ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The cork sails across the entranceway, bubbly spray missing the crowd at the door. Christophe Descarpentries, the effervescent personality of P’tit Louis Bistro Downtown and now Nob Hill, has tapped a bottle of champagne. He then sails like that cork through the room, tending to the tiny tables with a wink and a “yes, Madam” at every turn.
Early in the evening before the room fills, you can still hear the music from corner speakers, romantic French croons setting the mood at P’tit Louis. Oysters flown in continue to lay the groundwork – for just $2.50 each they’ll get dabs of fierce cocktail sauce or a simple squirt of lemon before their toss down the hatch. And so the meal begins.
Practically a breakfast disguised with greenery, the Frisee Salad ($9.50) is a bold starter. Bitter fronds are dressed with bacon vinaigrette, tossed with itty-bitty bacon called lardons then crowned with a wobbly poached egg. A bunch of oysters and this salad are the lunch of my dreams, fresh yet decadent. Bread slices are doled out by the roving servers, following the bistro custom of no butter: simple bread, simply consumed. Charcutaille ($11.50) further caters to savory fans in a plate of cold cuts, mustard and delicious house-made paté.
The “bacon and egg” salad’s dinner equivalent is the Steak Frites ($18.50), a flatiron cut seared with ample salt and joined on the plate by rustic fries that nearly hit the crisp-fluffy nexus, the hallmark of a well-executed fry. But common dishes at French bistros must include a steaming bowl of mussels. I chose Moules Piquantes ($9.50) for a moderate chile kick and a sop-worthy broth that works as well with bread as it does with fries.
Paris is not a place familiar to many – myself included – but at P’tit Louis there is no need to book a flight. A nearby table contributed to the experience by conversing in both French and English, switching as effortlessly as you or I would pick up the water glass versus the wine glass.
Wine factors in the enjoyment level of a French meal. Naturally, inexpensive house wines are served by quarter, half or full carafes – a quarter carafe ($6.50) the perfect portion of “a glass, plus.” The fruity house red works equally well with the steak or mussels, but the wine list affords further opportunities to ascend the pairing ladder.
P’tit Louis is busy – always busy. Reservations are strongly recommended for both lunch and dinner, making it problematic to go on a whim as you might be able to in Paris. During the lighter hours of the mid-afternoon a table could be quickly secured – or just stand in the entranceway with the rest of the enthralled would-be diners, dodging champagne corks and generally soaking in the scene.
Finishing the meal with a treat, even with waiting parties throwing glances your way, is worth the time. The kitchen has a rotating selection of dainty yet deadly serious desserts – jump on the lemon tart if available. If not, Chocolate Pot de CrÃ¨me ($5.50) spoons up in a flurry of bites, or a classic Tart Tatin ($5.50) is an apple pie in miniature – sweet and flaky, with a hint of caramel. You might need the deep black coffee and its balancing acidity, but by the time you pay the reasonable bill, you’ll have won another temporary reprieve against the urge to go to Europe.