My mother always told me to avoid judging a book by its cover but I’m not going to lie, when we first walked up to Le Chateaubriand my first thought was “is this the right place?” Ranked by S. Pellegrino as the 11th best restaurant in the world (since upgraded to 9th in 2011) and helmed by self trained “vagabond” chef Inaki Aizpitarte the small former grocery turned bistro in the 11th is anything but ostentatious – as a matter of fact to the layperson it looks every bit as common as hundreds of other bistros in Paris. Walking up to the open doors slightly early for our 8:30pm reservation it was additionally confusing that such a well regarded spot would be empty save for one table on a Friday night, however with our name reported to the bartender we were assured we were indeed at the right place and that “service usually starts around 9:00.”
Greeted in excellent English by a young roguish looking man who would turn out to be our server we were welcomed and told to “pick anywhere you like” – for myself the table looking directly into the kitchen was an obvious choice and as such my sister was given a view of the entirety of a dining room that would fill to capacity spilling into the street within a half hour. Speaking of the room – overall it represented a continuation of the rustic theme noted from the exterior with cream colored walls, grey floors, unadorned wooden tables and chairs, and a zinc bar and chalkboard as the only real “decorations” to the room. With the day’s menu presented and Okayed we were asked if we had any dietary restrictions and after denying any such issues the meal would begin within minutes.
With Erika now functioning on about one hour of sleep in the last thirty-six hours it was with great appreciation that the pace of Le Chateaubriand was up-tempo and the crowd boisterous – with courses arriving every 10-15 minutes and the servers all professional yet engaging I’m rather certain that anything less would have left her with her face in the soup – especially after we each enjoyed a glass of house wine, for herself a crisp white and for myself a fruity rose. With Chef Aizpitarte checking in on us twice himself during the course of the meal I will say that despite the restaurant’s fame and success (and their apparent inability to answer the phone on multiple attempts to secure a reservation) it was undeniable that the restaurant’s goal was not only to make sure everyone was enjoying their meal, but to make sure everyone was having a great time.
For our first bites of the 50€ menu we would receive a number of amuses bouche in rapid succession – the first a quartet of flawless Black Sesame Gougeres – ping-pong ball sized pockets of choux loaded with creamy gruyere and dusted with a sweet coating to keep the seeds in place. Tasty – melt in the mouth – a clever spin on a classic.
Our second amuse would arrive in a small bowl – a thin slice of turbot ceviche in rhubarb infused oil and vinegar. Clean and brisk with the vinegar a shock to the palate I personally think the dish would have been better served by a more hefty fish as the turbot’s mild flavor was mostly overwhelmed, but all in all the “broth” was quite pleasant.
Moving on with the flurry of small plates our third dish would arrive mere seconds on the tail of the first – this time a grilled bone-in anchovy topped with dried pomegranate – simple, sweet and salty – I have to admit I liked it much more than I expected I would and so did my sister (so much that she would actually order anchovy the next day at Le Cinq.)
For the next dish we would receive a dish that could have easily served as a legitimate course at some of the other restaurants we dined at during our visit – a salad of Golden Beets, Olives, Sea Urchin, Radish and Sea Lettuce adorned with a light vinaigrette. With the beets earthy and sweet, the olives and urchin briny, and the radish lending it’s characteristic peppery finish to the party I really liked this dish – a simple arrangement of excellent products that all worked together to a nice effect.
Fairing less well than the previous dishes would be our final amuse – the only dud of the evening and all the more disappointing because someone actually had to pick such an abrasive plant to make it. Titled Stinging nettle Gazpacho with Lime this oily and cold soup largely tasted like bitter cooked spinach with small bits of lime dispersed in its depths and honestly nothing about it worked for me while Erika addressed it with a “well, that was interesting” and crinkled nose.
Moving forward to the menu proper it was just after 9:00 when we would receive our first of two baskets of bread – a lovely whole wheat sourdough provided from Poujauran and delivered without butter. Having dined at La Bigarrade earlier in the day and now at Le Chateaubriand I’ll note that this was the only day during our visit that I did not nearly overdose on top quality butter…a damned shame, to be sure, but at the time I guess I did not yet know what I was missing.
For our first menu course of the evening we would again see a seasonal ingredient that featured prominently throughout our travels – asparagus. Typically one of my very favorite vegetables, Inaki’s version that evening consisted of a quartered White Asparagus resting in a pool of Smoked unpasteurized Sheep’s Milk and Olive Oil topped with Parmesan, “Lemon caviar” and Diced Turnips. Pungent and aromatic even at a distance the dish was dazzling – so much so that I actually dug in before snapping a picture. Smoky and pungent, sour yet briny – and everything anchored by those lovely asparagus…a mélange of flavors with each identifiable but none overwhelming – a flawless dish that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
Moving rapidly from vegetable to fish our second course would be nearly as successful as the first in part because it featured my very favorite fish, but also because it arrived paired with another melody of flawless vegetables and an intense yet complementary sauce. Described simply as Saint-Pierre (John Dory) with Pork Jus and Carrots the simplicity of the description undersold the variety of the ingredients and intensity of the flavors as the plate presented no less than five types of carrots each at varying degrees of cooking, a perfect slice of John Dory with crispy skin, and a salty pork reduction that brought everything to sharp focus.
In our main course I must note the “flaw” of Le Chateabriand’s menu – specifically that it gives the diner no choice and that those who don’t favor specific items are indeed taking a risk – for my sister and I that “risk” was beef – something that we certainly aren’t allergic to or opposed to, but something we simply don’t order when given alternative options. With that noted, our main course (of course) was Beef brisket with foraged greens, leeks, pine, mango powder, and potato chip – and surprisingly it was actually quite good. Served as a large salad with the beef entirely covered on arrival the protein itself was smoky and beefy as expected, but what set this dish apart from the standard was the unique combination of greens – some bitter, some peppery – the pungent leeks and mild pine, and most of all the intense mango powder that gave the whole plate a sweet overtone. While I still cannot say I am a beef convert, between this experience and that at Roberta’s and Peter Luger in
For the final course/courses of the evening the diner is offered two options – a pair or desserts or a plate of cheese. With Erika tired and not particularly hungry she opted for the fromage while I decided to see what Chef’s team could do with the sweets - personally, given the small portion and tame selection of shaved aged comte, creamy chevre, and mild sheep’s milk cheese that Erika received I’d have to say my decision was the better of the two, even if the theme seemed strangely similar to that of lunch.
With Inaki checking in on us for the second time just as dessert was delivered I found it humorous when he said “this is a new one – hopefully it works – I liked it” – it was especially interesting when I saw the dish and realized it was a less ornate version of something I’d had in the past at Providence LA. Titled Endive,
Following the orange my second dessert was presented as “different types of chocolate” and celery root ice cream. Served in a white bowl and with at least 5 textural variations of chocolate ranging from cocoa powder to a thick ganache plus shards of paper thin milk chocolate and a ground bar that may very well have been 100% cocoa the dish was certainly chocolate and certainly complex – however what made it delicious was the ice cream – a flavor that on its own was actually overpowering, yet when blended with the chocolate provided a bitter and spicy yet peculiarly sweet and creamy foil that made every flavor seem more vibrant – more different from the others.
With another bottle of house water delivered our final bites of the evening were perhaps the most peculiar mignardises I’ve ever seen - Candied Rhubarb with Fennel Seed – tasty and memorable if only for the oddity of the whole thing.
With the hour drawing close to 10:30, my sister now increasingly drowsy, and a line growing into the street I was surprised again that there was no pressure to leave even after we declined coffee – as a matter of fact, even after we asked for the bill it took a good fifteen minutes for the even 100€ check (I’m still uncertain as to why we were not charged for the wine) to arrive. Bid farewell by our server and navigating the crowd it was only when we got outside that we realized exactly how big the line was – or perhaps “line” is an unfair term as the crowd from Le Chateaubriand had more or less merged with that from Aizpitarte’s La Dauphin next door. For the sake of those waiting I hope they offer a second seating, though I honestly can’t be sure.
Of course with any reservation as difficult to secure and any restaurant as highly regarded as Le Chateaubriand the question becomes “does it live up to the hype?” – a difficult question under any circumstance, but even more so after a single visit considering what Aizpitarte is doing; fundamentally recreating a high-concept menu each and every night in a city where all the “best” restaurants generally serve the same consistently excellent menu for months at a time before changing seasonally. Is it the 9th best restaurant in the world – perhaps not – but I imagine on some nights it could be, and considering the price point I’d certainly go back for that possibility – assuming I could land a reservation.