Let’s start with an admission; from the moment my dessert turned up, when the waiter plonked two bottles of Armagnac on to the table and told me to help myself, Benoit was on to a winner. Quickly I sank in to a haze of French Brandy where everything made sense. The wood panelled and mirrored walls became less cold. The waiters, with their matching shirts and aprons, found a sudden charm as they buzzed in-between the tightly packed tables. Alain Ducasse must have been sloshed when he purchased the most famous bistro in Paris. And who can blame him, it’s a great place for getting sloshed.
Apparently, little has changed at Benoit since it opened in 1912. They still serve the same classic bistro food to the well-heeled of Paris, though recent years has seen the addition of a Michelin star and the world’s most celebrated chef as owner. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of styles typified by the starter of vichyssoise. Here the silky cold potato and leek soup is poured tableside into a bowl with finely julienned vegetables and croutons nestled at the bottom. It’s refreshing and elegant. Boldly seasoned to the point where some would say its salty. I say it’s delicious. There was more vegetable wizardry with cookpot – a signature dish of Ducasse – with accurately cooked ribbons of spring greens, olives and quails eggs producing a light yet substantial vegetarian main.
Duck, in my opinion, is a meat that is best served blushing pink like lamb, whereas here the length of breast was crimson red, with each knife entry yielding a little blood into the perfectly made bigarade sauce. It was rare in the way that I like my beef and the dish suffered for it. The accompanying gnocchi were a work of art; little pillows of airy mashed potato that almost made up for the undercooked protein.
And the aforementioned dessert? It was a savarin, the baba’s heavier sibling, with lashings of vanilla heavy chantilly and doused in the brandy. I asked which of the two Armagnac’s I should go for, the waiter said both. So both it was. It was a glorious thing that appealed to both my sweet tooth and alcoholic tendencies. My blood sugar levels raised, my liver winced and the rest of my body called out for more. There were some tarts as the other option. I recall them being fine, though hardly memorable.
All of this made for an interesting lunch, which I guess is the point to Benoit – they genuinely want you to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s an absorbing and indulgent experience that never takes itself too seriously. Both the service and portions are generous, which they should be, as neither the food nor wine comes cheap. Though as we sauntered off into the Parisian sunlight with a light head and heavy stomach, there was no doubt it was worth the money and inevitable headache the following morning.