Bouillon Chartier (Paris, France)

After two busy and fruitful days of work in Grenoble, we headed back to Lyon and caught a flight up to Paris, joining some more colleagues for a few days at the Paris Air Show. When our hosts offered to take us out to a traditional Parisian Brasserie with an outing to Bouillon Chartier, I was quite pleased. I’ve long maintained a list of classic Parisian restaurants I’ve wanted to try, and Chartier is near the top of the list (as an aside, more than once on our visit I was comparing recommendation lists with our hosts, and pleased to see a lot of overlap). Bouillon Chartier, founded in 1896, is one of Paris’s older existing restaurants.

The history of Chartier is quite interesting. Founded as a “Bouillon” serving traditional French cuisine, and, well, bouillon, Chartier was constructed to resemble a train station concourse (many sources claim it was part of a train station, but my review of vintage Paris train maps show that’s highly doubtful), and is accessed by going down a long alleyway that serves double-duty as queue management (like a lot of Brasseries in Paris, Chartier doesn’t take reservations, so it is first-come, first-served). Chartier and the other Bouillons started around then were basically the first “chain” restaurants, focusing on serving affordable and accessible French food, and doing so quickly, cycling lots of diners through service with the new-fangled “service à la russe” (Russian Service) in which each course is brought out individually, already plated. At the time, it was an innovation almost like the fast food of its time, and the model has served Chartier well, since over 100 years later it still follows the same basic model: a menu of traditional, affordable French food, served in a large dining room, with the waitstaff cycling many customers through each service.

Upon entering Chartier, the main, cavernous, two-story dining room is quite the sight to behold, almost a Belle Epoque time capsule. The look is pure Art Nouveau, with lots of stained wood, polished brass, frosted glass, and marble, with crisp-suited waiters darting about delivering orders. With a fine eye, you can tell that this also an efficient operation: the tableclothes aren’t cloth, but white paper, and serve double-duty as the waiters’ records of each tables orders (probably one of the oldest examples of a restaurant doing this). We were quickly led to our table, a cozy (but not cramped, like some of the many sidewalk cafés) set of tables, and started reviewing the dinner menus.

The menu at Chartier is about as best an example of classic Parisian Brasserie cuisine as can be found. Starters include all the classic French items like frisée aux lardons, escargots, céleri rémoulade, and terrine de campagne (oddly enough, despite the name, bouillon is only occasionally available as the soup of the day). Main courses include côte d’agneau grillée (grilled lamb choips), steak haché (basically, a bun-less burger), faux filet grillé (sirloin, with herbed butter), Blanquette de veau (veal stew) and confit de canard. There’s always a nice set menu available with a pre-selected starter, main, dessert, and beverage for under 25 euro, so it can be pretty affordable as well.

Since I was here to try some classic French “Bouillon” food, I started with a distinctly French dish: museau de boeuf vinaigrette. If you translate that, it translates to “Beef Muzzles in Vinaigrette”, and that’s actually what it is. The muzzles have been chopped, pressed, and potted, and then sliced thin and served tossed with a light vinegar dressing. Long time readers may remember my exposure to the Belgian “Kip Kap” (pickled pig ears) in my review of A La Mort Subite, and this dish is quite similar: equal parts of beef flavor (vs the pork of the Kip Kap), firm cartilage, and spicing, all tied together with a nice vinaigrette. I really liked this, and wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.

Since Chartier is a classic place to order les escargots (snails) without spending a lot of money, we ordered several around the table. I’ve had escargot several times before, and Chartier’s version was pleasant: the snails hadn’t been overcooked, and were easily extracted from the shells. However, the main experience of escargots for me still remains primarily one of garlic and butter (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

While I was tempted by both the chicken and veal stew offerings, for my main course, I opted to stay with the basic “Steak Frites” approach (which turned out to be a common theme with my French meals this visit), going for the Pavé de rumsteack au poivre, grillé, avec frites (grilled rumpsteak with pepper sauce and frites). French beef cuts are subtly different from US and British cuts, this is basically a fairly lean steak cut from approximately the junction between what us Yanks call “Sirloin” and “Top Round”. Done well, it is a very lean and flavorful cut, but it can be tough, particularly if overcooked. But Chartier cooked this perfectly (to an extent that it’s a bit sad it’s entirely covered with the sauce and impossible to see here): a soft, still reddish-pink interior, a perfect crisp on the outside. Served up with a very rich, beefy, and creamy peppercorn sauce that was actually quite peppery and bold, it was a nice combination of sauce and meat, and the perfect for dabbing the frites. Overall, one of the better “steak frites” variations I’ve had.

I typically eschew dessert, but Chartier tempted me several ways with items arriving from the kitchen to nearby tables, including chou chantilly (cream puffs) and baba au rhum (rumcakes), but I had to instead go for the Mont Blanc. A simple dish, it’s basically a rich pudding of puréed, sweetened chestnuts topped with a small mountain of whipped cream (the goal is to look like a small version of the famous mountain). I enjoyed this immensely, primarily for the novelty of having chestnuts (having nearly disappeared from American menus after Chestnut Blight hit).

Like the previous night’s dining overlooking Grenoble, I have to thank our hosts for another delicious outing in France. Bouillon Chartier did not disappoint: the classic brasserie food was spot-on with my expectations, the restaurant interesting and historical, and the service efficient but friendly. I’d love to come back and try the veal stew.

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