“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,
then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you,
for Paris is a moveable feast.”
I’ve often wondered if Ernest Hemingway would have felt at home in Taos during the “roaring twenties,” a period of dynamic artistic, societal and lifestyle upheaval. Instead of communing with the Taos Society of Artists and other inspired Bohemian minds, Hemingway spent much of the decade in Paris, a city whose own liberal attitudes attracted poets, painters and writers from throughout the world. Paris was a vibrant city which drew many expats from the so-called “lost generation” of cynical young people disillusioned with the materialism and individualism prevalent in society at the time.
Paris was not only a relatively inexpensive city in which to live, unlike America it did not have a prohibition against alcohol. The American expatriates–F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein among them–would gather at cafes to discuss their work and drink until their money ran out. Much of Hemingway’s most productive writing, in fact, took place in cafes which he visited with his characteristic blue notebooks, pencils and a pocket knife with which to sharpen them.
Hemingway was spellbound by the allure and sophistication of Parisian life, so utterly cosmopolitan and unlike the sedate and predictable conservative life of his youth in rural Illinois. Nightlife included visits to the Champs Elysee where Josephine Baker and a troupe of exotic nude dancers captivated the city. Long nights of drinking, concerts, dancing and stimulating conversation defined Hemingway’s madcap nightlife and that of his cafe society associates.
Aspects of Hemingway’s Paris can be found in Albuquerque’s P’Tit Louis Bistro which is fashioned like a Paris bistro of the early twentieth century. If you don’t look out the windows onto Gold or Third Streets, you might actually feel as if you’ve been transported to Paris of a bygone era, the era of Ernest Hemingway and the lost generation. P’Tit Louis is a special place frequented not by a lost generation, but by guests who don’t look as though they patronize the chains embraced by conventional society. It’s a place in which intellectual discourse can be overheard among diners who have likely traveled abroad and read Moveable Feast.
The painstakingly thorough attention taken by co-owners Christoph Decarpentiers and John Phinzyto re-create the art deco ambiance of a turn-of-the-century Parisian bistro left no detail untouched. Tiny black-and-white hexagonal tiles and an imprinted tin ceiling both bespeak of period authenticity and precise craftsmanship which is also apparent in the artisan construction of the hand-crafted art nouveau bar and other decorous touches.
The interior is cramped and cozy with fewer than a dozen tiny tables in personal space proximity to one another. The tables are obviously intended for dishes to be delivered in sequence, not for several dishes to be delivered at one time. The cynosure of the bistro is a massive tri-mirrored banquette flanked on one side by vintage Victorian-style framed photographs and a poster reproduction of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Moulin Rouge–La Gouue” on the other. A soundtrack featuring the soothing stylings of Edith Piaf and other French singers of decades past lend to a dining experience in which time seems to have stopped nearly a century ago.
The Bistro is open Monday through Saturday from 10:30AM to 5:30PM and as mentioned previously, seating is limited so reservations are definitely recommended. If you’ve ever been to an old French cafe in Paris, deja vu will set in the moment you step into the cozy setting. You may even be inspired to your own creativity.
The menu may inspire lascivious salivation. As in many French bistros, two menus are delivered to your table (if you’re thinking one is a wine menu, you’d be wrong). A small paper menu lists a nice selection of cheeses for the fromage fanatics among us. Proper etiquette is to enjoy cheeses after your main course and before or as a substitute for dessert. Cheeses are intended for nibbling as you enjoy conversation with your dining companions, hence it’s a digestive aide of sorts. Certainly your conversation will include a discourse of appreciation for the cheeses themselves, an international array from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark, England and the United States. The last cheese listed is a soft green chile Cheddar made in Tucumcari.
The larger laminated menu showcases traditional French bistro fare. Compared to the compendium-sized menus at some restaurants, P’Tit Louis’s menu is petite–fittingly in consideration of the tiny tables. The Les Salades section of the menu lists six salads, the type of which might grace a table in Provence. The “assiettes” (small entrees and hors’d-oeuvres” designed to fit precisely on a plate) section of the menu lists six items, including your choice of trois (three) cinq (five) or sept (all seven) cheeses.
Les Moules (mussels) are a specialty of the house with three versions featured daily along with a daily mussels creation. Once considered food for the poor, mussels have become earned reverential respect in the hands of French chefs. At the Bistro moules du jour include Moules Marinieres (steamed with white wine and shallots), Moules Roquefort (steamed with Roquefort sauce) and Moules Piquantes (white wine, chili peppers, jalapeño). The Les Sandwiches section of the menu lists five sandwiches including a Le Croque Monsieur (French ham, gruyere and bechamel) Local IQ’s Kevin Hopper considers life altering. Only two items grace the Plats Du Jour menu: Le Ragout du jour (our daily stew) and La Quiche du jour (quiche of the day). The limited (four items) Les Desserts menu is only slightly smaller than the Les Vins (wines) menu which showcases seven red and white wines.
As you contemplate the menu, one of the nattily attired wait staff will ferry over to your table a large basket of French bread, a slice of which is deposited on your bread plate. It will be the first of several slices you’ll either slather on the unctuous French butter or will use to dredge up some of the incredible sauces you’ll enjoy. With a hard-crusted exterior and a not quite pillowy soft interior, it’s a delicious bread.
Call it a perfect bread for dredging up the broth in which the Moules Curry (a special of the day) is served. The curry is a perfect foil for the delicate, slightly briny flavor of the succulent shellfish. The curry broth, saffron in color and mild in flavor, is ameliorated with minced garlic. It would make an excellent soup on its own. Perhaps even better than the moules curry is the moules Roquefort, a dish so outstanding that the venturous diner about town Jim Millington orders it every time he visits. It’s easy to see why. This traditional coalescence of land and sea flavors showcases the pungent blue cheese flavor of the “king of cheeses,” rendered just slightly less sharp with fresh cream and a mill of pepper. If you’ve never had a palatable cheese soup, you’ve never had the moules Roquefort broth tinged with the briny deliciousness of fresh mussels. It’ll hook you.
Fittingly, the third in the du jour triumvirate of moules dishes offered by P’Tit Louis was listed as one of the top ten restaurant dishes for 2011 by Local Flavor Magazine writer Christie Chisholm who waxed rhapsodic about her love of the Moules Piquantes. Admitting that P’tit Louis is her favorite restaurant in Albuquerque, the poetic Ms. Chisholm praised the “twist that will win the heat-seeking hearts of many New Mexicans: chile peppers and jalapeños.” Sounds great to me. The Local Flavor’s celebration of Albuquerque’s top ten dishes for 2011, by the way, inspired several contributors to this blog to submit their own top ten lists: Bruce Schor, Sr. Plata, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, Larry McGoldrick, Suzie Queue, Jim Millington, Dan and Gil Garduño.
On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the Bistro offers fresh oysters on the half-shell if you’re inclined to luxuriate further in hard-shelled seafood. If you’re more inclined toward hard-shelled land delicacies, you’ll love P’Tit Louis’ escargots de Bourgogne, a half-dozen escargots in garlic butter. Unlike so many escargots, these are not extricated from their shells and deposited in small cups filled mostly with bread crumbs and minced garlic. You’ll have to work for these delicious beauties. Fortunately you’re given the implements with which to accomplish this deft feat–a full-sized fork in which the exterior tongs have been bent back and a tool that looks like a surgical implement, but is used to hold the escargots while you extract the buttery, garlicky delicacies. It’s worth the effort and more.
During our inaugural visit, we lucked upon the ragout du jour being Coq Au Vin, the classic French stew whose origin (claimants to its invention include Julius Caesar’s chef) is in delicious dispute. Featuring a single chicken leg cooked in red wine with onions, carrots and celery atop a generous mound of mashed potatoes, this is a version perhaps improvable only with pearl onions instead of sliced onions. Otherwise, this is a very enjoyable dish. The chicken falls off the bone into a wine blessed broth that’s perfect for sopping up with that terrific bread. The wine broth also serves as an excellent “gravy” for the mashed potatoes, made with real potatoes.
The tasty temptress offered during our second visit was a bone-in pork chop topped with a sumptuous sauce showcasing spicy tomatoes and cornichons, essentially two acidic flavors which coexist beautifully together against a backdrop of America’s other white meat. The pork chop, a half-inch of tender porcine perfection plays the foil against the crunchy tartness of the cornichons and especially the sharpness of the mound of chopped, spicy tomatoes. It’s an interesting sauce, not one I could find among the 103 basic French sauces, but one now on my radar.
It wasn’t so much the haute cuisine of France’s grand, elegant restaurants which won my heart during frequent visits to France in the 1990s, but the more simple family fare–bread, cheeses and meats. In France, as in much of Europe, the ancient culinary art of charcuterie is still highly revered and well-practiced. Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more. As Bon Apetit Magazine has discovered, the charcuterie practice is alive and well in America, too.
In the spirit of the Charcuterie, P’tit Louis offers L’Assiette de Charcutaille, a beautiful plating of cornichons, country pate, rosemary-encrusted ham, sopressata, garlic sausage and Spanish chorizo served with as much bread as you desire if you want to construct a sandwich or four. As good as the bread is, my preference is to enjoy each meat unadorned, using a cornichon as a palate-cleanser. The cornichons are delightful little French baby “pickles,” with a zesty, tangy snap. Each of the meats offered is deliciously different from the other, offering a nice balance of salty, spicy, sweet and piquant flavors.
Landlocked Albuquerque, stereotyped as being too far from the verdant paradises which produce sheer freshness in their fecund fields, has a surprising number of restaurants showcasing salads constructed of high-quality, fresh ingredients. Add P’Tit Louis to the list if the Betteraves & Chevre (roasted beet and goat cheese) salad is any indication. A very understated sherry vinaigrette means the ingredients have to shine and shine they do. The greens are crisp and firm with a just-picked freshness. The roasted beets are sweet with just a hint of tanginess and the roasting lends a depth of flavor, particularly in accentuating the beets’ natural sweetness. The goat cheese is as soft as cream cheese and is impregnated with a sweet, mild pungency. it’s a delicious chevre.
When my sweet-toothed Kim joined me in England in 1985, it surprised her to learn that French gateaus and desserts weren’t nearly as cloying as cakes and desserts in America. It’s something I liked from the start, but it took her time to get used to desserts that weren’t tooth-decaying sweet. The Bistro’s desserts remind me very much of the desserts in France, an expression of natural flavors, not sugared ameliorants. The Creme de Caramel reminded me of a Mexican flan, but far less sweet. Better even is the chocolate pot de creme, a ramekin of semi-sweet adult chocolate. It’s the antithesis of the American version which tastes more like chocolate frosting.
In the spirit of fairness and balance (please, no comments about Fox News), there is one item on the menu which not only didn’t win me over, but left me flummoxed. Found faulty was the tarte aux citron, a lemon tart with nary the zest and tartness of lemon. The only lip-pursing effect it had was in leaving our bottom lips downturned with disappointment. In addition to lacking any hint of tartness, it had the texture of a corn-starchy out-of-the-box mix. Jim Millington, who suggested a rating of “32″ would be appropriate will hopefully forgive my assessment of “24″ which still places this charming restaurant among the elite in New Mexico.
Ernest Hemingway would have liked hanging out at P’Tit Louis Bistro with his literary colleagues. You’ll like being transported to Hemingway’s time for a very good meal in a sophisticated bistro worthy of many visits. In the late summer of 2011, a second instantiation of this P’tit Louis Bistro launched in the Nob Hill area (3218 Silver Avenue, SE). It has made it somewhat easier to get a seat at the original, but reservations are always the safest bet.
P’Tit Louis Bistro
228 Gold Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 17 December 2011
1st VISIT: 30 April 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Les Moules with Curry, Les Moules Roquefort, Escargots de Bourgogne, Coq Au Vin with Aligot, Betteraves & Chevre, L’ Assiette de Charcutaille, Chocolait Pot de Creme, Creme de Caramel