The first time I ever went to Benoit was one of the happiest meals I've had in 22 years of living in Paris. Three friends surprised me with dinner here as a birthday present, and I instantly feel in love with this mink-coat of a bistro in an ancient side street, the rue Saint Martin, not far from the Hotel de Ville and the Centre Pompidou. We ate terrine de foie gras, sauteed wild mushrooms, and cassoulet, all washed down with one of the best Pomerol I've ever had in my life.
Not only was the food delicious, but I loved the warmth of Gauls earing well that filled this dining room, the solicitous service from wry but warm waitresses, the soft lighting, the brass coat racks, the newspapers hung from pegs, the whole mis en scene. Over the years, I came at least once or twice a year--not more often, because it's always been expensive--and always looked forward to it.
Then the game changed a few years back when Monsieur Petit, the ginger-haired chef with the reassuringly ample girth, retired and Alain Ducasse became the new proprietor. To be sure, having Ducasse scoop it up was better than having it become a Zara or some other clothing store, or worse, a trendy restaurant, the fate that befell the once wonderful Le Grizzli bistro across the street. But after three or four meals, I invariably came away well fed but desperately missing the old place, which was an artisinal restaurant as opposed to a commercially well-run one. I also found that the cooking lacked gravitas, or the touch of a chef who had been cooking for a couple of decades and had mastered the basics of bistro cooking so thoroughly that they'd become his, or her, own.
I also regretted the way that the menu had been stealthily updated, hated the new dining room that was added, and the impersonal tone created by a series of constantly changing maitre d'hotels.
Having heard that there was a new chef at this venerable spot, however--Alain Souillac, who previously cooked at L'Ostape, Ducasse's ill-fated venture in the Basque Country, I agreed to join friends from Baltimore for dinner last weekend, and I'm very happy to report that Benoit seems to have gotten its groove back.
I loved my Salade Benoit--a superb composition of stamp-sized pieces of crispy chicken skin, chicken, girolles mushrooms, tiny canapes of chicken liver pate, and a quail's egg of two all delicately tossed with mixed salad leaves, and the terrine de campagne was superb, too. Next, luscious filet of sole Nantua (in brick-colored tomato and crayfish cream sauce) and succulent braised Limousin veal with a gratin de blettes (Swiss chard). Hearty, delicious sincere food, which is why I was willing to forgive the dreary desserts, which tasted commercial, and the heart-breaking fact that they no longer offer a proper cheese tray, just an assiette de fromage (sample of four cheeses) like you'd get on Air France.
There was a terrific atmosphere in the dining room, too, since the pleasure of this unapologetically old-fashioned French cooking is exactly why thousands of people are willing to sit with their knees tucked under their chins in airplanes for hours.
So bravo to Alain Souillac for putting this splendid old restaurant back on track. Now if only it wasn't such a wallet buster, I'd go much more often.
Benoit, 20 rue Saint Martin, 4th, tel. 01.42.72.25.76. Metro: Hotel de Ville
@Photo by Marie Hennechart