P'Tit Louis

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, October 2010

Let me just get something out of the way: P’tit Louis Bistro is delightful. I mean that in every possibly connotation. The food is exquisite—after my first visit, I had lustful thoughts about its endives au Roquefort salad and mousse au chocolat for two weeks. The atmosphere is impeccable—sunny, crisp and dreamy. The service should be envied by every other restaurant of its class—the waiters all seem to know what you want before your brain has time to form the thought. It’s just delightful. It delights me. And I think it will probably delight you, too.

I walk in to a man singing opera. Seated at a table by a window, his nearly wiped-clean plate laid before him, round belly filled with lunch, he’s finishing what is obviously a serenade of appreciation as I open the door. The rest of the diners applaud as his last note fades. Owners Christophe Descarpentries and John Phinizy, smiles still clinging to their lips, look at me.

Situated on the corner of Gold and Third Street in the old Ruby Shoesday / Ooh! Ahh! Jewelry space, P’tit Louis Bistro feels like another world. And that’s probably because it is. It’s but a nook in the Downtown scene, with only 10 tables, including a pair of banquettes along one wall, but since it rolled out its welcome mat six months ago, it’s already become a favorite among New Mexico gastronomes. Come during lunch hour and you’re liable to wait ... if you’re lucky. The French bistro is booked solid from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every day—you’ll have to call ahead if you want to reserve a spot. The better bet: Come after 2 p.m. P’tit is only open until 5:30 p.m., but in those three and a half hours you’ll bask in having the space nearly to yourself.

And what a space it is. Descarpentries and Phinizy built the entire interior by hand, with the help of a plumber and electrician. They hand-laid the one-inch black and white tiles that cover the floor; they constructed the wooden art nouveau bar that presides over the dining room; they put in the tin ceiling tiles and wood paneling. And, because they wanted the bistro to look like it was built at the turn of the last century, they took care with the little things: painting the walls a shade darker above the bar and banquettes because that’s where people would have smoked, leaving out odd tiles on the floor, arranging all the pictures on the wall askew because “when pictures have been hanging in a French bistro for 200 years, they’re crooked,” says Descarpentries.

The blue building is golden and silver on it inside, with rich brown wooden furniture, white tablecloths and one perfectly sized chandelier. Windows run the length of the exterior walls. If you couldn’t look outside and see Gold Street, you’d swear you were in Paris.

That is, in fact, where Descarpentries hails from. The head chef as well as co-owner grew up just east of the city with four siblings. He remembers his mother teaching them how to flip crepes when he was only 3 years old. “There were more on the floor than in the pan,” the lean, dark-haired, dapperly dressed man laughs. These days, he likes to show off his crepe-flipping skills in his restaurant’s dining room.

Descarpentries has worked in restaurants all over the world, helping open them in London, Sydney, New York, Thailand and Switzerland. But even though he got his start in the industry at the age of 16 (as a dishwasher), he had a slight detour on the culinary path when he studied mechanical engineering. He worked as an engineer for a year after he finished school but decided he belonged in the kitchen. Twenty-five years later, he’s studied with French chefs in half a dozen countries.

The last restaurant Descarpentries owned was in Lexington, Ken. Also a French bistro, but open only for dinner, it was accompanied by a wine and cheese bar. Descarpentries sold the businesses before moving to the South of France, where he and his family lived for two years before coming to Albuquerque.

He knew before he moved here that he wanted to open P’tit Louis (which is named after his 3-year-old son), and he’d already crafted the business plan. He worked at Brasserie La Provence for a year and a half, where he met Phinizy and their silent partner Steve Paternoster, who owns La Provence. 

Phinizy came to the business in a more roundabout way. He never expected to own a restaurant. He’d taught cello, earned a degree in Middle Eastern studies, made wind chimes and sold Mayan leather furniture. He was working as a substitute teacher in Edgewood, where his wife works as a veterinarian, and decided he wanted to do something new. He knew Paternoster, who suggested he meet Descarpentries. And the rest is history.

Now, it’s about time we get around to the food. The first words that leave Descarpentries’ lips upon you ordering the croque monsieur serve as a good measure of what to expect from anything on his menu. He’ll ask you: “Do you have a good life?” At which point, hopefully, you’ll tell him you do. And then he’ll warn you that you might not want to try it—get a taste of heaven, and the mortal coil may not seem so appealing. But I think he’s wrong. Have a good life? Order the croque monsieur. Your life’s about to get even better. How could it not, knowing that something so simply delicious can exist within it?

The croque monsieur, lightly bathed in béchamel and laced with nutmeg, is the best ham sandwich you will ever have. And the same is true for most, if not all, items on the menu—the oysters available three days a week that are plucked from the Atlantic and flown to Albuquerque within a morning’s time; the panini Morbier with toasted apples; the escargots de bourgogne and salade du roi louis (with duck confit, fois gras shavings and micro-greens); and, oh, the desserts. Your spoon will slice through the crème caramel as though it is air, the custard dissolving on your tongue almost instantly, leaving your palate infused with rich vanilla. The tarte aux citrons (lemon tart) will make you pucker ever-so-slightly, in the just the right way, and it is made with a crust all encrusted food should be made with. The tarte tatin, with its hearty, caramelized apples and dewy foundation, will leave you craving its textures. And my favorite, the mousse au chocolat, brings a new understanding to the word “divinity.” 

Descarpentries isn’t much for experimentation—he says he’s already done enough of that in his career—now he likes to stick to the classics (in his own brilliant interpretation, of course). And he likes to teach them, too, at least to Chef de Cuisine Chris Griego, who works in the kitchen five days a week. P’tit has an appropriately small staff, with Descarpentries, Phinizy (who serves as maître d’), Griego and two servers, who are held to tight standards. (Descarpentries lightly mentions that when he worked in New York, he’d send waiters home if their socks were white.) They all wear pressed white button-up shirts and tailored black vests. But they’re also always wearing a grin.

One of the most beautiful things about P’tit is that it is devoted to classic French fare, so much so that if you call requesting a traditional French dish that isn’t on the menu, Descarpentries will make it for you. He’ll take three days to make a cassoulet—soaking the beans, preparing the broth and eventually slow-cooking it for five hours before it’s ready to be served. 

Many of these special requests are made for private parties thrown at P’tit. The restaurant may be closed after 5:30 p.m., but it rents its space to a couple gatherings a week, with themes like ’20s Paris and ’70s Paris disco. 

Even though P’tit Louis has only been open half a year, it already feels like a neighborhood staple. Descarpentries describes Gold Street as a village. “Everyone knows each other, everyone greets each other,” he says. “We all have the same mailman.” The chef especially loves the shoe shine business next door. Whenever he makes something new, he brings the staff a plate of it. In fact, not long after our interview ends, I see him whisk a white plate of perfectly sculpted salmon tartare out the door with a wink before carrying it next door.

Descarpentries wanted to set up shop Downtown (“I’m a Downtown kind of guy,” he says), but now he and Phinizy want to open more bistros around town. The next lucky neighborhood? Phinizy says Nob Hill, possibly six months from now. I’ll be eagerly awaiting it. But in the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be on Third Street and Gold, gingerly handling a mousse in the blue corner bistro.

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P’tit Louis Bistro (228 Gold SW) is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The space is available for private parties. 505.314.1111, www.ptitlouisbistro.com.