La Fontaine, 46 Nizami Street (Number on door is 64A), Baku
Tel.: +994124988003 www.facebook.com/lafontainerestaurantbaku
Right next door to my favourite café in Baku, the Casual Brasserie, exciting things have been going on over the last few months. The lovely husband and I have been watching carefully the restoration and development of the building at this site and particularly, the top floor. For a while, we were hoping that perhaps, just maybe, this would become a penthouse apartment we could move into and find relief from the incessant nightclubbing below our current flat, beautiful but blighted by the noise, which sometimes goes on until 7 am in the morning. No such luck, we found out that it was going to be a restaurant by the name of La Fontaine. With its amazing glass frontage this was promising to be a stunning venue.
While we were away for our Novruz holidays, we were invited to the opening which we then unfortunately couldn’t attend, but we were really keen to try it as soon as we were back. Barely having unpacked, we went along for a peek and were blown away by its prettiness. It has a wonderful terrace overlooking Fountain Square and much of the Baku skyline, a long bar with a row of chic stools, well spread out tables with pink tablecloths, sparkling glassware, cutlery well laid out, good lighting and with the air of a super smart elegant kind of place where you might go for a special occasion, a birthday, perhaps, or an anniversary. We saw then that the prices were hefty, in fact quite shockingly so, but the menu looked very tempting. The whole place had all the makings for a truly spectacular evening out and gave the impression of a sophistication as yet unreached here in Baku. We booked a table and invited along some dear friends who will be leaving Baku soon, to give them a send-off to remember.
On went the glad rags, the stilettos and the make-up, well, at least in my case, and off we tootled on a Thursday evening, the four of us, ripe and ready for a culinary delight to top all previous dinner experiences.
And here we get right to the crux of the matter. Expectation in life, as in restaurants, is a double edged sword. Anticipation is an exciting state of mind but, as journalist India Knight once said, “Be realistic with your expectations. I’d really like to cuddle a unicorn, but it ain’t going to happen.” After all, we are in Baku, where International standards are only just beginning to develop and where glossy looks invariably don’t quite deliver what they promise.
We had the best table in the joint but we needn’t have booked. Throughout the evening, we remained the only guests. Since there is, as yet, no signage indicating the restaurant, this is not altogether surprising. Service was attentive and helpful but, incongruously in this environment, the waiters had virtually no command of English. Fine, we’re in Azerbaijan, so why should they but, I guess, that at this level of presentation and pricing, you expect at least a rudimentary knowledge, especially as the menu is mainly in quite flowery French with English and Azeri subtitles. Luckily, we had a Russian speaker with us which helped tremendously. The menus came at the speed of lightning, long before we were offered the chance to order an aperitif or wine, and there was some confusion when we insisted on drinks before looking at the menu. Our first choice of wine proved to be unavailable and when the Pinot Grigio came, it was warm enough to do a handwash in. However, this was quickly rectified, the bottle cooled and the faux pas made up for by the serving of tiny delicious rolls and some small, good looking but unadventurous egg mayonnaise amuse bouches.
Between us, we chose a Garden Salad with berries and raspberry vinaigrette, which apparently was crispy and excellent, an onion soup with half a caramelized onion at the bottom, which also went down well, and one shared portion of crab ravioli with beetroot, which was absolutely beautifully presented and tasted okay but wasn’t outstanding. Plates were whipped away immediately, Azeri style, while others were still eating. The diplomat at our table explained to me that, in fact, leaving a cleared plate in front of a guest is considered the height of bad manners in Azerbaijan, a fact I wasn’t aware of.
Our main courses were ‘Le Loup devenu Berger’, after a fable by Jean de la Fontaine (La Fontaine, geddit?! Cute touch.) which translates as ‘The Wolf who became a Shepherd’, a tenderloin steak in Millefeuille with mushrooms, truffled potato puree and broccoli, which was pronounced to be very tasty, two orders of ‘Le Petit Poisson et le Pêcheur’, another title by the same author, meaning ‘The Little Fish and the Fisherman’, which was salmon, lime, wild rice and creamed vegetables, and the most expensive dish on the menu at an eye popping AZN50, ‘L’Enfant de la Mer’, ‘The Child of the Sea’, another literary reference which, as far as I can make out, is a book by Michel Grimaud: Monkfish, potato millefeuille, zucchini and aubergine.
So far, so French, but the fish, both the salmon and the monkfish, was cooked dry to within an inch of its life, quite tasteless and, as so often here, not served with lemon. Again it was explained to me that this is how Azeri diners prefer their fish. All I can say is that not much of the fisherman or the sea was discernible in these dishes. The salmon eaters said their food was alright but not amazing. My monkfish, apart from being rather mediocre at best, came with half a potato’s worth of very thin slices, a few microscopically thin slivers of courgette and a few chunkier ones of grilled aubergine but, like the fish dried out, and all of it unspiced and unadorned, though it must be said, very attractively laid out on the plate. What’s more, although I am not a big eater, I was left hungry by my 50+ manat meal, quietly fantasising about getting home and digging into the lovely husband’s delicious homemade hummous.
The ambience, despite the lack of other guests, was initially very inviting as the twinkling lights of Baku came on around us and the candles inside were lit. Sadly, as the food arrived, the overhead lights were switched on, bathing the restaurant in an operating theatre glare, far less conducive to convivial conversation and highlighting its empty splendour. A saving grace was the complementary plate of fruit with a chocolate dipping sauce coupled with really excellent coffee.
And then the bill…..Mother of God, it was a stinker! AZN323 including two bottles of wine, a beer, a dry martini, three bottles of water, two coffees and 10% service charge. It didn’t come as a shock as we knew what we were letting ourselves in for and were quite prepared to splash out in a big way on this occasion, but in view of the food which was overall sort of fine (ish) but far far from spectacular, it seemed as fantastical as cuddling a unicorn.
Recently, over Novruz, I was in Morocco in the tiny fishing port of Essaouira where I ate very similar fare, crab ravioli and monkfish carpaccio, in a restaurant called La Table at Madada. The food was plentiful, gloriously exquisite, gorgeously presented and, for two, less than a quarter of the price. It makes you think….. Maybe the faux French La Fontaine is still finding its feet or maybe it is purposely set up to cater to an affluent Azeri clientele who possibly have different tastes and expectations to the expats here. Credit where it is due, the terrace will be amazing in the summer months and it deserves 10/10 for presentation, both of the establishment itself and of the food. The visual appetite is certainly well met but as far as the taste buds and the stomach go, not to mention the wallet, it leaves a great deal to be desired. At the moment, it’s just a pretty face, more of a “Le Geai paré des plumes du Paon”, “The Jay dressed in Peacock Feathers”. Let’s hope it grows into its looks.