Last week, in honor of a friend’s birthday, a group of us had the pleasure of dining at one of my favorite restaurants in Paris: L’Ambassade d’Auvergne. Having been there a couple of times before (I celebrated my own birthday there last year and Nick and I also went there on our honeymoon) I knew to expect great service, delicious regional cuisine, and a cozy, country-inn atmosphere. Situated in an old house near the Centre Pompidou, which I’m sure it predates, the decor is homey and inviting. Exposed beams embellish the ceiling while ham legs and copper pots adorn the walls. We were seated at a large, sturdy wooden table that would have been right at home in a grand farmhouse or rustic castle, beneath a portrait of an old man who the maître d’ claimed was his grandfather. (He also told us that the painting was watching us to make sure we cleaned our plates.)
The apéritif menu has plenty of choices, but most of us couldn’t resist ordering the vin de rhubarbe. It lived up to its intrigue. Sweet-tart with the distinct aroma of fresh rhubarb, it made an excellent pre-dinner drink. We ordered our appetizers, but before they arrived we were treated to a plate full of gougères made with Fourme d’Ambert. They were good, but I think a stronger-flavored cheese might have made for a more impressive nibble. I also selected a bottle of red Saint-Pourçain wine, which our waiter deemed an excellent choice. Saint-Pourçain is a tiny wine-producing region in the northern part of Auvergne. Currently it has V.D.Q.S. status, which means that if they can uphold the standards set so far by the region, they will be granted A.O.C. status in the future. The wines tend to be light and fruity, which is a good foil to the rich, hearty cuisine of the region.
When the first course arrived, we realized that almost all of us had picked the same thing: the salade tiède de lentilles du Puy.
I have mentionedthis salad before, though I don’t think I explained that it is traditional Auvergnat dish and employs the famous lentille verte du Puy, which has A.O.C. status and its own official website! They’re great in just about any preparation, but the salade tiède really emphasizes their unique texture and hearty flavor. Combined with lardons, shallot, goose fat, and a wallop of Dijon mustard, the lentils at l’Ambassade d’Auvergne were met with enthusiasm by the whole table. As a bonus, since the salad is mixed to order (they do it tableside if you’re a smaller group) they leave the bowl on the table so you can feel free to help yourself to seconds, as if the three enormous quenelles the waiter has already dolloped on your plate aren’t enough. Anyone at the table who didn’t order it is encouraged to have some as well.
The lone holdout at our table was Nick, who, being an adventurous eater, wanted to try the special: feuilleté aux coeurs de canard. Duck hearts in puff pastry. I had a bite and it was quite tasty. The hearts were meaty and full-flavored while the puff pastry was as buttery and flaky as any I’ve had.
Between the appetizers and the main courses, another freebie appeared before us. This time it was house-made terrine de campagne, a rustic, chunky-textured take on pâté. (When I’ve dined here before, I’ve never gotten the between-course snacks – must be a benefit of coming with a large group.) For the main event, the table was split evenly among those who chose aligot with duck, those who selected the aligot with sausage, and those who opted for the stuffed cabbage mille-feuille. Aligot is one of my absolute favorite Auvergnat dishes. Potatoes, cheese, and garlic, beaten to a smooth, stretchy purée, it is comfort food with a fun kick.
Normally when you order aligot at L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, they perform an elaborate tableside mixing-and-stretching routine, which we didn’t get to see a lot of this time. I’m guessing that the large amount of potatoes required by our table was best left to the kitchen. We still got a mini-demonstration from our waiter before it was artfully spooned out onto our plates. I went with the duck breast this time, which came out perfectly medium-rare. I’ve had the sausage, which is probably more traditional, on previous visits, and can attest to its meaty goodness. Just like with the lentil salad, extra aligot is offered to everyone at the table.
As for the stuffed cabbage, it couldn’t have looked more different from my attempt a few weeks ago.