If there was a dish that typified our experience at Le Chateaubriand, this might be it.
Beneath the wafts of radish and turnip is a piece of dorade, cooked so softly that eating it reminds me of nuzzling a baby’s neck. The sauce is a twist on the French classic beurre blanc, but with the Spanish accent of Manzanilla sherry. Over the top are scorched walnuts, which play up the bitterness of the radish and turnip .
It’s served without much ceremony; quickly dropped on the table with a clatter. There’s the loose artistry of the plating. The slight acrid flavours. The raw and the sous vide. The informality. And then there’s how quickly it’s cleared and the next course arrives. All of these things are hallmarks in my memory of our meal at the highest rated restaurant in France in this year’s San Pellegrino Top 100 restaurants list (and number 9 in the world).
From all accounts Chef Iñaki Aizpitarte is somewhat of a maverick. He doesn’t really care that much what you think of him.
He was born in Basque country. He learned to cook in Tel Aviv. And he’s been running Le Chateaubriand in the 11th arrondissementssince 2006. There’s a set five course menu that changes daily. The price is democratically set at 55 euro. He wanted somewhere his friends could come and eat.
That’s if they can get a table. At 9.45 pm on a Saturday night in November there’s a queue of 20 people out the door. We were lucky enough to have a table set aside for us at 7 pm, courtesy of navigating their booking system (three weeks before, at 2 pm you call. Call at exactly that time and you’ll be fine). If you can’t get through, then there’s a second sitting that starts at around 9.30 pm. That’s what the people in the queue are waiting for.
This is a different kind of French bistro. The atmosphere is old school, from the wooden chairs and tables to the blackboards that adorn the walls. There are no tablecloths here. There’s no music either. The menu for the day comes on a piece of paper. There are four amuse bouches and then five courses to follow. If you want wines then the house wines are five euro a glass. If you want a bottle the list is predominantly made up of natural wines. If you make the same mistake my 6 foot two, ex football playing husband did and try to order a ‘Kir Royale’ as an aperitif you’ll get a sniff and ‘non’ as a retort. They’re ironically cool here, but not that ironically cool.
The pairing of wines by the glass to match each course is 60 euro each. We’re celebrating, so we say yes. And then the ride starts.
The menu may change every day, based on seasonality, inspiration and whimsy, but from seeing others reports there seem to be some constants. This is one. Classic gourgeres; choux cheese puffs, here they’re encrusted with poppy seeds.
They’re like fat glossed clouds. And they’re a quick demonstration that this kitchen knows it’s technique. It’s just going to choose how it’s going activate it.
The next is also something of a constant. Small bowls of ‘cerviche’. A cold jolt of citrus juice that prickles in your mouth. There’s no need for an aperetif when this is on the table.
Floating about in these candy floss coloured bowls is a small ‘crouton’ of borderline ripe avocado.
Next; a nugget of softly cooked tuna, paired with mushrooms. It’s a nifty pairing of textures; the woods and the sea ape each other with the same kind of bounce and elasticity.
These dishes have all come and gone quickly. Soon there’s bread on the table. Like the gourgeres it’s a bold declaration of skill. It’s outstandingly good- faintly sour, with a solid crust that feels safe . It doesn’t automatically come with butter, so be sure to ask for some. Your waiter may look slightly annoyed, but it’s worth it for the yellow half moon that arrives flanked by sea salt. Sometimes a restaurant rises and falls on the little things. And the bread and butter at Le Chateaubriand is…. brilliant.
The final two amouse bouches are a little more curious. Leek with squid ink morphs across the plate like something from a dark lagoon.
Meanwhile a small Japanese style presentation of tandoori spiced broth with coffee bean and cube of foie is a mysterious jangle of cultures and texutres. It’s something of an enigma.
The first of the courses proper is what blows me away. It’s cubes of blood pudding with purple potato, raspberry vinegar and some tendrils of frisee. The blood pudding is as soft and as rich as foie; but murkier and much, much sexier. Sprayed across the side of plate is a powder made from raspberries. It looks a little like a splatter from a crime scene. It’s richness and light, earthy and sprightly. It’s gobsmackingly good.
Next is the dorade with turnips and radish; the dish I think that encapsulates it all. From here the sweetness that’s underpinned some of the dishes starts to morph towards bitterness. This continues into the final savoury course; a light stew of devastatingly soft veal cheek, paired with root vegetables, radicchio and pottering about in an olive stained broth.
The dish is something of an intellectual exercise; the softest and most gentle of meats paired with bitterness.It’s like a riddle that you keep going back with your spoon trying to solve.
For some people the desserts have proved disappointing. For me, they were beautiful in their simplicity. A buttermilk ice is lactic and clean, topped with gently salted herbs and the crunch of pralines.
Then, a puddle of chocolate. It’s topped with seeds- the kind you put on yogurt in cafe’s adjacent to yoga studios. Hiding beneath are pieces of soft and pliant pear- and; a surprising piece of beetroot.
The meal comes to a close with two pieces of mango, crusted in small candies and fennel.
Coffee is fine, but nothing to write home about.
And then it’s 9.40 pm. This is not a place to luxuriate over a meal. On our arrival we were pushed out of the way by a fellow guest, anxious to get to his seat. Courses come and go with amazing alacrity. There’s a reason that there’s a second seating that starts at around 9.30pm. It’s because nearly everyone who came at 7pm is done by then.
There are some curious elements throughout the night, most notably the beverage pairings. While the wine pairings are deft, they’re a rollercoaster ride akin to our experience at Momofuku Ko. From champagnes through to bold earthy reds, back to chardonnay to champagnes and then to prune liqueur. They all support the dishes, but don’t provide the sort of considered progression you might expect. Similarly, while the English of the floor staff is deft, the service can be abrupt.
But would I come again? Absolutely.
In a city where a main course at a Michelin star can cost 55 euro, it’s amazing value. I’d come. I’d forgo the matching wines and order the house selections by the glass, or one great bottle. I’d bring some friends. We’d love some courses. We’d puzzle over some others. And we’d have a great time.
Which is just as Chef would like, I assume.
129 Avenue Parmentier
75011 Paris, France
01 43 57 45 95
Hours: Mon, Sun Closed; Tue-Sat 12-11:30pm