Mon Vieil Ami: New and Modern on Ile Saint Louis

PARIS – I confess that when I saw that the famed Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann was opening a bistro on Ile-Saint-Louis, I had visions of red-checkered tablecloths, mounds of choucroute, and those old Alsatian favorites of baeckeoffe and kougelhopf. Not that any of these are bad, it just wasn’t what I thought Paris needed today.

Well, the moment I stepped foot inside his bright, airy, starkly modern new spot, my eyes lit up. The place says right out loud, Fun, Modern, Youthful. You enter into a high-ceilinged black and white dining room, with a giant black onyx table d’hôtes at one side, cozy tables for two along another. Glasses glisten in clear crystal, plates contrast in pure white, and towering white lilies flow out of a skyscraper-sized glass vase in the center.

The second you are seated, a chilled glass of Alsatian pinot blanc is set at your elbow, and you are prepared to be won over.

The menu, at first glance confused me a bit, for such unexpected and nontraditional combinations as leeks and mackerel, dorade (porgy) teamed up with shellfish in a casserole, and carrots, raisins and dates with roasted codfish.

But once the plates began coming, my fears were alleviated, my palate did handstands. What Westermann has created is a new voice, a voice that seems to say, Trust me, I know what I’m doing, and I am not simply going to drag out the 10 greatest hits one more time. Even dishes that I might not normally order – such as a moist and delicious pâté en croûte – was consumed with pleasure, both the moist pâté and the deliciously crunchy crust that encased it. I ate it all, including the nice bit of aspic and the accompanying mixed salad tossed with a welcome walnut vinaigrette. In short, the food is bright, copious and surprising, without leaving the Alsatian boundaries.

On a giant table in the center sits a loaf bread that must be a meter long, and all night long the youthful, friendly waiters slice and refill baskets and guests devour each and every crusty slice.

I adored the warm tuberous vegetable salad --- including tiny potatoes in their skins, penne-sized turnips, and Jerusalem artichokes – all bathed in a wholesomely delicious broth, topped with slivers of the thinnest, best foie gras and a showering of fresh green lamb’s lettuce, or mache. But even for me – a veritable salt lover – the dish was overly salty.

Other good starters include the salmon rillettes – you might define it as cooked carpaccio – finely ground fresh and smoked salmon shaped into three little scoops, like a sorbet. The portions looked huge but somehow, everything was devoured. Even the suspicious leeks in vinaigrette paired with the fresh, delicious pan-fried mackerel, seemed to make sense after all.

The evening was cold and rainy and the huge poitrine de veau, or veal breast braised in the giant Alsatian casserole with a bright shower of sliced carrots made the evening quite a bit more welcoming. Also cooked in an ochre Alsatian casserole were the braised fillets of fresh dorade, set on a bed of fennel, another combination that worked that night.

The dessert list includes some nice offerings, such as a good chocolate tart (that resembles but does not come close to the version made famous by Joël Robuchon), and the confit of apples paired with vanilla and pistachio ice cream, a dished designed for sugar fiends.

We drank the house pinot blanc from the house of Kenzler and talked about how underrated Alsatian wines can be, especially the whites that come from a land of little sun, but great soil.

Prices are good, with a daily menu of 38 €, lunchtime daily specials at 15 €, and a la carte offerings of entrees at 10 €, fish and meat and 20 €, and desserts at 8 €.

Even though the restaurant is brand new, it already has a nice neighborhood feel. We left wishing we lived down the block from My Old Friend.

Mon Vieil Ami
69 rue Saint Louis en l’Ile
Paris 4
Telephone: 01 40 46 01 35
Fax: 01 40 46 01 36

All major credit cards. Closed Monday, and Tuesday at lunch. A la carte, 30 to 38 €, including service but not wine.