Sometimes I argue with the man in the mirror. I’m smart enough to know that he can be stupid, and I delight in proving him wrong. So in more ways than one, Le Chateaubriand was delightful.
I had to go there on this most recent Paris trip, precisely because I didn’t think I’d like it. I’d read the menu scores of times, seen pictures and reviews by friends whose opinions I really value. But a frustrating dichotomy was at work, the words “best” and “worst” uttered too frequently in the same breath.
I figured if I were going to investigate the matter for myself, a thorough approach was in order. First my girlfriend and I would visit Le Dauphin, the newer, arguably cooler little brother to Chateaubriand that’s down the block. Unfortunately after lunch there we learned that our date with the older sibling that evening was not, in fact, in the computer. By “computer,” of course, I mean the scribbled, folded, wine-dotted papyrus peeking out of our server’s pocket. Who, he asked, was our friend who’d made the booking for us, and what time would this hypothetical meal take place? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
After a little horse-trading and a lot of eyelash-batting from my girlfriend, the dapper young dude conceded that we could sit at the bar. In the meantime we explored the city for a while before circling back to Aux Deux Amis for an apéritif with one of the most prominent Parisian gastronomes around. Who should we bump into there but Iñaki Aizpitarte, the chef whose food we’d eaten just hours before and would eat again just hours later. There was definitely grape juice in his glass. I can’t speak to whether or not it was fermented. But I can say I found him to be in rather good spirits.
We were, too, when we slid up to the bar at Chateaubriand to find that our server was Urik, the same guy who had helped us sort out the booking earlier. This is not a bar designed to eat at, I should mention. Or not designed for humans with legs, anyway. Fortunately all we needed were our hands for the first snacks — gougéres, avocado in tiger’s milk, and duck hearts coated with coriander and sesame. My love of coriander seed notwithstanding, my favorite of the small bites were thumb-sized sweetbreads served with asparagus and finger lime. The taste was simple, clear and harmonic. A restorative celery root broth came shortly thereafter. With all this we drank a natural sparkler from Anjou — Jean-Christophe Garnier’s Brut Nature — that stood its ground beautifully with the spices and the innards.
Fish and chips meant tempura pollock and potatoes two ways. Chips dusted with tamarind powder made sense to me, a touch of tartness to liven things up. I was less convinced by burnt fingerlings, a technique surely already mastered by many a distracted home cook. Yet my main gripe with this dish was its lack of a sauce, a dip, a cream, something to bring more moisture to the (albeit expertly fried) fish.
But lemon sole smoothed everything over. It was the dish of the night, of the trip, hell, of the year. A sauteed fillet sat on a raw one, each bite bringing contrasting textures and temperatures. Chives and leeks made up most of the garnishing greenery. The overall effect was deceptively simple, but this dish more than any other showed me the clouds in which Aizpitarte can fly.
I was riding a certain high myself, still smiling about the sole as I slid my knife through slow-roasted pork. Crab jus and a sea urchin sauce were good company, a touch of iodine to counteract the fatty meat. Pickled daikon, beet and onion had much the same effect. Then a trio of hyphenated cheeses – Ossau-Iraty, Sainte-Maure, and Brillat-Savarin — segued toward the sweets.
Desserts here don’t change daily like the savory stuff, but as far as I’m concerned, our first one fully earned a consistent spot in the rotation. Orange sorbet came flanked by roasted endive, dusted with a crumbly powder of chicory and dried black olive. It was a pinball machine, slamming my taste buds against sweet, bitter and savory elements in rapid succession. I loved it.
A chocolate finale, meanwhile, was just fine, with bittersweet cocoa powder and little shards of feuilletine mounded over celery root ice cream. Fresh mango pieces coated in fennel seeds — some candied, some not — ended things on a fresh note. I consulted no wine list that night, choosing instead to work my way through all four sparkling wines on the chalkboard to our left. And with this lineup, I was perfectly happy.
We were both so happy with everything, in fact, that we tried to come back the very next night. A Saturday night. Hell Night for dining out. Aizpitarte’s sous-chef and right-hand man, Laurent Cabut, saw us near the end of the interminable queue outside. ”I’m going to run out of food, guys. Zis eez horrible! I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” He pulled out his cell phone, calling friends from other restaurants he might, in good conscience, send us to instead. For this incredibly generous gesture there was no need. Waiting it out stubbornly, our hope for a good meal whittled down to almost nothing, we ended up with a table at Le Dauphin. And the next time we’re back in Paris, you can bet that we’ll end up back at Le Chateaubriand.