Pottoka: a Basque-flavored micro-bistro in the 7th.
Pros: hearty meats; buzzy, neighborly atomosphere
Cons: cramped dining; expensive à la carte
On a rainy All Souls Day (“La Toussaint” in France) I sought refuge in a micro-bistro nestled on a handsome rue between Invalides and the Eiffel Tower that promised a sophisticated menu of hearty, warm, nouvelle-Basque cuisine. At the door I added my dripping, drab umbrella to a glistening polychrome bouquet of others then squeezed into the dining room. My friend had already arrived and taken a choice seat on the long, narrow gray-green banquette at one of the tiny wooden tables, so I had to wiggle into a chair facing a white brick wall. How they managed 38 comfortable, no-complaint covers in such a tight space was an impressive mystery. The tables filled up quickly, and soon enough our neighbors included look-alikes of a hunched Gertrude Stein and a mustachioed Alice B. Toklas.
“Pottoka? I was expecting Polish food,” my friend remarked, and I concurred, but having done my research, I knew that the restaurant takes its name from a wild pony indigenous to the Pays Basque. Intriguing as this may sound to omnivorous diners, this lesser-known species was not on the menu, perhaps due to its endangered status. What was on the menu tapped right into traditional Basque fare but with a modern twist that banished all ideas of heavy, overwrought food, although it was still meaty and generously proportioned.
Our meal began with things both otherworldly and yet familiar, served on wooden chopping boards rather than the currently trendy slate. For me: plump croquettes of baccalau (salt cod) and chorizo with a crispy, light coating, mellowed out by a bright orange, Esplette-spicy dipping sauce. I would have slathered just about anything in that sauce, but then I do have a condiment fetish. Meanwhile my friend tucked into a triumph of boudin noir – a steamy, creamy round of blood sausage on a bed of chunky apple sauce stewed in cinnamon and nutmeg, dotted with chopped walnuts and topped with endive shavings.
As for the wine, we would have fallen prey to the power of suggestion, but there wasn’t any – not by the amiable young waitress and especially not the front-of-house man (one of the owners, in fact) who, while not formally introduced, must’ve been David Bottreau. He had that Gallic abruptness I have come to know but not exactly love. His backstage sidekick, Sébastien Gravé, probably spent the service in the minuscule kitchen with his two sous-chefs. If they weren’t overheated, it was yet another miracle – by this time, my friend and I were fanning ourselves with the laminated menus. Still, the service and delivery were efficient, timely and smooth.
Both Bottreau and Gravé have an impressive history; they worked with Christian Constant before taking over the acclaimed Les Fables de la Fontaine, which just so happens to be located around the corner. Back to libations, my friend spotted something enticing on the list: Irouléguy 2008 Domaine “Mignaberry,” a tiny appellation in the Basque country. It had an intense, elegant structure, a blackcurrant, peppery aroma, a rich fruity finish, and went well with every bite, from entrée to dessert.
In between, I had seasonal woodpigeon from the specials’ board. The price was steep – €27 to be exact – but since it was a holiday, we thought we might as well treat ourselves. Normally the set lunch menu goes for a reasonable €17 or €22.
The game arrived very pink and hard to cut, but no reason to roast the chef, I simply didn’t have a serrated knife. Anyway, what was the wet wipe for if not to give me permission to get hands-on and start dipping again, into the deep dark gravy? A little gem revealed itself unexpectedly on the flipside of what at first looked like a plain piece of toast: a heady gizzard spread that took the dish to a whole new level. My companion’s pricey (€29) veal brisket stuffed with cubes of chorizo had a splendid acidity that was cut by a side of chunky mashed potatoes spiced with chives and paprika from Lekeito.
As the dining room emptied, we couldn’t help but order another pichet of Irouléguy to accompany the bleu de brébis de la ferme Bethanoun, a marbled round of ewe’s milk cheese, while waiting the 12 minutes stipulated on the menu for a gâteau Basque, its flaky pastry filled with almond paste and a confiture of black cherries, accompanied by vanilla-bean ice cream. It gave us time to check out our surroundings: distinctly Rugby-themed, with a framed uniform on one wall and a stenciled wall mural heralding such legendary players as Yves du Manoir and Jean Dauger. Another wall was covered with Basque buzzwords like txalaparta, a musical instrument that can simulate the sound of a horse trotting. An authentic cadence complementing an authentic meal, worth galloping back for more.
Pottoka: 4, rue de l’Exposition, 75007 Paris. Métro: Ecole Militaire. Tel: 01 45 51 88 38. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch & dinner. Fixed-price lunch menu (except on holidays): €17 or €22. A la carte: around €40.
Reader Sam Taub writes: “Next time you are in a Basque restaurant try an Irouléguy from the Brana estate. They are located in Saint Jean Pied de Port for those visiting. They also make excellent eau de vie; try the poire, framboise or marc de Irouléguy.”
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