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.
Speaking of calories, the cheese course came next, and it was a generous selection of the best (mostly of the southwest, of course). These raw-milk cheeses are usually not available in the States, and L'Oulette provides a great chance to sample them. They were accompanied by an assortment of nut breads and a fig jam.
Desserts? How about pain perdu, the true French toast, with a touch of cinnamon, dipped into a crème anglais that's wittily presented in an egg shell, with, as a final touch, a scoop of nougat-honey ice cream. Or, as another choice, a heavenly dark chocolate cake, its center filled with raspberry puree.
Throughout the meal, the service was exactly what you would expect in a restaurant like L'Oulette, gracious and friendly, unobtrusively faultless, with not the slightest trace of hauteur.
Like the meal, L'Oulette's wine list is a revelation. The emphasis is similarly on the southwest, in this case, on small-label boutique wines that don't usually travel west (much to our loss). Yes, you can opt for standards from Bordeaux and Burgundy, like a Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Morgeot de J. Faiveley 1999 for about $150, or a Puligny-Montrachet du Domaine Michelot 2000 for about $95, or, if you want to reach for the sky, a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1994 for about $300. There's also a good selection of less expensive wines from these regions. But why not choose from among the 17 wines from Cahors, the 23 from the "grand southwest" or the 28 from Languedoc-Roussillon.
"The top winemakers from Bordeaux are buying properties in Languedoc-Roussillon these days and producing good wines," says Marie-Noëlle Baudis, Marcel's wife and the restaurant's hostess.
The light fruit and distinctive spice of a simple Gaillac, Domaine de Cailloutis 2002 de Bernard Fabre, which came with the meal (it's about $30 à la carte), went flawlessly with the first courses, the tuna and the chicken terrine. And a Saint-Chinian Domaine Rimbert "Les Travers de Marceau" 2003 de Jean-Marie Rimbert (which also came with the meal and is about $32 à la carte), was just right for both the rascasse and its spices, and the duck and its gentle richness. The Saint-Chinian had small tannins, a little fruit, subtle spices and an appealing nose with a touch of strawberry and spice; it had a mildly assertive finish and it lingered agreeably on the palate.
"It's a wine with character," Mme. Baudis said. "In the old days, Saint-Chinian wines were mass-produced and had a bad reputation. That's changing. There are now really good vineyards in the Languedoc, and they are becoming better known."
After the dessert came espresso. Then it was time for the cigars from L'Oulette's rolling humidor. The choice is good, and considering the dollar's losing battle with the euro, the prices are not bad. A Cohiba Robusto (still and always my favorite) is about $30, a Cohiba Siglo IV Corona Gorda $27. Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 and No. 3 Robustos are $19 and $20, respectively, and Romeo y Julieta Churchill Julieta No. 2s are $27. A Montecristo No. 2 is $23. For Partagas partisans, the Serie D No. 4 Robusto is $20, the 8-9-8 Lonsdale is $24 and the Lusitania Double Corona is $28.
For me, there's nothing like a Cohiba Robusto to end a meal -- it's a smoke that lasts, but that doesn't last forever, like some of the bigger cigars. And when it's been kept the way it should be, as it is at L'Oulette, the result is pure pleasure.
Indeed, for me, the definition of a meal at L'Oulette is total bliss. I've been there several times, and the restaurant and Chef Baudis just keep getting better and better. In the old dialect of Languedoc-Roussillon, Mme. Baudis says, an oulette is a little cooking pot. At L'Oulette, the contents of that pot create smiles of contentment.
Mervyn Rothstein is an editor for The New York Times, and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and cigaraficonado.com.
15, place Lachambaudie
Phone: From U.S.: 011-33-1-40-02-02-12; in Paris: 01-40-02-02-12
38, rue des Tournelles
Phone: From U.S.: 011-33-1-42-71-43-33; in Paris: 01-42-71-43-33