You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. That was absolutely true at Les Cocottes in Paris.
Kempy, our executive food editor, and I were on a research trip when I first ate at Les Cocottes, the new, chic restaurant helmed by chef Christian Constant. Compared to his former Michelin-three-star restaurant, Les Cocottes is far more relaxed and fun, but the food is just as delicious. It seemed a bit un-French because we were eating at a retro American diner-style counter. But it still leaned toward the French tradition. People were sitting and having a proper lunch, but at a faster pace. It had an international, contemporary kind of feel.
Chef Constant serves a lot of his dishes in small casseroles, or cocottes (hence the restaurant’s name), and in the case of a cold dish I ordered, in a jar. I should’ve seen it coming: Chef Constant was classically trained in the French school, which teaches chefs to always give diners an element of surprise. In this case, the summery eggplant combination was visually interesting and appetizing, with bold layers of color shining through the glass. Kempy and I looked at each other and immediately thought, What a great picnic idea!
Our wheels started turning. We spent the rest of the trip thinking about what we could stuff into a jar. At Les Cocottes, we had eggplant caviar topped with a layer of tuna in tonnato sauce and then a tomato gelee. I kind of repeated it, but tried to make it easier. In my Tuna Tonnato with Eggplant Salad, I used the wonderful, smoky grilled eggplant sold in plastic tubs in the market’s refrigerated section. (Buying that eggplant saves the step of going to the grill.) I put my favorite chunky white tuna on top of that, reserving part of the tuna to make a tonnato sauce. And I topped it all with simple, lightly dressed grape tomatoes.
When you think about it, the possible combinations are endless when you’re armed with a jar and a fork. And you don’t need to eat one layer after the other. By spearing with a fork, you bring the jar’s bottom ingredients up, getting everything in one bite. It becomes a complete meal. Just slip the jars side-by-side into a cooler or stack them in a picnic basket. They fit so nicely, and it’s an easy, easy way to transport food. Simply open up a jarand eat.