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L'Oulette, Paris

Mervyn Rothstein
Posted: July 21, 2005

Next time in Paris, dine at L'Oulette, a restaurant that knowledgeable Parisians frequent that's just a bit removed from most Americans' Gallic radar. It's a little gem, more than worth the 10- to 15-minute taxi ride to 15 Place Lachambaudie in the 12th arrondissement, on the Right Bank just across the Seine from François Mitterrand's stark and imposing Bibliothèque Nationale.

When you return to the States, you'll be telling your friends about L'Oulette's superbly inventive cuisine -- a modern and imaginative take on the food of southwest France, as well as several other regions, with a gentle homage to elements of fusion and the spices and flavors of South Asia. You'll also extol its extensive and unusual wine list, with its focus on the growing quality of the vineyards in France's southwest -- and its rolling humidor filled with the best in Cuban cigars.

The focus is mainly on the Southwest because L'Oulette's renowned chef/owner, Marcel Baudis, hails from Montauban, between Cahors and Toulouse in that region of France. A student in the 1980s of the Michelin-starred chefs Alain Senderens at L'Archestrate and Alain Dutournier at Au Trou Gascon, Baudis established L'Oulette in 1987 as a tiny and unassuming bistro just off the beautiful Place des Vosges in the Marais section of the fourth arrondissement, where top food critics like Patricia Wells showed up and raved.

He moved four years later to his current and somewhat expanded home, where he strove for more creative cookery and soon found himself listed in the prestigious Michelin Guide. (Baudis kept his old bistro, renamed it Baracane and earned a listing in almost every Paris guidebook for its bargain prices and wonderful food. It too is worth a visit, though the restaurant does not have cigars.)

"What's most important for me is the taste," Baudis says. "It's not worth making a beautiful plate with beautiful products if the taste -- le bon accord, as we say, the marriage of ingredients, the marriage of flavors -- is not there." And while he does emphasize the southwest, it is by no means exclusive. "There are always several creations inspired by the Southwest, but not all of them," he says. "It sometimes depends on the season and the products available. In the summer, for instance, I go toward the Mediterranean."

Baudis's bon accord at L'Oulette these days rates three Michelin fourchettes, or forks -- the symbol for très confortable -- and he receives praise in the guide for his constant invention, which should soon attain a star. Indeed, when you first enter the dining room, the words that come to mind are calm, comfort, warmth and elegance. It's a place of honey-gold woods, well-spaced tables, warm yellow colors combined with terra-cotta earth tones, gleaming copper pots, and art-glass plates along the walls and as part of the table settings.

And then there's the menu. You can opt for the five-course, $110-a-person tasting menu, the same selections for the entire table, with a wine matched to each course. But my wife, Ruth, and I went for the additional variety of the $63-a-person seasonal menu, which offers four courses and also includes wine chosen by the house. Choosing two different dishes per course, shared between us, gave us eight dishes to sample instead of five.

For starters, each table gets several amuse-bouches, a few different small tastes to wake up the palate. They include fresh sardines with a tapenade, shrimp with garlic mayonnaise and a small blue-cheese mousse with walnut and chives.

One of out first courses included slices of partly cooked and impeccably seared, room-temperature sushi-quality tuna -- crisp on the edges, melt-in-the-mouth-raw in the center -- redolent with sweet and spicy aromas and flavors and accompanied by edamame and thin-sliced mild French radish. Our other choice was a luxurious terrine of chicken with foie gras, the satiny texture and creamy richness of the foie gras contrasting precisely with the delicacy of the chicken. With it was a surprise -- a chutney of beets spiced with cumin; South Asia in the midst of France. Served with the dish were warm slices of chestnut bread, adding sweetness and crunch to the mix.

Our main dishes included fish -- a stunning grilled filet of rascasse with an artichoke fricassee and red rice. The fish had a subtle undertone of Asian spices, a little heat and flavor that your mouth notices and appreciates but that serve only to highlight the dominant flavor of the fish, not to overwhelm it. It's a perfect balance. And then there was L'Oulette's confit of duck. The dish is served in perhaps hundreds of Parisian restaurants, a menu staple. But the confit at L'Oulette is without doubt the best in Paris. The skin is crisp and tasty, the meat rich, soft, moist and full of flavor; another elegant contrast. It comes with a galette of sliced potatoes, both crunchy and tender. Yes, it's a sinfully rich dish, but it's worth each calorie.

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