If you have a picture in your head of a golden age of Parisian dining, it probably looks something like Benoit. Though the outside of the restaurant is fairly plain, it has a plum position just moments from the imposing Hôtel de Ville, and is set on the border of the Marais, today a humming area full of hip bars, cafés and boutiques. Inside is where the magic really happens – the shining brass fittings, the warm, polished curves of wood, the brilliant red velvet banquettes, the dark green spikes of house plants and the serene blue sky of the ceiling’s trompe l’oeil, scattered with fluffy white clouds. This bistro is as much of an institution as it looks, having stood on this site since 1912. Management has changed in recent years, as it’s been added to Alain Ducasse’s stable of restaurants, and it is the very proud owner of a Michelin star – the only bistro in Paris to have achieved the honour.
What this means on the plate is top-class executions of all the dishes you came to Paris to eat – snails in garlic butter, melting slices of beef cheek, profiteroles leaking whipped cream and chocolate sauce. There are no modern interpretations or deviations – this is straight-faced classicism at its gilded best. That said, bistros have never been about the intimidations of fine dining, and though waiters wear starched aprons and wield wine coolers with impressive aplomb, they are still cheery and down to earth, adept at handling the tourist trade. And the food, often served tableside from steaming tureens and arranged on the house’s monogrammed, flower-printed and gilded crockery, is all big flavours, big portions and unctuous tradition and indulgence.
We visited for the more affordable lunchtime set menu (€38), which offers an excellent way to experience this type of cooking without shelling out a fortune (which you can very easily do, à la carte and via the wine list). Starters of chestnut velouté and a light mackerel tart were pleasant but only warm-ups to the main event – if you were doing it properly, you’d have snails or duck foie gras, of course. It was the mains that gave a real taste of what Benoit can do – beef cheek cooked so long and slow you could almost eat it with a spoon, decadently rich and teamed with baby carrots, and a hefty circle of black pudding in a pool of creamy apple sauce, with apple puree on the side. The intense flavours and luscious ingredients could floor the most enthusiastic appetites, but there was more to come – a platter of fruit and chocolate tarts, and the crowning glory – a vast doorstep of savarin sponge slathered in Chantilly cream, with a choice of bottles of rum to slosh over it. This is bistro cooking to the max – a heart-stopping treat that you’ll need an afternoon to sleep off. Enjoy.