Style :: Food/Drink

Benoit Paris Celebrates 100 Years

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Monday Oct 1, 2012
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In the year 1912, the world’s largest ship made her maiden voyage sailing from Southampton. Meanwhile in Paris, a butcher in the 4th arrondissement purchased a neighboring restaurant and gave it his name: Benoit.

Who would have imagined that one hundred years hence the restaurant would be charging full steam ahead - while the Titanic lay disintegrating at the bottom of the ocean?

Such are the strengths of traditional French cuisine when served with a heaping helping of generous hospitality.

Located just off rue de Rivoli on a pedestrian stretch of rue St. Martin in le Marais, Benoit Matray’s restaurant still exudes the same seductive charms that made his Lyons-style restaurant such a neighborhood favorite during his lifetime. Nestled behind a row of boxwood planters, the restaurant’s green facade is framed by burgundy-and-gold awnings and globe lights, with sheer lace café curtains in the etched-glass windows.


As soon as you open the door and step across the threshold, you enter into a world ruled as much by memory and imagination as by the fragrance of French cuisine. The red velvet banquettes, the mirrors, and the tiled floors evoke Parisian bistros from the Belle Epoque, while the porcelain china and the copperware might remind you of Sunday dinner at your favorite grandmother’s home. You almost wish you were reading Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast" - for the first time; you can almost see Hemingway scribbling away at a corner table, Le Figaro near at hand.

For generations, the restaurant remained in the same family - until chef-restaurateur Alain Ducasse purchased the Michelin-starred Benoit in 2005. There are now Benoit outposts in Manhattan and Tokyo, as well as a Benoit cousin called Le Comptoir de Benoit in Osaka. Anyone who knows Ducasse from his restaurants in Monte Carlo or in London might be alarmed (remember the Montblanc and Cartier pens for signing the bill at Adour?), but a recent meal at Benoit insured that what has always worked at Benoit still works best.


Benoit Matray made his name by following the recipes of his mother - and in this centennial year, the restaurant maintains its focus on local produce and French traditions. Since 2008, Chef Eric Azoug has headed a brigade of twelve who work to insure that Benoit’s standards are upheld. A Champagne aperitif was complemented by a quartet of classic Gruyere gougeres, those addictive cheese pastries that you could eat by the handful. (Wouldn’t a bagful be delicious while reading Balzac?)

A plate of nine escargots en coquille, beurre d’ail, et fines herbes (which roughly translates to "garlic and butter heaven") represents the epitome of what you first learned to love about French cuisine: a surfeit of butter and garlic, necessitating a crusty baguette to sop it all up.

Lightly-roasted langoustines are served on a bed of chanterelles and artichokes in a citron confit, bringing a taste of the Mediterranean to Paris. Throughout the meal, wine pairings are deftly handed by the knowledgeable (and comely) young sommelier, Pierre-Charles Gandilhon.


One of the many attractions of Benoit is the dexterous machinations of the gracious staff as they negotiate a series of small rooms. The two adjacent rooms downstairs seat 60, while a private dining room up a narrow staircase can seat ten to twenty. Smoothly orchestrated by the dining room manager, Eric Bonneau, who is surely one of Paris’ most good-natured and droll hosts, an evening at Benoit is as convivial as dining at the well-curated home of a celebrated Parisian.

At a neighboring table, a well-dressed young man recounted how he and his family have dined at Benoit for years: for special occasions and whenever they are back in Paris, just to check in. Or as the restaurant’s slogan has it, "Chez toi Benoit, on boit, festoie en rois," which might be translated to "Come over to Benoit’s place, where we’ll drink and feast like kings."

It’s not surprising to learn that every mayor of Paris since 1912 has dined at Benoit - or to look around the dining room and see such an abundance of Americans and Japanese enjoying Benoit’s rose-colored charms. Perhaps it’s those of us who live at a distance from rue St. Martin and the rest of Paris who hold tight to a romanticized vision of the City of Light.


We who first discovered Paris as callow youths and college students are perhaps the ones most in need of a re-affirmation of the city’s allure - for the manner in which it recalls our own youthful charms.

Desserts at Benoit include savarin à l’Armagnac, with whipped cream served from a gleaming silver milk urn. Two bottles of Armagnac are left on the table - for your own discretion in dousing the two large slices of cake. This is classic Ducasse, evoking his signature baba au rhum at le Louis XV in Monte Carlo (which is, coincidentally, celebrating its 25th birthday this year).

A classic millefeuille à la vanille brings back the patisseries of one’s youth, in the years before dieting, when entire afternoons could be spent reading Flaubert and Stendhal with a half dozen millefeuilles within reach.

The madeleines at meal’s end summon Proust and by the time a digestif of chartreuse is poured from a magnificent frozen jeroboam, you’re in a blissful reverie.


Surrounded by such bonhomie, the taste of a citrus kiss in my mouth, I suddenly recalled a French restaurant in Manhattan where my family and I dined with some regularity throughout my childhood. It was in the theatre district, where many French restaurants were housed in those years - and it’s possible that my love affair with French cuisine commenced there.

That’s what Benoit does best: it reminds you why you first fell in love with French food.


LINKS:

Benoit Paris

Benoit New York


GETTING THERE:

Air France: On Air France, there’s still a middle class - and it is rightfully celebrated.

It’s called Premium Economy, meaning it’s a class above Air France’s economy class - and right behind Air France’s business class.

With Premium Economy, you get many of the same amenities as business class. In Premium Economy, the Air France seats are like your father’s favorite Barcalounger. Meal service in Premium Economy, conceived by Michel Nugues of "Toques du Ciel" (or Sky Chefs), has been designed specifically for this cabin and includes classic French specialties.

As for the price, depending on destination, Premium Economy is approximately 50% less than business class - and sometimes only $400 more than a round-trip economy ticket.

Regardless of which class you choose, Air France is the only airline that offers Champagne to all passengers on its long-haul international flights - at no extra charge.

LINKS:

Air France

Air France Premium Economy

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A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.

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