It’s funny because I used to pass the building that houses Les Fines Gueules and think “Gosh, I would love to live in that building.” It’s just off the stately Place des Victoires, on a corner lot, and really, how nice would it be to sit on that balcony and catch some sun while having my morning coffee? Then one day a few years ago I made a reservation to eat at Les Fines Gueules and I was surprised when I arrived and found out that it was the restaurant on the ground floor, which I’d always thought was just some random café.
It’s a place that’s on my radar because they have reliably good food prepared with excellent ingredients. And the wine list is lengthy and not that I know that much about wine, but whatever I read it, I’m always interested because it has a lot of wines I’ve not seen before on it.
At a recent lunch, my friend and I started off sharing an astounding plate of burrata and mozzarella di buffalo. True, it’s kind of hard to screw those up. (But believe me, I’ve seen it.)
Here the burrata is sprinkled with the tiniest bits of gently toasted almonds, which actually bring out the flavors of the milky cheese by providing a bit of contrast, giving them a change to play off the other. A nice pour of olive oil flows over the two and wispy slices of ham sliced behind the bar were draped on top. People talk about using great ingredients and not doing much to them, and this dish was a textbook-perfect example of that.
We both sighed when we took our first bite, looked at each other, and nodded. Les Fines Gueules also has boards of excellent charcuterie to start with, although my usual order is the veal carpaccio. (All the meats are from famed butcher Hugo Desnoyer. And because he supplies the beef, this is one of the few places I’ll order the excellent Steak Tartare, and carpaccio, with confidence.)
The wine list is extensive, and heavy. I should know because I had to hold it up to keep it from falling over and crashing down on the lovely carafes of water lined up on the bar while we decided. Most bottles are also available by the glass of carafe and since it was lunch, before my arm gave out, I ordered a lovely Alsatian Riesling and my friend had a glass of Sauvignon blanc from the Touraine which she pronounced as “…Dry!” – which is probably the world’s shortest wine review, but at least she didn’t complicate it using a lot of fancy language.
Two of my pet peeves about restaurants in Paris. One is cooks hardly ever sear meat long enough, if at all. Searing adds flavors and yes, takes a little longer. Although the kitchen may be in a hurry, I’m happy to wait for a crusty steak or piece of fish with crisped skin. There’s nothing worse than a ropey steak and I rarely order steak out anymore for that reason.
The other is the inattention paid to vegetables. True, good vegetables can be a challenge to track down and prep, and presenting them well takes a little more finesse than just heating up some rice or purée (mashed potatoes) and plopping a mound on the plate. But how nice is it at the beginning of spring to be presented with a lively mixture of barely cooked peas, tiny turnips, and even fresh carrots and broccoli, cooked just right?
The Noix de veau (veal tenderloin) that my friend ordered was generous, and came out with a heavily seared exterior. I almost wish I ordered it, until I saw how enormous it was. (She only managed to make it through half.) My merlu (hake) was served on quinoa, which is a grain that I have trouble with, personally. I love eating it but when I’ve tried to cook it at home, it always comes out mushy. At Les Fines Gueules, the pile under my fish was lighter than couscous and while it could have used a bit more salt, the slender swirl of pesto was a nice touch alongside the simple fish.
To finish, we had the ever-present Le Café Gourmand, the trendiest dessert in town. While it seems to be a fixture on every single menu here, along with the ubiquitous warm chocolate cake (they’re a great dessert, but isn’t there any other chocolate cake people can make?), often it’s a rewarmed frozen macaron, a tiny chocolate cake (likely pulled from the same freezer), and if you’re lucky, maybe a financier from an actual bakery.
Here they offer up a thick pot of ganache made with Valrhona chocolate, a generous crème brûlée (whose flavor we had a hard time discerning – but the texture was just right), and a moist, hefty slice of orange pound cake, along with a well-made café express. (Wait. Did I just say that?)
The other great thing about Les Fines Gueules is that they’re open every day of the week. So if I lived upstairs, I could go down any day I wanted to. If I ever left my balcony.
Les Fines Gueules
43, rue Croix des Petits Champs (1st)
Tél: 01 42 61 35 41
UPDATE (2012): A few reports have noted that the service at the restaurant has been rather lax and people have been indifferent about the food. My own experiences have been generally favorable, but it’s true that something seems to have changed here, in terms of the service as well as the food. I hope the restaurant gets back on track because I previously had only positive experiences here.