Chardenoux’s New Incarnation

October 24, 2008

For many years, Chardenoux was one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. This stunningly beautiful bistro in the 11th was opened by an Auvergnat couple of the same name at the turn of the last century, and they went all out on the decor with some of the most magnificent wedding cake moldings to be found anywhere in France, a dining room divided in half by a handsome beveled glass partition, and a long zinc bar posed on a stand of polychrome marble.

During what I now consider to be the restaurant’s hay day, chef Bernard Passavant was in the kitchen, and his superb market cooking pre-saged a major renewal of the bistro idiom as indicated by the one dish that I still desperately miss at his table: gigot de sept heures, or lamb cooked for seven hours until it fell off the bone, served with aligot, or that sublime Auvergnat elixir of potatoes whipped with Cantal cheese curds and garlic.

I don’t know what became of Passavant, an excellent cook in the same vein as Jean-Yves Bath, whom I first discovered in Clermont Ferrand, and who later came to Paris to open an eponymous restaurant, before this Michelin-starred business table in the 8th went belly-up and he re-emerged with a wonderful casual and very clever bistro in the 17th called Bath’s.

Chardenoux went through a couple of other chef-owners, and then the lights went out. This place was much missed by long-term Americans in Paris like myself. Why? It was beautiful, un-fussy, affordable, and served delicious market-driven cooking.

So hark, hark. Chardenoux has just reopened under the auspices of Cyril Lignac, a young man who is one of France’s television chef celebrities along the lines of Rachel Ray or Rocco di Spirito in the United States.

On rainy Tuesday night, I went to dinner at the “new” Chardenoux with Judy, one of my best friends in Paris and one of the city’s best palettes. We’ve dined together so often that we can guess what the other will like blind-folded, and this is why she’s the perfect partner for the new Chardenoux. She loves good food, a good night out, and Paris, and she, too, loved Chardenoux.

I arrived before Judy, gave her surname as our reservation, and one of the staff behind the long bar instantly responded to me in English. Merde. Okay, I’ll always have an American accent but is there anything more deflating than this linguistic experience of being on a ladder that’s pushed backwards? If I thought that this was a linguistic courtesy, I wouldn’t have minded, but it couldn’t have been on the basis on a single sentence. The man had no idea as to whether or not I spoke French decently—he just instantly heard an accent and decided to coopt our conversation by making me a foreigner. Why did I mind? France spends millions of dollars a year to propagate the use of the French language in the world, so why are the natives so unwelcoming to foreigners who make the effort?

Seated, I sipped a mediocre glass of white burgundy and perused the menu, which is expensive. On the way to dinner, I come down the wonderous rue Paul Bert, home to the superb Ecailler du Bistrot, one of the best seafood places in Paris, and the brilliant Bistrot Paul Bert, where the 34 Euro chalkboard menu was offering up Erquy scallops without a supplement. In fact there were so many tempting things on the Paul Bert’s menu that I wished we were going there.

Chardenoux’s short and much more expensive menu appealed with a boxed list of different daily plat du jour, but was otherwise just about as classic a bistro menu as I’ve seen in a very longtime. Things got off to a good start—Judy’s terrine de campagne was excellent and pleasantly garnished with a small salad of Bibb lettuce and marinated mushrooms in an excellent Xeres vinegar dressing, and my poelee de cepes (sautee of cepes) was sublime but a bit stingy, especially since these delicious autumnal mushrooms had been posed on a bed of spinach, which was surely there to bulk up the plate.

Our mains were excellent, too—cabillaud (cod) with sweet potato puree and a shellfish sauce for Judy, and a superb navarin d’agneau for me.

We split a very good Paris-Brest and finished up the rest of our Domaine Richaud Cairanne, one of my favorite wines, over coffee. Walking down the rue Paul Bert to the Metro later, I asked Judy if she’d go back. “Probably not—the food’s good, but it’s a little expensive and not much fun.” I agreed, adding that if the kitchen turns-out cookbook perfect food, it’s oddly lacking in the lusty passion of truly great bistro cooking, which is what Chardenoux used to serve. I’d definitely give this place a second chance, however, since Lignac is a very able and sincere cook and so maybe things will get gutsier here, and I’d also bear this place in mind as a good choice for Sunday night dinner, when so very few bistros are open.

1 rue Jules Valles, 11th, Tel. 01-43-71-48-52. Metro: Faideherbe-Chaligny. Open daily.

  • Jennifer Horowitz

    Hi Alex,

    When I lived in Paris twenty years ago, I loved Chardenoux, too. So after reading your review, we went for dinner the other night, and you described it perfectly. Our food was good, but it was too expensive and no fun. We’d much rather have gone to Le Paul Bert, or the nearby Vieux Chene, which we discovered thanks to Hungry for Paris.

    Best, Jennifer