Friday, July 15, 2011

Paris - La Régalade Saint-Honoré

In 2003, my sister and I went to Paris to visit our darling friend Brian, a foodie par-excellence and quite a stellar chef, to boot. We had the most indulgent vacation. Lots and lots of eating. Two pairs of Louis Vuitton shoes! We were high on lights and wine and the scintillating sensation of running wild in one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

The evening to beat all evenings was the one we spent at La Régalade, way out in the 14th arrondissement. I have vivid memories of the older French couples at the table next to us -- who were getting completely sauced -- flirting shamelessly with all of us. The meal was one of the top five meals of my life. The food was exquisite rustic French and I have never experienced such convivial ambiance before or since. I remember hearing Francis Cabrel on the radio in the cab after dinner and dissolving into a happy emotional mess from the sheer satisfaction of the entire experience.

So you can imagine that I was hoping to return to La Régalade. When I went back to Paris in 2005 with A., things didn't pan out. A. was not feeling game and I was sorely disappointed. In 2011, things would be different. We were going to La Régalade.

But then I started reading all the blog entries and the Chowhound posts and I began to feel discouraged. It was no longer Yves Camdeborde's restaurant. Now there were two La Régalade. How would I know which to pick? I mentioned my phone bill to France. No fewer than seven of those $3.25/minute calls were to Les Régalades. I had a miserable time getting through. The connections were always crackly and disjointed at best, and my French was terrible. I think the folks at La Régalade in the 14th, must have hung up on me twice in dispair.

I managed to get through to La Régalade Saint-Honoré and was able to secure a reservation for our Tuesday evening meal. Then the nerves starting kicking in. Would it live up to my expectations? I had read enough positive feedback to have hope. But then I started worrying that A. wouldn't like it, that he would doubt me, that the whole thing would be a flop.

And you know what? Being A., he did doubt me a little bit before we got there. Asking questions, like what makes you think it's going to be any good? My husband is loaded with skepticism. Loaded. But you know what else? When you're dealing with a skeptic like A., there is nothing sweeter than a success.

And that's what we had on the Tuesday night at La Régalade Saint-Honoré. A big fat success. It didn't matter that we were stuck along the wall with all the other Americans (isn't that the worst?), or that the space itself is not nearly as charming and old-school French as the original. It didn't matter a wit, because the service was spot-on and the food was divine.

Just as with my previous experience, the meal began with terrine à volonté and a mason jar of vinegary cornichons and pickled onions. The country-style poultry terrine was a delicious and warm welcome to the evening. I love that style of generosity. It conveys kind hospitality and it is how you would greet friends and loved-ones.

I chose the gambas sautées ail et persil, jambon d'Espagne, risotto crémeux à l'encre de seiche (sautéed shrimp with garlic and parsley, Spanish ham, and risotto with squid ink). A. selected the petite lasagne de légumes confits, mozzarella di buffala, jambon cru et basilic (lasagna of confit vegetables, buffalo mozzarella, raw ham and basil). Honestly, I was thinking to myself that A. was crazy to order Italian food when we had only barely arrived in France, but as is usually the case, he was absolutely right with his selection.

But so was I.

The dish was scattered with toasted garlic slivers. The shrimp were succulent and sweet. So often I can take or leave risotto, and for the most part I have been relatively indifferent to squid ink, but this risotto sung of the sea and salt and was indeed miraculously crémeux. The Spanish ham added a subtle porkiness that enriched the flavor of the dish. I'm searching for the right adjectives and embarrassing terms like heaven-on-Earth are coming to mind. Sorry!

The lasagna that A. ordered was a revelation. Showered in fresh herbs the entire dish had an emerald green flavor. The pasta was nearly transparent, the mozzarella luscious. The pesto and tomato sauce celebrated summer deliciously. This was lasagna, yes, but it was also anything but, in the sense that it transcended lasagna completely.

I'm pretty sure that I managed to order the richest dish on the menu, if not the richest in Paris. The poitrine de cochon fermier moelleuse de chez Ospital, la couenne croustillante, lentilles vertes du Puy cuisinées comme un petit salé (Ospital Farm pork belly with crispy pork rind and lentils du Puy) was a salty and fatty heart-attack in a soup plate. I mean that in a good way.

There was absolutely no way -- even with A.'s help -- that I could finish that massive hunk of pork belly surrounded by froth and crispy nuggets of pork rind. The earthy lentils helped to anchor the dish, yet it was still deathly rich, and entirely perfect. The dish embodied a traditional petit salé, but managed to elevate the pork to an entirely new plane of porcine pleasure.

A. had a hankering for the John Dory, but apparently so had the other patrons that evening. None left. He settled on the pavé de cabillaud de Bretagne demi-sel cuit dans un bouillon de poule, pousses d'épinards ravigotées, pignons de pin et vinaigrette de soja (filet of salt-cooked (not positive exactly what they mean here) cod in chicken bouillon with warmed spinach leaves, pine nuts, and soy vinaigrette).

The presentation was beautiful, lots of vivid green herbs and spinach contrasting white flesh and brick-red oven-roasted tomatoes. The pine-nuts provided a pleasantly subtle crunch. I liked his dish fine, but I'm not wild about cod or about uncooked spinach, so this was not my favorite of the evening.

You may have noticed that I don't often write about desserts. In fact you won't find a single dessert recipe on this blog (something to work towards!). The only time I've had a sweet-tooth was when I was pregnant and for a bit while I was nursing. I've developed an appreciation for sweets, but not much of a craving. That being said, I got cozy -- real cozy -- with desserts in Paris. We indulged almost every single night.

At La Régalade, we consumed more desserts in one night than I normally eat in one month. We ordered the soufflé chaud au Grand Marnier (warm Grand Marnier soufflé) and the fraîcheur de rhubarbe et fraises, fromage blanc et marscarpone à la vanille (rhubarb compote with strawberries, fromage blanc, and vanilla marscarpone). Apparently the chef felt that the soufflé was dragging its feet, so he sent out the petits pots de crème à a vanille gelée de fruits de la passion (vanilla pots de crème with passion fruit gelée). Only thirty seconds later did the souflé arrive. I'll confess with no shame that we ate every drop of all three desserts.

I have never in my life had a soufflé that captures the true meaning of the word soufflé so well. The Grand Marnier soufflé was indeed as light as a breath. Certainly, I've enjoyed soufflés in the past. We used to make the chocolate variety in Santa Cruz, but they were as dense as a pudding compared to this whiff of a dessert.

The other two desserts were all dreamy creaminess. I adore pots de crèmes, be they chocolate, vanilla, pistachio or caramel. These did not disappoint. The vanilla was potent and the bright acidic flavor of the passion fruit was a smart juxtaposition. The textures of cream and gelée also played off of each other superbly.

Rhubarb and strawberry are a classic combination for a reason. Throw in cream and vanilla and then a little crumble over the top for crunch and you've pretty much got my favorite dessert. Another hit!

Add a glass of Armagnac and I was over the moon.

I cannot recommend La Régalade Saint-Honoré enough. Chef Bruno Doucet is doing a swell job. It's definitely not haute-cuisine. Think elevated rustic French and you're in the right ballpark. At 35 euro for the three course prix-fixe, this is without a doubt one of the better deals in Paris. In the end what can I say? A. & I had a thoroughly marvelous time. You shouldn't miss this.

La Régalade
Saint- Honoré
123 rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
1st Arrondissement
01 42 21 92 40

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