Ever since Yves Cambdeborde set foot in this small bistro off the Boulevard St Germain, people started queuing up for tables. The selling points were – and still are – hearty fare, fair prices and solid selection of wines.
This concept, which was later given the name bistronomique was very much the creation of chefs such as Cambdeborde. Trained under some of France’s greatest chefs, in the most prestigious restaurants, these young cooks didn’t have the money or desire to set up another temple of haute cuisine. Instead, they decided to strip cooking of its unnecessary frills and pomp, to serve food based on superb produce and masterful technique in small, uncomplicated restaurants dotted around Paris. Whilst this doesn’t sound like something all that new to us now, it was quite a revolution in the city, which can claim to have the most expensive restaurants in Europe.
At Le Comptoir du Relais, Cambdeborde started doing something even more different. He served two different sorts of cuisine. At dinner, a single menu, featuring more fancy and elaborate food would showcase his ability as a cook, whilst lunch would bring his native Southwestern cuisine to the capital. Whilst reservations for dinner are still not easy to get, getting a table for lunch mostly means queuing up for quite some time.
Once you do sit down, the menu reads more than well. Lots of cochonailles and other meaty pleasures await the carnivore at Le Comptoir. From charcuterie platters, to several preparations of pig’s head or trotters, you truly find everything there is in a pig on this menu. A few fish and shellfish dishes pop up here and there, but sound much less intriguing than the more meaty ones.
If the Parisians decried Le Comptoir as having become a tourist trap, one thing that has to be said in its favour is the fact that the pork dishes served here still are delicious. A pig’s head carpaccio with cockles for instance is superb. Lots of gelatinous bits, barely cooked cockles and a hearty vinaigrette make this an ideal starter. The same can be said for a terrine of pot au feu, which even if it doesn’t have much pork in it, still does all it is supposed to. Tender bits of meat, full of flavour, a bit of horseradish on the side and a little lettuce heart is all one needs on such a plate. Even better is a sinfully rich and delicious breaded and fried de-boned pig’s trotter. This must any gourmand‘s idea of heaven, or something close to it.
Unfortunately, the Parisians do have a point. In some cases one feels Cambdeborde and his restaurant have become a bit of a tourist attraction. A special of veal with “fresh” peas is tasty, but the peas are frozen. Perhaps that would be the freshest you’d get in some little Caribbean village, but in Paris, one ought to find peas of decent quality in early May. Such things feel like the soul of the restaurant has somewhat been lost. Nothing is wrong with the food itself, but if the product quality is so low, one cannot help but walk away with mixed feelings.
In the end, it might be better to move on to one of the more recently established bistronomiques, which still follow those ideas of Cambdeborde more or less to the letter.