Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a long, drawn-out sit-down meal in a restaurant. One of my favorite places to eat in Paris is L’Avant Comptoir, the tiny sliver of an annex to star chef Yves Camdeborde’s restaurant Le Comptoir, where you can pop in at any time and eat standing up after squeezing your way through the crowd and staking out a small space at the bar (if you can find one). It’s very much like a tapas bar in Spain, except that the gourmet tapas are stunningly good, far better than your run-of-the-mill Spanish tapas. I will never forget the huge cep, preserved in goose fat and fried up on the spot, or the crispy waffle with avocado cream and a slice of top-of-the-line Spanish ham. The ambiance is jolly, and you inevitably end up chatting with (and jostling) your neighbors.
The Verjus wine bar seems luxurious in comparison: bigger than L’Avant Comptoir, it has stools to sit on and a calm atmosphere, with music playing unobtrusively in the background. We arrived early (7:30pm), because no reservations are taken for the wine bar, and we wanted to be sure of getting a seat. The sweet young American woman who runs the place brought us a glass of white (a rather uninteresting Petit Chablis and a nice Sancerre) and explained the menu. We asked about the chicharones (fried pork rinds) and scagluzzoli (fried polenta) and greedily decided to order both the polenta and “Joe’s shoestring fries” in addition to our starters and main courses.
The aptly named shoestring fries – the skinniest I have ever seen – arrived first, piled up like a haystack, and were addictively tasty
and as crispy as potato chips. We couldn’t stop gobbling them and their spicy ketchup until the arrival of a plate of little clams with lots of top-quality chorizo and a sauce so divine that, once the two small pieces of charred toast had been used to sop it up, I couldn’t resist scooping up the rest with a clamshell – a little pick was the only utensil provided for the meal. No knife was required, since everything was pre-cut into bite-sized pieces.
We had hardly gotten started on the first two dishes before the polenta, charred broccoli and main courses arrived. I eat broccoli at home all the time and was curious to see what charring would do for it. A lot, when prepared by the Verjus chef with anchovies and lemon – I wouldn’t dare try it at home. It came with what looked like little white cocoons with a very subtle flavor and strange, almost chewy texture. This turned out to be Korean rice cake, a bland yet interesting contrast to the flavorful broccoli. I caught my dining companion running his finger over the empty plate to get the last bit of the sauce – at least he didn’t lick the plate.
The cubes of fried polenta, served with fine slices of raw sweet onion, were light, crispy, perfect. We complained bitterly when the waitress took the dish away before we had finished it, and she insisted on bringing us another even though by then we were sated and told her not to bother.
The succulent pork belly, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, melted into pools of intense, fatty flavor in the mouth. Couldn’t have been better, but it didn’t overshadow the tender magret de canard, which came with homemade ravioli stuffed with something creamy (certainly not the red cabbage mentioned on the menu) and bits of pineapple on the side.
We enjoyed every one of these dishes so much that the desserts, although excellent, were something of an anticlimax: semifreddo and chocolate mousse with a granola topping (no sign of the clementine jelly promised on the menu) and cinnamon churros (fried dough) with vanilla mascarpone.
I haven’t a single complaint about the food: every dish was of top quality, inventive and perfectly balanced. My only comment is that there was perhaps a bit too much reliance on charring (the broccoli, the toast, the pork belly), which began to seem repetitive, although it was delicious.
I did wish that the barstools had been a little more comfortable and that the dishes hadn’t all been served at once (to avoid this, which seems to be the house policy, best to order just a couple of things at a time), which meant that some got cold while you ate others. The waitress (whom I think was one of the owners, a couple from Seattle, who first became known in Paris for their Hidden Kitchen private supper club) was an angel, and even the American customers were soft-spoken.
When I went upstairs for a peek at the more-expensive Verjus restaurant (tasting menus at €55 and €70), it seemed noisy compared to the little oasis of the bar. Having tasted the bar food, however, I am determined to go back and sample the restaurant’s menu.Favorite