Like wine, food has a terrior. We tend to forget this in America, kings and queens of cultural melange that we are. Everything is mixed up here, whether it's pan-pacific fusion, or just the American influence on the taco shop down the street. It's often only when we travel to foreign countries, especially to small towns, we remember that food and all of its flavors are originally rooted in a place -- a place where certain types of produce, meats, spices, and flavors were born and still remain, inseparable from a town, or even a specific person.
My experience with such rooted flavors has been most striking in the small towns of Tuscany, but my dinner at La Table D'Aude has reminded me again that there is much to be discovered in the south of France, particularly in one of my favorite wine regions: the Languedoc-Rossillion.
La Table is a tiny postage stamp size of a place just off the Luxembourg Gardens. With perhaps fifteen tables draped with simple checked tablecloths it represents itself essentially as what it is, a small family run bistro. You are likely to be greeted by the owner, Bernard Patou or his wife and shown to your table (which you better have reserved ahead of time). If you're lucky, you'll even get to sit in their small upstairs non-smoking section. This is such a little nook of a restaurant that diners feel obliged, and often do, to greet their fellow diners as they slip by to take their seats.
The menu is straightforward, with a few choices in each category, every one of which has a story behind it, and is likely from Patou's home town, or even his own family, which he is happy to explain. These dishes are full of flavors that might be more expected of the tasting notes for a wine: earth, smoke, leather. I realize that may not be appealing to many, and it should be said that this food may not be for everyone, but if you like the rougher, heavier country aspects of Tuscan cuisine, and appreciate the magic that can be done with the freshest of spices and a few simple ingredients, then you are in for a treat.
The wine list mirrors the menu, with a selection of wines from Minervois, and various sub appellations of the Languedoc, all of which complement the food. I recommend any of the reds, which if you are unfamiliar with the region, will be driven by the dark grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and will be deep and complex. The list is easy on the pocketbook, with most wines between $20 and $30.
After selecting a bottle, I started with a saladette of dried pork livers, artichoke hearts and butter lettuce which was simply presented with a creamy vinaigrette. I'm not the hugest fan of liver, but this was one of the specialties of the house, and I thought I'd try it. It tasted, well..... like liver, and while I wasn't crazy about it, it was an introduction to the style that would dominate the food for the rest of the evening " forceful, fresh, and evocative of a time when dining rooms were lit with torches. Ruth opted for a catfish soup with gruyere, garlic croutons, and bread with a spicy aioli. The soup was excellent, and the croutons were simply amazing " which sounds silly, but they were the best croutons either of us had ever eaten.
Ruth was swayed by family tradition and ordered a dish that Poulet's grandmother made him as a child: chicken cooked in white wine sauce with mushrooms and olives " fragrant, juicy, and just what you would expect to come out of a big clay pot at a dinner party in a farmers garden. I headed for a comfortable winter dish of cassoulet with grilled pork sausage, fried pork skin, and goose confit, all simmered to soft perfection in a broth with white beans. Heavy food, yes, but heavenly as well, basic flavors that evoke the most romantic notions of peasant life. If I closed my eyes I could imagine myself at a winter feast in a feudal village.
Now I don't mean to imply that these dishes were brutish or clunky in their composition. Their simple presentation and basic flavors were elegantly crafted, and if the skill of the kitchen is hidden in the effortless demeanor of this home style cooking, one need look no further than dessert to understand that they are experiencing a singular vision of flavor, completely expressed. The rosemary sorbet had an intensity and purity that rivals any flavor I have ever experienced, and the apple tart with fresh cream was just out of the oven and delightfully crisp.
La Table delivers a wonderful meal, served up by warm, friendly people who take the time to make sure you are comfortable and do their best to ensure you leave sated and satisfied. Both Patou and his wife speak English and if you speak less that perfect Parisian French, you're likely to get the menus that are printed with English "subtitles."
How much?: Dinner for two with a bottle of wine came to $125. Prix fixe menus are also available including some with wine included.
La Table D'Aude
8, rue de Vaugirard
Paris (Sixth Arrondissment)
Nearest Metro: Odeon
Closed Sundays and in August.
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