l‘Ami Louis opened in 1924. It has not changed since.
The original owner was maître rôtisseur, Antoine Magnin. Easily identifiable by the red bandana that was always tied around his neck, he ran the restaurant up until 1986, when at the age of eighty-five, he sold the business to Thierry de la Brosse and Louis Gadby, the latter previously a waiter there. Under the terms of the sale, Magnin remained in the kitchen after the exchange, to be assisted by the sous chef who had been at his side for eighteen years already. However, a year on, in November 1987, he was obliged to check into a Paris clinic for health reasons; a week later he passed away. De la Brosse, who is also co-owner of Aux Lyonnais with Alain Ducasse and who has been a regular at l’Ami Louis since he was seventeen years old, later said that ‘it took me about three years to convince him that I would be a good candidate to carry on his tradition’. He also let slip that the late, great roaster had two real loves in his life, ‘cooking and women, especially American women’.
In the 1930s, l’Ami Louis was one of the most famous restaurants in the city, serving, it is claimed, more game, especially ortolons and bécasses, than anywhere else in Paris, as well as a hundred lobsters every day. During the Second World War, it is rumoured to have been a clandestine retreat, but today it is the haunt of celebrities and American tourists; and is supposedly a favourite of former US president Bill Clinton who was introduced to it by former French president Jacques Chirac during a 1999 visit. In fact, Chirac was a regular customer whilst mayor of the city. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has made it here. General sentiment towards the restaurant remains split: plenty criticise its high prices and the type of clientele it tends to attract, but plenty also applaud the quality of the food. In October 1997, le Figaro concluded in its ‘notre classement des meilleurs poulets rôtis‘ survey that l’Ami Louis had the best roast chicken in the capital. There is also an anecdote wherein a Michelin inspector is to have told Magnin that the inadequacy of access to the eatery’s bathrooms was all that was holding it back from winning any stars; in reply, Antoine asked, less delicately than put here, whether people go to a restaurant to eat or to go to the loo.
Sitting in essentially an alley in the less than fancy third, l’Ami Louis is a testament to pre-war Paris. Simple shop front of dark, lacquered wood and sign-printed windows, semi-swathed in red-checked curtains, obscure a museum-like interior. Blotchy rusty-auburn walls, lined with coat pegs beneath shelves that run along the long walls on either side of the narrow dining area, are littered with port-hole shaped mirrors and black-and-white prints. On the far side, a large fresh fruit stand stands in front of a telephone booth and across from the bar/prepping station. The tiny, cramped kitchen is hidden behind these. Half-way into the room, a stainless steel stove pipe, running off an antique oven fireplace, runs across and then out the ceiling. Salmon pink and flower-embroidered linen is laid over square tables that are tightly set either side of a central aisle, the Escher-ish patterned tiles of which have been worn away by waiters’ walk. Bright bulbs shed a distinctly artificial light. The crockery is Apilco. The décor is shabby, but purposely so. Larger-than-life waiters, dressed in white jackets, are led by the biggest of them all, part-owner Louis.
The carte is crammed full of classics: scallops, snails and duck confit starters precede plats principal such as agneau de lait and côte de veau. I decided to order the two dishes that the restaurant is arguably most famous for, the foie gras followed by the roast chicken.
Entrée: Foie Gras de Landes. Three bricks of thick, house-made foie gras from Landes were teamed with a tower of toasted baguette slices and block of unsalted butter. Each pinkish slab of pâté came skirted and streaked with yellow fat. Firm at first, the foie, having begun melting once upon the hot toast, became creamy and soft on the tongue. The taste was rich and indulgent yet surprising light and clean. The portion was realistically just enough for me two three and though I had resentfully decided to relinquish my dish half-way through (coincidentally at the same time as the bread had cooled and butter depleted), the production of another plate of fresh-grilled baguettea forced me to reconsider…
Plat Principal: Poulet Rôti (entier). One whole, wood-oven roasted Coucou de Rennes, peppered with watercress, came in the cocotte it had been cooked in; a mountain of matchstick frites followed. Before I saw it, I heard its sizzle; before I heard its sizzle, I smelt it. The bird was a beast. I have seen bigger, but never been served one – however, when a single breast is sufficient to fill one’s plate, there is no reason to complain. The skin crackled; its meat was succulent and juicy with real flavour; and the gravy was rich, hot and delicious. My only disappointment was that the innards were overdone and thus inedible – the liver literally became a biscuit.
The chicken, roasted in l’Ami Louis’ famous wood-fired stove that is still intact but now encased in stainless steel, was first coated in butter then finished in goose fat before being cooked at a very high heat on a rotisserie. This specific breed is an ancient Breton one that almost disappeared just twenty years earlier. One hundred years ago, the Coucou was winning awards for its quality, but slow-growing, it had been slowly neglected mid-century in favour of more competitive, meat-producing breeds. In 1988, a few of the last surviving specimens were adopted by the ecological museum in Rennes and the race saved from extinction. It is now an AOC-protected species, raised free-range and organically.
The shoestring chips that accompanied it were fairly crunchy, but a touch greasy and ought to have been warmer. That being said, once dipped in the jus rôti, they become more than palatable. I was just about coping when the infamous galette de l’Ami Louis arrived unannounced. In this unadulterated rendition of pommes Anna that the restaurant has made it own, Desirée potatoes are steamed and fried, before being baked with goose fat and butter and garnished with raw garlic, chopped parsley and a little black pepper. Its crisp, golden coat concealed piping hot, creamy centre. This ‘cake’ was so good it almost made me regret every bite of foie gras and each skinny fry, which at this point only seemed to prevent me eating more of this utterly tasty dish.
Shamefully, not only was half the galette left behind, but half that considerable chicken. ‘Waste not, want not,’ as they say – I had the leftovers à emporter. For the record, a couple of days later, the remaining breast made an excellent snack meal, still full of savour.
Forgive me, but for the first time in fifty-plus meals, I was forced to forgo dessert…
Let me point out first that just two dishes are a flaky foundation upon which to build a solid judgement of any restaurant, but indulge me whilst I at least share some of my thoughts. The cuisine here is easily described: excellent, often humble, ingredients cooked consummately and served generously. It is old-fashioned, country-style food, the sort that your grandmother would love to prepare for you if you only took the time to visit her – provided she were French (but then she would be one’s grandmère) and that possibly she lived in a village. All such technicalities aside, it is hard to argue (and resist) a good roast chicken. It is simply one of cooking’s most classic pleasures. Indeed, in this respect, I found l’Ami Louis hard to fault – the quality of the bird, its plumpness, tenderness, its taste and texture were great. The galette was gorgeous; foie gras very good; although the chips were a minor marring. Normally, prices are not a subject I dwell on (and even that is an exaggeration), however, it would be difficult to mention l’Ami Louis without mentioning what it charges. Needless to say, prices are dear and evaluated on a dish-by-dish basis, they are difficult to excuse. Although, if a group of two or three were to order how I did, I am certain they would be left neither hungry nor bitter with the bill.
The staff, though interaction between us was rather limited, came across as friendly, patient and attentive. Superficially sluggish (these were big guys), they were quick to scurry across the dining room at the slightest hint that I was going to serve myself more chicken whilst freshly toasted bread for my foie gras arrived without me needing to ask for it. They also, midway through the meal, surprised me with a date-stamped menu as a souvenir; I am not sure whether this is usual practice, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.
With regards to the atmosphere, I may have missed out on the notorious l’Ami Louis experience. Arriving for an early Sunday lunch, the restaurant had only two other tables taken besides mine; both by French couples. No tourists and no noise; no hustle and no bustle. Some would think it a disappointment, some a blessing, but personally I am probably equally happy with either scenario provided that the food is toothsome and service of good standard.
Reading the glowing remarks of better authorities than myself – it was beloved by the late R.W. Apple, still is by Thomas Keller and Ruth Rogers; highly recommended by Patricia Wells; and where Simon Hopkinson would want his last meal – is enough to convince one of the merits of l’Ami Louis, but the question stands whether I would return.
The answer is most likely no. However, there is something so attractive about the rustic excess and heartiness of it that it is hard to ignore. If I were to return, I reckon it would be for another Sunday lunch, but certainly not alone.
32, rue Vertbois, Paris 75003
tel: 0033 1 48 87 77 48
nearest metro: Arts-et-Métiers, Temple