Fine produce, a taste for rich, full-bodied flavours, and a strong faith in cream and butter are to be found at Le Villaret. This stalwart of Paris’ 11th arrondissement bistrot world was once run by the legendary Michel Picquart, who still keeps an eye on the place from his photo on the wall, but it has been in the hands of Olivier Gaslain, formerly Picquart’s head cook, for over a decade. He certainly knows how to treat quality ingrediants right, and his Norman background must have something to do with that cream thing.
Arguably the most remarkable thing about Le Villaret however is the long wine list that leaves amateurs of traditional references with weak knees, dreamy eyes, and quite probably, a lighter pocket at the end of the meal, even if the mark-ups are quite reasonable. It was lunchtime, and all three of us were returning to work afterwards, but we succumbed to a classic by Jean Thévenet, Domaine de la Bongran, Viré-Clessé 2004 : golden, complex, waxy with green apple notes and long persistance on the palate; and also to a Minervois by Jean-Baptiste Sénat, La Nine 2010, whose crushed-black-berry fruit nose comes with a full, lingering mouth.
We opted for the €25 lunchtime entrée-main-dessert formula, starting with two large sardines stuffed with green olive tapanade in a green soup for me; and an explosively flavoursome and meaty boudin noir (French black pudding) with apples for my two companions. They followed this up with grilled red mullet, served with braised endives and shreds of serrano ham under a dollop of cream that the little orange pearls of fish eggs on top made light and vapourous. I enjoyed one of the most flavoursome and succulent beef-cheek pot-au-feu (stew) I’ve had for a long time, which came with a garden-full of root vegetables.
The desserts that followed were disappointing: the green apple sorbet was nice, sans plus, and the warm apple and cider soup that accompanied it a little heavy, too thick for my liking. The yoghurt ice-cream with fressinettes – small lady-finger bananas, fried – wasn’t the best we’ve tasted, although the bananas were sweet. And I would add that €4 for a coffee is steep.
When compared to the current wave of young chefs changing the gastronomic landscape not only of the city, but, even closer to home, of the quartier (Inaki Azipitarte, Giovanni Passerini and Bertrand Grébaut are all based in the 11th), there is something slightly anachronistic about this place and its cuisine. But that perhaps adds to its interest: its like turning back a page in the book you are reading, and finding the picture there still intact, as you first saw it.
Address: 13 rue Ternaux, Paris, 11th arrondissement
Phone: 01 43 57 89 76
Reservations: recommended. You can often get a table at the last minute, however.
Lunch menu: entrée-main: €20, entrée-main-dessert: €25. Coffee: €4
Dinner: count on spending €40-50 per person before wine.
Wine: available by the glass, by the 50 cl pichet, and by the bottle.