When I first moved to Paris 30 years ago, it was easy to do a gastronomic Tour de France without leaving town. This is because the French capital was once so well-furnished with restaurants representing the regional kitchens of the country, including Alsace, the Auvergne, the North, Brittany, Burgundy, Lyon, Nice and even the Jura and the Franche-Comté. Sadly, these sweet little places have been slowly disappearing; sometimes because the owners retired and returned to their home turf, or were forced to close due to rising rents, or saw their business declining as younger Parisians prefer to eat sushi, cheeseburgers and pasta. But one way or another, I’ve missed them as they’ve gone, especially Chez Maître Paul in the Rue Monsieur le Prince for its chicken with morels in a vin jaune-spiked cream sauce.
This is why I reacted warily when a friend told me that L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, another old war-horse of a regional table, had a new owner. Oh dear, I thought, I bet he or she will wreck the place by trying to make it modern. Two weeks later, on a rainy Sunday, I ended up there, very much in the hope that another restaurant I’ve always liked wouldn’t have been revised out of existence. Meeting a friend, we sipped some pleasantly rustic aperitifs – vin de noix and rhubarb wine with Ratafia and Gentiane liqueur – and fell into conversation with a friendly, casually elegant man we assumed was the maître d’hôtel.
He explained that the 50-year-old restaurant had been sold by its founders, the Petrucci family who first opened in 1966, and had recently reopened after a freshening up of its previously rather dark and heavy vieille France décor. The menu had not changed as much as it had evolved, the natty gentleman further explained, with the idea of continuing to offer a selection of traditional Auvergnat dishes alongside more contemporary ones made from the region’s excellent produce – and not just its Salers cheese, Aubrac beef and lentils, but also its game and trout. He then introduced himself as the new owner, Didier Desert, and asked if he could take our order.
I look forward to the silky, sublimely porcine Jambon de Coche de la Châtaigneraie from the Maison Laborie in the Cantal (it’s the best ham in France in my opinion) from one visit to the next, so nothing would sway me there. But I did take Monsieur Desert up on his suggestion that I try the shoulder of baby lamb cooked for 13 hours at a low temperature, just as long as I could also get a side of aligot, that wonderful, softly rubbery, edible Auvergnat unguent made by whipping potatoes with cheese curds and a little garlic. My friend ordered the snails with nasturtium cream and a hazelnut biscuit to start, and then the partridge on a spicebread canapé with rutabaga frites.
What followed was an excellent and very generously served meal that respected the palate of the region this amiable restaurant continues to so affectionately showcase. So ample were the portions, in fact, that we could only manage to share a crêpes Ginette (doused with Gentiane liqueur instead of the usual Grand Marnier).
Just on the edge of Les Halles and near the Centre Pompidou, this winter-beating address is open daily and also serves a good-value €22.50 lunch menu.
Ambassade d’Auvergne, 22 rue du Grenier-Saint-Lazare, 3rd Arrondissement, Paris. Tel. +33 (0)1 42 72 31 22. Prix fixe menu €33; average à la carte €45. Website: www.ambassade-auvergne.com
From France Today magazine