Chef Christian Constant is so much part of the furniture around Rue St. Dominique, in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, that he carries the title of unofficial mayor in this little corner of Paris.
Although it wasn’t nominative determinism that brought him here, Constant is this year celebrating his 20th year on the street, and it’s here he has three of his seven Paris restaurants; side-by-side and cooking with French classical technique as their bible. It’s little wonder that food’s holy book Michelin has deigned to bestow the chef’s restaurants with a string of awards.
With such a veritable feast of choice, the plan was to stroll the street and see which of his establishments cast the most coquettish come-ons – happily bringing about a fine afternoon in the warm embrace of Les Cocottes.
In a street crowded with gourmand-worthy bistros (ironically, competition which is made in-house), a sense of theatre and razor-sharp branding is requisite to stand out. There’s no chance you’ll forget where you are or who is doing the (executive) cooking here. The restaurant name and message come from the small, heatproof dish in which the main courses arrive, giving everything a neatness and synergy, not to mention saving on the washing-up. To say the dishes are one-pot wonders, however, would be doing an almighty disservice – the cooking here is precise and impeccable.
The closest metro is École Militaire and the Eiffel Tower is well within a post-dinner stroll’s reach. The banks of the Seine and Musee d’Orsay are also close – your day’s itinerary, then, is written.
More cavernous than the outside betrays, and with stool and bar seating abundant, Les Cocottes has the feel of a modern tapas bar, complete with appropriate levels of chatter and cheer. Naked wood tables and minimal frippery reassure punters that the hushed tones of haute cuisine are not expected.
The menu is divided into four parts; the traditional three and an interloper, Les Incontournables – pates, cheeseboards and such. Of course, when mains are so clearly purposed as the finished article – cocotte-confined and war ready – starters which land in the middle of the table for everyone to get stuck into is the unavoidable and correct move. It’s the sociable way to try as many different bits’n’bobs as possible before you get covetous with your main.
With this logic in place and the unseasonably warm September weather outside, we opted for light, kilner-jar contained sharers to start. A smugness about our ordering savvy followed with the first bite of a tuna, aubergine caviar and spiced jelly offering – an utterly sublime dish suited so well to the communal. Ditto the country style pate (a ‘recipe from my apprenticeship’ was cutely offered as an aside on the menu), which while also doing the job, boasted less originality than the former.
The main event had much to live up to and it got there, just. A blushing pigeon breast with confit leg, girolles and peas smacked of the season and had the right, light earthiness which made seeing off summer all the more bearable. The serving vessel’s trump card, of confining all of the meat juices in one place, made for a beautiful, rich liquor. That sense of being on the cusp of a new season but not quite letting go of the last was replete in all the table’s choices – cod, end of summer vegetables and lemon and honey vinaigrette was sharp and refreshing, but with warmth and depth from subtle Asian spicing and candied lemon peel. Roast chicken with confit lemon and olives pulled off the same trick.
This being France, there’s a bountiful wine list with plenty of bottles in the upper echelons, hovering out of reach. The inclusivity of the restaurant, though, shines through in the availability of carafes and waitstaff happy to guide you in ones suited to your budget and food.
Without wishing to be obtuse, the stand out dish was not one found in the section of the menu from which the restaurant takes its name. Instead, our group could not find enough superlatives for the tuna and aubergine. Perhaps, in a country so in thrall to the staples and classical technique, the mix of perfect execution and the unfamiliar in the dish awakened the senses. Eyes were certainly wide around the table when they met after the first bite. Undercurrents of Middle-Eastern spicing and a jelly whose main ingredient we couldn’t quite put our finger on led to intrigue and discussion. It’s great when food does that. In comparison, the cocottes felt almost selfish.
Paris is a city of down-to-earth bistros and reverent fine-dining, and Les Cocottes manages to straddle the two for a price that, whilst not cheap, was wholly reasonable. The cooking is perfectly executed, free from peacocking but with enough allure and intrigue to titillate, leaving you suitably sated and satisfied. Next time we’re in Paris we’ll be sure to succumb to Les Cocottes’ seduction again; only if one of its sisters doesn’t tempt us in first.