We dined at eight.
We dined at nine.
And you were late.
No – I was on time.
Ah yes, I remember it well.
These lines – from, I think, the musical show Gigi – came to me as I sat in the back of my immobile taxi by the River Seine. Traffic jams are tiresome, even when one is not in a hurry. But I hate being late at restaurants. To those from whom I am expecting so much, it must look like an act of bad manners. Yet my welcome at Benoit was so friendly and my apologies for my tardy arrival were so charmingly received by the Manager – an impressive young man from Monaco, Daniel Finot – that I was immediately at one with the jolly atmosphere of this most delightful of Parisian bistros.
Just a few steps from the Hôtel de Ville, this splendid place has been packed ever since it opened its doors in 1912 and promised its patrons “food and drink just like home”. Three generations of the Petit family worked hard to make this one of the most famous eateries in Paris – so hard, indeed, that it became (and is still) the only bistro in the French capital with a Michelin star. Now it is owned by the great Alain Ducasse, who certainly knows a thing or two about Michelin stars – being, at his restaurants in Monte Carlo, New York and Paris, the possessor of half a galaxy of the coveted celestial objects.
Has Monsieur Ducasse turned this bistro into a pale imitation of his celebrated gastronomic temples? Not a bit of it. He is far too intelligent for that. The pictures which were on the walls in 1912 are still on the walls. The mirrors, the brass, the woodwork, the bright lights – they, too, are still here. And, most important, so is the buzz of people who are enjoying their food. For Benoit has always been a place for large portions of straightforward French food, made with care from top class ingredients and served without undue fuss. No surprise, then, that my own meal exhibited these admirable qualities.
I eased myself onto a banquette of dark red velvet, just to the left of the entrance. In front of me was a sparkling white tablecloth. All around there was bustle, but the noise level was in no way oppressive. I had no difficulty in conversing with my companion. As I expected, the bread (no bread plates are put out) was of the highest quality. I thought I ought to start with one of the dishes from the original menu of 1912: smoked salmon.
What wisdom was in this choice… I have eaten smoked salmon here, there and everywhere. I have never enjoyed smoked salmon as much as I enjoyed this smoked salmon. Cut in thick slices, topped with pieces of onion and carrot, and served with thin slices of toast and a dish of boiled potatoes, this salmon was a real joy. This course alone was worth the journey to Paris. Next, duck foie gras and plenty of it, served with a small mountain of toasted bread. As throughout the meal, I was struck by the good, bold tastes and textures in my mouth. For my meat course, I chose partridge – pot-roasted and served with chestnuts and salsify. And finally, my old favourite, crèpes Suzette – not flambéed by the table, for there is no space for such theatricality, yet still luscious and full of flavour. For this thoroughly enjoyable meal I thank Chef David Rathgeber. Clearly, the traditions of Benoit are safe in his hands.
You will note that, as is my custom, I ate four courses (which cost 99 euros). Each course was, however, generous in size, so you will not go hungry if you confine yourself to three.
Four hundred French wines are on offer on the list, ranging in price from 35 euros for a white from the Loire (Pouilly-Fumé, Philippe Renaud, 2004) to 3,000 euros for 1995 Pétrus. 1995 Lynch Bages is 170 euros and the 2000 Richebourg from Grivot is 560 euros. The Parisian sommelier, Olivier Leblanc, pleased me a great deal by recommending two excellent bottles: a white burgundy with lots of butter and Gallic elegance (Chassagne Montrachet, Sauzet, 2003 – 85 euros) and a red Rhône, oozing ripe black fruit and with a delicious, lingering, residual sweetness (Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages-Rasteau, Gourt de Mautens, 2003 – 77 euros).
By the time I left the roads were clear. The taxi sped along, back towards my hotel. It carried a happy man. In fact, I thought that anyone who had just dined at Benoit would have to be pretty happy. The whole place exudes an infectious enthusiasm for good food and good wine. Ah yes, I will remember it well.
20 rue St-Martin, Paris 75004, France.
Telephone +33 (0)1 42 72 25 76
Fax +33 (0)1 42 72 45 68
Open every day