Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” Paris, he declared, is a moveable feast. And if you’re lucky enough to have been there, you’ll want to go to Au Comptoir to dig into that feast once more and remind yourself why you fell in love with the City of Light.
Au Comptoir offers the most authentic Parisian-café experience in Vancouver. Even before you walk in the door it feels like the real deal, with chairs lined up on the sidewalk theatre-style (rather than facing each other) for people-watching over a kir. Step inside and you’re welcomed with a bright “Bonjour” by the waiters. The interior, as you’d expect, is ultrastylish. Seats are padded in leather that’s the deepest blue; the bar (or counter, which is comptoir in French), made of tin, is silvery sleek; small mounted bookshelves hold titles by the likes of Jean de la Fontaine; and the entrance floor is elaborately tiled and finished in such a way as to look worn, as if the bistro has been around since the days of Victor Hugo. There are big, arched mirrors and skylights to brighten the spot even on grey days, and a living wall behind the bar. At the back of the room is a rotating glass display case holding the most exquisite desserts. Then there are the tables, which are showpieces in themselves: the bases are vintage Singer treadle sewing machines.
It all makes for a place that feels special but is also welcoming, and not just because of the friendly greetings. By day, you can linger over a café au lait and a pain au chocolat and you will never feel rushed, whether you’re catching up with friends or reading several newspapers. Same goes for evening meals, when you can choose from prix fixe menus or order à la carte. Prices range from $7 to $20 at lunch, while dinner mains run from $21 to $28. Service is attentive throughout but not overdone. And don’t anticipate any stereotypical French snobbishness: my kids joined me for dinner on one of my anonymous visits, and our server couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating when we requested a steak frites to share or a Florio coffee cup went flying off the table. Miraculously, it didn’t break; the imported cups are seemingly indestructible.
Owners Julien Aubin and Maxime Bettili have certainly got the brasserie feel down, and they bring it all together by having Daniel McGee as chef de cuisine. Formerly a sous-chef at PiDGiN and Pied-à-Terre, he speaks the culinary language of France fluently.
Roasted pheasant is a memorable dish, the fowl evenly cooked and served with standout sides: pithivier, a rich pastry that resembles a mini pot pie, here filled with ground chestnuts and thyme; coffee-glazed carrots, which have just a hint of java flavour; and the silkiest mashed potatoes ever. Skirt steak is juicily robust and topped with either Roquefort sauce or a red-wine jus with shallots; go for the former, more dramatic option. It comes with pommes dauphine, which could be described as gourmet tater tots. Not to be confused with the sliced and baked dauphinoise potatoes, these deep-fried balls of puréed potatoes mixed with choux pastry are little treats for adults and kids alike.
Although the menu isn’t overly kid-friendly, you can always count on steak frites for carnivorous little ones; this one went down nicely, the server making sure medium-rare was okay for them, with a generous pouring of a classic, tarragon-infused béarnaise sauce. The name of the saumon à l’unilatéral dish is confounding, but “unilateral salmon” refers to the fact that it’s cooked on one side only (the skin side); tarragon shows up again here in a beurre blanc atop tagliatelle.
Appetizers include oysters, a charcuterie plate, a leek tart, and a delicate salmon smoked in-house and served with endive, chive crème fraîche, and diaphanous radish slices. There’s not a single salad to be found on the dinner menu, but ask and you shall receive a large, leafy one with delicious red-wine vinaigrette.
For dessert, the lemon tart wows; it’s neither too sour nor too sweet. Tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart with caramel ice cream, pleases as well. There’s also a dark-chocolate mousse, and chocolate lava cake, among others, as well as a pastry of the day.
Even the decaf Americano hits the right note. Served with a little praline in one of those sturdy cups, it evokes a genuinely French experience. A moveable feast indeed.