Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cafe Constant, Paris France

Admittedly the first four days in Paris were an embarrassment of riches averaging nearly four Michelin stars a day without even taking into account a great meal at a new friend’s home, San Pellegrino’s best restaurant in France, and L’Ami Jean. With yet another highly anticipated Three-Star planned for dinner Wednesday afternoon called for something slightly more casual and more so something that didn’t require so much effort or financial resources – criteria that no-reservations/walk-in only Café Constant fit nicely.

Having originally planned to visit Chef Constant’s Cafe or Les Cocottes in the event that I could not move up from my #1 spot on the wait list at Jean-Francois Piege the night before it was with little effort that we found the restaurant mere blocks from the Eiffel Tower and having planned our visit appropriately we were met with no line. With outdoor seating full our young waitress quickly identified us as English speakers and asked if we would prefer seating downstairs or in the upper level and with numerous children plainly visible on the ground floor we decided to take our chances upstairs instead – a good choice despite having to navigate the narrow climb as servers descended with plates in hand.

Arriving in the small room and hanging our coats on a hook towards the back we were quickly led to a small table in the center – the only open table to be found. A far cry from the spaciousness of many of our previous meals the room at Café Constant actually even more cramped than L’Ami Jean and invariably louder as well. Cozy without being cramped we were next handed menus complete with English translations, explained the chalkboard specials, and asked if a carafe of water would be alright or if we would prefer bottled – the first time such a thing was asked and an offer we gladly accepted.

With orders placed and water delivered alongside a crusty but bland baguette (sans butter) it was really only then that I noticed that for the first time in days I could understand the diners at every single adjacent table. Having walked in the door knowing that the restaurant was one of the most English friendly in the city I have to say it did not arrive as a tremendous surprise, but in all reality there was not a French Speaking Native to be heard save for the servers and given their fluency even they could have passed as tourists, albeit very friendly and efficient ones.

Chatting amongst ourselves about the plans for the afternoon it would be only moments before our first course would arrive – in this case all for me in the form of an 11€ Foie Gras terrine with buttery warm brioche. Served with a “bon appetite” and topped with only cracked black pepper and fleur de sel there was really no glitz or glamour to this course, just straight up bistro food done well for a price nearly half what one would pay back in the States. Savoring slowly and requesting more brioche I will note that the large slate was slightly cumbersome when the other dishes began to arrive but overall this was trivial when taking into account the lovely sapor of the liver throughout the meal.

Arriving perhaps fifteen minutes on the heels of the foie gras our two warm appetizers of the afternoon would be from the menu of daily specials, the first a 13€ bowl of “Creamy Shellfish Bisque” for my sister. Ample in portion and served only modestly warm with a dollop of crème fraiche and caviar the creamy soup was generous with mussels, lobster, and crayfish with hints of spice that proved a nice complement to the otherwise briny potage. While I personally would have favored the soup itself warmer especially as the crème fraiche would only serve to cool it further when mixed in the flavor was quite nice overall.

For my warm appetizer I just couldn’t stop myself from ordering more asparagus – especially when its plate-mates were a crispy soft-boiled egg, onions, pork jus, and bacon in milk foam. Served piping hot with the egg just slightly overcooked this veritable breakfast-for-lunch selection was as beautiful to behold as it was to eat. With the asparagus expectedly well prepared and focused by the rendered onions and briny pork it was actually the milk foam that wowed; adding a slightly sweet levity to the otherwise hefty flavors.

With our appetizers cleared it would not be long before main courses would arrive – this isn’t to say we felt rushed, but given the energy and popularity of Café Constant this isn’t exactly the sort of spot where you linger. Weighing in at 22€ each the first main course was Sea Bass a la Plancha with Garlic Sweet Potatoes – a rather simplistic preparation with a large filet of the meaty fish draped over the potatoes with a sprig of greenery. Clearly fresh and full of flavor the fish was good, though both Erika and I would have preferred the skin more crisp while the potatoes most certainly were garlicky – almost too much so for my liking, but perfect for my sister who ate them with relish.

For my main course I (of course) selected the Duck and Potato Pie with Crispy Apples and Pomegranate Jus – a rather disappointing confit of leg fortunately buoyed by its accoutrements. Beginning with the leg, at first I thought I had been spoiled – that all the fine dining had left me with heightened expectations – but no such luck as the duck was simply greasy, with skin that was not crisp and flavor that bordered on gamey unless matched with the delectable jus. With regard to the apples and potato pie, both were good with the apples actually flash fried like a wonton and the dollop of buttery potatoes sitting atop a proper shredded confit that almost seemed as though it must have come from a different animal as it was parts crispy and entirely what I expected from the leg when it arrived.

With plans to visit Pierre Herme later in the day we almost decided to skip dessert until we were presented with the menu and our waitress told us the Rice Pudding was “really really good.” Having already been wowed once by this rustic dish at L’Ami Jean and with a cost of only 7€ I figured “why not?” and ordered one with two spoons that would arrive within five minutes and be forgotten five minutes after we walked out the door. Was it alright? Sure. Was it really really good – certainly not as only the few small bites with caramel had much flavor.

With instructions to take the 91€ bill downstairs to pay we collected our coats and descended the stairs to once again find the room full and a small line waiting for seats – clearly Constant is not hurting for business. Asked if we’d be interested in purchasing the Chef’s cookbook prior to our departure we declined and within moments we were back on the street en route for the Rodin Museum. A decent meal at a rather decent price I cannot say I “regret” our visit to Café Constant, but at the same time I understand why it does not come nearly as highly recommended as other restaurants of its ilk – overall it is simply a “safe” place for tourists to enjoy decent quality French Bistro food and while I was indeed a tourist I simply expected more.

No comments: