Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Le Grand Bistro Breteuil
For many years, Le Bistro de Breteuil has been a very well-liked restaurant in the silk-stocking 7th arrondissement due to its lovely location overlooking the Place de Breteuil, its charming sidewalk terrace for al fresco dining in good weather, and most importantly of all, its perfectly decent good value prix-fixe menu. For 42 Euros, you got an aperitif, starter, main course, dessert, half-bottle of decent plonk, and a coffee, and the quality was respectable enough so that it pulled as many staffers from UNESCO and parsimonious loden-wearing owners of those vast neighboring flats overlooking the ur-bourgeois Avenue de Breteuil as it did tourists. It was also a perfect place for any group dinner, because there wouldn’t be any tiresome haggling about who owed what, and offered some of the best people watching in Paris.
Now, restaurateuers Willy Dorr and his son Garry have rebranded this address, along with three of the other bistros they own, and the reboot means a new name, Le Grand Bistro Breteuil, and a new decor–out goes the sort of anonymous, inspired by one of those Louis somethings decor in favor of a louche lounge look that spins on a black, red and white color scheme and low lighting, an effect that comes off as both aspirationally Costes and urban Saint Tropez. They’ve also given the place a serious gastronomic gussying up in terms of a new 42 Euro menu that represents the apotheosis of a seemingly accelerating local trend towards giving a big shout out to one’s brand-name suppliers. So on the new menu at Le Grand Bistro Breteuil you get oysters from David Herve, vegetables from Joel Thiebault, olive oil from the Chateau d’Estoublon, cheese from Marie-Ann Cantin, Poujauran bread and butter from Jean-Yves Bordier. You can also order a steak, veal chop or pigeon sourced from star butcher Hugo Desnoyer for a 9 Euro supplement to the main menu, or content yourself with meat from Frank Samoyeau.
I have very mixed feelings about the branding game, since on the one hand, all of the people mentioned above do seriously excellent produce, and it’s extremely important to make people aware of all of the variables that can affect the quality and healthfulness of what they eat, and yet on the other hand, the whole branding business seems to be getting wearisomely out of hand. I mean even the lousy little menus on Air France now note the brand names of all the spirits, soft drinks and liquors they serve, i.e. Cola de Chez Pepsi, or some such. And the simple fact of the matter is that branding has always been designed to incite and assure loyal consumption of the branded product, whether its laundry soap, a hotel room, or, more recently, a restaurant meal. When it comes to cooking, however, you can stock a kitchen with all of the super-luxe pedigreed produce you like, but it’s sort of a lost cause, if the cook isn’t any good. And much more alarming than that, in some restaurants, branded produce seems to be intended as some sort of surrogate for real cooking. Or in other words, ‘Well, of course it’s going to be good! it’s Poulet Bio du 9eme Arrondissement d’Alec Lobrano (TM)!”
Anyway, I’ve never counted my chickens before they’ve hatched, and since they’re not going to as long as I’m living in Paris, I went off to meet a bunch of friends for lunch at Le Grand Bistro Breteuil with a lot of curiosity. Would this be an If-it’s-not-broken, don’t-fix-it story, or a substantial improvement to a deservedly long-running restaurant?
Well, I have to hand it to the Dorrs and to their culinary consultant, the charming and very talented chef Jean-Jacques Jouteux, since the food here is not only solidly good but even a little better than that for the fact of being made with such high quality ingredients. And the service is charming and well-drilled, too, which makes this place just the ticket for the very same demographic it so thoroughly pleased before being revised. To be sure, this is a meat-and-potatoes restaurant and not a place to come in search of cuisine d’auteur, and I also have a feeling that some of the locals aren’t going to like the rather flashy new decor. But putting that to one side, Le Grand Bistro Breteuil has been successfully retooled as a useful work horse of a restaurant for a century when Paris cooking is so auspiciously shading towards the locavore, organic and generally healthy. And hey, where else are you going to find black Hawaiian sea salt on the table without boarding the hot-air balloon of haute cuisine?
For an extra 4 Euros, I got a huge plate of French (as opposed to eastern European) girolles as a starter, an excellent buy in my book, while pals were delighted with their lobster Bellevue–a real Belle Epoque beauty of a dish, that one (+9 Euros); Thiebault vegetables with sauteed squid; and very good foie gras. None of these dishes bore any particular chef’s signature, but rather they demonstrated a well-disciplined kitchen, solid technical competence and honest respect for product.
Main courses were first-rate, too, including my perfectly cooked Desnoyer veal chop, an estimable grilled sole with beurre noisette, griddled sea bass with sauce vierge and a very good Desnoyer steak sauteed with Sarawak pepper. Appealing side dishes added to the festive, generous nature of this meal, too–you get a choice of potato puree made with Bordier butter, real frites, wok-sauteed Thiebault vegetables, sauteed spinach with green onions or arugula dressed with Chateau d’Estoublon olive oil and organic lemon. The house Bordeaux was just fine, and we hemmed and hawed over the dessert selections for a while, because there were so many things that sounded good. In the interest of research–visitors to Paris just love crepes Suzette, and I do, too, I ordered same, while the others had the daily special of baba au rhum, a superb tarte fine with organic apples and freshly made vanilla ice cream, and profiteroles with more of that just-made vanilla ice cream and Valrohna chocolate sauce.
So, great food? No, but good food, and with that swell terrace, late serving hours seven days a week, and a 19 Euro children’s menu, all I can say to the Dorrs is, shame about the decor, but hey, come on, baby, light my fire; this is a respectable and very useful restaurant.
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmetmagazine’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)