I approached the southeast corner of Third and Gold Downtown with some trepidation. A proper French meal, even if “bistro” styled, was surely going to set me back well beyond my weekly review stipend. And Le Troquet, fittingly painted in bleu de France, has cultivated an upscale yet old-world neighborhood spot vibe. But my worries soon began to wash away. Chef Jean Pierre Gozard greeted us (my girlfriend, Ray, had volunteered to join me) with a hearty bonjour before he closed the magazine he was reading and sauntered to his domain in the back. For the moment we had the place to ourselves. This was gonna be a worthwhile treat. There was, after all, cause for celebration. I’d gotten my second vaccine dose two weeks prior.
Le Troquet’s walls feature art nouveau prints; magnums (1.5 litre bottles) of champagne and French wines are posted around the place like sentries, encouraging patrons to imbibe.
While I confirmed it for fact later, the menu suggested that the chef was not only French, but Burgundian. In a country lauded for its gastronomic traditions, Burgundy is responsible for many of the wines and dishes that have secured this reputation for the nation at large. Think vineyards with terroir cultivated from the middle ages, Dijon mustard and coq au vin. Chef Jean Pierre Gozard is from France and has worked in the industry elsewhere in the states, but he has been treating Albuquerque to proper French cookery since the mid-’70s. With several successful restaurants to his credit over the years, he is a heavyweight force here in town.
We ordered mineral water ($4) for the table and got to the challenge of ordering. Most every item tempted my fine-dining-starved soul. After some debate on appetizers, we skipped both the house pâté ($12.25) and escargot ($12.75), fearing they’d be too heavy for the unseasonably warm weather, and settled on onion soup ($10.95) and the salad niçoise ($14.75). I also ordered a glass of chilled Lillet Blanc, a French aperitif meant to encourage appetite and prepare both stomach and palate for a proper feast. The Lillet, a blend of citrus liquors and Bordeaux white wines, was sweet but crisp, not cloying, and worked its magic as advertised. Should I have ordered those plates of snails and liver? While we waited, Ray and I leafed through old first and second edition copies of French Michelin guides, reading up on regional specialties from still-legendary French eateries. More couples began to show up for their dinner reservations. With Édith Piaf tracks playing in the background, it was not hard to imagine we had been transported to a small bar or cafe (the meaning of “troquet”) in a quiet Parisian neighborhood circa 1963.
Rolls came out warm and with a small hole cut into each top; it was recommended that we place a dab of butter inside and wait for it to melt into the bread. These simple rolls alone are worth a visit to the bistro.
Our appetizers were both plentiful and delicious. Ray’s (French) onion soup had a thick layer of melted Gruyere cheese and sliced baguette sealing in the oniony beef broth below. As I started in on my salad niçoise, I felt a tinge of jealousy—but the salad was also a formidable app. The lettuce was crisp, and the chef had not skimped on the quality anchovies and delicious canned tuna. While the dish often comes with just one or the other, I was happy to have both. (Some may resist paying such high prices for tinned fish, but I embrace the quintessentially Euro high-end canned food approach.) A hard-boiled egg and niçoise olives rounded out the plate. To be honest, I can’t confirm these were actually from Nice, but they sure brought the salad’s many components together. All in all, it is a mighty salty but damned fine salad.
For my entree, I was torn between the Scallops Provencal ($36.95) and the Moules Frites ($24.75), but I went with the mussels, partly on account of price and partly to see just how good these high-end, legitimately French, fries would be. Our friendly and attentive waiter, Emma, asked if I wanted mayo or ketchup for the fries, and I shamefacedly mumbled “ketchup,” worried that the chef would judge me for my American-ness. Ray kept it classic, ordering the Beef Bourguignon ($20.95).
The mussels smelled delicious. The chef had gone the extra mile by removing the fibrous “beards” from the little mollusks, and while some had fallen from their shells into the waiting broth, none in the heaping mound were still closed—a sign that they may be off. Showing his national gastronomic chops, Chef Gozard had created a sauce that was rich, creamy and wildly herbaceous. Thyme dominated, but other herbs came through as well—perhaps from the addition of a bouquet garni (a bundle of herbs strung together to flavor stocks and soups)? Chopped parsley was sprinkled generously on top. The fries, cut thin and fried ’til stiff, were a revelation. Honestly, better than the great frites I relied on for cheap meals cycling across France and Belgium in my early 20s. Between Ray and I, they were gone in no time, dipped directly into that inimitable mussel gravy. Emma delivered a second, piping hot roll, which I used to sop up as much of that magnificent sauce as I could handle. As for the Beef Bourguignon, we got the last one. The flavor was spot-on, but the beef was a bit tough. It was quite tasty, just not up to par with the rest of the night’s tour de force plates.
I was tempted to bankrupt myself over a bottle of Grand Cru and sit there for hours, taking it all in. But we kept it sensible. And despite the heavy bill, I had no regrets. As we headed out the door, I realized that my side of ketchup had gone untouched.
228 Gold Ave SW,