Open a caviar store in this economy? Is that just a little bit crazy, or what? Quietly, seemingly with hardly anyone noticing, the famous caviar purveyor Petrossian of Paris has reopened its Robertson Boulevard shop after a four-month-long remodel and this time around, it includes a cafe open almost all day long.
At the very least, the move may be counterintuitive. But crazy? Not so much. After all, this is the Russian-Armenian family that introduced the French to caviar way back in the '20s (believe it or not, caviar wasn't always considered the height of sophistication and gourmet's longing; when some Parisians tasted the fish eggs for the first time, they spit them right out).
Petrossian Paris Boutique and Cafe is going for casual elegance and for the most part pulls it off with a menu of updated French cafe classics from a young French chef. Despite the amiable service and haute presentation, the menu falters with some too-sweet dishes and a liberal dose of truffle oil.
The cafe is actually a reiteration of the space where it has had a shop since 2001. Right on Robertson Boulevard, it's steps away from B&B Italia and the Alessi store and around the corner from the Stella McCartney boutique. Los Angeles designer David Davis unraveled the space to create a light-drenched dining room with black leather banquettes, blond wood chairs and tables and walls covered in "galucha," a faux stingray skin with a dark gray pebbled texture that mimics caviar pearls. Osetra, not beluga.
A second room has more little tables along the windows, a tall communal table and vitrines displaying the firm's elegantly packaged caviar, smoked salmon and foie gras and other gourmet products. The outside is painted the same arresting grayed cerulean blue as the Paris shop on Boulevard La Tour Maubourg.
The Petrossian cafe is not all about caviar, though.
As chef, the family has hired the young talent Benjamin Bailly, former sous chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas. Before that, the 27-year-old helped Joël Robuchon open half a dozen other locales around the world. But this is Bailly's first gig as executive chef and he's still in the throes of working out the details. Though he's got technique to spare, the menu has its ups and downs.
The smart thing to do is to arrive just before happy hour ends (it's 3 to 8 p.m.) when you can get a trio of miniature blini each topped with a different caviar -- domestic sturgeon, salmon roe and trout roe -- for $5 instead of the normal $9. At that price they're not loading on the caviar, but who cares when the blini are so fluffy, warm and delicious?
Of course, if you must indulge, you can order caviar service of any of Petrossian's impeccably sourced caviars. Those from the Caspian Sea are the most expensive, but the Petrossian family is also championing domestically raised white sturgeon caviar, which is the more ecologically responsible choice. If you haven't tasted the domestic variety in a while, it's come a long way from the early days. And compared with the imported caviars, domestic is much more affordable.
Of course, you can have a blowout caviar tasting at Petrossian -- 30 grams of Persicus Imperial special reserve from the Caspian Sea at $769.
Most of us, though, will be having our caviar as a garnish on some other dish rather than as a main event. And it's even possible to eat well at the cafe without a grain of caviar passing your lips.
Let's start with soup. Beautiful soup, presented in clear glass bowls with the flare of a martini glass. Cold borscht is a brilliant fuchsia, sweet and sour (maybe a touch on the too-sweet side, easily mitigated with a dollop of crème fraîche). Wow. But Bailly also has an elegant white asparagus purée in his arsenal, along with a marvelous, frothy wild mushroom cappuccino with a finish that goes on and on. Order a cup: It's almost too intense to enjoy an entire bowlful. Chilled cantaloupe has some intricate spicing just out of grasp. What is it? I ask myself, as I take bite after bite. Again, this one is quite sweet, and so maybe my least favorite, but taken on its own terms, quite refreshing.
Salad. Pass up the perfectly fine Cobb or the bland king crab salad in favor of Petrossian salad. That would be a stark composition of green beans cut the size of peas in a black truffle-scented dressing crowned with a rosy slice of Petrossian's superb terrine of foie gras embellished with a sequin-sized scrap of black truffle. The crunch of the blanched beans against the silky, rich foie gras is utterly French in concept. Decide for yourself how you feel about foie gras. Just let me say, this is what it's supposed to be. Savor every bite.
The croque madame sandwich is also a very French item. The madame is basically a croque monsieur with a fried egg on top. The finely sliced ham and the Gruyère are top notch, the egg fried so that the yolk is still a bit runny, gilding the sandwich with a deep gold.
Petrossian is synonymous with luxe, so it's no surprise that when the chef decides to do a mac 'n' cheese, he lavishes the orecchiete pasta with minced black truffles and Parmesan. It's extremely rich, a week's calories in a bowl.
Napoleon tartare is basically a thick rectangle of hand-chopped raw beef with a vein of caviar running down the middle. The piquant raw beef against the brine of the caviar really sings. What's bothering me, though, is the truffle oil that scents the salads and so many dishes, marring the clarity of the flavors. More than anything, it's faux luxe.
Despite a big banner plastered across the front announcing Sunday brunch, the cafe just doesn't seem to be on the radar yet. Maybe it's the parking -- no valet, and in that neighborhood, parking is tough and the meter enforcement hyper-vigilant. You can usually find something at night around the corner on Beverly Boulevard, though.
Petrossian has its own cold-smoked North Atlantic salmon, which you can order hand-sliced and served with toast points and crème fraîche. More unusual is the Tzar Cut Trio, thick sashimi-sized slices of each of three types of salmon: the buttery fillet from the center of the fish, another marinated in spices and smoked extra slowly, and one marinated in dill. This is a real feast.
Not everything works so well. Sturgeon confit in olive oil and a lemon grass emulsion is bland, much less exciting than it sounds. And scallops a la plancha (seared on the griddle) is quite awful, mostly due to an achingly sweet carrot purée.
However, the rib-eye with masses of shallot confit, a little baby spinach and sautéed mushrooms is a great deal for $28, and the prime short ribs in a silky, nuanced bourguignon or red wine sauce with a sunchoke purée gets my vote for the best main course.
When he's not dousing things with truffle oil, the chef's cooking is clean and classic, relying less on wacky flavor combinations than on expert technique and a feeling for his ingredients. Consider the menu a work in progress.
And that Sunday brunch? Quite a good deal -- appetizer, main dish, dessert, coffee or tea and a glass of Champagne to start for $35 per person. Or, you can order a la carte. I'd go with the poached eggs with spinach and sauce mornay or the croque madame. The omelet, which comes garnished with trout or salmon roe or smoked salmon, is very plain. And when I ordered it, overcooked.
Come dessert, don't pass up the dreamy crème brûlée studded with Sicilian pistachios. White peach panna cotta is thickened cream at the bottom of a glass layered with white peaches in syrup and a peach foam. And for chocolate lovers, a glass holds a deep dark chocolate ganache topped with softly whipped cream.
Petrossian Cafe is a class act that despite a few missteps fits right into the neighborhood. The menu is flexible and contemporary. And if you focus on the caviar, smoked salmon and such, you'll be fine.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun