ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At the beginning of 2010, Christophe Descarpentries said, “Let there be P’tit Louis.” And it was good.
The first location on Gold Avenue was polished down to the hand-laid tiles and the off-kilter framed art — everything made to look like the place had been open since the 1800s.
The second, and now only, location in Nob Hill has the same design chops, but is up against increasingly enticing competition nearby: spots from Jewish delis to streetside gourmet bar food. I had to know if P’tit Louis was holding its own in this crowd.
Descarpentries still exudes the energy of four people as he handles incoming diners, orders, bussing, drinks and conversation with regulars. A close friend of mine, the late fellow writer Mina Yamashita, called out Descarpentries when she invoked an old saw, “If you need something done, ask a busy person to do it.”
One of my recent visits to P’tit Louis was tinged with sweet sadness — it was among her favorite restaurants in town, and that day would have been her birthday.
But life is still sweet and a little briny like the sea.
Oysters ($2.50 each) for the meal’s preamble? — perfect, of course. Petite Tartare ($9.50) followed, a dish I always find a pleasant contradiction — savory with meaty richness but never feeling heavy in the belly.
For a rich appetizer here you’ll have to order a salad — the Endives au Roquefort ($8.50) with bitter endive slices and a creamy blue cheese dressing holding it all in a small mound.
At this model French bistro, bread arrives freely and without butter unless requested. We practically had to shoo off a third slice before the main courses arrived, finding them easy to nibble as we sipped the house wine ($6.50 quarter-carafe, $12 half).
Wine selections are simple — it’s the house wine (white, red, rose) by carafe increments, or you order a named bottle. The house red pairs well with both meat and fish, and a quarter-carafe is a bargain for what amounts to a glass and a half of wine.
Standards on the menu begin with six varieties of steamed Moules (mussels); the Mussels Roquefort ($13.50) is a favorite, especially with a side order of house made Frites ($4.50) to dunk in the rich sauce.
I enjoy the bistro classic Steak Frites ($20.50) — cooked medium-rare, of course. But honestly, whatever is the special of the day or week is what you should order. It runs the gamut from Duck Confit to the recent Osso Buco ($35), served with truffle mac & cheese.
Descarpentries’ kitchen is not about to dribble on truffle oil and call it a day — his dishes are garnished with slices of fresh black truffles. The difference is not unlike having strawberry jam for years and then eating an in-season strawberry off the vine. Same base flavor and scent, totally different experience.
Yet after all that, the portions are still so reasonable that you’ll want one of the petite desserts. The Crème Brûlée ($6.50) is all gentle sweetness, so delicate it begins to melt under the freshly torched sugar. The lemon tart ($6.50) remains the best key lime pie you’ve ever had (but for the lemon part).