Three former colleagues at a new restaurant each month or two, chatting over the world of Bordeaux fine wine over a bottle of non-Bordeaux. Such is the nature of what’s becoming a regular kind of dinner club, meetings of which I look forward to with enthusiasm every time. Our June pick was Cent33, a gastronomic restaurant in Chartrons, a stone’s throw from Jardin Publique. The menu is a creative expression of self by Chef/Owner Fabien Beaufour, who runs the place with the help of his wife Emilie. The place itself is beautifully designed, with raw and refurbished wood, steal and terracotta creating a relaxed, warm atmosphere. The kitchen is partially open and home to a Japanese charcoal barbecue called a robotayaki, responsible for some of the more serious items on their menu. Rather than the “appetizer – main dish – dessert” format, the Cent33 experience is based on sharing an array of small dishes served family-style and in no particular order. To make sampling these dishes even simpler, traditional silverware is replaced with a Georgette, which is the fancy French name for a spork. When it’s made of silver and designed with care, this little tool is actually quite practical, especially when it comes to saucy dishes, of which you don’t want to miss a drop.
To match their very dynamic and exciting menu, Cent33 offers quite a diverse wine list, including all kinds of interesting non-Bordeaux (Valencay, Cotes du Lot, Cote de Thongue) by the glass. Many of them are IGP, many of them are biodynamic. Some of them are old-vintage big boys like the 90-something Pontet Canet we saw being decanted for some lucky girl on date-night, yonder. We kept it real with a bottle of Domaine Jaulin-Plaisantin “Les Hauts & Les Bas,” a nervy, perfect Chinon that offered black fruit, tobbaco, sage and hints of mud, along with those lively green notes typical of Cabernet Franc. Needless to say, we were off to a good start.
One of the restaurant’s signature “While you wait” snacks is their house-made granola of pine nuts, pistachios and puffed rice, seasoned with herbes de Provence, piment d’Espelette and what I suspect was a touch of nori. The amorphous chunks of granola are crisp and very light (thanks to the popped rice), brittle in a way that makes them fun to eat, but not too sharp as to scratch your palate. The roasty-toasty pine nuts go well with the subtle sweetness of the pistachio, and this combination is further accent by the umami funk of the herbs or nori. A simple-sounding, yet deceptively complex little snack, which all three of us enjoyed immensely.
Pretty much whenever I am in the vicinity of cheese gougères, I find a way to get some. Why? Because they are super airy, puffed up little pockets that taste of cheese, and typically have a moist, steamy center to complement their crisp, golden exterior. Because there’s simply nothing negative about them. When I saw them at the menu at Cent33, I pointed right at them. Suppressing my excitement as much as I could, I offered, “What about these?” in a kind of bored tone, as if it were merely a suggestion. When they came to the table, they were everything I had wanted and more. Crisp on the outside, slightly doughty still inside, infused with the salty, nutty, aged flavor of comté, shavings of which were also sprinkled over the top. And at the base, a bechamel-like, creamy Mornay sauce gluing these heavenly little cheeseballs to the plate. Gourgères are everything. Just get them.
From the “garde-manger” section of the menu, we chose these bite-sized rounds of incredibly tender and velvet-smooth beef, marinated in a slightly piquant sauce and served with slices of fresh summer truffles on little plates of (what I believe was) black radish. A little cap of sliced red radish was laid over the top. Besides just being a very fun finger-food to share, these little radish tacos also offered an exciting combination of flavors and textures. The juicy, soft meat was complimented by the crisp snap of the radish on either side of it. A kind of earthy spice went beautifully with the minimally seasoned, clean beef, as well as with the fungal funk of the truffle and the touch of acid in the sauce.
Also from the “garde-manger” section came a salad of almost raw gambas, mixed greens, tender peas and fave beans in a silky, very clean-tasting coconut milk jus that was more floral than sweet. In the center was a very delicate, cool coconut foam. Some fried bits of something sprinkled over the top brought crunch. The combination was wonderful, with a subtle hint of exoticism instead of that forced, plastic “tropical” feel that I’m alway worried about when I see “coconut milk” in the description of a menu item. Just right, bravo.
One of Cent33’s signature dishes, found in the “De la Robata” section of their menu is their lacquered black cod, served in a pool of “matelote bordelaise,” topped with crispy bacon and thin slices of mushroom. This dish is slightly difficult to share, mostly because it’s so delicious, but also because it requires gliding the juicy, perfectly cooked filet off its skin and cutting the flesh into pieces. But no matter. The black cod was beautifully tender and moist, its fibers sliding naturally apart on the palate. The lacquer gave it a slightly candied exterior, but without being too sticky-sweet. The dish was further snapped back into the savory realm by the crispy bits of bacon and the matelote, which was a little masterpiece on its own. This classic French dish of fish stewed in red wine was reimagined as a kind of murky, marine broth, concentrated in flavor and dense in texture, made “a la bordelaise” with the addition of plenty of Bordeaux rouge. Nothing subtle about this dish. Plenty of personality here.
Our second dish from the “De la Robata” list were two heavenly chops of lamb from the Quercy appellation of the Lot region of France. Fun facts about these sustainably raised lamb: they have circular patches of black fur around their eyes and are fed their mother’s milk. This prized breed gives an incredibly succulent, beautifully marbled, pink meat with bright white fat and a heavenly, subtle flavor. These were cooked with a simple sear to make them tight and crispy on the exterior, and sprinkled with coarse salt to bring out the lovely natural flavors of the lamb. They were served with their cooking jus and a couple of plump, juicy prunes probably sautéed in the same. A great combo, with the prunes adding that ripe, jammy, almost umami flavor as well as a touch of sweetness. On the side was also a little tower that I didn’t end up paying too much attention to. It looked very pretty though – a kind of open-faced sandwich of microgreens, fresh mint and flash-cooked veg on a layer of creamy spread… But here it was all about the lamb.
For some reason I was in a pea kind of mood that evening, perhaps a reflection of how desperate I had been for summer to really begin in Bordeaux after what had seemed like another decade-long rainy winter. Cent33 had what I was looking for. In fact, one of the creations in their “Piano” section is totally dedicated to this humble ingredient, demonstrating its potential to act as protagonist of a dish. A kind of creamy, thick velouté of peas, seasoned with fresh mint, was served with a salad of fresh peas and microgreens in the center, surrounded by a pool of savory, very flavorful poultry broth. The fresh peas are cooked just right and contribute a wonderful snappy texture to the smooth puree. A dish with vibrant colors that was just as much of a pleasure to photograph as it was to devour.
I usually don’t order gnocchi because I’m too picky about them. If they are even just a tiny bit tough or chewy in the center, they become starchy dumplings, too glutinous to swallow easily. But I held my tongue when my dinner companions ordered it, willing to give the Cent33 version a chance. These were everything gnocchi should be. They were pillow-soft, melting in the mouth and leaving behind a mild potato flavor. And they were fluffy all the way through, no tough core. They were served with juicy morel mushrooms in a creamy, indulgent mushroom sauce and topped with pretty nasturtium leaves which packed a black pepper punch, exactly the heat the dish needed.
I don’t like sweet things too much. That said, dessert was a show-stopper. A deep, dark blue mess of macerated blueberries was served with dollops of not-too-sweet chocolate mousse, a kind of naturally sweet, grainy corn (and oat?) puree and crumbles of an oat (and corn?) cookie. Over the top was a frosty quenelle of sorbet, flavored with sweet corn and fragrant lavender, a smart combination with a focus on the floral and the earthy, naturally sweet. All this, accented with a touch of acidity, along with that impossible-to-describe character of blueberries, made for a dessert that was perfectly earthy and serious, and refreshingly not too sweet at all. Basically everything I’m hoping for when I order a dessert.
Cent33 is wonderful little restaurant and exactly the kind of experience one needs to add a dash of excitement to a long, monotone work week. The menu and dishes that compose it are vibrant, colorful and full of imagination, rotating seasonally. This is the kind of restaurant I’ll be sure to check in on in a few month’s time, once red-oranges and mustard-yellow’s replace vibrant greens and pinks…