14 March 2012

for what it's worth: l'écailler du bistrot, 75011

L'Ecailler du Bistrot, the seafood-slinging sister restaurant nextdoor to Bistrot Paul Bert, shares many qualities with the latter legendary steak-frites destination. The décor is traditional but not overbearingly so, the service is snappy and relatively warm for the city, and the wine list, laudably, is tilted towards natural stuff. But - besides the menus - there is one unmistakeable difference between the two restaurants, and it becomes perceptible a few moments after one is seated at l'Ecailler du Bistrot. 

You hear a lot less English at l'Ecailler.  

There are certain very rare occasions in Paris when a lack of Anglos in a dining room can herald the discovery of some rough-cut gem of a resto, as yet unknown to tourists and expats. A visit to l'Ecailler du Bistrot is not one of these occasions; the restaurant, booked solid most nights and situated right beside every good Paris host's go-to for entertaining out-of-towners, is not that sort of gem. Here the lack of Anglos unfortunately means the restaurant provides a service that only the natives in Paris, the Chicago of France, would popularise: very expensive seafood. 

If one has ever lived nearer to an ocean, the prices do sort of jump out at one. 42€ for sole meunier, 38€ for a sparsely adorned half-lobster, and a shamelessly unsophisticated over-promotion of truffles and truffle oil. (Surely I'm not the only one who finds the option of truffles out of truffle season outside of truffle country - Piedmont, Perigord, etc. - to be a bit crass? It is like offering to Super-Size the expense of things that, theoretically, ought already to be offered in their ideal state.) At l'Ecailler in January there were no less than three mentions of black truffles on the menu. I half expected them to offer it as an add-on to the carafe of tap water.

But what the hell. My old college buddy J3 was in town, he's a noted imbiber of bivalves, we had already sat down, and despite the eyebrow-raising prices I still had - and continue to have - a great deal of confidence in owner Bertrand Aboyneau's supremely savvy restateurism. It was a lovely meal, if one that required the qualification "in Paris" to be added to any superlative praise.  

An sizeable but all too brief plate of oysters was among the best I've had in Paris, and the accompanying Bordier seaweed butter was a nice scene-setting touch. (I seem to recall the creuses tasting markedly more profound than other varieties we tried, but my gourmandise has yet to reach such heights where it might permit me to identify oysters by their shells. L'Ecailler provides no little handwritten key, as some oyster bars do, which means it's a total guessing game once the server departs.)

The appetisers that followed were curiously wimpy. Some house-cured salmon tasted not all that different from the better storebought stuff, and was, to boot, the sort of 90's menu cliché that makes me want to put my head through a wall. (We had let our wallets order, not our hearts, with that one.)

And a simplistic plate of cockles in cream that caused me to utter the classic disappointed cry of the amateur chef: "I could have done this better !" I blushed with shame, realising what I'd said. But I did not take it back.

The main courses were a few notches better, including some dense scallops with purée (I had declined the truffles, somehow), and J3's half-lobster, which, he and I agreed, would have been improved by the retention of the lurid green tamale, which the kitchen had insensibly removed. (Do they not eat that here? A point for further research, if I'm ever feeling flush with cash.)

While remaining customarily frank, among my friends, about the varying degrees of success I found in the cuisine at l'Ecailler that night, I was nevertheless beaming with delight for most of the meal, entirely on account of the wines.

Most spectacular was Domaine de la Bongran's lightly botrytised 2004 Viré-Clessé "Cuvée E.J. Thevenet" - regally rich, evoking smoke, lemon curd, and lozenge.

Domaine de la Bongran's winemaker Jean Thévenet is something of an icon among wine geeks, both for demonstrating the majestic heights of quality that are achievable in the oft-overlooked Mâcon, and for subsequently defending his unusual wines against the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) authorities, who initially denied granting them the Viré-Clessé appellation on the grounds they were atypical. (This is akin to denying that, say, Comme des Garçons is fashion, on the grounds that the brand is atypical. Atypical in this sense means something like "vastly more interesting than almost everything else in the genre.")

Stylistically Domaine de la Bongran's famously opulent wines are far from what I tend to seek in a dinner pairing: they're practically dinner itself, if not dessert, with quite high alcohol and residual sugar, depending on the particular cuvée.

But among the scallops and lobsters of a dinner at l'Ecailler du Bistrot, the wine shines, its sweetness keeping brilliant pace with the shellfish, and its depth and persistence seeming to confirm the subliminal message one receives from both l'Ecailler and the Bistrot nextdoor, in their enormous desserts and their fat wine lists, their general old-school largesse: that a meal is an event, now and then worth splashing out for.

In l'Ecailler's case, very now and then, since a trip to la plage is comparably priced and includes bikinis.

L'Ecailler du Bistrot
22 rue Paul Bert, 75011
75011 PARIS
Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny
Tel: 01 43 72 76 77

Related Links: 
An amateur 2010 review of l'Ecailler du Bistrot @ LeBestOfParis, of interest only because it's a precisely representative sample of the inexperienced under-thunk schlock that is most Paris blogging
A bilingual 2010 review of l'Ecailler du Bistrot @ Mr.Lung (who drank one of the same wines I did)
A very brief 2008 piece on l'Ecailler du Bistrot @ JohnTalbott
A very, very amateur 2008 review of l'Ecailler du Bistrot @ TemporaryOmnivore, of interest because it's the inverse sort of amateurism of the "Le Best" article - here the author can actually write, but possesses all the dining experience of a developing fetus

A nice 2010 profile of Domaine de la Bongran @ KimmeridgianThoughts
A 2005 rave about Domaine de la Bongran @ Juice
A well-intentioned but slightly blowhardy 1998 article on Domaine de la Bongran @ WineSpectator


  1. Dear Aaron.

    This is just a great blog. I travel with some regularity to Paris to eat and i'm equally sad and happy that i didn't find it until now.

    Anyways, the reason for finding it was while searching for a superb seafood spot in Paris. For once i'm not coming to Paris mainly to eat but to attend a Nick Cave concert on Nov. 18.

    We're are six guys who all love seafood and wine. So the place has to have great food but also an ambiance which can hold six Danes going to a concert that same night. What i'm trying to say - a place that won't put us on the street if we get a little loud from too much wine.

    So far i've listed three potential places: 1) L'îlot 2) l'écailler du bistrot and 3) Le Bar a Huitres.

    Would any of these places be well suited for us or do you have a better recommendation?

    Thanks in advance. I'm already looking forward to using your blog for my next Paris dining visit!

    All the best


  2. hi anders,

    of the three places you mention, i've only been to l'Ecailler, i'm afraid. i've heard there's a good place for fish in the 14ème called La Cagouille ? but haven't been myself, and in any case if it's in the 14ème it's probably not a particularly lively atmosphere... you might also enjoy the terrific oyster bar at Le Mary Celeste, although i generally avoid the place because the chef is a vindictive twit.

    hope this helps ! and many thanks for reading.