Having had my plan to lunch at Aux Verres de Contact thwarted last week by a power cut that closed the restaurant, I was eager to try it, so I called the next day to make a reservation. I was surprised at how easy it was to get a table right away, given some laudatory reviews I had heard, and I was even more surprised to find the restaurant nearly empty when I met my friend Connie the connoisseur there.
The nice waiter attributed the poor business on a Thursday evening to the fact that vacation season was starting and that there was a Euro 2012 soccer match (Italy vs. Germany) on TV. Still…
We were happy to have a seat in the front of the strangely shaped restaurant, which is tucked into an angle between two buildings, its big windows open to the breeze on that heavily hot evening; it was almost as good as being on a terrace. The back room of the colorfully decorated bistro would be a cozier choice on a cool evening.
We were seated right next to the open kitchen and could watch chef Sarah Delage and her assistant beavering away behind a few hams and strings of chile peppers hanging from the ceiling, signs of a Basque influence that was not very apparent on the menu.
While waiting for me, Connie had pretty much decided what we would be eating, and I was happy to go along with her choices, which we shared half and half. The creative carpaccio of sea bream and beets with marinated ginger and sprouts was an attractive and refreshing choice on this hot evening. It was full of bright flavors, but those disparate ingredients didn’t bounce off each other particularly well—each retained its distinct identity and didn’t seem to notice the others. The tomato-celery gazpacho was a dud: it tasted like nothing more than a nice cold tomato soup with bits of mozzarella di bufala floating in it, its mild flavor drowned.
We did better with the main courses. The luscious magret de canard had a stunning jus and came with a bowl of petits pois à la française: peas tarted up with stock, pancetta, onions and other goodies. We both agreed that the fresh peas were so delicious that they could stand on their own.
The other main dish was cod, flaky and nicely cooked. While I don’t believe in tarting up fresh peas, I do believe in tarting up most fish, so I greatly appreciated the bed of fideuà (tiny vermicelli-like pasta that Connie called orzo, cooked like a risotto in cuttlefish ink with piquillo peppers and chorizo). A rich, delicious discovery.
For dessert, Connie wanted to try the clafoutis with cherries, seeing this flan-like dessert as a test of a chef’s skill. Delage passed the test with flying colors with her light, crispy pastry. The ginger ice cream that came with it (for an extra €2!) was a nice complement. I had the chocolate mousse, which was very good and came with two tiny rich pistachio financiers.
Delage, who used to work for super-chef Hélène Darroze and is married to Guillaume Delage, the chef at the acclaimed Jadis, made no attempt to reach out to the few customers she had. Not surprisingly, the nearly empty restaurant lacked ambiance, and there were some inexplicably long waits between courses.
While it was not a perfect evening, it was perfectly pleasant, and I am tempted to go back to taste the St. Yrieix and Bellota hams, and two dishes on the menu with intriguing descriptions: the croque monsieur with squid ink, grilled vegetables and mozzarella; and the sautéed “crystal blue” shrimp with cream of peas and strawberries.
By the way, the restaurant’s name isn’t, as one might think, a play on “contact lenses” but a reference to journalist Antoine Blondin, who labeled his expense receipts “verres de contact.”