, we could actually see the honeycomb pattern of the tripe, which was served up in copious bowls with a clear broth. Getting past that, the tripe was pungent but not offensively so, voluptuously tender (cooked delicately, al dente like pasta, very slightly resistant), accompanied by whole peeled new potatoes and carrot rounds.
Desserts included a dulcet semolina pudding with raisins and honey, and a light, floury brownie containing chopped pears and topped with sprinkled powdered sugar and caramel sauce. Toothsome, yes, but all enchanting flourishes, it seems, had been reserved for the idiosyncratic decor.
For a “neo-bistro” there was little in the way of modern or innovative polish, no frills or real kick, just humble, homespun food. Maybe better to return for dinner, we thought, while perusing the more extensive evening menu: fricassee of soy-caramelized sweetbreads accompanied by oyster mushrooms and asparagus; a lemon-balmed shirred egg served with crouton of sorrel cream and trout caviar; veal belly with rosemary and anchovy cream.
Appetites whetted, even on a full stomach, we bade goodbye to our host and possibly his ancestor, the sepia-toned grandmother who overlooked the dining room from her oval walnut frame. As I made my way to the Promenade Plantée to walk off my “light lunch,” I thought of Ecoffier’s refrain, “Above all, keep it simple.”
Les Banquettes: 3, rue de Prague 75012. Métro: Ledru-Rollin. Tel.: 01 43 47 39 47. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch. www.lesbanquettes.com
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