Paris 66, once only a creperie, is now a full-scale French bistro
March 1, 2012 10:00 AM
"You might start with an endive and beet salad, light and refreshing, but robustly flavored."
At Paris 66, the Chicken Basquaise was braised in a heavenly sauce of peppers, onions, tomatoes and spicy paprika.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Freddy and Lori Rongier opened Paris 66 in 2009, they had large aspirations but limited means. They couldn't afford much professional equipment in the small Penn Circle space, said Mr. Rongier, so chef Cesar Dubs devised a menu of crepes, salads and a few specials.
The popular restaurant grew profitable, and the Rongiers put that money right back into the business, buying a range and hood, and building a pastry kitchen into the basement, so that Paris 66, still a creperie during the day, could become a full-scale French bistro at night.
Drink: House cocktails include traditional and unexpected options ($7-$11); the all-French wine list is organized by region and includes thoughtful tasting notes. Three white wines and five red wines available by the glass starting at $9. Two sparkling and nine white wines available by the bottle, with five bottles priced at $40 or less; 20 red wines by the bottle, with nine bottles priced at $45 or less. Drink list also includes five beers plus a seasonal selection, and a couple of after-dinner options.
Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; complimentary valet parking Friday and Saturday nights; credit cards accepted; reservations suggested; corkage, $15.
Noise level: Loud to excruciating.
As the restaurant changed, so the did the staff. After Mr. Dubs' visa expired, he returned to France, and Larry Laffont took over the kitchen in early 2011. Mr. Laffont, originally from the Bordeaux region in France, had previously worked in a number of Pittsburgh restaurants, heading up the kitchen at Le Perroquet in Shadyside (now closed), as well as Dish Osteria, Mallorca and Ibiza on the South Side, before leaving the city for several years.
The much-expanded menu hits all the highlights of classic bistro cooking: Escargot in parsley butter, beef carpaccio, duck confit, etc. In spirit, if not precisely in cuisine, it conjures up a casual dinner in Paris, the long narrow space filled with laughter and conversation, the food a delicious reminder of our long love affair with simple French cooking.
You might start with an endive and beet salad, light and refreshing, but robustly flavored ($9). The slightly bitter leaves were arranged like little cups, a vessel for cubed beets tossed with crumbled blue cheese and drizzled with creamy, blue cheese dressing. A plate of fried artichoke hearts was rich enough to share, three large hearts, tender and slightly tangy, coated in bread crumbs and fried until crisp ($9).
Beef tartare graces many a menu these days, but it's slightly harder to find beef carpaccio. Here, the silky red slices of beef were generously dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkled with capers, which added just a hint of brininess -- they tasted as if they had been soaked, as they should be, to remove some of their salt ($13).
The charcuterie platter was tasty enough, but didn't compare to the finely wrought, house-made meat confections served at many local restaurants these days. Here, there were slices of a few types of salami, never identified by our server, and a thick slice of country pate, augmented by a small handful of cornichon ($14).
Oddly, it was served without bread, and even after requesting some, we found ourselves hungrily nibbling away at forkfuls of the rich, porky pate until the bread arrived, 15 minutes later. The crusty baguette was warm from the oven, with a lovely, delicate crumb, even if it was too late to eat with our charcuterie.
The menu declares that it "speaks English with a French accent," but sometimes the opposite seemed to be true. Take the steak frites, a well-seared ribeye, a pat of herbed butter gently melting into its brown crust, served with a wire-basket of well-seasoned fries ($23). The fries and the steak were good, but not quite as good as the delicious marriage of true steak frites.
A grilled rack of lamb, however, exceeded expectations ($34). Too often, dishes that mention truffles somehow fail to deliver on flavor. Here, three plump lamb chops, and a wedge of creamy potato gratin were gently bathed in a savory jus and garnished with visible, flavorful shavings of black truffle, earthy and rich.
Confit de canard was also served with a wedge of gratin, the potatoes pleasingly creamy and flavorful, the duck crisp of skin and tender of flesh ($27).
These dishes were quite good, if not pitch-perfect, but I found my spirits flagging a little. Does an authentic French experience, I wondered, really necessitate sticking quite this closely to the canon?
The very best dish I tried was the chicken Basquaise, a petite chicken breast and leg braised in a heavenly sauce of peppers, onions, tomatoes and spicy paprika, which combined some of the best elements of French and Basque cooking ($17). While entirely authentic, this dish is much less common and considerably more exciting.
Notably, it was also one of the least expensive options on a menu where most appetizers are in the low teens and most entrees are in the mid-20s.
Every restaurant should be evaluated both on its merits, and in the context of its prices. These weren't exorbitant, but they were noticeably higher than one might expect, given the casual feel of the dining room and service, which tends to be more warm and welcoming than speedy and attentive.
Lower-cost items include that wonderful chicken, heaping bowls of mussels and fries ($17), entree salads ($15-$18) and, of course crepes, a few of which appear on the dinner menu. The champ de mars layered an earthy, buckwheat crepe with a thick coating of cold creme fraiche, speckled green with dill, and topped with large slices of flavorful hot-smoked salmon ($15). The Paris 66 was a simple, savory combination of a buckwheat crepe, an egg cracked in the center, and small piles of sauteed mushrooms, tomato confit and caramelized onions, all topped with a light shower of grated Swiss cheese ($14). Normally it would come with ham as well, but my vegetarian guest requested that it be left off; Paris 66 has relatively few vegetarian options.
Since it opened, Paris 66 has also acquired a liquor license, and the small, French-focused wine list is a delicious addition to a meal. There are tablecloths now, and complimentary valet parking on Friday and Saturday nights, but for the most part, it's still the casual, welcoming restaurant it has always been. The tight space is often full to bursting, and if at moments servers seem slightly overwhelmed, the chaos always remains controlled, and servers maintain impressive grace under pressure.
Desserts have always been a strength of this restaurant, and they have only gotten better as pastry chef David Piquard has expanded his offerings. Sweet crepes were joyful confections, from simple combinations like sliced almonds, lemon and honey (a marvelous balance of flavors) to the much more elaborate nutella and banana or apple confit and house-made caramel.
The plated desserts are lovely as well, and there's usually an interesting special to augment the chocolate mousse and creme brulee. On one evening, it was a wonderfully tart passion fruit mousse decorated with mango curd and dark chocolate ($8). And, of course, there are the rainbow-colored macarons, a specialty of Mr. Piquard, who worked at the famous Laduree in Paris.
An evening at this lovely restaurant might not quite transport you to the city by the Seine, but that's OK. These days, there's no better place for a restaurant to be than East Liberty, and Paris 66 continues to play its part.