This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Paris in the autumn may not sound quite as romantically alluring as Paris in the spring. But two completely different meals in a city whose beauty remains undimmed by the hysteria surrounding the Rugby World Cup left me in no doubt as to the unique pleasure and excitement on offer.
I use the over-worked adjective advisedly because I simply don’t believe that either of these two restaurants could flourish for over 30 years, in the case of Gérard Besson, or even get off the drawing board let alone find any financial backers in the case of Enrico Bernardo’s Il Vino which only opened in late September. Certainly, no-one in the right mind would contemplate opening somewhere simply called ‘Wine’ in New York and only tell you what dishes are on offer after you have made your wine selection and hope to survive, despite the growing enthusiasm for wine across the US. And while many chefs, particularly in the US would like to devote more of their menu to game as it is natural, healthy and fascinating to prepare and cook, none I have ever come across are quite as committed to its charms as Besson. What ultimately unites Bernardo and Besson is an extraordinary passion for what they serve.
Gérard Besson is a stocky, classically trained chef (he is, as his menu proudly proclaims, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France of many years standing) who runs his restaurant on the borders of the 1st arrondissement and Les Halles on principles and practices which neither time nor fashion seem to have changed.
Madame welcomes you with genuine warmth. A small window into the kitchen reveals the chef hard at work, surrounded by a much younger brigade, under a rail of obviously well worn copper pans. And then wearing a clean jacket and neckerchief he joins her at the reception to bid au revoir to their clients, many of whom have matured with them but who, I could not help but notice, use this opportunity to make their subsequent reservation.
The dining room is similarly unchanged, still decorated with wallpaper and rather unflattering wall lights, its alcoves holding duck presses and old decanters, and many of its male customers in suits and ties. It is comfortable with several alcoves ensuring the noise level is definitely muted. The surprise comes with the two page menu.
The right hand side simply and boldly states ‘The hunting season has started’ and then lists twenty dishes of game: grey leg partridge; Scottish grouse cooked with whisky; a couple of different hare dishes; a shoulder of wild boar slowly braised with the flavours of Corsica (the maitre d’, I was told, is Corsican ‘by adoption’ hence the presence of numerous, distinctive Corsican wines on the list which are a good contrast to the far more expensive Bordeaux and burgundies); and venison. There are a couple of fish dishes on the menu, sole and sea bass, but even at the beginning of the game season the dining room definitely has that rich, heady aroma to it that could deter any but the enthusiast. It is certainly no home for the vegetarian.
But I have never seen a menu like Besson’s. Now that Monkey’s in Chelsea has sadly closed, London has nothing to rival it and although Rule’s in Covent Garden still carries on this tradition it also focuses on beef which this menu eschews at this time of year.
In fact this menu has just been printed (so recently in fact that I was not allowed to take a copy with me) and with such obvious enthusiasm that it is rather difficult to navigate the right hand side which includes only four starters in the top right hand corner and their prix fixe menus.
The starters are equally classic and unchanged. A terrine of foie gras, ceps and aspic was served thoughtfully with a lettuce salad but one not thoroughly dressed while an array of langoustines and oysters came in a cool clear fish stock. The partridge, artfully dissected with its liver on a small toast, was full of flavour but definitely oversalty whereas the rendition of medallions of venison Grand Veneur (a dish I had been keen to try since reading Nichola Fletcher’s recent, excellent book ‘ Ultimate Venison Cookery’ (Swan-Hill Press, £18.95) was precisely as prescribed with a compote of celery and quince. Besson’s dessert menu is equally unchanged.
With our bottle of Corsican red (2001) and three course each our bill came to 320 euros, a figure that owes as much to the cost of the ingredients as the fact that Besson does not manage, or possibly does not want, to turn tables. Not just the food but the whole experience here brought back very happy memories of restaurants twenty years ago.
Il Vino, by contrast, is definitely cutting edge and the realisation of an idea that has been germinating in the mind of the wine-obsessed Enrico Bernardo for the past three years.
Then, while working at Le Cinq in the George V hotel he had sprung to prominence as the winner of the competition to find the world’s top sommelier, he had begun to dream of a restaurant where the wine came first. There would be good food, more intricate and less straightforward than is found in wine bars, and it would be based on principles that would accentuate the wines’ flavours. But it would be wine first.
It still comes as a surprise, however, to be handed a document in the bright, modern corner site Bernardo has converted close to Les Invalides (and, more astutely, for business a brisk walk from L’Assemble<acute>e Nationale) that has no mention of food on it whatsoever other than a blind tasting menu of five courses and five wines for 100 euros. Instead the main page offers four white wines, five reds and three dessert wines by the glass from around the world, as well as a vin Jaune and a Belgian beer for the cheeses, each of which accompanies a different dish. Choose your wine, tell the expensively suited waiters what you don’t eat and they will suggest one of the 15 savoury and sweet dishes currently in the kitchen.
Bernardo, who trained as a chef, is sensibly spending a lot of time ensuring that the execution meets his dream, and any initial doubts were dismissed by the quality of the home cured salmon with lemon zest and raw mushrooms, the refinement of the tagliolini with crayfish, a casserole of rabbit with courgettes, carrots and turnips and a refreshing tart of fromage blanc with citrus fruits.
Gérard Besson, 5 rue Coq Heron, Paris 75001, 01.42.33.14.74 Closed Sunday and Monday lunch.
Open 7 days from November. No reservations after 7pm.