L'Os à Moelle: my sentimental Paris
My bistro favorite in Paris comes and goes, but there is one constant that has been a sentimental favorite since the early 90's. I just made it back there again on this last trip.
That night, my friends Matt, Lynn and I just arrived in Paris for our Thanksgiving holiday. It was the only night in the trip that I had made no reservation, preferring to leave it open in case we were too jetlagged. After a rather mediocre lunch --with a bottle even more mediocre Beaujolais Nouveau that smelled of banana purée-- at a nameless bistro in our neighbourhood, I was determined to find a better place for dinner for our first night in Paris.
Without a reservation on Thursday night, finding a decent place for dinner can be a little difficult. Well, not as difficult as trying to get a taxi on a Saturday night, but nonetheless. I decided to take them to La Cave de L'Os à Moelle, a tiny wine bar extension of the restaurant with the same name, and a fittingly casual place for our first night in a new time zone. We couldn't get into La Cave, but luckily there was an open table at the restaurant, so that was where we settled in for dinner. Both of these are owned by the charming Thierry Faucher, one of the young chefs trained by the affable Christian Constant at the Crillon.
The four young protégés of Christian Constant during his time at the kitchen at Les Ambassadeurs, Thierry Faucher of L'Os à Moelle, Yves Camdeborde (previously) of La Régalade, Thierry Breton of Chez Michel, and Rodolpe Paquin of Le Repaire de Cartouch, were at the forefront of the Bistros Modernes movement in the early to mid 90's. It was these four friends, well trained and well on their way to garner stars of their own in the long tradition of classically trained French Chefs, who shocked the gastronomic world when they decided to each open their own bistro, each in their own little corner of Paris.
Their move --the French gastronomic brain-drain if you will-- was seen as the harbinger of things to come, and had many pundits predicting the demise of French cuisine. Luckily, the foretold demise did not come to pass, and these chefs --but for the exception of Yves Camdeborde who has left La Régalade and about to open a Pension de Famille-- are still happily cooking in their own kitchen, while other young chefs, like Piège at Les Ambassadeurs, Alléno at Restaurant Le Meurice, and Frechon at Le Bristol, have risen to pick up the torch of haute cuisine.
In this group of four, I would say that Camdeborde, especially at his best at La Régalade, is the most talented. The best bistro meal I’ve had –beating the nearest competition by far- was the first time at La Régalade. Though that restaurant in the months, or even a year before his recent departure, was lagging a bit. Paquin, at Le Repaire de Cartouche, is country and hearty, but has been rather up and down. Breton always has interesting menu items from Brittany, where he was from. While Faucher –a biker dude though he is- seems to cook with the most light and feminine touch.
The menu at L'Os à Moelle is small. While the price has gone up a little bit since the last time I was there, from 35 euro to 38, the format remains the same: five courses, including dessert, plus an optional small cheese course (no supplement). There are always two to three choices for each course, perhaps more for desserts, beginning with a soup course, then a light course of cold entrée, perhaps a piece of foie gras or saumon mariné. The next course is often of fish or seafood, then the final savory course is of meat or poultry. There is an optional cheese course, always accompanied by a small green salad, before the dessert.
The cooking here is always reliable, with a focus firmly on using pristine ingredients and letting them shine. The sauces are intense but never overpowering, and often lightened with spices such as saffron and thyme flowers, providing a nice punctuation. Faucher particularly excels at soup and fish courses. One of the best pieces of the humble Dorade I've had was here at L'Os à Moelle, simply pan-fried, in a light sauce with a nose of citrus, served atop a light as air purée -not of potato, no, perhaps salsify, i'm not sure, it has been quite a few years.
Tonight, we started our meal with two beautiful soups, a warm soup of pumpkin, with a few cutest little pieces of ravioli filled with comté cheese, and a cold soup of cauliflower puree, with crunchy bits of garlic crouton and chopped chives. They were both wonderful, though I preferred the ever so slightly bitter edge in the creamy smooth cauliflower soup.
The second course was a foie gras terrine and raw scallops salad. The foie gras terrine was delicious and beautiful, a thin sliver served atop a small pile of crisp and bitter greens, sprinkled with a few bits of dried figs and a cracked walnut. The salad of raw St.Jacques was also quite lovely. The scallops were on the smaller side, but impeccably fresh and sweet, served with the same bitter greens, slices of almond, and a few curious ribbons of cheese. The combination was rather intriguing, and provided for some very satisfying blend of textures and flavors.
The fish course had two choices as well, a Lotte Rôti, roasted monkfish, with a sweet potato puree, dried chanterelles and harring roe sauce, and a Lieu Jaune pôelé, pan-fried Pollack with endive in a goose reduction sauce. Lieu Jaune, a member of the cod fish family, has little taste of its own, so it did well in the flavorful yet light reduction sauce. The sharpness of harring roe was also a perfect foil for the creamy Lotte.
The meat course on this particular menu had one irresistable item for me, a perdreau rôti, raosted partridge. This was the height of the season for game, so it was simply unthinkable for me to ignore the only game item on the menu. The partridge came perfectly roasted -perhaps on the rare side for the American palate but not for mine- with a piece of crisp bacon on top, and a mound of buttery soft sauteed savoy cabbage. Perfect.
We also had a roasted saddle of rabbit and a piece of roasted lamb. The rabbit was tasty, if a bit over done to my taste. The lamb was from Limousin -meaning that it has a pedegree of Indication Géographique Protégée, a protected geographic origin, similar to an AOC for wine- and was roasted to a perfect medium rare, served with roasted garlic and root vegetables, all very intense and tasty.
As for our libation, we began -comme d'habitude- with a glass of Vin Cuit Provençale for Matthew and I, and a glass of pink and bubbly Cerdon du Bugey for our equally bubbly Lynn. Both of these wines are slightly sweet, the vin cuit more so than the Cerdon. Drinking something sweet before the meal is a way to get your appetite going, or so the French would have us believe.
Vin Cuit Provençale, a traditional sweet wine from -you guessed it- Provence, is heated in a cauldron before aging in oak barrel. It can be served as dessert wine, or as apéritif. This particular glass was quite lovely, with a dominant nose of citrus, then a bit of nuts -hazelnut, I'd say- and also of raisin.
Cerdon du Bugey is a sparkling rosé from Bugey, in the Jura mountains of Eastern France. When these four bistros modernes were first open, serving a humble Cerdon du Bugey instead of the fancypants Champagne was seen as turning their collective nose up at the more traditional ways of doing things. But I don't believe that it was done only to prove a point, Cerdon du Bugey in its approachable, lightly sweet, and bubbly nature, not to mention its prettiest shade of pink, is quite a fine and fun way to begin one's meal. I, for one, am a convert.
With our food we had a bottle of lovely Chinon, a 2002 Beaumont from Catherine and Pierre Breton. A beautiful ruby-red wine that was very fruity -a nose of cassis and other berries- but with strong acidity to balance the fruits, unlike your garden-variety fruit-bomb Californian plonks. Catherine and Pierre Breton are one of the best small producers in the Loire Valley, their wines are made from organic grapes, and processed with very little added sulphur. The results are lively, beautiful wines that can be found at all the cool bistros and wine bars in Paris. Next time you are in Paris and see their names on a wine menu, try a bottle, you'll thank me for it.
Before the desserts we had a small cheese and salad course. The salad part was a few crunchy leaves of gorgeously purple and green leaves. I am not entirely sure what they were, but they tasted like endives. There were two small serving of cheese, I forgot to take down the names, but one was a dry aged cheese from the Pyrénées, and another something else, medium hard in texture -sort of like a creamy young gruyère- fashioned into a pretty confection on top of the dry cheese.
The dessert course was delightful, a deceptively simple dacquoise of chocolate, with a chocolate-covered orange slice in a saffron sauce, also a simple poached pear made more elegant in a terrine, served with a creamy vanilla ice cream.
Then there was my coup de coeur, sweet roasted figs with tangy chèvres cheese gratin on top. The top of the goat cheese was covered with burnt sugar, as in crème brulée. Gorgeous and absolutely delectable to boot. A beautiful finalé to my wonderful meal.
I've been coming here since the early days of the restaurant, long before I consider Paris my stomping grounds. This place, the bright yellow interior, the quirky art on the wall, the secret door underneath the wooden bar, all have become as familiar as old friends to me. Many intimate dinners, many fun time with friends, and many a broken heart later, my L'Os à Moelle is still here, looking very much the same as the first time we met, serving food that is just as tasty as when I first discovered it. A la prochaîne, my old friend, it will not be so long before I see you again.
3, Rue Vasco de Gama - 75015 Paris
Tel : 01 45 57 27 27
(La Cave del'Os à Moelle is across the street from the restaurant.)