I am not a morning person, and Le Dauphin is, perhaps, not an afternoon restaurant. Better to go at night, when the experience mimics that of a dinner party squeezed into a newly-renovated bathroom — all cacophony and clean white marble. You might end up, as we have, at a small table near the huge front windows. The challenge here is distinguishing between the nearby figures having a smoke to take a break from the meal and those having a meal to take a break from smoking. I am not French enough to discern the difference.
Our server, somehow, is the chef. I drag my finger along the menu, stopping ten times. Sadly, he speaks French far too well to understand what the hell I’m mumbling. He drops his notepad and a pen on the table, and walks away coolly. I like his style.
At lunch yesterday, we didn’t see him. But as we sipped an apéritif earlier this evening at the Paris restaurant industry’s watering hole of the moment, we did. Yes, I definitely like his style.
Yesterday we had what the French call a formula, a short set menu. The choices were between some sardine croquettes I liked and a cold shellfish soup I didn’t quite. A perfectly fine fillet of sea bream and a vapid veal stew that both wore cress, carrots and raw button mushrooms (which Parisian chefs seem inexplicably fond of). Tiramisù with a bright accent of passionfruit, and a piece of cheese far too perfect to have come from anywhere outside France.
On the whole, that meal didn’t necessarily provide what I had wanted, or at least what I expected. But last night’s meal at Le Chateaubriand — Dauphin’s older sibling — dazzled. So much so that we tried to go back there earlier tonight. Unfortunately so did the entire populace of the 11th arrondissement. The obvious Plan B is just down the block. The obvious Plan B is right here.
So like a total creep, a total jerk, or a totally creepy jerk, I just got through standing silently in the same spot for what must have been an hour. The migratory herd with which we arrived did its best to behave its worst — yelling, cursing, even crying. My girlfriend seemed to quietly question her life choices. The waitstaff regarded me with a healthy mix of pity and disdain.
I guess the former won out, though, because now we’re sitting with too many plates on our table. We’re drinking a Loire white called the Magic of Juju, and there might indeed be something to that name.
A simple salad of endive and pickled onion with tamarind powder on top is a study in reds — tart and beautifully bitter in turns. Ceviche benefits greatly from cucumber water, and I benefit greatly from eating it. I don’t pay much attention to what’s in the beef tartare, but I’m loving the chew of the rough-chopped meat, and there’s a masterful mix of salt and acid in its seasoning.
There’s a touch of chill in the air tonight, so eating only cold dishes seems ill-advised. Things warm up with a mushroom-and-sunchoke velouté and an exceptional squid ink risotto, the latter dusted with a bit of lime zest. A succulent strip of roasted Ibérico pork, essentially the derrière if my research is accurate, arrives with a bunch of vinegary things, tempering the richness. Smashed vitelotte potatoes show up nearly naked. Almost indigo in color, they have a controlled sweetness and considerable depth of flavor for, well, potatoes. They need nothing.
We need dessert, and three seems just right. Buttermilk ice cream is savored with olive oil and tiny leaves of fresh thyme. Ricotta with honey and almonds pleases even the Italian girl sitting across from me. But it is a red-wine-poached pear with fat financier crumbs and dehydrated flecks of black olive that really stands out from the pack.
We finally stand up from the table. A firm elbow to the ribs nudges me into motion. I feel loved. She feels, apparently, like we should go.
I glance one last time around the room, thinking that this restaurant was born around the same time that trending became a word that people actually use, which is to say, not long ago. And for better or worse, it has already become a bit trendy. Perhaps more Brooklyn rooftop party than suburban dinner soirée. I hesitate for an instant in the doorway. If I stand here for another hour, do you think we’ll get invited to the after-party?