If there is one style of cuisine that suits these chilly days, classic rib-sticking French bistro cooking cuts la moutarde better than any other. A hearty cassoulet, bœuf à la bourguignonne, jambon persillé, blanquette de veau, choucroûte… cuisine à l’ancienne is the culinary equivalent of a bearskin rug and a roaring fire.
The only problem, even in Paris, is where to find it. Old-fashioned bistros are disappearing as quickly as pubs are vanishing in London: many touristy brasseries survive, but finding a place where the food is cooked with skill and love, the menu steeped in French tradition, is harder than ever.
But not impossible. I have a particular fondness for the more-shabby-than-chic, belle époque dining room at Bistrot La Renaissance, just north of Montmartre, where the runny yolks of oeufs en cocotte bleed slowly into rich, grill-blistered cream, and the entrecôte steak is almost as bloody as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which used the bistrot as a location; as did Claude Chabrol, 25 years earlier, for Le Sang des Autres.
If the menu at Bistrot La Renaissance is a love letter to classic French cookery, the carte at L’Assiette, near the Montparnasse Cemetery but happily off the tourist radar, is a full-blown epic poem. Not in length – it is commendably short – but in chef/patron David Rathgeber’s insistence on making everything from scratch, in time-honoured fashion. He modestly describes his food as “cuisine canaille”: riff-raff cooking.
This is not a place for fancy amuse-bouches or saucers of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. L’Assiette was once a charcuterie: hommage comes in the form of a basket of country bread, excellent butter and some generous, hand-carved, pleasingly fatty slices of ham.
Rathgeber’s profound mastery not just of technique but of flavour does not falter throughout the meal. An ethereally fragrant tartare of blue shrimps has pine nuts for crunch, a zingy pinch of piment d’Espelette and a dressing made from the heads; a rustic pot of hamhock rillettes is made silky with foie gras, sharpened with a few lightly pickled vegetables.
His cassoulet, bubbling in an earthenware cocotte, is a thing of beauty: six kinds of meat, among them lamb neck, duck confit and Toulouse sausage, lend a sublime texture to thin-skinned mogette beans. In my humble opinion, it is the finest cassoulet I have ever eaten.
Tête de veau is also in a class of its own. Featuring calf’s brain and tongue, it is not for the squeamish: most chefs buy it ready-rolled, but Rathgeber breaks down the head himself, lending his finished dish a joyful variety of flavours and textures. Creamy brains, yieldingly slow-braised tongue, ribbons of cartilage cooked al dente, the skin and fat sticky with gelatine, and a sauce gribiche flecked with parsley, savory and marjoram: it is an old-school masterpiece. Winter has its compensations, and dinner at L’Assiette is one of the very best.