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Petrossian Paris -- Caviar and Extraordinary Food

The smartest thing the Petrossian family has done is to enlist the services of one of the finest young chefs in the world to cook at the café. I don't make that statement lightly.
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I have been visiting Paris for more than 50 years, and I can't recall an occasion when I didn't stop in at the Petrossian Caviar shop at 144 rue de l'Université for a dollop (or two) of Iranian beluga caviar, usually with blinis and a shot (or two) of Russian vodka. But on my last trip there, it was so prohibitively expensive that I had to forego the pleasure. I knew that the Petrossian family had opened a retail shop here just across from my friends Silvio and Eddy's Il Piccolino restaurant, but the shop was so unimpressive that I never returned.

Imagine my pleasure when I heard that they had revamped it and, in addition, opened a casual dining room/café. Petrossian Paris Boutique and Café (321 N. Robertson Blvd., at Rosewood, West Hollywood (310) 271-0576) is now serving extraordinary food from 10 am to 11 pm Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm on Sunday.

But let me digress...two Armenian brothers, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, along with the latter's wife, émigrés from Russia, had opened their Paris shop in the early 1920's to introduce the pleasures of caviar to a willing world. Her family was one of five behind the fame of the budding caviar industry in imperial Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Today their descendents, led by father Armen (he of the ever-present bowtie and swashbuckling moustache), and sons Alexander and Robert, have also opened boutiques in Monaco, New York and Las Vegas...with the revamped LA being the latest.

On my first visit there last month, I was snacking in the café with friends when I spotted Leba Sedaka walking by the retail boutique and beckoned her in; she told me she and Neil were flying to New York in the morning and she needed an elegant gift for the owner of the private plane. I pointed out a nice-sized tin of domestic caviar which would last them to the East coast, and for less than $500 she had solved her gift problem.

The patriarch of the family told me: "For nearly 80 years, we have been recognized as the foremost purveyor of fine caviar from all over the world. Today, with supplies of Iranian and Russian caviar difficult to impossible to obtain, we have scoured the world and often initiated the production of fine caviar from a variety of farmed and sustainable sources. Kazakhstan, China, Israel, the U.S., but also from France, Germany, Bulgaria. I know that caviar has a solid place in today's unpredictable consumer market. Over 85% of the caviar now sold in the United State is California-raised in eco-friendly ways," he told me. "Now it is a small indulgence that no longer requires splurging, since American caviar is delicious, eminently affordable and a way to support the California economy." Amen. In these days of uncertainty, we all need small moments of pure pleasure...and what can bring one more satisfaction than a taste of good caviar?

A word about the new retail space and the café: LA designer David Davis drew on a palette of grey cerulean blue, a color used from the time of Louis V and Madame Pompadour for the exterior, matching the Petrossian shops in Europe and Manhattan. I like the vivid red lettering he used on the façade of the marquee. I noted that he used deep blue Galucha, a synthetic sting ray skin with pebbled surface reminiscent of caviar pearls. The dining room is elegantly casual, featuring tasteful artwork from the nearby Findlay Gallery. Tables are set far apart and soft jazz permeates the background. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Robertson scene; in fact, the extraordinary 15-foot ceilings are accented by exposed turn-of-the century Paris steel trusses. There is outdoor seating on the street side of the boutique shielded by rose plants.

After several stunning meals here, I have concluded that the smartest thing the Petrossian family has done is to enlist the services of one of the finest young chefs in the world to cook at the café. I don't make that statement lightly either. Executive Chef Benjamin Bailly at 28 has more experience and talent than most celebrated chefs twice his age. He has just been nominated as one of the Best New Chefs of the Year by the James Beard Awards. When I dined with Joel Robuchon at MGM's L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon 3 years ago, Ben was sous chef in that three star kitchen, having assisted the genius French chef in opening six namesake restaurants around the world. But still, who would dream that in a sparkling little café on Robertson I would experience some of the great meals of my life? My first dinner was a last-minute drop-in with film director Fred Levinson. I told General Manager Christopher Klapp that we wanted to start with a caviar service...but my tight budget would only permit about a hundred dollars for the treat. He smiled and said it was a given: with the assistance of our lovely wait person, Julia, a theatre student at USC, he quickly returned with an iced bowl containing a small tin of Alverta ($101), caviar from a Northern California white sturgeon. Served with a half-dozen each of fluffy blinis, sour cream and chopped egg, the caviar was nutty, smooth and robust, small dark beads. I asked why no red onion and Chris indicated that Armen Petrossian felt that the onion was only used to mask inferior quality eggs. Other caviars are available at varying prices: Ossetra, with its medium-sized greenish-gray beads; Sevruga, from wild sturgeons of the Caspian Sea, strong taste and grey beads; and the Imperial Special Reserve known as "Persicus," dark and robust, bursting with flavor, rather expensive. Chef sent out two small glasses of palate-refreshing soup, a cold Borscht and a Cantaloupe Gaspacho. Other choices are a White Asparagus Velouté and Wild Mushroom Cappuccino; all $6 a cup and $9 a bowl. The mushroom is strongly sensational.

Salads are either $14 or $16, and the most popular is the Petrossian Salad, haricots vertes, foie gras terrine, black truffle dressing. A dish of softly scrambled eggs in the French style is $16 with trout roe, but I went for the eggs with white sturgeon caviar for $26, worth every penny. There are five or six sandwiches for lunch, not yet sampled, although I am aiming for a classic Croque Madame ($12), French ham, gruyere, sauce Mornay, sunnyside up egg. Petrossian smoked salmon is legendary, so a sandwich featuring it is perfection.

With all that out of the way, let me get to the good stuff, and why I said in front that these recent meals here have been among the best of a long life. Napoléon Tartare ($24), an ethereal dish which left us all speechless. I salivate as I write about it...think hand-sliced steak tartare made from beef that the chef personally collects at a Niman Ranch waystation. Gently seasoned and formed into a rectangle, then layered in the center with a spread of caviar! Served with a pinch of baby greens seasoned with black truffle oil and a few shards of crisp toast. I said with a twinkle in my eye to friends that I doubt if anywhere else in the world tonight is someone eating this same dish. At that moment, our Petrossian Jell-O ($12) arrived. A glass of jello, (not the rubbery kind my mother made), filled with shards of baby scallop ceviche, yuzu dressing, and apple mousse. Again, a dish not rivaled anywhere I know. New to the menu and a particular favorite of the brilliant young chef is his Black Truffle Mac & Cheese ($16), orrechiette pasta, prosciutto, truffles and parmesan. In the annals of mac 'n cheese history, this dish will go on the top of the list.

Here are still several dishes to be tried at the top of the "Signature' menu: think Carnaroli Risotto ($22), the 'EggXiting' ($24), a petit caviar egg with classic accoutrements, and of course their signature Smoked Salmon ($18). But now we are coming to the heart of the chef's stunning menu, five dishes which will have you walking away in stunned silence, then lying in bed that night and trying to recall the elusive flavor and details. I deliberately am not referring to the Sturgeon Confit ($26), since I didn't have a desire to sample that. But yes, oh yes, the Scallops 'a la Plancha' ($20), four perfectly-seared bay scallops served atop a carrot puree, with orange foam and a balsamic reduction drizzled along the sides. In the mood for steak? Think of this Entrecote a l'echalote ($28), a prime rib eye steak served with shallot confit, baby spinach, and wild mushroom fricassee. Not only is this an exquisite rendering of a classic dish, but at this price it is a half to a third of what something not as good would cost in any other restaurant (except perhaps a Robuchon Atelier). My passion for short ribs is well known, but never fully realized.... until now. Braised Prime Short Ribs ($26), served with sunchokes mash and a zesty sauce Bourguignon. I wanted to bottle and take home. And then a dish I am suggesting for my picky ex, who likes her chicken well done. His Crispy Chicken ($14), served with a Hearts of Palms salad and a sweet and sour dressing which works. All desserts are $8 and you will be remiss if you don't go for the Panna Cotta, White Peach Espuma (add the $6 for the caviar topping). I prefer the Sicilian Pistachio Crème Brulee while some friends preferred the Lemon Parfait with Almond Chantilly. Chocolate fans will adore the Chocolate Ganache with caramel emulsion.

I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm for such extraordinary food in a casually elegant setting at prices which will question your sanity, or rather that of the Petrossian family for keeping them so reasonable. But I fully expect that the word will quickly spread about this brilliant young chef and his extraordinary dishes waiting for unknowing diners on Robertson. I suggest you go before you can't get in!