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Letter from Paris: Au Petit Tonneau

Au Petit Tonneau

By Alexander Lobrano

Having lived there for many years, I observed that the 7th arrondissement is actually a mosaic of very different little neighborhoods. The chunk of the 7th between the boulevard Saint Germain and the Seine, for example, is aristocratic in tone but more worldly and cosmopolitan than the haughtier and most decidedly penny-pinching district bound by the rue du Bac, the boulevard Saint Germain, the rue de Sevres, and the boulevard des Invalides. Then on the other side of the Esplanade des Invalides, the 7th becomes livelier and almost friendly in the snug little neighborhood in and around the rue Saint Dominique that’s favored by young BCBG singles and couples. As chef Christian Constant has discovered, this turf is actually a good restaurant neighborhood, too, because the well-born execs in the neighborhood eat out a lot and there’s also a good tourist trade from all of the small hotels in the neighborhood.

 One major demographic layer of the 7th you rarely see in its restaurants, however, are the grand bourgeois and aristo types who inhabit those 250 square meter apartments that have been in the same family for generations on end. Why? They either entertain at their country houses, or in town, like to serve each other Picard (local frozen food chain of surprisingly good quality) food during casual at homes with magnificent silverware and china. Aside from business meals during the week, and the occasional foray to a favorite Chinese hole-in-the-wall, restaurants don’t much figure in their lifestyle, because their food tastes are extremely traditional and they are reflexively parsimonious.
And this is why I immediately found the crowd at Au Petit Tonneau so fascinating at dinner on a Sunday night. Aside from a few tourists, this snug retro bistro in the rue Surcouf was a veritable petting zoo of these bluffly chic, to-live-well-is-to-live-hidden types in all of their splendor–lots of Alice bands for the handsome ladies, raggedy cashmere sweaters and corduroy trousers for the gents, most of whom had the same hair cuts they’d had since they were school boys. And in deference to this crowd, all of the codes of an old-school Paris bistro were most rigorously respected, from the red checked table cloths and napkins to the de rigeur cheap bottles of Bordeaux (AOC Bordeaux Chateau Luby 2009, 18 Euros; AOC Graves Chateau de Lionne 2010, 25 Euros) and a choice of such eternal Gallic garnishes with main courses as braised endives, braised fennel, potatoes dauphinois, sauteed potatoes, rice pilaf.
From a friend who lives nearby, I’d learned the sweet back story on this tiny little restaurant, too. Obliged to sell by poor health, chef owner Ginette Boyer was determined to sell to a woman, because she hoped to preserve the legacy of the cuisine menagere (home cooking) that had won her a devoted following of local regulars through the years. In the end, Arlette Iga, a client of the restaurant, decided to buy, and she’s respecting Boyer’s wishes by serving the type of uber traditional French comfort food that’s become nearly extinct in Paris.

What’s on offer here is actually much better than the cuisine menagere served as such places as Au Pied de Fouet, for example, since the quality of the produce is excellent, and Iga hired chef Jais Mimoun, who trained at the Bristol with Eric Frechon and then worked at Au Repaire de Cartouche to run the kitchen. Mimoun is generally a meticulous chef, too, and seems to have an innate sympathy for the homey cooking that makes the regulars here so happy.
White asparagus and shaved Parmesan
Always looking for good Sunday night addresses, Bruno, Laurent, Carole and I arrived hungry and found the relatively long menu immediately appealing. Lentil salad garnished with lardons or crayfish sounded appealing, as did the oeufs en meurette, a dish (poached eggs in red wine sauce) that I can never get enough of, but on a Spring night, they chose the salade d’haricots vert instead, while I decided on white asparagus with Parmesan shavings. Unfortunately, the kitchen had run out of the artichoke hearts that should have garnished the green bean salads, so small curls of roasted tomato were substituted instead. If they were fresh and correctly cooked, the portion of beans was stingy enough to prompt Bruno to make a comment to the waitress, and the price was correctly adjusted when the bill arrived later. My asparagus from the Landes were perfectly cooked and very pleasant in a Xeres spiked vinaigrette with chopped shallots and parsley, but a fourth spear–there were only three–would have communicated a welcome generosity.
Bruno and Carole were happy with their grilled tuna steaks with braised fennel, and Laurent liked his duckling, which came with a small ramekin of creamy dauphinois potatoes. Ordered medium rare, my veal chop was seriously overcooked, however, and even though I hate sending food back–it’s such a ghastly waste, I didn’t want a piece of dried out meal for a hefty 29 Euros. By the time my second chop—thick, juicy and beautifully cooked, arrived, everyone else had finished their main courses a longtime ago. It also would have a nice gesture to serve more of those delicious potatoes, since a single lukewarm spoonful remained for me. And in these details is my main problem with this place. If the service was charming and attentive, and the kitchen clearly works with good quality produce, what’s missing here is the reflexive abundance and generosity that such a homey atmosphere usually portends. As things stand, the stingy portions deflate some of the comfort found in otherwise good comfort food, especially at such rather stiff prices (Also to be noted is the fact that the 37 prix-fixe menu was not mentioned when we received our a la carte menus).
Raspberry tart
While deciding on dessert, I was astonished to overhear a man at a neighboring table (not pictured here) tell his tablemates that now that the Socialists were in power, you could be sure that all of the other parasites–Jews, foreigners and homosexuals, would soon be swarming over the government. And so it goes in the deep 7th arrondissement, but one way or another, I’d had my eye on the raspberry sable all night long, and it was superb–a beautifully made crust with tangy berries on a bed of creme fraiche. The chocolate mousse and lemon tart were very good, too.

  With a single bottle of very nice white Saint Joseph at 26 Euros, our bill worked out to be 55 Euros a head, which was rather a lot for what we’d eaten. So would I come back? Well, yes, I probably would, since the new team has only been in the saddle for a couple of weeks, and they clearly have a real desire to please. In a certain mood, I also love such homely old-fashioned French food, and were I to come at noon for the 22 Euro lunch menu or opt for the 37 Euro dinner menu–both three courses, it works out to be a decent buy for a meal that also offers such a profoundly Parisian atmosphere and an alternately intriguing and alarming keyhole’s view of life in the 7th arrondissement.
20 rue Surcouf, 7th, Tel. 01-47-05-09-01. Metro: Invalides or La Tour-Maubourg. Closed Monday. Lunch menu 22 Euros, Dinner menu 37 Euros, a la carte 50 Euros.
   Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris”  (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best  restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.(Photo by Steven Rothfeld)
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