The day I met Marc Penvenne on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut and he told me he was taking over the recently shuttered Versailles Bistro, I knew there was hope — hope that the soul of the old, wonderful restaurant that Maurice Versailles once ran would rise like a phoenix out of the ashes.
Penvenne owns the bustling Meli-Melo across the street. It’s a place with tables placed as close together as spatially possible and still there is always a line of people waiting to be seated. And you can understand why: he serves excellent food, such as buckwheat crêpes topped with all manner of luscious compositions, salads (the duck is my favorite), soups, and sorbets are well-known throughout town.
Who could forget the old Versailles? It was a bistro-pâtisserie-boulangerie that brought the best of French culinary arts to Connecticut. Butter-decadent croissants for midmorning break, salads and quiches for the ladies who lunched, and cappucino for the couples who came in late afternoon to enjoy a strawberry tart while the summer sun started its descent. And then in the evening, when commuter husbands took their wives there for a light supper and a glass of Beaujolais, there were escargots, pâtés, beef bourguignon, cassoulet, and coq au vin to titillate the senses. The bakery made these very narrow baguettes that were perfect as pedestals for hors d’oeuvres and if you didn’t get there first thing in the morning to pick up a loaf, you were just out of luck.
Well, everything is back! Only more polished, with a few added touches like the cane chairs whose seats are either red, white, or black; a full-service zinc bar that seats five; and red banquets and French posters in the dining room. The swinging doors to the kitchen are gone so patrons get a glimpse of the cooks plating food at the presentation table in the center of the open kitchen.
The dividers separating the main dining area from the more casual seating up front have been removed, and that openness brings a welcomed expansiveness to the interior which seemed almost claustrophobic at times. The glass case of the pâtisserie up front still entices with its array of quiches, tarts, cakes, croissants and pies and crusty breads. And those garage door windows that were introduced by the long-gone Bleu still open to the pedestrians promenading on the Avenue. On most nights, Penvenne’s wife, Evelyne, helps wait the tables. This is one hard-working couple with big dreams.
Maurice Jean Clos-Versailles launched his bistro-bakery in 1980. After his death in 2008, the restaurant struggled to stay the course, but in a town with a clutch of good eateries on the same bustling Greenwich Avenue, the restaurant seemed to flounder and veered off course. Penvenne is determined to bring back a bistro that embodies the essence of French casual dining.
He’s hired Erik Erlichson (remember him from La Colline Verte in Fairfield?) as his executive chef and moved his hard-working chef, Cedric Lamoullie, from Meli-Melo to Bistro V to work alongside Erlichson. The duo partnership is producing some outstanding dishes. A fillet of sweet branzino, for example, appears skin side up from its turn in a skillet in a gentle emulsion of orange, lemon, and grapefruit juices while rare duck breast gets a kick from a carrot ginger dressing and naturellement, a grounding over confit.
On a muggy summer night, what could top Erlichson’s poached lobster with shimmering slices of radish in a cushion of hearts of palm gussied up with a pesto that hints at cilantro? Or the proverbial hot weather salad of watermelon? Bistro V’s interpretation includes slabs of ricotta salata playing against the sweetness of candied watermelon rind and a smattering of barely salty, very small pine nuts — the nuts a far cry from the supermarket variety.
An old classic of bistro fare must necessarily make an appearance: Beef Tartare. The kitchen crafts it with excellent filet mignon then ups the ante with house made mayonnaise. Scoop some on a slice of toasted baguette and graze the accompanying crisp French fries for a very satisfying first course. Prices for entrées hover in the mid-$20s, but fill in the gaps before and after and you will be looking at a bill lingering at $50 or more.
Penvenne has stocked his cellar with some interesting wines other than those from French vineyards. Like the Ixsir Altitudes White and its Cabernet Blend sibling from Lebanon and Barone Fini Pinot Grigio out of Italy. Average price for a glass runs from $10 on up and by the bottle, you can find some comfort in the $40 range or spring for a pricier choice that could set you back more than $100. A nice treat is Pineau de Charentes of red musk and brandy for a meal’s finish with Cedric’s smooth, soft, supple frozen yogurt in a whisper of sauce made with raspberries and strawberries. Incidentally, Penvenne loves his cocktails, like the one in which he douses Byrrh with sparkling Monmousseau Brut Etoile.
We recently enjoyed a cake Penvenne made for an event for the Greenwich Branch of American Pen Women: A thin layer of dark chocolate was the foundation on which three layers of lemon infused sponge cake rested. Luscious lemon mousse separated the tiers, the whole crowned with a finish of white butter cream frosting. Sculpted rose buds decorated the top alongside symbols evocative of our group: a feather pen for letters, an easel for art, and a cleff for music. It was scrumptious.