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May 3, 2015

Postcards from Paris: Le Comptoir

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I first stumbled across Le Comptoir by accident in 2006, less than a year after it opened. After a late, lazy start to the day and a leisurely amble thought the Jardin Luxemburg, I was slowly making my way to Boulevard Saint-Germain in search of a quick bite. The bistro looked unpretentious and cheerful, offering a view of the Odeon wisdom tree1 and the Les Editeurs facade across the square, and ample opportunity for people-watching (the French national pastime).

That first meal was simple - some beautiful bread, salad niçoise accompanied by a glass of white wine, and a chocolate pot de creme - but it was perfect. In the ensuing decade, every time I returned to Paris, I would strive to have at least one meal at Le Comptoir.

Chef Eric Ripert, that grand maestro of seafood, has described Le Comptoir as ”the perfect bistro” 2. During the day, the restaurant offers a brilliant, casual menu featuring some of the great French classics - œufs mayonnaise (deviled eggs) so good some patrons order them every day; plump escargots swimming in garlicky butter; generous slices of fois gras perfectly paired with sweet brioche toast and served alongside Little Gem lettuce dressed in the most delicious vinaigrette and garnished with fried shallots; an entire pig's foot, boned, stuffed, dredged in breadcrumbs and fried to achieve a crunchy, crispy crust, contrasting nicely with the tender, juicy flesh it encases.

Pied de porc désossé et pane, purée de pomme de terre
Several of charcuterie plates feature artisanal products made by chef Camdeborde's father, and the wine list is excellent.

The menu is completely recognizable as French bistro fare, and yet still manages to surprise. Roasted marrow bone is served with sweet pea puree and crowned with smoked lard foam; at least one soup on the menu combines the chewy, gelatinous texture of Japanese tapioca pearls with velvety smoothness of fois gras. One of the recent revelations was a bouillon served with vegetables and, surprsingly, mint. The presence of the herb in the broth was completely unexpected, and at the same time made immediate sense (and I am gleefully appropriating this idea for home cooking).

Even the oft-overlooked items are of a superb quality - the bread comes from Boulangerie Kayser on the next block, and the butter - from Jean-Yves Bordier - is a frontrunner for the title of ”the best butter in the world”.

The chocolate pot de creme that so impressed me on that long-ago first visit deserves a separate mention. It remains the smoothest, most luscious and intensely chocolate mousse I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, perfectly balancing lightness and richness. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that the pastry chef has struck some sort of an unholy bargain.

Quenelle de chocolat, éponge olive, crumble de cacao
On weeknight evenings, the bistro dons formal linens, and transforms into a gourmet restaurant. A reservation-only single seating offers diners a 5-course prix fixe chef's choice menu (including a fabulous all-you-can eat cheese board), that day's best ingredients transformed through the lens of the chef Camdeborde's vision.

Bouillon de poulpe et pois chiches au beurre noisette

Coquille Saint-Jacques de Normandie avec amande et citron

Bouillon clair de legumes, menthe et foie gras
I knew of chef Yves Camdeborde's stellar reputation as the owner-chef of La Regalade, but did not realize that he left it to pursue a new venture in the 6th, this time as a hotelier as well as a restauranteur. A classically trained chef, he has come through what has been aptly described as ”an ancient system of ruthless apprenticeships meant to identify, like incarnate lamas, the three or four godlike cooks born in every generation” 3. Chef Camdeborde left school to start his culinary training at 14, and apprenticed at some of the greatest temples of haute cuisine in Paris - the Ritz, the Relais Louis XIII, Tour d'Argent, and Les Ambassadeurs at the Hôtel de Crillon.

Concerned by the impact of the French recession on his prospects in the world of haute cuisine, he did something unprecedented - in 1992 he left the kitchen at the Crillion and opened La Regalade - a small, affordable bistro catering to a mix of neighborhood locals and visitors, and offering uncompromisingly fresh ingredients cooked with the technical expertise of a master. Seen as an incredible risk at the time, his endeavor revolutionized the Parisian culinary scene. Other classically trained chefs followed in his footsteps, forsaking positions in prestigious kitchens to open their own bistrots modernes.

As can only be expected at a restaurant offering incredible food at affordable prices, it has become increasingly difficult to reserve a table for the weekday dinner service. For a reservation during the high season (April - September), it is advisable to book at least four months in advance. Do not despair - it is possible to experience Le Comptoir even on short notice. The restaurant opens for lunch service at 12pm, and generally arriving 15-20 minutes before opening will ensure a table for the first seating. Bistro service continues until 5.30pm on weekdays (excluding holidays), and until 11pm on weekends (when the prix fixe dinner is not served). Alternatively, stop by once the lunch rush is over, sometime after 2.30pm. If you absolutely must experience the dinner, book a room at the adjacent Hôtel Relais Saint-Germain - it comes with a guaranteed table reservation.

Le Comptoir
6, Carrefour Odeon 75006
M: Odeon
Mon-Fri: 12pm - 5.30pm (à la carte bistro); 8.30pm reservation-only €60 prix fixe dinner (excluding holidays)
Sat-Sun: 12pm - 11pm (à la carte bistro)

1 Some artistic soul has decorated the tree with old textbooks. They look like secretive bats, or particularly unwieldy fruit, heavy with the weight of knowledge contained within.
2 Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Season 6, Episode 24: 100th Episode - Paris
3 Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything, Part Four: Hauts Bistros. This is a fantastic book. Humorous, well-researched, and incredibly insightful, my copy has traveled the world, been loaned to friends and bears copious notes.

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