Flavor: French comfort food
Ambiance: Cozy and casually refined
Service: Knowledgeable and friendly, with occasional attention lapses
A framed print on the wall across from my table read, “Redécouvrez l’ambience de brasserie authentique” (Rediscover the ambience of authentic pubs). Below this phrase was a wistful picture of a few friends presumably enjoying the ambience of their outdoor café. It made me long for Paris, or at least for a different soundtrack by which to eat my escargot.
I was sitting in Bouchon, restaurateur Michel Baudouin’s latest venture, beside an exceptionally ornery Picky Companion, fishing mollusks out of a ceramic escargot dish and mopping up the butter left behind with pieces of unusually cold baguette. I thoroughly enjoyed my snails, which were decidedly delicious. They were also hot as lava, but I impatiently ate them anyway, enjoying the flavors as they competed for my attention: first a pleasant earthiness, then butter, a little mustard, garlic and herbs.
Delicious as it all was, I feared that the lightly thumping electronica emanating from the speakers might mar the mood. Tablas and sitars fought their way through a club beat, and I began to wonder if the ultrahip Indian restaurant down the street might be missing a few CDs.
As off as the music was, Bouchon’s atmosphere still manages to effectively evoke the spirit of the French bistro; the building itself possesses its own cozy charm, and has retained it through its various incarnations – from antique store to crêperie to bistro. A string of low-slung lamps bathes the tables and brick walls in soothing pools of buttery light, an effect that lends to a comfortable atmosphere of refined informality.
The menu itself reads fairly casually, with “bon appetit, ya’ll” bidding a Southern-fried greeting at the top, and pronunciation keys after all French words, no matter how elementary – “lah keeshe dew jure” for example. It’s all meant to be fun, though I found it slightly hokey (but to each his own).
Menu selections focus on comfort first, with bistro staples like croque monsieur, steak au poivre, and frites galore. Getting in the spirit of things, we ordered the pâté maison, a country-style pâté of duck and pork served with a ramekin of dijon mustard and a scattering of cornichons and caper berries. This turned out to be a good decision – after all, I reasoned, it’s hard not to like forcemeat and pickles. Picky agreed, though in the same breath he also lamented the poor state of the bread and the excessive amount of garlic in the pâté.
Next, we decided on the moules frites and the le plat mijoté – the slow-cooked dish of the day. The dish in question was indicated to be a cassoulet by the menu of “Saturday’s specials,” which was somewhat curious, given that we dined on a Monday. We were informed that the list was a holdover from the weekend, which seemed to render them a bit less, well, special. Nevertheless, we ordered the sumptuous sounding cassoulet, lured by the promise of slow-cooked short ribs, duck leg confit and sausage, all stewed with white beans. We requested to have our entrees staggered, mussels first, then cassoulet, so that we could dally over some white wine with the shellfish, and switch to a couple of glasses of red when the cassoulet arrived.
Our waitress did her best to orchestrate this, we assumed, but what actually ensued was a bit of a timing debacle. We ordered two glasses of white wine to go with the mussels, only to have the cassoulet delivered to our table shortly thereafter instead. The top of the stew was scorched, and the perimeter was crusty and brown where it had fused to the edge of the bowl; an initial exploration of the dish revealed that the cassoulet was hotter than the bowels of hell. We sent it to the corner of the table for a little cooling off period, and requested an appropriate wine to accompany it once it was ready to play nice. The mussels, after all, were already perched steaming in the window of the kitchen. The frites, however, were nowhere to be found.
Once the bowl of bivalves had finally made their way to our table, we dug in with gusto, slowed eventually by the discovery of a couple of still tightly closed shells, crunchy shallots whose pungence had not been softened a bit by an all-too abbreviated cooking time, and a broth that would have benefited from some patience. There really had been no reason to hurry, as the frites seemed to be running quite late, anyway. By the time they had bothered to make an appearance, the mussels were nearly half gone. Fashionably late the frites were not, though they were fragrant with the scent of herbes de Provence and quite tasty. Picky remarked that they were his favorite part of the meal, though the texture, he said, was off, reminding him of defrosted fries.
The cassoulet was, sadly, as unfortunate as its appearance had suggested – the beans were too sweet, the sausage was burnt on the surface from an overextended stay beneath the broiler, and the ribs – or rib, rather – held only a whisper of meat. The duck leg was tasty, as duck legs tend to be, but not as moist as one would expect. Perhaps Saturday’s special is better left to Saturday.
We ordered a cup of chocolate mousse to go, and received a gargantuan portion of it in a Styrofoam soup cup, as if to apologize for the entree mishaps. It’s hard for a girl to stay mad after consuming nearly a half-quart of chocolate, cream, eggs and sugar. Picky, on the other hand, was a different story. It takes more than chocolate to win him over.
Had we stuck only with small dishes and wine, our experience would have been quite good, and it seems to me that most foibles could be corrected with a bit more focus from beginning to end. A perfect beginning to a meal is easily forgotten with a haphazard conclusion, and service that was for the most part good can be tarnished easily by lapses of attention late in the meal. All of the elements are there – good ambience, a talented chef with a long history with this sort of food, and a great location. With a little bit of effort and a better soundtrack, this establishment could easily compose and orchestrate an enchanting evening from beginning to end.