The expansion of the French rail system during the 19th century made it easier for ambitious cooks from the provinces to move to the capital. Since that time, one of the great pleasures of dining in Paris has been that you can discover the superb regional kitchens of France without leaving town. When I arrived in Paris from London, 25 years ago, as an eager new student of French gastronomy, many of these cosy little places quickly became some of my favourite addresses, since the food was hearty, honest and interesting.
Recently, however, the great French regional tables of Paris have become sparser as their proprietors retire to the countryside from which they came, and the younger generation of Parisians now prefer what they think of as lighter and healthier cooking. Happily, not all of these culinary showcases of the gastronomic riches of the provinces have disappeared – some, in fact, are thriving.
Heading for La Villa Corse – Rive Gauche (they also run a second address on the Rive Droite, or right bank) on a rainy night, I found myself hoping that I might enjoy the superbly sunny cooking of Corsica, which I’ve enjoyed so much during many visits to the island that the French have so aptly dubbed “Ile de la Beaute” (The Beautiful Island).
This popular and long-running restaurant was recently completely redecorated and now boasts good-looking décor which resembles the lounge in a stylish literary club – leather tub chairs, built-in wooden book shelves and framed black-and-white photographs of Corsica.
Upon arrival, I found it packed with a well-heeled local crowd of regulars, which is always a good sign. Over glasses of crisp white wine from Calvi and a plate of superb Corsican ham – the island produces some of the world’s best charcuterie from acorn-fed pigs which are raised in its forested interior – my friend and I studied the menu and had a hard time narrowing down our options, everything looked so good. Ultimately, she chose baby squid sautéed in excellent Corsican olive oil with wild thyme, while I settled on the creamy chestnut soup garnished with ribbons of prizuttu (aged Corsican ham), an island dish par excellence. Flour made from dried chestnuts was a vital part of the Corsicans’ diet for centuries. The main courses were outstanding, too, and included sea bass landed in Corsican waters, sautéed with chestnuts and Autumn vegetables – celery root, sliced quince and parsnip – and stewed wild boar with juniper and myrtle berries.
Chef Vincent Desreyes takes pride in sourcing his menu directly from the island’s best small producers and has assembled the best list of Corsican wines in Paris, including the Domaine Fiumicicoli red from near the south-western town of Sartene which flattered both of our main courses.
Finish up with a slice of fiadone, a Corsican cheese cake, served with sublime clementine sorbet – the French consider the island’s clementines to be the world’s best and they are not wrong – or the chestnut cake with almond ice cream. If you have never visited Corsica itself, I’m certain that a meal at this excellent restaurant will bring on an urgent desire to go.
La Villa Corse- Rive Gauche , 164 Boulevard de Grenelle, 75015 Paris. Tel: +33 1 53 86 70 81. Average dinner for two €100.
Originally published in the December 2013-January 2014 issue of France Today