Chateaubriand, Je t’aime
I have running lists: lists of places I want to go and restaurants I want to dine at. Vietnam, Tokyo, Mexico City. Paris is not on that short list. It’s not just that I’ve visited it plenty…but that, though perhaps incomprehensible, I have bad memories of the City of Lights. The near-millennium details are too sordid and cruel to reconsider, but they were enough to make me turn my back on gaie Paris for 15 years.
Still Paris has a way of pulling one toward it. Friends who live in attic apartments; girls who move there to write poems and chase dreams. Layovers that tease and must be indulged and elongated. Neo bistros that serve 8-course meals for 70 euros. After all, why stay in Paris for one night when you could stay three? Why visit the city on a Monday when Le Chateaubriand is closed and not extend your stay to accommodate the restaurant’s schedule? Why not?
This was the dinner I had at Inaki Aizpitarte’s 11th arrondissement néo bistro. Probably what struck me most was the subtlety of his dishes. He seems to trust the ingredients to stand on their own two feet; to speak for themselves. He didn’t hide behind a dusting of Maldon sea salt or lemon zest (finishing touches I adore, lean on and seek out as flavor profiles in restaurants). The ride was more about texture and gentle layering of components rather than a highly seasoned finish, making the experience elusive and masterful. Instead of the aromas pulling you toward a dish, it’s up to the diner to reach out and start the dialogue to reap the quietly confident reward.
Last night I went to Inaki’s pop up at Contra here in NYC and the Basque chef brought that finesse with him, bolstered by chefs Jeremiah Stone & Fabian von Hauske and their replete understanding of the sophisticated New York palate. The transient nature of pop-up restaurants or guest chef dinners often means the dishes are cobbled together or lean too heavily on their host restaurant. Combinations that work in a chef’s home regions feel watered down when an ingredient is just off or the kitchen is not their own.
But last night was not so. It was spot on and rang true of Chateaubriand, particularly with shelling beans in bright elderflower butter vinaigrette. Chicharones (which I usually skip) served with creamy avocado & “ceviche” granita, melted on the tongue, were surprising and astounding. Maroon squab with broccoli and lovage looked bloody but tasted silky and sweet within with seared crisp skin. Jeremiah and Fabian also have that quiet confidence: knowing when to steer and when to let the apt guest driver take control. Then at the end there was an unequivocally Chateaubriand touch: cassis sorbet, here served with fried sage leaves and a solid dusting of cacao. The last dish of the night was all Contra: Fabian’s almond coffee sobayon. It was all egg, but without any irony.
I guess for Inaki’s famous Tocino de Cielo–the candied, caramelized egg dessert–the Contra guys know, let it be an excuse–for me, for you, for them–to go to Paris.
Le Chateaubriand, 129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris, France
Restaurant photos borrowed appreciatively from the one and only Todd Selby at The Selby.