When Joanne and I visit Paris, we always stay in a boutique hotel called the Saint Gregoire, in the 6th arrondissement near the Bon Marché. And because there are nights that we choose to stay in the neighborhood and seek out a simple but good bistro, I was surprised to discover on our last visit that there actually was a neighborhood place that I hadn’t heard of – one that suited us to a tee.
INVICTUS, a chic little bistro with an amber glow, is tiny (just 34 seats). You’ll find it on Rue Sainte-Beuve, a side street just steps from the Luxembourg Gardens.
In true Minnesota geezer fashion, I had booked our table for 7:00 on a Monday evening in June. We arrived just as the restaurant was opening. But to my surprise, we were greeted in a very un-Parisian fashion: The manager actually smiled at us at the front door and we were off to a delightful evening.
As the first to arrive, we snagged the best table in the house (#6), the only one by the window. Take note!
The menu was a French bistro charmer that seemed to have one foot in tradition and the other foot walking it forward. And there was not a whiff of pretention…only an earnest desire to please.
On this warm summer evening, we began by cracking a bottle of a cool, crisp Sancerre.
In our American restaurateur “piggy-style,” (yes, that’s an industry term, one I made up just now), it seems like we tried everything that they had to offer, beginning with a chilled pea soup scattered with crispy lardons and topped with a warm and perfectly runny just-cooked poached egg. Heirloom tomatoes were in season, so of course Joanne chose the tomato-burrata salad, adorned with fresh-cut basil and extra-virgin olive oil.
My starter of pickled herring took me right back to Reykjavik – though the flavors were typically French in their nuance and balance. It was served with baby onions, green apple, and intentionally luke-warm potatoes (12 euros). A pristine crab cocktail with marinated thin zucchini slices followed.
In a nod to neighboring Italy, we shared a second starter of white anchovies resting on a bed of grilled red peppers, with garlic bathed in fruity olive oil, perfect for sopping up with the accompanying crusty bread and sea salt.
Invictus offered two iterations of roasted chicken, both featuring the Landes breed of bird, a southern French rival to Bresse chickens. To nobody’s surprise they were really deeply flavored and juicy, especially the version stuffed with a confit of garlic cloves. I suspect that a pound or two of butter may also have contributed to the juiciness. Both dishes were flanked by salt-flecked baby new potatoes.
Fearing that full orders of the thick-sliced Argentine rib-eye might throw us into a food coma, we decided to share a single order. Invictus gave the steak a teriyaki glaze and prepared it perfectly, the meat surrendering to the gentlest nudge of my fork. Still, Joanne declared her choice “best in show” – a piece of steamed hake about the size of a deck of cards, luxuriating in a lemon-grassy Thai broth that was at once spicy, sour and sweet. Included with it were glass noodles and a mix of fresh vegetables.
We also found room for a gorgeous baked cod accompanied by a hollowed-out eggplant, stuffed and baked with ratatouille, as well as two French bistro icons: a textbook Sole Meuniere (36 euros) and a Fergus Henderson-ish snout-to-tail rendition of veal kidneys in red wine. I was slightly embarrassed when I asked for mustard. It was like someone at MANNY’S asking for ketchup with their rib-eye.
Desserts? OH, YEAH!
We started with a generous slice of Tarte Tatin brightened by a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. A gorgeous, bouncy, all-red dessert of strawberries, raspberries and red currant ice cream burst with flavor. The dessert winner, however, was the warm vanilla millefeuille. I’ve downed my share of this classic dessert, but never have I had it warm. Nice touch.
Bottom line: This place is good….really good.
One thing to note: Burdened by out-of-control labor costs and government rules and regulations, many French bistros (including ones you may have heard of or even dined at) have been forced to abandon the scratch cooking that brought them success. The Boeuf Bourguignon that you may have enjoyed on previous visits may today arrive at the restaurant in a plastic bag, Applebee’s-style, ready to be re-heated.
NOT SO AT INVICTUS. The restaurant is under the thoughtful, brilliant culinary guidance of Chef Christophe Chabanel, who trained in South Africa and now sports a pedigree that includes the multi-Michelin starred Paris restaurant, APICIUS.
You WILL need reservations. Even though we were lonely diners at 7:00 PM, by 7:30 the place started to fill. And by 8:00 there was a butt in every single seat and people were being turned away at the door.
What we also like about INVICTUS is that it does not break the bank. Dinner ran about 75 euros/person – INCLUDING WINE! Rare in Paris.
It’s a place that we will return to, often…..a place that I will always remember….remember what I had for dinner, and who I was there with.
This is a FIND. Relish it!