Letter from Paris: La Bourse et la Vie
Story & photos by Alexander Lobrano
This past summer I wrote a happy piece for the Wall Street Journal about the quickening bistro revival in Paris. Since then the trend has gained even more momentum and also attracted the attention of other food writers, which is a wonderful thing, because it attests to the enduring popularity and improving prospects of the cooking that’s the ballast of the French kitchen, bistro food, bien sur. Now, with the opening of chef Daniel Rose’s new 29 seater table La Bourse et La Vie, it looks like another nearly extinct Paris restaurant idiom, the bistro de luxe, or an upmarket bistro specializing in la cuisine bourgeoise, is slated for a comeback.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between regular bistro cooking and cuisine bourgeoise bistro cooking, the latter is more refined, delicate and likely to make use of luxurious produce than its ruddier and more rustic gastronomic sibling. A perfect example of la cuisine bourgeoise is the riff on artichoke hearts and foie gras served by Rose’s wife, Marie-Aude Mery, who runs the tiny kitchen at the couple’s new restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.
At a restaurant like Chez Pauline, a bistro de luxe in the rue Villedo, long gone but for years a standard-bearer of la cuisine bourgeoise, along with tables like Pierre au Palais Royal and Le Recamier in the days when it was run by Burgundian chef Martin Cantegrit, the firm fleshy artichoke bottoms would have been filled with foie-gras mousse. The base-note tastes of artichoke with its false sweetness and foie gras with its soft waxiness and barnyard funkiness have always paired beautifully, but what improves the dish at La Bourse et La Vie is that the foie gras is served in generous slabs. This rescues this dish from the somewhat elderly lack of texture from which it suffered in its classic version, and to flirtatiously temper the richness of this plush pairing, it’s accompanied by almost aspic-like shallot vinaigrette, a brilliant detail.
So it’s this type of exceptionally shrewd cooking that makes the new version of La Bourse et La Vie such an exciting addition to the Paris restaurant scene. It’s a sexy little restaurant, too, with a gun-metal gray interior by interior architect Elliott Barnes, former partner of the late Andrée Putman, that highlights its best feature, the original 1820s vintage moldings that surround the mirrors which visually amplify the diminutive space of the former stationer’s shop. A few other details wink in sort of a coy post-modern way at the decorative idioms of the traditional Paris bistro, including a heavy velvet draft-blocking curtain at the door, a zinc bar and the modern globe lamp lighting fixtures designed by Italian designer Gina Sarfati in 1965.
Stepping through the door with Bruno, we ran right into the indefatigably cheerful Daniel Rose, who brought us a giant gougère, or puffy cheese-blazed choux pastry, to nibble on with our glasses of Domaine de la Taille aux Loups sparkling wine, a favorite from the Loire.” And then a bit of banter. “This tastes like it was made with Dorie Greenspan’s recipe,” I said to Daniel. “Yup, I pinched her recipe!” True or false, it was delicious, as was the mackerel poached in white wine, a dainty version of a bistro classic, that Bruno ordered as his starter (I, of course, had the artichoke hearts with foie gras, which were superb).
Continuing to indulge my retro culinary curiosity, I had the filet de canette a l’orange, another gloriously rock-of-ages but recently little seen glory of Gaul, and it was an exquisite bird–tender, juicy, cooked perfectly rare with a light golden crust on its skin and a silken sauce of pan-drippings and stock very discretely flavored with orange (I suspect that finely chopped dried orange zest had been made into an infusion and then added to the sauce at the last minute, lest too much heat dull its quietly refreshing citrus brightness). As profoundly satisfying as the duckling may have been, however, what really raised my pulse rate was the superb accompanying side dish of sautéed ceps and figs, a brilliant garnish for the bird.
Meanwhile, across the table, Bruno was quietly enjoying Rose’s clever contemporary revision of one of the all-time greatest bistro dishes, pot-au-feu. Rose didn’t say so, but his fresh and very inspired take on this cold-weather classic would seem to have been inspired by two other now rarely served but decidedly delicious cuisine bourgeoise dishes, boeuf a la ficelle, or beef poached in bouillon, and quasi de veau bourgeoise, the ‘quasi,’ or top of a leg of veal, simmered in broth with vegetables. In Rose’s dish, the quasi was served rare, with bone marrow, poached flank steak, cabbage, carrots, celery and a crispy galette of calf’s head topped with sauce gribiche, and the bouillon was delicately perfumed with chopped mint and lime zest. This exquisite dish was accompanied by some pommes boulangères–potatoes baked with butter and bouillon on a bed of sautéed onions, that I couldn’t keep my fork out of.
Beyond his talent in the kitchen, what Rose excels at is hospitality, and his desire to spoil and amuse his guests creates an atmosphere here that’s at once confidential, charming, and ur worldly in the most Parisian of ways, no mean feat for a guy who hails from the American Midwest. The charming sommelier and an excellent wine list abetted the pleasure of this feast as well.
When we arrived, Bruno spotted a pretty tarte au citron on the end of the zinc service bar and immediately asked that a portion be set to one side. So when it came to the table, he devoured it so quickly, I had no time to take a picture of it, much less taste it. I believe him when he said it was very good, although he did insist that his own is better, and I can attest to how excellent his lemon tarts always are. And me, in a happy way-we-were sort of haze brought on by the fact that this meal had conjured up memories of favorite meals and dishes I hadn’t thought about in a very longtime, I tucked into what just might have been the best crème caramel creme I’ve ever had. It was rich, eggy, creamy and redolent of vanilla, and the only thing that could possibly have made it better was a stronger taste of burned sugar in the sauce, but that’s a personal preference. And in keeping with the don’t ask, don’t tell theme of enjoying the evening rather than trying to safe-crack every recipe, I didn’t ask Rose if this gorgeous custard hadn’t also received a big dollop of crème fraîche in addition to the usual cream and milk, but the fluffy pillowy texture made me think it had.
La Bourse et La Vie is a wonderful restaurant.
La Bourse et la Vie, 12 rue Vivienne, 2nd Arrondissement, Paris, tel. (33) 01-42-60-08-83, Metro: Bourse, Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre, Quatre Septembre. Open Monday-Friday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Closed Saturday and Sunday, Average a la carte 45 Euros.
Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He has written about food and travel for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is a Contributing Editor at Saveur and writes a weekly column on restaurants in French for the weekend magazine of Les Echos, France’s largest business newspaper. Lobrano is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014, and Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website, www.alexanderlobrano.com (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)