Le Baratin

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I don't do restaurant reviews often for the simple reason that I don't go to restaurants often. But, those days are changing. Last night, I ate at a restaurant in my neighbourhood that I'll be going back to, again and again. Le Baratin is a wine bar, with a list of red and whites by the glass, and everything I've had there has been delicious and interesting, but it was the food that wowed me last night.

Before going, someone had told me a secret, that it was one of Pierre Hermé's favourite restaurant. It's a bit out of step with Hermé's neighbourhood, sitting on the edge between the 20th and the 19th in Belleville. It was further parlayed that this most affordable restaurant, had it not resisted the Michelin system, would be sitting with some stars. This should all be forgotten, however. One of the best things about Le Baratin is its lack of pretension. I mean, it was a Tuesday night and the place was packed to the gills and our reservation could only be had for the second service. The crowd is largely artists, and intellectuals from the neighbourhood. Noisy and familiar, the restaurant sits on a dark narrow street halfway up the Belleville hill.

Anyways, last night I started with a 2002 Cheverny red, which I had with my starter: pan fried cod cheek with topinabours (Jerusalem artichokes). The cod was very clean and pure, finished with a wink of cream. Really, a bright jumping little dish. The soft rooty earthiness of the topinabours marries well with the delicate fresh sweetness of the sea. Both aren't agressive enough to overwhelm each other but pack a delicacy that lingers, almost dances, in the mouth. Spectacular.

Benoit's starter was fresh fois gras with de Puy lentils. It came out in a shallow dish as the lentils was finished in a broth. This is the first time I've seen fresh fois gras done this well. A nice finger width slice quickly flash-fried. The sin with fois gras is to over or undercook it. This one might have been the most perfect slice I've ever tasted, with the texture not unlike silken tofu. I ate mine on a slice of crispy baguette, topped with some woody almost mushroomy wine, and then ate a mouthful of lentils. While I always love lentils, they really do make you happier when they've got just a touch of fois gras fat to kiss it. Something to shake your tailfeather about.

Then we had our mains. To be honest, the entrées had left us vertiginous expectations so it would have been hard to live up to the sparkling entry. Still, I think I can comfortably say that my chicken was one of the most delicious dishes I've had in a while: poulet de Challans, in a crepine, stuffed with fois de volailles, served with pleurotes (Chicken wrapped in a crepine, stuffed with poultry liver and served with oyster mushrooms). Everything about this dish was profoundly rich and satisfying and the chicken, well... the chicken tasted, was soaked, with the taste and aroma of chicken!

I had the last portion so this was the main that was the most popular last night. But, not only with patrons. The moment my dish arrived, a little white cat just sat at my feet and looked up. It didn't jump, it just sat patiently, staring up at me, not flinching for a second. I continued to eat, tasting morsels from Benoit's plate, and, every time I looked down, there was that same cat, staring back up at me. Finally, I pulled off a tiny piece and dropped it on the floor. The cat immediately pounced. It was the owner's cat, so it was ridiculously charming and well-mannered. After its treat, the cat then waited for the door to open and jumped out, sitting on top of the moped to look at the street. What's funny is it didn't beg anyone else. Must have had a thing for the chicken.

Benoit had a grilled sea bass with smashed potatoes and a very bright green parsley sauce. Compared to my baroque plate, it was positively minimal. The tastes were kept separate and the fish was slippery sweet, and it's good to have simple things where the ingredients sing a good solo. The wine we shared was a 2002 red from Ardèche, a rather astringent beast with softer nutty tones afterwards.

Dessert was for me was a baked apple with walnuts, and a glass of Poire William eau de vie, impeccable.

For entrée, plat, wine, digestif and dessert, for two, we shelled out 80€. There isn't a tremendous amount of choice with the food, and presentation isn't exactly a priority, but taste gets top marks. Reservations are recommended. But, don't crowd it out... it's my neighbourhood restaurant.