The newest branch of Benoit – the venerable 1912 bistro on the rue Saint-Martin on the eastern edge of the Marais that was once one of my favourite restaurants – is good news in terms of rectifying the woeful mediocrity of most of the places to have a drink or a meal at the Louvre Museum. It’s also a fascinating democratic expression of the culinary philosophy – if not the actually cooking – of Alain Ducasse, the former chef who has become France’s most frenetic gastronomic entrepreneur. As soon as this place launched in May, the Paris papers were full of Ducasse’s next venture, a restaurant at the Gare Montparnasse, and also his plans to create a Ducasse-branded dinner tour on a Seine cruise boat (launched in September).
Ducasse’s Paris-based company has a division called Ducasse Culture, which specialises in restaurants in museums and other public places, such as the Château de Versailles. The challenge here is obvious: how do you put gastronomic excellence within range of the average person’s means? It’s not easy, because quality always originates with excellent produce, but in this case they’ve done rather well. This restaurant, which also serves a simple breakfast and afternoon tea, really comes into its own at lunchtime, when an international crowd fills this space of apple-red leather banquettes, mosaic floors and brass and wood fittings inspired by the original Benoit (there are also branches of Benoit in New York City, Tokyo, and several other places).
Meeting some art-avid friends from Boston for lunch, we began with impressively tender (they can be fibrous) marinated leeks, a respectable thyme-seasoned pâté en croûte of free-range chicken with a garnish of céleri rémoulade, and garlicky escargots (six for €8). All these dishes were solidly good and gloriously Gallic, which is the intended message of this table – that France still deserves its vaunted culinary reputation even when you’re not dining at the head-spinning and wallet-emptying altitude of those establishments upon whom puffy old Bibendum, the pneumatic mascot of the Michelin tyre company and guides, has bestowed a star or three.
“You know, this is exactly the kind of food we want to eat in France,” said Grant, the lawyer from Boston. “I know Paris has a swarm of talented young chefs doing things with foam and fiddly herbs, but we have that in Boston, too. What we don’t have is this kind of pâté en croûte.”
“Or escargots!” his wife, Amelia, interjected. “Most of our wonderful old-fashioned French restaurants have, in fact, bitten the dust,” she lamented. And she could have been speaking of dozens of other cities in the English-speaking countries where Italian, Spanish and Asian cooking has lately nudged France to one side (to be sure, there is a perceptible comeback in restaurants serving traditional French cooking in London and New York, but these are the exceptions).
We parted ways a bit with our main courses, with Amelia opting for a beautifully made salade parisienne – greens garnished with ham, green beans, Emmental and fresh, sliced button mushrooms; Grant going for the spiced duck breast with gratinéed polenta; and me, the blanquette de veau (veal in a satiny, stock-enriched cream sauce with carrots and tiny mushrooms), because I love it, but also so that they could taste it. The overall verdict? Better than average food, despite service that’s still having some teething problems.
We finished with pineapple Melba (a clever way to dodge the seasonal unavailability of peaches), crème brûlée with almond tuiles (crispy biscuits) and a riff on tarte Tatin. With an excellent bottle of Domaine La Soumade Côtes du Rhône, this meal worked out at €40 a piece – a good buy, given the prestige of the setting, and, for my friends, the convenience of having lunch and then easily resuming their gallery stalking. Now, if only a Benoit of this idiom would open at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports… N.B. Benoit follows the Museum’s timetable, so breakfast and lunch only, except on Wednesdays and Fridays during school holidays; closed on Tuesdays.
Musée du Louvre – access via the Pyramid of the Louvre, no museum ticket required – Paris 1st. Tel +33 (0)1 49 27 93 31. Average €40. www.louvre.fr
From France Today magazine