It is a rare thing to feel you know a bar or bistro intimately, as though you have been going there for years, even though you just walked through the door for the first time thirty minutes ago. Happily, L’Estaminet is one of those places.
The first time I went there for dinner, midnight one drunken summer’s night two and a half years ago (an unforgettable meal that would change the course of my own personal history from that point onwards… but not just because of the food), I had an immediate affection for the place.
There is something about L’Estaminet that invokes a pleasant sensation of ‘organised chaos’. They don’t take bookings so the front section functions as bar, waiting area and number one destination for ‘drinking games’ (be it 3pm or 2 am, there is always a motley crowd ready with a glass and a smile). The convivial informality continues as the cute, casual and colloquial staff and make you feel as though you’re just as welcome as the guy who has been propping up the bar every day for the last 5 years.
When you wander in off the street and ask for a table, you’ll find the atmosphere and warmth a refreshing change from most Parisian bistros, even if it’s 12:30am and you tell the staff that you’d like to eat a full meal. If you do have to wait for a table (a frequent occurrence, considering how popular this place is, but not a negative one), do so with a glass of something-or-other in your hand and you’ll most-likely strike up a conversation with whoever is loitering around with you. The atmosphere here is always ebullient and can lift even the most morose of spirits, so kick off those metaphorical shoes and settle in for some gentle conviviality.
Upon being seated, either in the boisterous ground-level area or in the cosy cave (wine cellar) downstairs, the first thing to do is to order yourself something to drink. When you have the chance to peruse the wine list, you’ll note that it is a very happy mix of both cheap and cheerful wines and includes a selection of which many of us can only aspire. Something soothing to keep in mind should you not be a mad fan of the vine is that the beer is cold and the cocktails are well mixed. However, having said this, I can’t help but question: if you are not wine lover, what on earth are you doing in Paris (I know that this is a digression, but this is a very serious question in some Parisian circles, the answers to which may be displeasing all round. So, on second thoughts, let’s just forget I asked and get on to the business of the food, shall we)?
Dinner at L’Estaminet is a great thing. The quality of the food is irreproachable, the serves are generous and though the regularly-changing menu is largely classical French fare from the South-West, the attitude of the kitchen is modern and approachable and there is always a couple of unusual things thrown in for good measure.
Last week I had a group of friends from Melbourne in town, so naturally I took them to L’Estaminet so they might experience something of the ‘old Paris’ sans the attitude of the ‘new’. We ordered a heap of things and put them in the middle of the table and so everyone could taste a little of each. So rather than breaking down a couple of dishes ingredient by ingredient as I might usually, I’ll instead recommend some of my favourite items on the menu in the hope that you too will have the good fortune to note my recommendations and take the kitchen for a spin some day (as a group of five we had a good chance to sample quite a bit of it, and to be honest, I’ve never had a disappointing meal here).
When it comes to entrée the oeufs cocotte au foie gras avec mouillettes pain d’épices (7.80 euro) are fantastic and I always have a hard time resisting them (it’s something of a menu staple). The gently baked eggs are rich and velvety without being heavy, while the narrow slices of lightly spiced bread provide the perfect faintly sweet counterpoint to the foie gras overtones. Additionally the charcuterie de L’Aveyron (15 euro) is a pleasing dish. The charitably proportioned mix of saucisson, cured ham and terrine is sufficient to serve a small group of people for nibbles with drinks or two as entrée. Freshly cut and served with a light salad, lots of bread and really good butter, it makes for a satisfying beginning to any meal or even a nice snack if you’re looking for something to accompany a glass or four of wine.
For something more substantial, I cannot recommend the margret de canard with balsamic sauce and pomme de terre dauphinois (16.50 euro) highly enough. The duck is served pinkish and succulent (as it should be), is beautifully seasoned and still possesses its nicely crisped skin. Gleaming a little from the balsamic reduction that is seductively pooled on and around the bird, the sauce enjoys a mild sweetness betraying the fact that it was finished with fresh strawberries, serving to lift the palate a little without proving cloying. Fortifying stuff.
The L’estaminetburger (the house hamburger, 14.00) is a gentle giant that satisfies the craving for something old school, traditional and yet contemporary in the same mouthful. The burger is cooked as you like and arrives in a large bun, as a good burger should. It has all the usual trimmings, including fresh green salad and thick-cut fries on the side, yet the point of difference is the inclusion of the onions confit hidden within. Sweet, tangy, savoury and a very good idea, it elevates the burger to a category way above that of ‘fast-food’. The classic tartare de boeuf had also been modernised with a nod in the direction of fusion food, as the zip and tang of fresh coriander and ginger peppered the beef, adding a little pep to the mix (14.50 euro), whilst the confit du canard served with stewed cèpes, more commonly known to English speakers as porcini mushrooms (14.50 euro), was so good one that of my guests returned the following night so that he may enjoy it again.
In the realm of sweet things I would suggest choosing something that you’ve never heard of before, just to see what arrives. I did this some time ago and ended up with a fabulous connection known as a zephir au framboises (6.50 euro). What arrived was a molten, bubbling, gorgeous mess of raspberries, crème fraîche and brown sugar that had been set under the grill and emerged a short time later as an entirely different creature. Sweet, tart, fresh, smooth and creamy all in the same mouthful, it was one of the best discoveries I had made in the sweets department and is now my must-have dessert whenever I’m there.
The other option, of course, is to order an old favorite such as the moelleux au chocolat (6.80 euro). Served warm, the small cake is surrounded by a large puddle of crème anglaise that has been threaded with an attractive (and tasty) chocolate sauce. The delicately sugar-dusted cake has a perfectly smooth crust on the outside, however puncturing the sweet shell liberates the warm, lush, gently flowing chocolate heart. Not too saccharine yet sweet enough to knock those inevitable sugar cravings on the head, there is a reason why this little gastronomic peccadillo is a regular on L’Estaminet’s menu – it’s damnably good.
So where does this leave us at the end of our meal? Why, at the bar of course, sharing a shot (or 5) of house-flavoured vodka (ginger, raspberry, pear and more… take your pick) and waxing lyrical about whatever you feel like with a gaggle of your new best friends – the staff. L’Estaminet really is the kind of place where anything goes: as long as you’re having a good time.
L’Estaminet: this is Paris as it should be.
116 rue Oberkampf / 75011 Paris / Tel: (+33) 01.43.57.34. 29 / Hours: kitchen open from 12pm to 12:30am, non-stop, 7 days / Métro: Parmentier or Ménilmontant