L’Assiette: The Little Restaurant That Could (or Should)

escargots

Proving that just because you have good ingredients, doesn’t necessarily mean you can make them good. True, it’s harder to go wrong with stellar vegetables, seafood, and meat, but a recent dinner at L’Assiette proved that a little finesse, and seasoning, can transform decent ingredients into something pretty good. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case on a recent visit.

For many years, L’Assiette was the “go to” restaurant in Paris. When I worked at Chez Panisse, every cook who came here simply had to eat the cuisine of Lulu Rousseau, the beret-wearing woman who cooked simple food, and did it very well. The food came with a slightly hefty price tag which was mitigated by the good food on the plate. She sold the restaurant and I recently went back for a visit. The prices remain high, but what’s on the plate doesn’t exactly justify them

rabbit with feves

We were startled at the prices on the daily special chalkboard: €23 for a plate of asparagus and €35 for a main course of veal with morel mushrooms. (Although a friend recently ate at Benoît, where a plate of 6 green asparagus spears was €34 [$46]. So maybe this was a bargain…) We ordered a carafe of wine and began by choosing three of the four first courses, to split amongst five of us.

After spearing up the shards of decent smoked ham they bring to each table, we all nibbled on the first courses. The little porcelain dishes of escargots were an interesting presentation, but didn’t improve upon the buttery bistro original. And why one would put little bits of unflavored, out-of-season tomatoes in the bottom of each dish is beyond me.

The €18 cassoulet of just barely-cooked vegetables was way underseasoned, proving that if you’re going to use ingredients sparsely, you’d better make damn sure they’re perfect. A similar presentation at Mon Vieil Ami, comes at a lower price, and is far better.

veal with morels

Main courses were uneventful. I had rabbit wrapped in pastry and unpeeled favas, which was passable, but Romain pronounced that his pricey veal with morel mushrooms had “aucun goût”—no flavor. Like everything, there was a lack of salt. And while some argue that salt can be added by the diner, food just doesn’t taste the same unless the salt is cooked in it. And if they’re not going to salt the food well, at least put flaky sea salt on the tables instead of acrid, ordinary table salt. Especially at these prices.

When you have just two desserts on the menu, one being a hot Chocolate Soufflé, and one cheese, a three-inch St. Marcellin for 12 euros, they should be amazing. I don’t mean to be a smarty-pants, but the Chocolate Soufflé tasted like runny (and grainy) chocolate pudding mix with hardly any chocolate flavor.

My tablemates sharing the cheese said it was inedible, leaving an odd, burning sensation in their throats. The host took it away, not offering another one to replace it. But at least didn’t appear on the check.

(I wasn’t anxious to try it. And since they were both well-respected food writers, I took their word for it.)

tuna

I believe everyone who works in restaurants tries to do their best. But when a restaurant is only one-third full, and the ingredients are obviously of very high quality (and you’re charging accordingly), and you have such a good pedigree, I think a bit more care could be taken with the food you’re serving to make it shine. L’Assiette could use a little more polish.

L’Assiette
181, rue du Château (14th)
Tél: 01 43 22 64 86

25 comments

  • Sounds like a horrible experience.

  • Stephanie: It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly wasn’t all that much fun. Or delicious. When you’re eating out, even if the food isn’t the best, that’s okay, as long as you’re not paying a premium. We were just disappointed in the restaurant, especially since old chef was so terrific and we’d heard the new owners were keeping up the kitchen.

  • Cheese that leaves a burning sensation is frightful in my books.

  • Aucun goût…. What a tragic waste of morels.

  • I had some french friends recently celebrate a birthday there, and they were not as kind as you, they absolutely hated it. He’s a wine expert, and was quite upset that they recommended a horrible wine with their meal.

    The Zagat rating, I sorta read between the lines that it appears the reviewer(s) had some underlying “questions” about the restaurant, e.g., low vote count? it seemed very mixed to me.

    ZAGAT REVIEW
    “Mitterrand made it famous, but he is gone and so is the buzz”, which may account for the low-vote count of this veteran Montparnasse bistro; nevertheless, the simple Southwestern cooking – recently augmented with healthy touches by a new Alain Ducasse–trained chef from Benoît – still thrills, and the “informal” 1930s butcher shop setting feels “fresh and stylish”; the four-course, daily changing prix fixe is not for cash-strapped socialists, however.”

    I don’t mind spending money for good food, but when it’s mediocre, it’s an insult. I guess I can cross this off my list!

    Merci Bien!

  • I am, unfortunately, pretty stingy with my money (though I suppose in this econ. crisis, that’s a less embarrassing trait that in the past) so when I spend it on a pricey meal, I truly hope for food that leaves me happy & satisfied, not just fed. And if it inspires me to cook more– even better! I would have left that restaurant feeling so so sad! And it’s always a disappointment to see an old favorite go down hill. Oh, and agreed– the cheese sounds frightening!

  • That sounds like an unfortunate, painful experience. I’d heard some things (always good) about this place…
    Do you think there’s a chance they’ll improve? Or are they simply stuck?

  • Even having been in the restaurant business for many years and having the privilege of working with a number of noble and inspiring chefs (including David), my palate remains decidedly low-brow (simple, healthy). Expensive food rarely thrills me, even if it is “good”. What I do get off on though are the things that make dining out, fine or otherwise, pleasurable. Flawless but warm service, appropriate sound level, sexy lighting, table settings that make you want to hang out with amazing company….
    (So were those peel-your-own favas or what?)

  • Sad to read a classic is crumbling. I wish them luck in pulling it together or transitioning into something new and better.

    What I loved about this post was the food writers you dined with and their behavior. So many of my friends and family act the opposite in the same situation. When one of them gets a bite of something odd or even awful they can’t wait to shove a bite down everyone’s throat to get them to agree. What is that about? They eat something distasteful and then say “This is just awful, you have got to try it.”

    Huh? :-)

  • Ouch! That smarts. Lets hope they read this and take a hint or two. There’s nothing worse than having to pay for something less than stellar. Thanks for the ‘heads-up’.

  • Barbra: I love how the French can get away with saying things that we wouldn’t dream of saying.

    At a café, Romain asked a barman last week, “Why is your coffee so horrible?” Of course the guy just shrugged it off…”C’est comme ça, monsieur“…

    Sarah: We were all pretty calm. But it was just sad to go out with friends and have a meal that’s less-than-exemplary.

    ritanyc: Ha! That’s what the others at the table asked. But since they were small and fresh, the skins were edible. (Although at those prices, they probably should’ve been peeled…)

    Margie: Most people don’t go into the restaurant business with the hopes of fleecing customers, so I hope they do get the food together. So it’s in line with the prices!

  • Talk about skewering a place….. hmmm, when I get back to Paris, that place is off the list. And a blogger like you could kill their business easily with a really bad worldwide critique. Maybe the owners don’t care, but in this worldwide economic crunch, people are being really, really careful about where they spend their currencies.

  • That’s such a sad statement — how in the world do you have veal with morels and NOT have flavor!

    My hubby commented as we left a similar dining experience that he’d rather give me the money and have a small dinner party — that I’m a better cook than the restaurant, and we’d have had more and better food, and enjoyed the evening’s company.

    I’m not a Julia Child by any means — but it sure isn’t hard to put together a very satisfying meal with fresh, tasty ingredients.

    Too bad. This goes in my notebook of places to NOT go.

  • I agree seasoning, salt in particular; should be cooked into the dish in order for the food to be properly prepared.

    Was there anything edible at all?

  • No wonder so many people are deciding to “grow their own + eat at home!!! What a rip off! The leading edge of giving Paris a bad name in international culinary relations perhaps? Seems like substituting lesser quality while maintaining extravagant prices is de rigueur! Shame.

  • Ooh – I love it when you’re bitchy!

    Nice review.

  • If someone were only visiting Paris for a few days and ended-up in a restaurant like this – it would be tragic…

  • “I believe everyone who works in restaurants tries to do their best. But when a restaurant is only one-third full, and the ingredients are obviously of very high quality (and you’re charging accordingly), and you have such a good pedigree, I think a bit more care could be taken with the food you’re serving to make it shine.”

    Nicely said David.

    I believe anyone can write a glowing restaurant review. What takes skill is writing a not-so-good one and doing so without sounding like you have an axe to grind.

    Mission accomplished.

  • I stage at a restaurant with a high pedigree that really disappoints me. The place you went two had two desserts… mine has one! And I’m the pastry stagiere, so I assemble this silly unimpressive dessert with poor quality fruit and then get to see the plates return mostly uneaten. It’s partially because they’re cutting back on costs, and I think also because the owner thinks he can get by on the reputation he cultivated in the past. Looking at our mostly empty restaurant day in and out, I don’t think the place has much of a chance at retaining it’s two stars.

  • Tammie: That’s so unfortunate. It’s sad when owners are so short-sighted that they just look at the bottom line and don’t see the long-term repercussions of skimping on quality. I was having lunch w/ a friend the other day in the 7th at a moderately-priced bistro and we were both shocked (and pleased) that the vegetables on our plates were fresh. It’s becoming such a rarity nowadays.

    Arne: Thanks. Unless a restaurant is downright nasty, I like to assume folks are trying. We were just so let-down by the food. I guess when people are charging €5 for a chocolate soufflé or a round of cheese, it’s fine if it’s not stellar. But when they’re €12 and they’re inedible, that’s another story.

  • we first visited lulu (who was smoking small black cigars) a few years ago during january fashion week on the recommendation of a local photographer and had a life changing experience. on our second trip, a couple of years ago, lulu had given up smoking but was still cooking. the dining room was empty except for my husband and me but we were treated like the most important and influential guests . . . so sorry that i can’t recommend this once wonderful restaurant again.

  • Excellent Review – Thanks. In fact, I’m in Paris in 2 weeks and HAD reservations. Note the past tense. You solved a double booking dilema I was having…

  • I have just started writing a food blog and have been wrestling with posting less than stellar reviews about some of the local restaurants. I am of course always happy to report on good experiences but have been struggling with weather or not to post a review if I didn’t love the restaurant. I think your post was honest and tactful. Your personal relationship with the past chef and the quality of the restaurant in the past gave you a unique voice that I think was important to be shared. What are your thoughts on sharing less than positive reviews in general? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  • Brittany: There are a couple of schools of thought, but I have only written something negative about a place on the site if I feel that they in particular merit a bad mention. (I think I’ve only done in twice.)

    I really prefer to point people to places I like but was talking to a friend who says I should speak my mind. I’m not a restaurant reviewer and I don’t go three times to make sure my night was an off-night. So I tried to temper this write up with pictures, showing how nice the presentations were, and to mention frequently that I was more disappointed than upset.

    If you’re going to write something negative, it should be constructive. If you just say, “This place sucked! The veal tasted like garbage” that, to me, shows a lack of responsibility. If you’re going to be critical, you should be able to back it up with why you thought so. I always prefer to point out places I think people would like and I do hope they improve the experience at this restaurant, so it’s up to the standards of the previous chef.

  • Thank you so much for the feedback. I totally agree, about being constructive or if you don’t have anything nice to say it is best to not say anything at all. I like to keep it all positive. Thanks again for taking the time to respond it made my day!