L’Escargot de Montorgueil

June 24, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

Slow Food

l’escargot restaurant paris

The sign of the snail has been there since 1832.

Steeped, as they say, in history, is L’Escargot de Montorgueil, with its signature giant golden snail on the facade. It opened in 1832, just a stone’s throw from the “belly” of Paris, the central Les Halles food market, which has now been hygienically removed to the wilderness near Orly Airport.

In 1919, it was taken over by André Terrail, who founded the Georges V hotel and the Tour d’Argent restaurant. It had seen good times over the years but had rather dropped off the radar and become, as far as I could tell, a fairly wrung-out hangout for tourists. Then, in 2004, it was taken over by Laurent Couegnas and Denis Jamet, the man originally behind the start-up of Yahoo! France. Cougnas handles the food, dividing his time between L ’Escargot and another venture, a bistro near La Madeleine. Very present in the dining room, he seems a happy man and willingly goes into great detail about his dishes and ingredients, cooked by executive chef Frédéric Giraud.

L’Escargot, if you hadn’t already realized it, is about snails. We were brought some deep-fried snails to nibble as we chewed over the menu with a rather nice glass of cold Saint Véran. The idea, not the execution, was tempura. We ignored most of these too-greasy nuggets.

Diners can gorge themselves on snails or order more conventional bistro food. In the interests of science, we tried a tasting platter of a dozen snails with both conventional and unconventional fillings. You probably know that snails are only enjoyable thanks to the lashings of melted butter, garlic and parsley they are usually cooked in. In this case, we had snails with Roquefort, and snails with curry, both of which were eaten, according to the chef, in the 1920s.

Both were excellent accompaniments. The Roquefort cheese was well-sourced, and the curry, while it had come out of a tin of Madras curry powder, had been jazzed up with the addition of plenty more fresh spices. Couegnas is onto a winner here, I think, if you can tear yourself away from the traditional garlic/parsley hit. And he even sells them to go.

The other starter was a little surf-and-turf beauty called on the menu Armor and Argoat (Breton, loosely, for “by the sea and in the forest”): a mix of charcuterie and seafood (baby clams and tiny shrimp) with a tangy little salad served on a slate reminiscent of those Breton slate roofs.

Pigeon and pork came next. The pigeon was nice and fat, but couldn’t measure up to the supreme experience we had at Les Cocottes a few weeks back. The side dish of polenta and carrots was slightly upstaged by the thick, winy gravy, but if tasted before the pigeon, it was delicately spiced and fragrant. My pig was a cul noir (black rump) that had romped in the wild for a year before being brought back to civilization and, er, slaughtered. It had flavor in spades, and was served with what I at first took for salsify and endive. It turned out, however, that this was the result of the chef’s fiddling around with potatoes. It was cleverly done, and tastily, although my taste buds suspected something was up, which was why we hailed the passing chef for an explanation.

The main attraction of the evening, especially for the maître d’, was the making and serving of crêpes Suzette – such an iconic exemplar of traditional French cuisine that you hardly ever see it on a menu (labor-intensive, it takes the maître d’ about 10 minutes to make, standing next to your table, and is a considerable fire hazard during that time as alcohol is chucked on with abandon and set alight). It had been two decades since my guest had eaten them, and she was over the moon, especially as they were perfectly executed, without a hint of cloyingness.

For my sins, I chose a macaroon made by Stohrer, the excellent pastry cook that has had a shop in Rue Montorgueil since the 18th century. It was filled with fresh raspberries and a dollop of crème brûlée ( I think, because the Château Maucaillou Moulis had begun to work its magic by this time).

Inside, l’Escargot is all candle-lit wood paneling and comfortable seating, with a spiral staircase (of course) on one side. There is also seating outside, separated from the pedestrian street, which must be pleasant in warm weather. We rather kicked ourselves for not having opted for the outdoor tables, since a large part of the interior was monopolized by a 25-strong contingent of partying Norwegian alpha males, members of a dance band, who guffawed and shouted and sang and made apparently hilarious rhythmic grunts for much of the evening. A few speeches were also made, thankfully, giving our ears a rest. If and when you book (the staff is absolutely charming), check that no parties of this ilk are expected.

Apart from the Norwegian alphas (who get an F for bad behavior), the only downside was that the evening was eye-wateringly expensive by my standards once wine and sundries were added to the check. This is nice dining, not stratospheric gastronomy, and the same quality of food can be had for half the price elsewhere, although not necessarily in such pleasant (on a Norwegian-dance-band-free evening) surroundings.

L’Escargot de Montorgueil: 38, rue de Montorgueil, 75001 Paris. Métro: Etienne Marcel or Les Halles. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 32, rue Etienne Marcel; 6 rue Française. Tel.: 01 42 36 83 51. Closed Saturday lunchtime and four weeks in August. Fixed-priced menus (lunch only): €35, €45, €52. A la carte: around €100*.


* three courses, not including wine

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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