One of the reasons I love writing about food is the fact that the creation of good food always has some interesting human story linked to it. You cannot create great food out of a vacuum. It requires a whole lot of nurturing, a solid base, fresh ingredients, exciting influences and reliable recipes. Much like relationships that need to be nurtured, kept fresh, exciting and yet solid and reliable.
Le Bistro Du Parc in Delhi would easily be the capital’s best kept liaison with France. I chanced upon it through a small Facebook Ad. Now I started my career working at undoubtedly the best French restaurant in Delhi in the 90s, The Orient Express. Let’s just say that I cut my teeth into the best French nouvelle cuisine pretty early on.
Later one was lured into far too many flavors from Asia namely Far East to ever really go looking for French food, one reason being that it always came in a stuffy 5 star hotel environment. I mean you’ve got to dress up for those things, maybe even visit a salon and get your hair done.
Then wait for a marriage proposal or an anniversary or something like a break-up party even! Moreover the kind of money these places charged, even an anniversary celebration starts feeling like a break-up dinner by the time the check arrives!
But what about chilled out, no fuss bistro-like French food? Isn’t the reason why no one forgets their first visit to Paris, the beautiful road-side bistros that dot the city like little islands of joy and abandon. The city is undoubtedly beautiful and elegant but it is the bistros that pump life and soul into Paris.
Which brings me back to ‘Le Bistro Du Parc’. Nestled in Delhi’s Defence Colony, this unabashedly simple and chic place is the brain child of Naina de Bois-Juzan. Now this is where the beautiful story unfolds. I had communicated with Naina over email expressing an interest in visiting the place. Due to her prompt, well phrased, professional answers I was expecting an elderly, meticulous almost matronly figure. When I reached Le Bistro Du Parc, a stunningly beautiful French mademoiselle who looked like a model greeted us at the gate. She guided us to our table on the top.
Then she carted the menu, neatly chalked out on a black board to us. All this while, I was practicing my French to ask her if I could meet Naina de Bois-Juzan. The young lady gave me a bewitching grin and in a delightful French accent said, “I am Naina!”
Phew! Naina kind of lights up the place with her warmth and personal touch, almost like an elegant cultural Ambassador for France right in our midst. But there’s none of that so-called French snobbery. I am still trying to decode the mystery. I come to know soon enough that Naina’s mother is a theth Punjaban and her father a French fashion designer.
It was an alliance made in heaven and their endearing story is another column. But Naina is the embodiment of that delicious Punjabi-French connection. Born and brought up in Paris, Naina moved to Delhi seven years ago to explore her Indian roots and stayed on.
The restaurant has that unmistakable, understated French grace, done in serene white and blue with bright yellow flowers on every table(perhaps reminiscent of mustard fields? Ha!) and lots of palms all around.
The tables are small and tightly packed, making you instantly remove your stuffy coat and hang it somewhere. You can peep into your neighboring table and strike up a conversation regarding any dish they would like to recommend.
It’s a Wednesday and it is a regular Jazz night here. I think my luck just peeks as I notice, playing at the piano, none other than author Rana Dasgupta accompanied by Anita Roy. Friends such as Parvati La Cantante often drop in to sing impromptu and play some nice music. There is much laughter and revelry.
With so much happening all around, food is almost secondary, except for the fact that it is not!
Taking Naina’s involved suggestions, for starters we try the highly recommended Pan-fried Calamari, which is flavorful and light on the palate with tomatoes and a burst of aromatics.
Home-made Rilettes are a popular French starter, served with pickled gherkins and onion and toasted bread and have a rustic charm. Vegetarians could have the Danish Bleu Cheese and Walnut Souffle which comes with a gooey cheese sauce and fresh green salad, truly a classic almalgamation of flavor, taste and textures.
For the Main Couse or ‘Les Plats’, we try the Chicken Fricasse with Garlic Mash and Greens. The chicken is succulent while the skin on top is a rich golden brown and oozing with flavor. The beans are just the way I like, crunchy and very green.
The Duck Breast with Fondant Potato comes on a bed of red cabbage that has been caramelized to perfection and carrot puree. This is a relatively heavy dish but delicious, a hearty, meaty dish. Other popular dishes are Steak Tartare and Steak Frites.
But the unmistakable French classic, Bouillabaise is simply outstanding. Maybe I am biased towards fish but the sauce (technically a stew) is rich with flavors and transports me to Marseilles.
Vegetarians can enjoy Stuffed Tomatoes with Goat’s Cheese and Rice Pilaf or a Potato and Brie Gratin with Green Salad and Apple.
We take a breather to soak in the music which is now reaching its crescendo. By now Naina has joined one of the tables and is enjoying a much needed breather. Everyone seems to know everyone here. What else do you want when you have Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra classics emanating one after the other!
In the dessert, Valrhona Chocolate Mousse with pomegranates is refreshing and different. There is Pain Perdu with Fresh Fruit on the menu. But we are lucky enough to get the Galette, which is a cherry and almond tart that is traditionally made only in the month of January, which is exquisite.
Naina talks of major crowd pullers to the restaurant, “Apéro is a very traditional concept in France that ALL French people practice! An apéro is a drink (or two!) that we have before dinner, to get in the mood and stimulate the appetite. We have apéro from 6pm to 8pm every day at the bistro with 2 drinks for the price of one (full bar included). The lunch fixed meal @Rs 500 ++ for a 2 course and 650++ for a 3 course is something we have started recently. People do not necessarily want to spend a lot of time and money on lunch hours, so this is a good option.”
As Naina was smitten with bistronomie and has traveled all over France to meet Bistro owners, she developed a keen interest to introduce bistronomie to India. A small menu in a restaurant is a mark of quality is her firm belief.
Le Bistro Du Parc fills that very big gap in Delhi of a place where you can have great food at not so astronomical prices. This is the trend even in post-recession France today. As François Simon, a leading food critic for Le Figaro, says that bistros have become ‘the principle axis of gastronomy’ in France.
Ten years ago things were different. Michelin starred French restaurants had hit the ceiling with their showiness and overpriced food. Today people want a connection and comfort, at a price that makes you want to keep coming back for more.
Well known celebrity French Chef such as Yves Camdeborde gave up his enviable career in the kitchens of Paris’s Ritz and Tour d’Argent to launch an entirely new genre of restaurant in 1992 with Paris’s La Régalade, serving top cuisine at unprecedented low prices. It was an instant hit.
Naina mirrors my reflections as she tells me, “I have grown up loving food, cooking and the ‘art de la table’. I’ve been living in Delhi for the past seven years and I always felt like there was a small little French bistro missing in the city. I was fed up of going to big restaurants, which I find lack personality and intimacy. One fine day I decided if no one was going to open that kind of restaurant in Delhi, I would do it myself. And that’s exactly what I did. I opened Le Bistro Du Parc!”
I guess that’s where the entrepreneurial Punjabi genes kick in!