Recently, I was invited to dine at Le Petit Bouchon.
an intimate French restaurant with a menu that features both classic and nouveau plates, minimalist yet elegant decor, and an i n c r e d i b l e wine selection. Better yet, the restaurant boasts an exclusive, fantastic location… within the walls of the French Embassy.
You got to eat at the French Embassy? How did you manage that?
Well to be honest, I won a drawing for the invitation when I stumbled upon Le Cafe Descartes station at the German/French embassy open house (more on that later.) I thought the food was delicious, so I decided to try my luck at the little drawing station they had set up beside their tent. It was on my side because a week after I entered I heard from Max Jacquet, the general manager, that my name had been drawn! We corresponded, and set a date to come in.
Part of the drawing was that it was for a three course meal for two, so I brought my boyfriend Vlad along. I think he got the better end of the deal, because I agreed to drive down from Baltimore to DC, the roads on which we got stuck and started running fifteen minutes behind. I started freaking out. In my head, I reviewed the very little French I remembered from high school: how to apologize profusely.
I would find out how incredibly unnecessary it was for me to worry.
Once we got through security, Vlad and I walked up the short hill to the restaurant to the right of the main building of the Embassy. We walked into Petit Bouchon, on the left of Les Cafe Descartes, and was greeted by a warm smile and handshake from Max. The general manager of Petit Bouchon is a passionate, inviting and polished young man whose recent success with the restaurant doesn’t entice him to sit back. In fact, it probably keeps him especially wanting to know every detail about Petit Bouchon's goings-on, including the names of two new guests.
“Alexis! It is wonderful to meet you,” he said, and turned to give the same welcome to Vlad.
Max, one of the founders of the restaurant.
Drinking champagne with Chef Mark.
He lead us to our table, and asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. Being a fan of anything bubbly, I asked for sparkling and Vlad did the same. Max excused himself from the table, and while he was gone, I had the opportunity to catch my breath, and take in my surroundings.
Petit Bouchon is a very small space, with seven tables total. Yet every little vase of flowers, every painting, every colored napkin and even the music was all tied together to create an incredible ambiance. Classic white linens on the table made the space feel bigger. The touches of light blue made me feel summery even though it was dreary outside that day: the print on the menu du jour, the napkins and the glasses were all various hues. The paintings even carried that common theme through.
“Relax,” the spaced seemed to say, “you’re here to enjoy.”
Enjoy we did! I may be a foodie in spirit, but I will tell you now that every detail that Max told me about the meal I may not remember. We ordered our first courses: a beef tartare for Vlad and a tuna and watermelon salad for myself.
Tuna is probably my favorite foods to eat, and the salad was a simple and delightful mix of cubed fish and watermelon. It was fun because both were the same color, so sometimes I wouldn’t know what to expect! The savory dressing it was gently coated in added to the meal hints of tartness and soy. On top of the salad and mixed in was a caviar that was small enough to add just a little pop of flavor when bitten.
A fan of beef tartare, Vlad’s first course came out in a new way: surrounded by a wonton shell. The added crunchiness of the wonton shell evened out the - in my opinion - normally too moist qualities of any beef tartare, and the dish was a delicate perfection. The way it was prepared kept the quality of the beef at the center of the plate, not left behind awash in unnecessary sauces and seasonings.
Finished with the first courses and wines, Max presented us with his “personality” pairings, or wine that is to the person's taste and not necessairly because of the menu. A beautifully crisp Sauvignon Blanc for Vlad (Pouilly Fume, J.C Dagueneau, Domaine des Berthiers, 2016), who loves white wine, and a deliciously bold and lingering red for myself (Chateau Pedesclaux Pauillac 2015). Max told me that the taste on this wine could last up to 8-10 minutes of the palate. He was not wrong. It took me the better part of an hour to finish that a m a z i n g glass. The Sauvignon Blanc was quite delectable, leaving behind the notion that the commonly overlooked grape has no taste other than “grapefruit” prescribed on almost all bottles found stateside. I found that it had a crisp minerality and a light citrus taste at the front.
Our main courses came out: Vlad had the duck and I had the fish. The presentation was beautiful for each. On the side of the duck came roasted vegetables and a delicious sauce. It was simultaneously simple yet extravagant, as all of the flavors worked so well together. The main star itself was perfectly cooked, with a little pinkness that kept the flavor and the texture on the plate and in the mouth.
The fish was one I had not had before: it was golden tile fish, and came with a green and yellow sauce which contained Basil Japanese Pearl Caviar, topped with a piece of crunchy and photogenic seaweed. On the side of my dish came a faux fried rice, which was made with potatoes instead of rice! I would not have been able to tell the difference based on taste and texture, other than is was light and packed full of flavor and crunch, combined with edamame and other vegetables. I could have honestly eaten an entire plate of the chef’s creative take on an Asian staple.
Getting comfortably full, Max brought out the coffees we had requested (Petit Bouchon uses Julius Meinl coffee) as well as the final course: Mark’s revisitation of the classic creme brulee. On top of the lightly crunchy caramelized sugar say some fruits as well as a tangy puree and a thin slice of a nut-filled wafer. It was the right amount of sweet to finish up our meal, and the coffee was the perfect partner.
At this time, Max brought out Chef Mark Courseille so we could meet him. While we were having a conversation about the questions I asked but am 100% sure he gets constantly about his inspiration and etcetera, I noticed the time. The restaurant was closing, and people were moving out of the dining area to resume their days.
Max, however, brought out four glasses and an open bottle of La Garde Crémant de Loire Brut Tête de Cuvée by Marcel Martin. The four of us remained another hour to talk as one-by-one the employees of the restaurant left for the day. We got to know one another and enjoy each other’s company over a splendid sparkling wine from the Loire region. We talked about everything and anything, including the superstition the French have about looking one another in the eyes as you “ching ching” glasses during a toast! While I’d love to give you more details, I will leave it up to you to ask Max when you visit Petit Bouchon.
It is easy to get swept up in the charisma and dedication the two men leading Petit Bouchon express. But their passion for their mission, to create a memorable French culinary experience for everyone that walks through their doors, is easily the most intriguing thing about their concept. Menus will come and go, foods will change, and new vintages of wines will appear, but the idea and love behind Petit Bouchon is the crown jewel in an impeccably put together dining experience. The entire lunch was amazing, from start to finish. From the choices made in the decoration of the restaurant itself to the amazing culinary journey each dish and wine took us on, I will repeat my visit to Petit Bouchon many times over. I plan on starting soon with one of their frequent wine tasting and pairing dinners to indulge the wine enthusiast in me.
However, what I am most excited for is to see what direction these two young men take Petit Bouchon and Le Cafe Descartes next.
Originally posted on The Wondrous Expanse.
As of February 13, 2021, Les Cafe Descartes is permanently closed. You can see the Instagram post here. The creators behind the amazing restaurant are currently working on a new restaurant concept. I can't wait to see what they bring to the table!