Saturday, April 16, 2011

l'AOC, Paris France

For our final proper meal in Paris the decision was made to stray a bit from the tried, true, and traditionally highly recommended. While part of the reason for this decision was based on not wanting another epic meal as we had to pack our bags for an early flight back to the United States another part of it had to do with a phrase I kept reading when researching the pedigree of many of the city’s best chefs – “Maitre Rôtisseur” – a title apparently relating to a society called Le Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and based on an ancient guild of meat roasters. Intrigued by this society and having thoroughly researched our trip (as I am prone to do) the one name that kept coming up was a place called L’AOC – a space according to many that currently makes the best roasted meats in the city and honors the traditions of the ancient guild more formally than any other.

With a charming location visible from the Seine finding L’AOC was as simple as the reservations process by way of the internet, though as it turned out given our early hour of dining the reservation was not entirely necessary – with the bistro well lit and the sun not yet set when we arrived the restaurant would be no more than a quarter full throughout the 65 minute duration of our meal. Making our way in the door we were greeted pleasantly by a middle-aged woman who turned out to be the chef’s wife and after realizing we spoke only English she welcomed us and led us to a two top all the way in the back, near the restroom.

Not wanting to complain as the seat wasn’t bad but at the same time getting the sense we weren’t exactly “welcomed” our menus were delivered and we were pointed to the 3-course prix fixe and explained the choices in single words – main ingredients only – and left to peruse the menu. With our server, a young male who spoke minimal English arriving with a wine list next we declined and requested a bottle of water – Evian for 6EU – and perused the menu for a short while before placing orders. Perhaps sensing her relatively chilly welcome I will note that the chef’s wife did stop by twice during the course of our meal, both times with a smile, to see how things were going and when the chef made his way from the grill room to say hello to all the patrons he seemed quite pleasant and hospitable.

With wooden chairs topped with worn leather padding matching hefty wooden tables with pull-through checked tablecloths the feel of L’AOC was everything one expects from a French bistro and the yellow walls, red curtains, and knick-knacks only served to complete the scene. With a charcuterie and pate island at the restaurant center it would be a short while before our meal would begin and having seen other tables delivered a weighted bag of bread it required a request for ours to arrive – a request that I’d have probably been better off not making as the house bread was a chewy baguette served without butter.

With my sister opting for the 29Eu prix fixe and myself choosing to go a la carte and share dessert as there was only one dessert that sounded pleasing our first courses would arrive approximately fifteen minutes after seating and while mine was excellent, Erika’s was the worst single course we ate in all of France. Titled “Avocat cuvettes en verrine” on the chalkboard and described as “Avocados and Shrimp” by our waitress this dish was…well…it was vile. Served in a glass bowl as promised by the name and with a layer of avocado mousse at its base the dish started out well enough, but what sat atop the creamy avocado ran afoul with a watery reduction of what seemed to be tomato, vinegar, corn, vinegar, pepper and more vinegar. Seemingly an attempt at guacamole or salsa but so stringent that any nuance was lost all we could do was sit and scratch our heads as to how such a thing even happened – or why they even added the shrimp as it most certainly couldn’t be tasted.

With Erika’s dud returning to the kitchen less than 1/3 eaten I was somewhat saddened by the fact that she had no interest in my entrée – but at the same time the selfish part of me was kind of happy. Simply titled “foie gras torchon” on the menu and costing a mere 14Eu my dish featured a large chunk of creamy foie gras lying nude on slate with three thick slices of grilled country bread, pepper, and fleur de sel as its only accoutrements. With the liver slightly firmer than other preparations in texture it was no less lovely and although not quite as refined as some of the port-poached presentations I’d had elsewhere a stunning degree of natural sweetness was naturally present. With this nutty bread substantially better than the baguette and still hot from the grill the foie spread nicely and bite by bite disappeared as I smiled with delight.

With main courses arriving literally moments after our first plates were cleared it was with horror that Erika saw the same admixture of vegetables topping her Sea Bream and Eggplant Puree with Balsamic, but thankfully this time the acidic orange layer was not present and things proceeded much more smoothly. Beginning first with the fish, a large pan seared filet served skin on and dressed minimally with lemon and butter the preparation was excellent though the quality of the fish which was merely average when compared to the version at La Regalade only a day earlier. Accompanying the fish in a baked round was a soufflé of eggplant puree – creamy, light, and spiced lightly with pepper – it’s texture similar to stuffing and very tasty both on its own and with bites of the dourade.

With the nightly special roasted meats consisting of mostly beef in various forms my main course selection was a combination platter of sorts featuring “Traditionally roasted duck breast, confit of leg, and wood roasted new potatoes in duck jus.” Benefitted from our early reservation as there were apparently only a few ducks available that night, this dish was by far the best of the evening with the duck breast tender, moist, and lean while the slow roasting melded fat and skin into a crispy layer sweetened by simple syrup and balsamic. Additionally impressive (and the best confit of the trip) the duck leg served atop the breast was nearly burnt in portions yet the flavor was intact and the meat so supple it literally fell off the bone as I tried to cut the skin. With the roasted potatoes smoky and tender and the jus briny, sweet, and clean the entirety of this plate was a winner and the portion large enough that it could have been shared by two.

With plates cleared, mine still holding some potatoes and Erika’s still with some fish, a shared dessert seemed the best course of action since we’d pre-gamed at Jacques-Genin and once again the order of the day would be Riz au Lait – this time a much smaller portion than those previous and although the caramel and almonds were good, the texture wasn’t as “stick a spoon up in it” as it was tapioca. Sure this may have been better than any rice pudding stateside, but when compared to what we’d experienced over the past week it was a bit of a disappointment.

With the bill paid – a modest 69Eu all inclusive – we bid farewell to our server and on the way out the chef yelled a “Merci et Bonsoire” from the kitchen where he was hard at work, seemingly the only person in the kitchen at all. With the night still young as we made it to the street and a night of remorseful packing before us we opted to walk for a bit along the Seine prior to catching the Metro and reflecting on the night I feel a bit mixed about the experience; on one hand l’AOC seems devout to a simpler way of cooking and a simpler way of life with each ingredient fresh and minimally altered, yet on the other hand they seem to want to be a “go to” space given their inviting website, location, and décor while the service and some of the cooking do not live up to such standards. While I certainly do not regret the visit to l’AOC given the quality of the foie gras and the duck if I were to do it again I’d probably opt to go with someone French who loves roasted meats as this is clearly not a place accustomed to non-natives fish is simply not what they are known for.


Anonymous said...

With all your experiences this trip, where would you absolutely recommend for 2-3 more casual meals? I have lunch plans at L'Arpege and Guy Savoy already with my friend who is vegetarian (small amount of seafood is OK). Thanks!

uhockey said...

Chez L'Ami Jean and Le Regalade St. Honore to be sure.