PARIS – Old restaurants often become like old friends. We don’t see them for years, and then when we are reacquainted again, we ask ourselves why we waited so long between encounters.
The popular fish restaurant La Cagouille is a lot like that. I guess I know why I stopped going about six years back. Prices seemed steep, the décor got me down, and as fresh as the fish and shellfish were, the plainness of the presentation just did not entice me to return.
A few weeks ago, looking around for a spot for Sunday lunch, I decided to give La Cagouille – which means snail in the dialect of the Charente region of France – another taste. Am I glad I did. I have been back again and again, and even though many of the old problems – mainly the lackluster décor and the service without personality – continue, I found new life and energy in the food and the wine list.
Owner Gérard Allemandou was there that day, and offered us the creamiest, most buttery baby scallops – pétoncles – from the Oléron, miniature shellfish with brilliant mahogany-toned shells and a deep, haunting flavor. The treasures were simply steamed open and served as is.
Another standard starter-teaser here is a giant bowl of perfectly steamed, buttery baby clams, tossed in a bit of salty butter just to please the palate even more.
If a restaurant can serve a cooked dish better and cheaper than I can do at home, I’ll go for it. That’s the case with the whole grilled sea bas – bar – ticketed at 35 euros and served roasted to perfection.
If your palate is looking for something a bit more complicated, try the starter salad of green beans, fava beans, pine nut and basil, a dish I quickly added to my home repertoire, making sure the pine nuts are fresh and freshly toasted, which they were not at La Cagouille.
An equally good salad starter is their salad of lamb’s lettuce (mache), warm morue (salt cod), red peppers and bacon: This is salad as a meal, copious, well-seasoned, and as meaty as can be.
I could return once a week just to sample their ample main course preparation of skate – raie – served with an enriching sauce gribiche. Here the gribiche – rather than the usual glorified mayonnaise – appeared as a main player, with cubes of carrots, potatoes, turnips, lots of cucumbers, capers, chive and chopped hard-cooked eggs, and a healthy dose of vinegar.
On the same visit, we reeled with pleasure over the well-priced (30 euros) Macon-Villages, the 100% Chardonnay Comte Lafon Macon Milly-Lamartine 2000, a stony, mineral-rich delight that one could imagine sampling each day at lunch with a different fish offering.
The season is nearly over, but if you hurry you can still sample their excellent scallop preparation, giant sea scallops seared to perfection, the quick heat enhancing and intensifying the flavor of shellfish itself. Deglazed with a touch of balsamic vinegar and showered with a garden full of minced chives, it was a dish to bring delight to the eyes as well as the palate.
On a later visit, we were no less impressed with the food and wine, but I just wish the wait staff could go to smile school. When you have such great food to serve, how can you be so blasé about it?
At any rate, the wine of the week was Dauvissat’s Chablis 1er cru La Forest 2000, a 48- euro wine that offers a touch of smoke, of flinty, is highly concentrated and well structured. Drink it when you can!
10/12 Place Brancusi
Telephone: 01 43 22 09 01
Fax: 01 45 38 57 29
Internet : www.la-cagouille.fr
Open daily. Credit card: Visa. Menus at 23 and 38 euros, including service but not wine. A la carte, 40 to 60 euros, including service but not wine.