I unexpectedly had dinner at Yves Camdeborde's new gastronomic bistro Le Comptoir last night. With only about 20 covers each weeknight and a daily changing menu for only 40 euros, I'm guessing that a reservation here will soon be coveted as at El Bulli.
Like a lot of cooks, Yves Camdeborde and I are distantly related. He was formerly sous-chef at the Crillon - under the infamously influential reign of Christian Constant - working in the same sprawling basement kitchen where I work now. But over a decade ago he broke out and now has something of a cult following - comprised of cooks and clients alike. He was one of the first of the classically trained chefs to escape the Michelin star system and succeed on his own terms - on his own turf - with his deservedly celebrated La Regalade. He godfathered the new breed of Parisian gastro-bistros.
And now, there's Le Comptoir. Brasserie by day, a more refined gastronomic menu by night. With his own adjoining hotel no less. Last night was Service Number 12. Here's what we ate.
Above, you see a small basket of root vegetable chips - a housemade version of those addictive Terra chips - potato, beet, yam, etc. - and a whole mini loaf of excellent country bread - secretly and cleverly sliced. The menu is printed on a postcard which notes not only the food and service number but also the day's patron saint - yesterday it was St. Justin - patron saint of apologetics and philosophers. The wine list offers some interesting choices including authentic absinthe, unfiltered wines, and the chef's notoriously favoured eaux-de-vie.
Jus leger de feves menthole. lentilles, hostie au cumin. A chilled spoonable salad. Andrea, my dining companion, said it reminded her of a gazpacho - which in Mexico they think of not as a soup but more of as a salad - which makes so much more sense to me. This was light, creamy, softly flavoured with fresh fava beans and mint, with lentils and a few surprising crispy bits of caramelised garlic hidden within. Served with delicate cumin wafers.
Pot au feu en fine gelee de foie gras de canard des Landes, Jurancon et raisin. A playful take on what's been called the unofficial national dish of France - pot au feu is the French pot roast dinner. We received this dish with trepidation - you don't work in a Michelin-starred restaurant without - ironically - being force-fed foie gras on a daily basis. It was - as they say - a revelation. A foie gras-based pot-au-feu as a light summer dish? Genius and delicious. The gelee is indeed fine, barely sweet from the honey-scented Jurancon wine, studded with fresh peas, raisins, and a single almost-turned carrot. Andrea commented that she liked his reference to the old-school technique. The foie gras itself - duck - was exceptionally clean and clear.
Selle d'agneau des Pyrenees roulee, raviole d'asperge verte du Bearn. You see the raviolis - which were more dumplings to me - filled with a green asparagus and creamy cheese mixture. What you can't see - or unfortunately taste - is the tender but still well-textured piece of lamb saddle that's been rolled, tied, seared then sliced into hearty, meaty portions.
Plateau de fromages affines par P. Boursault. A help-yourself, all-you-can-eat, free-for-all platter of cheese - aged by Monsieur P. Boursault. Served with membrillo - dense slices of sweet quince paste - and cherry preserves.
Macaron Creameux aux fraises des bois de Galice, jus pistache. A macaron and wild strawberry cream sandwich with pistachio jus. Reaffirmed our faith that flavourful and juicy wild strawberries do exist.
Handmade mango caramels. Fresh mango flavour, soft but resistant caramel - very good. The only potential disappointment of the night - because the menu listed Douceur du fondeur en chocolat Jacques Genin - chocolate caramels by chocolatier Genin - so our chocolate expectations were understandably high - but they ran out. Fortunately no problem for us because of what came next.
Tarte au Chocolat avec glace chocolat et piment d'Espelette. The dessert of the night was actually only supposed to be the macaron, but we saw one other table digging into these chocolate tarts - because they'd run out of the macarons. We asked if we could order one too- since the menu changes daily, we didn't know when we might ever see it again - and for God's sake man it's chocolate! It was the very last one - which they then very generously gave us on the house. Valrhona dark chocolate, thin sable crust lined with crunchy nougatine and chocolate ice cream very carefully spiced with red pepper powder - imagine more real cinnamon than heat.
Le Comptoir will take reservations only 14 days in advance - by phone, fax, email, or in person. Yes, they do speak English - the director of the dining room worked at Daniel for 12 years. And they will remain open during the summer vacation season - no August closure.
Call now. Go soon. Go often.
Update: Le Comptoir is now taking reservations about 3 months in advance.