Thursday, December 12, 2013

Au Bon Accueil

One of my first trips to Paris was with friends, in the winter. I remember we made our way to the Trocadèro and walked down to the Eiffel Tower and up the Champ de Mars to Les Invalides. It was beyond freezing, with a vicious wind and grim lowering leaden clouds. However, we were young and foolish and high on an exciting journey to the most glamorous city in Europe.

Yesterday, I retraced that walk with my friend Nicolas. We were in Paris to catch the Masculin / Masculin exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay and Nic had arranged for us to eat lunch at a friend’s restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. We got off the Metro at the Trocadèro to be welcomed by a sublimely beautiful winter’s day.
You just don’t get light like that in London - crisp and high-keyed and blindingly clear. The Trocadèro’s polished marble platform bounced it all around amazingly - heaven for two amateur photographers. In the distance, the tower shimmered like a mirage in the miraculously blue sky.
After walking down across the Seine to the tower we explored the bottom section of the Champs de Mars a bit before heading off to the restaurant: Au Bon Accueil - ‘The good reception’. And what a reception it is.
I was excited as although I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to Paris I’ve never eaten at a smart contemporary restaurant at the top of its game. Au Bon Accueil has a deliciously lacquered maroon frontage onto the street, and is a calm refuge within - simple and luxurious textures of stone and wood enclose intimate spaces. One of the stone columns had been carved by a grateful customer - a Bacchus or vaguely Assyrian monarch surveys the room. Front of house staff were friendly and efficient - you just immediately feel in very good capable hands. We quaffed a delicious glass of champagne and consulted the menu.

It seems I have good luck with fish in Paris. On that earlier trip a waiter at La Coupole (of course) suggested a fish dish different to my initially ordered salmon. As it was cheaper I went with his suggestion but if my French was up to the menu I might have avoided it: I seem to remember it was mullet with red wine and bone marrow (??!) However, it came, and was totally wonderful. On my last trip - a work outing with colleagues - I was desperate to eat at the hottest, smartest place in town and spent the day trawling my trade fair consulting restaurant guides and barking instructions to Angela (who spoke French), to try to get a table. Sadly, everywhere was booked and when we got back to the hotel that evening the colleagues were too exhausted to go out, and suggested we eat at a place next door. This turned out, hilariously, to be a celebrity hang-out from the 1950s totally fossilised in its time. Our table was treated with disdain until we ordered a second bottle of wine. Jo didn’t want a starter and I fancied two on the menu, so ordered tuna tartare for her for me to eat. It came and it turned into a tuna stand-off, it was so delicious.

But my salmon starter at Au Bon Accueil trumped all: a generous slab of salmon fillet, briefly seared (basically, sashimi). Breathtakingly gorgeous - a real work of art, with delicate dabs of different sauces, condiments and vegetables arranged as if by a florist or a jeweller on the plate. Lovely textures and flavours, really leaving me wanting more: a perfect starter.
The arrival of our poached and roasted chicken breast main course was heralded on our table by a culinary implement I have not seen before: a “pelle à sauce” (sauce shovel). This is something I can get behind! Especially when the sauce in question was the unctuously smoky mashed potato accompanying the chicken.

Again, achingly beautiful composition was backed with flawless execution: the chicken was tender, flavourful and juicy, with skin crisped to perfection by the roasting. A drift of blanched brussels sprouts leaves across a smear of sweet potato added a touch of wit and colour to the plate.
For pudding I fancied the brioche perdu, which Nicolas informed me was French comfort food (he went for the chocolate tart). My brioche was lovely, a squidgy yet fluffy square of caramelised eggy goodness, punctuated by the sharpness of mango and passion fruit. It came with a separate jug of caramel-topped whipped cream. So perfect.
We ordered from the lunch menu and both thought it offered excellent value for the price. Although we both felt that nowadays one can find similar quality food in London, it typically comes at three times the cost. Also, in my experience the lunch menus in London tend not to be as generous or imaginative.
After this wonderful meal we said our goodbyes and hurried off to the Musée d’Orsay for Masculine / Masculine. All I can say is the quality of the reception at Au Bon Accueil is mirrored superbly by the quality of the food. I’d love to go back.