We have been quietly begged not to write about La Queue du Chiot, a sliver of a dining room tucked on a residential street of lanes and tree shadows. One Japanese chef without a single assistant cooks everything for the 16 or so diners each night. He buys the ingredients himself every morning, changing the menu along with the market’s fresh offerings. ‘There’ll be no seats left if you cover it’, we’ve been implored by some of the city’s top chefs.
But La Queue is also exactly the type of spot we want to share. We want to champion chef-owners who are passionate and devoted to every plate that leaves the kitchen and tiny places made romantic and charming by a combination of their peculiar personalities and their very size.
Chef Ishibashi Kenji, previously of Mardi Gras on Xingguo Lu – another fine Western restaurant run by Japanese, teamed up with a Japanese partner to open La Queue du Chiot (literally ‘the tail of the puppy’), serving modern European dishes prepared and presented with a Japanese eye and palate.
On one recent wintry evening, the entire dining room is conversing in Japanese and every table has a confited duck leg. It turns out the duck leg (140RMB) is one of Kenji’s little masterpieces. Lying on a pile of mixed beans, the duck’s skin is so crisp it cracks cleanly with just a tap of the fork and cracks again in the teeth like pancetta. Partnered alongside is a slice of seared foie gras on a puddle of creamy polenta. Regretfully, we’ve agreed to share this delectable duck with two others. When we ask the chef to divide it for us, it comes back not only perfectly cut into three with razor precision, but even flawlessly re-plated on a new dish. It’s an illustration of the lone chef’s meticulousness.
The meal begins with crusty warm bread served with butter so good ‘you could put it on cardboard and it would taste great’, as one co-diner puts it.
We move on to a selection of seasonal appetisers. On one visit, there are cold marinated mushrooms (65RMB) with almonds and parmesan, tossed in a dressing with a vinegar kick. And also, ratatouille, ‘local vegetable stew’ (55RMB), a rainbow-hued pile of skinned cherry tomatoes, okra, eggplant and onions. It’s fresh and subtle, sweet and lightly tart. But best of all is the artichoke risotto (90RMB), a buttery, soft Arborio topped with a quarter of fresh artichoke heart, seared foie gras and a sprinkling of parsley. Where many risottos are so heavy and sticky you have to slow down part-way through, Kenji’s manages to be so refreshingly light it’s easy to scrape to the last grain.
For mains, there are five or six choices each night: several fish including a turbot and a fish of the day, duck, pork and beef. From the specials menu – a blackboard brought to the table by one of the two smiling and alert waitstaff – is ragout beef bavette (170RMB), a pull-to-pieces fork-tender round of beef on top of buttery rice topped with slivers of black truffles, all surrounded by a burgundy onion sauce. It’s not a wow dish like the duck, but comforting and tasty nonetheless and just as attentively prepared.
This gem is no longer hidden; just forgive us if there are no seats when you call.
By Crystyl Mo