There are some things you just shouldn’t muck around with. You wouldn’t want the “Hallelujah Chorus” suddenly interrupted by a guitar solo from Slash. Your Armani suit wouldn’t look any better with a touch of Top Shop around the pockets. And please don’t say you’d ever buy a brown Ferarri.
Relevance-obsessives can faff about all they want trying to improve on established traditions, but it’s all an exercise in futility if those traditions represent perfection in the first place.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the deluded mistakes emanating from many of today’s so-called “French bistros.”
Granted, you might not expect most of the U.K.’s attempts to replicate these indigenous delights to get out of the starting gate, but the real problem is the French are also losing ground on their home turf and could be in danger of forgetting what has made their bistros and the food they offered so mouth-wateringly addictive.
In fact, trendier bistros’ values seem to be diametrically opposed to those of their ancestors, with many falling into the “No-No” category. Today’s chefs want to take these simple, hearty, nay iconic dishes which have been handed down through generations from elder to offspring, and suddenly start adding a veritable United Nations of alien ingredients. Or they’re kitted out in anachronistic bright, wide-open spaces with sharp angles and stacking chairs.
Then there’s the food. In the past few months, I have endured pommes dauphinoise made with Camberzola (stick to Swiss, mate!), a cassoulet topped with oat flakes rather than the usual breadcrumbs (turned the whole thing into a sort of protein-laden porridge), sole Normande with flecks of star anise running through it and a Paris-Brest tickled with licorice.
So, you’re in Paris, craving proper bistro cooking – rustic, sticky, unctious plates or, preferably, bowls-full of gutsy goodies, as dark brown as the wood-panelled walls which fade into the velour banquettes. In a perfect world, there’ll be a timbered exterior and, as you enter, your eyes adjust to the dusky lighting as you almost recoil from the powerful whiff of garlic (somewhat sadly, the Gauloise reek is long gone). The menu will be brief, the wine carte probably even briefer, but your stay is likely to be long, since this is not food for people on the move.
Well, look no further than Allard, an 85-year-old Parisian institution in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Près in the city’s’ 6ème, taken over by multi-starred Alain Ducasse in 2013, which ticks all the above boxes and a few more besides.
Skip your morning croissant and don’t make any plans for dinner. The dishes here are as far away from tiny sharing plates as possible, but then they’re for those who want to eat rather than dine. Just check out the literal butter mountain, from which thick tranches are cut to spread on your munchy sourdough.
Ingredients are top-notch and priced as you might expect. However, by way of rationale, I had one of the most memorable meals of my life – and for all the right reasons. For those with a smaller boat to push out, there’s always the 34 Euro three-course lunch menu, with two choices at each.
But then you’d be missing out on a starter of pate en croute (28 Euro), so often a flabby exterior filled with indeterminate mush, but here comes as a bronze-glazed pastry “brick,” crisp on top, giving as you bite down, and filled mostly with foie gras.
There’s a pumpkin and chestnut veloute (18 Euro), coddled eggs with wild mushrooms (18 Euro) and, of course, a dozen snails in herb butter (22 Euro).
This is also the best place I know for losing your frogs’ legs virginity. At 42 Euro, they ain’t cheap, but then there is probably about a kilo of them, their deep-fried crunch giving way to moist meat and all swishing around in a huge copper saute pan awash with foaming, melted butter.
We shouldn’t have followed that with a whole Challans duck roasted to mahogany perfection surrounded by a field of green olives (76 Euro), or a seared veal sweetbread, that most tender of bodily offal, with winter vegetables in a rich truffled Madeira sauce (52 Euro). But we did – and not only were they bloody delicious, but the resulting doggy bags (one timely accommodation we can’t quibble with) provided dinner for two for the next couple of nights back home.
Nor should we have had room for dessert, but the “pudding hole” in us beckoned – and who could refuse the concluding joys of a mountain of perfect, chocolate-smothered profiteroles (12 Euro), or cough-and-you’ll-blow-them-away iles flottante bobbing about in a primrose pond of creme anglaise (10 Euro).
While there is a full wine list, it’s easy to have some very fine drinking by the glass (beautiful Burgundies from Montagny and Pernand-Vergelesses, anyone?), poured from grand Jereboam. The carte simple couldn’t be less confusing or fit for purpose – four regions of France, one wine from each in 15 or 45cl portions (9-54 Euro), plus a Champagne with 12 or 75cl options (22/132 Euro).
You’ll see by doing the maths a full-on three course meal for two with a commensurate amount of wine is probably going to come in just south of 300 Euros – but then you won’t be paying for breakfast or dinner – and you may even have a couple of ready-cooked bistro meals to come home to!
Here’s the clincher. I always used to say the best French bistro cooking was in London and came out of Pierre Koffmann’s kitchen. But he shut up shop at The Berkeley and now I’ll have to go to Paris to sate my bistro cravings.
And Allard is where I’ll be heading.
For, as the menu’s legend states: “Our clients do not come to Allard to have an original culinary experience, but to meet again with historical French recipes very dear to them.”
Images (c) Pierre Monetta
Tell me more about Allard
41 rue Saint-André des Arts 1 rue de l’Éperon 75006 – Paris
T: +33 (0)1 43 26 48 23
Open every day for lunch and dinner
Closed for lunch in August