If you write about food, there just have to be alot of feral moments, or hours, every week where your passion for taste trumps absolutely everything else you should be doing. These can't be planned, they just happen. And I love it when they do. Since it's been raining and cold in Paris for weeks on end now, the other day, I fired up the computer, made a double espresso, read the NY Times, the Washington Post, and lots of other stuff, went back into the kitchen to make another tall Moroccan tea glass full of nerve thunder, and suddenly found myself spending the next three hours cooking up an impromptu black-bean soup that used up a lot of new garlic, two must-eat-now fennel bulbs, lots of pimenton, and all of the stock that I'd made from simmering a winter's worth of old Parmesan rinds with a ham bone and some fennel seeds for an entire Sunday. I didn't use a recipe, I just cooked on a hunch, adding a can of Italian plum tomatoes, some of the wild oregano I'd harvested in Greece last summer, and a little bit of thyme.
I chopped, and I stirred, and I skimmed, and I tasted and tasted, and finally, once the beans were soft, I went back to work, let the whole shebang cool down, and got a lot of work done knowing that I'd have a pretty amazing lunch ahead of me. And the soup was just superb, so good, in fact, that I probably should have written down what I was doing, but I didn't, so it'll be sort of a one-off until the next time I find myself with all of the same ingredients and the same manic desire to cook.
In a similar vein, if you stop by this site from time to time, you know that I go to restaurants a lot, and you also know that I love them, but the vigilance of eating in a restaurant for professional reasons is often at odds with the off-the-cuff pleasure of sitting down at the table with friends and just having a good meal, a good time. What reminded me of this was the terrific dinner I had the other night at Axuria. One of Bruno's oldest friends in the world, a lovely lady pharmacist with whom he grew up in the same small city in the north of France, lives just across the street from this restaurant and runs the nearby Pharmacie Boucicault. So I think she was probably the one who mentioned that a good restaurant had popped up their neighborhood. One way or another, Bruno's working like a mad man on a huge consulting project in the 15th right now, and often runs late. Since I'm writing another book and he's so busy, we actually even end up with an empty fridge from time to time, which is just about the worst thing that can happen in a life where you and your partner are sane, solvent and heathy.
But when it sort of did the other night, I suggested we go to Axuria, since my Metro ride from home would give him the time to finish his work by about 9.15pm, and then we'd hopefully meet for a good feed. Arriving, the trendy lounge decor of this restaurant made me a little wary, but the welcome was warm and a quick eyeball of the menu made me hopeful. Agreeing to knock the edges of our mutually macramed nerves, we ordered glasses of Champagne, which was excellent and came with hot miniature grated-cheese topped wands of pastry and excellent ham. The dining room was packed, too, always a good sign, and from where I was sitting, I was also able to see just how successful the service was. Even though there were probably 60 people in the room, no one ever poured their own wine, faced an empty bread basket or idled too long over an empty plate.
We ordered, and since they were so busy, we started with an excellent the-kitchen-needs-time complimentary first course of fish soup that tipped its hat at chef Olivier Amestoy's origins for having such a racey but quiet nervous system of piment d'Espelette at the bottom of deeply reduced and beautifully made fish stock. The white Gaillac, one of the best buys on the list at 27 Euros and a favorite of mine, was a charmer with the soup, too, but also made us happy with our starters, an exquisite composition of seared foie gras and artichokes barigoule for me, and a swell dish of "BBQ" gambas (prawns) on a bed of quinoa for the infinitely more health-alert than I am Bruno (I'd hop into the Seine tomorrow morning if I ever saw myself headed for an 'assisted living' situation where the bread comes sealed in little plastic pillows, rice pudding is the recurring dessert, and a request for a glass of wine would elicit a lot of you-naughty-oldster tutting from a bunch of nurses who were otherwise quietly doing tequilla shots around the corner).
Health--the whole concept winds me up, since I've stopped doing so many things I used to enjoy to kneel at its altar. In any event, I can't imagine that my brilliant and long-suffering MD ("Alec, more exercise, less cheese, less wine, less meat, less salt, less...") would have ever raised an eyebrow at the likely farmed but still good sea bass stuffed with herbs and Swiss chard in a pastry wrapper on a bed f potato puree that I had as a main course, or the unrelentingly nutrition-conscious Bruno's swordfish steak in a lemony sauce with spring vegetables. Both were impeccably well-cooked--we actually discussed the advisability of the swordfish, since it always comes to the table overcooked, and beautifully seasoned.
When the amiable Monsieur Amestoy came out to greet a couple of tables--aside from his good cooking, this intimate place in a quiet residential neighborhood only stands a chance of working if the locals like him, I nearly grabbed his apron strings to have a chat. Turns out this awfully nice guy is a good-natured Basque who most recently cooked at Chez Les Anges before deciding to go out on his own.
So how did we end up here, the charming Monsieur Amestoy parried, and Bruno grabbed the bone and told him about his dear friend the pharmacist, whom he of course knew and liked. Echoing things that she'd said about running a successful neighborhood business, he told us that he'd wanted to drop the souffle that Bruno was imminently to be served from the menu, but the regulars were having none of that. "What I know is that good cooking is maybe half of what will make this restaurant work," said Amestoy. "You can't run a successful restaurant without liking people and wanting them to be happy, and you also can't forget that the meal begins the moment someone comes through the front door. Do you feel relaxed? Do you feel happy? This sets up your meal, bien sur."
Whie we were so happily chattering away, our desserts showed up, and M. Amestoy immediately excused himself. "Enjoy, please, while they're fresh and warm," and so we did. I loved my moelleux caramel au beurre salé, crème glacée noisettes, although I sort of wanted to see a flood of melted salted butter caramel spill into the plate when I cut into it--in fact, I'd like to die in a flood of melted salted butter caramel, but it was still quite good. And Bruno had the souffle, and I could see by the furrowed V between his brows that he didn't want to be interrupted during the first minute or two after he'd doused it with the accompanying shot of Grand Marnier. So I waited. "You know what's nice is that I finally enjoy souffles. All of those years in the north of France when they were the baited breathe grande finale to first communion lunches and other soi-disant important meals almost ruined them for me by association, but they're actually such a treat." I dug spoon in too, and yes, they are awfully nice. Just like a really serious, well-drilled, and honest neighborhood restaurant in Paris, Axuria, for example. It's a place I'd cross town to eat at again soon, especially with our most local friends Carole and Laurent.
Axuria, 54 avenue Felix Faure, 15th, Tel. 01-45-04-57-59. Metro: Boucicault. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Two-course lunch menu 22 Euros, Two-course dinner menu 26 Euros (35 Euros for three courses). Average a la carte 40 Euros.