"We'll always have Paris," the famous movie line goes, but it used to be that we couldn't always have Paris 66. The East Liberty creperie was open only for brunch and weekday lunch. Even so, and even with a correspondingly light, simple menu of crepes (made with wheat flour), galettes (made with buckwheat) and salads, Paris 66 quickly rose above most workaday lunch spots to become a destination for birthday treats and entertaining out-of-town guests.
Well, vive la revolution! Paris 66 now serves dinner, and it's not just the lunch menu with marked-up prices. It's real art-of-French-cooking cuisine, plus wine and a quite respectable cocktail program. Only the charming space and service — provided by native French speakers who, gently and matter-of-factly, treat you as if you are one, too — remain happily the same.
What is it about French cooking that makes standard fare such as steak frites, trout meunière, escargot and onion soup so timeless, yet always so enticing? We won't resolve that in this column, but let's say that it is mostly about attention to detail. Such classic recipes were refined with deep intention by generations of committed chefs, while each individual cook must focus on the quality of ingredients, precise proportions and perfect technique. Paris 66 excels in all of these respects.
Start with salade Niçoise, that satisfying meal-in-one of tuna, greens, green beans, potatoes and more. These are a lot of assertive components that must all be made to get along, and in a context that's fresh and summery, not slow-simmered and wintry like a stew.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Frog legs
At Paris 66, every ingredient in the salad was perfectly cooked, and also sized just right, so that thin potato slices didn't require big forkfuls of greens to balance. The dressing — a simple blend of oil, vinegar, mustard and coriander — was delicate without timidity. Corn struck us as a weirdly New-World component, but the tuna was everything it should be and more: pan-seared so as to create a uniformly golden, crisp crust without compromising the rosy flesh within. Such attention to just one of at least eight parts of a salad was stunning, yet par for our meal.
Frog legs were served in a simple olive oil, garlic and parsley pesto in which the plenteous minced garlic had been cooked so gently that there was no fire, only flavor. The meat itself was sweet and succulent, more like tender shellfish than poultry. Also on the plate was a tiny salad, the size of a garnish, but dressed in a light vinaigrette to please the palate without distracting from the main event.
Crepes — or rather, their savory buckwheat cousins, galettes — have not been lost in the restaurant's transition from lunch to dinner menu. Three are on offer, all with luxurious fillings. We tried the galette la Bordelaise, folded around a filling of duck breast, sauce Bordelaise, goat cheese and honey. The tang of the goat cheese balanced the fatty duck, buttery red-wine sauce and sweet honey, but barely; this dish was so rich, it bordered on unctuous.
The French have always done wonders with veal, and we've certainly had good veal over the years. But we were not prepared for the marvel of Paris 66's blanquette de veau, in which shoulder is gently cooked and sauced with a rich white sauce and mushrooms. The veal was served in two pieces, together about the size of a boneless pork chop, and it was superlative: browned at the edges, utterly tender within, and with a flavor that was simultaneously mild and intense, and perfectly complemented by the sauce and earthy mushrooms. Each bite was a new revelation.
Combine this wonderful food with perfect service and decor so unabashedly, iconically French, it should be wearing a beret, and Paris 66 is both less pretentious and every bit as impressive as the frou-frou French fine dining of yore. Through slow, careful growth and attention to detail, Paris 66 has translated its expertise in light French lunches into serious French cuisine for dinner.