Substance is such a good restaurant that it’s well worth traveling to a quiet corner of the 16th Arrondissement to discover the sinewy talent of young chef Matthias Marc, 25, a native of the Jura in eastern France. Marc signs many of his dishes with a witty wink at this eastern French region of mountains and forests best-known gastronomically for producing Comte cheese and charcuterie like morteau sausage, but his his sensibility is decidedly cosmopolitan on a solid Gallic base. His cooking is also stunningly precise and intriguingly imaginative. I predict that he’s going to become one of the best chefs in his generation, too.
Marc honed his cooking style when he was working at the very popular Racines des Prés just off the rue du Bac in the 7th Arrondissement, but eager to have his own kitchen, he teamed up with Anthony Pedrosa, who ran the dining at this same restaurant, and Stéphane Manigold, a businessman with a passionate interest in gastronomy to create this excellent new table.
Taking a leaf from Racines, they commissioned interior designer Michel Amarettos to create an intimate modern bistro with a low-key contemporary chic conveyed by an open kitchen that overlooks the dining room, bare tables with white and teal fabric covered Sixties style arm chairs and basket-weave ceramic panels on the walls. Not surprisingly, Substance has been hugely popular ever since it opened a few months ago, and it seems that the 16th Arrondissement, a part of Paris that’s not usually on my beat, since most of the city’s best young chefs are to be found in double digit arrondissements of eastern Paris like the 11th and 20th these days, is rousing from a certain culinary turpitude with this opening and that of other excellent restaurants like Comice.
This address is also much appreciated by people staying at hotels in eastern Paris like the Peninsula, the George V, the Prince de Galles, the Shangri-La and other properties within an easy walk of this address.
Sitting just across from the open kitchen, it was fascinating to watch the ballet of chefs at work in a compact space, and also interact regularly with Anthony Pedrosa, this restaurant’s excellent sommelier, as he regularly visited the restaurant’s wine tower, adjacent to our table. Substance has an exceptionally good wine list, including over 180 different Champagnes. The Champagne selection was drawn up by Anselme Selosse, the cult Champagne producer whose signature wine is called “Substance,” hence the restaurant’s name, and Stéphane Manigold, and it highlights a variety of ‘grower’ Champagnes, or Champagnes from small producers like Laherte Frères, a small producer based on the Montagne de Reims just outside of Reims. This makes Substance one of the best addresses in Paris for Champagne lovers.
Our meal began with a simple but elegant amuse bouche of smoked cream with salmon eggs and dried pine-needle powder, a garnish that curiously flattered the glossy orange fish pearls with a subtle resinous flavor and also announced chef Marc’s attachment to his native Jura.
The surrounding clientele offered an amusing demographic snap shot of this affluent part of Paris, too. To my left, a table of four forty-something men in jeans and blazers guffawed about their girl friends and a recent weekend in Saint Tropez, several middle-aged couples sat stonily with their heads cocked in different directions as a possible prelude to a divorce, and three well-dressed older ladies with the same meringue-colored hair and expensive pocket books appeared intrigued by the adventure of being in a trendy restaurant. There were several tables of girl friends dining out after work, and here and there, a younger couple that called out the fact that this bourgeois neighborhood has now become a relatively good-value neighborhood on the Monopoly board of Paris real estate.
Still, the aura of entitlement that hovered over most of the tables here brought me back to musing on a subject I’d last visited during an excellent meal at Batard, a “modern European” restaurant in New York City, in February. This is how the clientele of a restaurant can impact on the way you perceive of its cooking and also your experience of being there.
That cold night in New York City, I was dining with a much-loved old friend, and we we were paying our own bill, which was in contrast to the mostly loud, smug expense-account wielding clients in this very pretty dining room. For most of them, it was just another night out on the corporate purse, while for us it was a special occasion, and several times during that meal, I had to actively discipline myself to screen out the officious and reflexively privileged behavior at some of the surrounding tables. You can’t, of course, control who else you’ll be dining with in a public setting, but it certainly can have a very big impact on how much you enjoy your meal, and I also couldn’t help but feel frequently exasperated by the inattention given to some really superb cooking by people who were there not because they wanted to eat well, but because they had the money to pay for it.
This is due to the deep reverence I have for the culinary professions, stemming not only for the hours I’ve spent in kitchens all over the world as a food writer, but also going back to the days when I was variously a prep cook, bus boy and waiter in New England seaside hotels during college summers and also to a stint as a 11pm-5am baker in a New York City kitchen that had me standing warily on the subway platform at West 72nd Street at 5.15am with flour in my hair, an aching back and an adrenaline woke wariness of riding the subway in the dead of night in New York in the 1980s. The short take on all of this? Most people have absolutely no clue how hard a kitchen works with the goal of delivering gastronomic pleasure, because if they did, they’d be much much more grateful.
Our starters at Substance were superb. I loved my fluffy squid’s ink gnocchi with a smoked egg-yolk condiment, pickled watercress sauce and a jus de morteau, because it was an earthy and deeply satisfying dish that flashed with culinary wit and invention.
Bruno’s perfectly cooked green asparagus came prepared two different ways–their tips with a tangy ramp cream and their steams chopped and served with trout rillettes with a funky floral hay-infused vinaigrette. This composition was a steely equilibrium of the rustic and the urbane that was a perfect example of Matthias Marc’s cooking, too.
Our main courses were spectacular, too. My rolled John Dory came on a bed of quinoa with fresh celery root pickles, fried capers and a luscious gently cardamom-flavored sabayon. The fish was succulent, and its accompanying condiments added texture and suavely percussive gastronomic punctuation to a brilliantly conceived and executed dish.
Bruno’s roast baby lamb with Comte cheese foam, seared baby onions and more dried pine needle powder was gorgeous springtime eating, too, and a great example of the discreet but wiry sensuality that is a signature of Matthias Marc’s excellent contemporary French cooking at Substance.
There was no way were going to miss the Sao Tome chocolate souffle with bitter cocoa crumble and pine-flavored ice cream for two for dessert either, and it had a funky fruity tropical fruitiness that lofted us us out of Paris to the tiny island in the bight of Western Africa where the cocoa beans were grown.
Substance is an excellent restaurant, and an excellent venue in which to uncork a really good bottle of Champagne.
18 rue de Chaillot, 16th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-47-20-08-90. Metro: Alma-Marceau. Open for lunch and dinner from Monday to Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Lunch menus 35 Euros, 36 Euros; carte blanche menu 79 Euros; average a la carte 75 Euros. www.substance.paris
Through a succession of different owners and chefs, Chardenoux, now known as Le Chardenoux, has been part of my life in Paris for thirty years. Now this storied old bistro has been rebooted as a fashion-forward restaurant redesigned and redecorated to attract a trendy crowd of younger Parisians. For all intents and purposes, it’s basically become an entirely new restaurant.
This is actually the second revision of this address within the past five years, since chef Cyril Lignac gave it a freshening up and added a fleet of contemporary French dishes to the traditional menu of bistro classics when he originally took it over in 2014. You can read what I thought about this first reboot of what had always been one of my favorite Paris restaurants here: CHARDENOUX, Paris-An Eternally Charming Bistro, B+
On my way to dinner at the new version of Le Chardenoux, I found myself thinking about how restaurants can offer a very intimate reflection of larger changes in the life of any city. My short take on the reset of this restaurant was that the 11th Arrondissement has gentrified so much that the previous version of Le Chardenoux probably wasn’t doing the business that Lignac wanted anymore, and so he decided to completely pivot away from the bistro formula towards a fashion-driven table that would appeal to twenty-and-thirty something Parisians. This tribe isn’t especially attracted to traditional bistro cooking, which explains the new seafood centered menu, which also has a burger and sate chicken for non fish eaters. In their eyes, the Belle Epoque style of the restaurant’s dining room probably also reads more as just plain old rather than charming, hence the new decor by trendy London based interior designer Martin Brudnizki.
Even before Brudnizki got to work, this was already one of the prettiest restaurants in Paris, with a big zinc bar just inside the front door and beautiful and very delicate Belle Epoque floral moulding on the ceiling. Happily, these elements have survived some rather radical Miami Beach style cosmetic surgery, but the serene elegance of the decor has given way to a decor that’s meant to look good in Instagrams. Brudnizki filled the previously empty ceiling medallions with busy murals of trees branches and also added some ornate not correctly scaled Baroque chandeliers and a patterned floor that replaced the original workaday tile. He also added some plump ribbed oversized velvet banquettes and a dimmer switch or two to create a sort of louche lounge atmosphere in the evening. If you didn’t know the restaurant before, it’s pretty. If you did, it’s sort of like Charlotte Rampling has morphed into Kim Kardashian.
Cyril Lignac is a consummate culinary professional, so the food here is good. The menu is divided between three subheads–Shellfish & Crustaceans, Raw & Marinated and Sea & Land, along with a short selection of desserts. Coming for dinner with Bruno, we began with Utah Beach oysters served with small chipolata sausages–a delicious combination, like they do in Bordeaux for me and sea bass carpaccio with olive oil, lemon juice and pink pepper corns for Bruno. Both dishes were well-prepared and attractively presented, but I also couldn’t help but thinking that the new menu requires a lot less cooking time and culinary effort than the one it replaced. In other words, these are simple, high turnover items that an only marginally trained kitchen staffer could easily be trained to make. The bottomline, of course, is that more elaborate cooking is time-consuming, and so expensive.
Judging from the crowd in the dining room, Martin Brudnizki’s decor as bait is having the desired effect. The other diners were young, and there were a lot of logo designer handbags in evidence, which created a see-and-be-seen atmosphere more like what you find at the Hotel Costes dining room or similarly trendy Paris restaurants such as Monsieur Bleu or Le Girafe than a bistro. Since night clubs have almost become extinct in Paris, restaurants have filled the gap as the main venue for socializing among the city’s bright young things.
My langoustine ravioli with cabbage in a spiced bouillon was pleasant as a main course, as was Bruno’s salmon in Thai (lemongrass and lime leaves) bouillon with cockles. Again, both dishes were nicely prepared and plated, and shrewdly conceived to appeal to the new demographic the restaurant is courting. Other options included a lobster roll, which look rather skimpy on a neighboring table for 27 Euros, deep-fried strips of sole with aubergine tempura, sea bass baked in a crust of salt for two at an eye-watering 90 Euros, and scallops with Jerusalem artichokes, black truffles and dark rum.
The dessert not to miss is the excellent vanilla-cream-filled praline-pecan millefeuille, which is made in Lignac’s very good patisserie just across the street.
The new Le Chardenoux is a pleasant restaurant, which is usefully open daily, but I still felt slightly wistful at the end of my meal here. Why? These days I can get a lobster roll at lots of other places in Paris, but it’s increasingly difficult to find a dish like the beautifully made navarin d’agneau I ate the last time I came here. Economic globalization is getting some blowback these days, but food trends have never been more international.
All photos by Thomas Dhellemmes
1 rue Jules Vallès, 11th Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-43-71-49-52. Metro: Charonne or Faideherbe-Chaligny. Open daily for lunch and dinner. www.restaurantlechardenoux.com. Average a la carte 60 Euros www.restaurantlechardenoux.com
When a rooster crows, the French transcribe the sound it makes as cocorico. Even after living in France for over thirty years, I’ve never quite been able to retool my SONY Walkman ruined Connecticut-born ears to hear that. Mais peu importe, (But that’s of no importance, or, in more current terms, whatever). Cocorico or cockle doodle do, the crowing bird that’s making Parisians very happy right now is Rooster, chef Frédéric Duca’s charming new bistro in a quiet corner of the 17th Arrondissement.
Duca’s just returned to Paris after a very successful four-year stint as chef at Racines New York, the Lower Manhattan branch of the Parisian bistrot a vins originally founded by Pierre Jancou. Before that he won a Michelin star in 2013 as chef at L’Instant d’Or, a now gone restaurant on the Avenue George V in Paris, began his career cooking with Gérald Passédat at Le Petit Nice in Marseille and then worked as sous-chef at Le Taillevent in Paris under the late Michel de Burgo.
“New York City was fantastic,” said the chef when we chatted before dinner at his good-looking new restaurant, think a sort of a hybrid hipster-inflected Brooklyn-meets-Provence chic. To wit, an antique metal pharmacy cabinet displaying handmade ceramics from Aix-en-Provence and Brooklyn separates the bar from the main dining room. Fifties retro wall lamps and Scandinavian modern chairs and tables give the space a funky flea-market edge, and the chef himself laid the handsome cream-colored Moroccan tile herringbone pattern floor (“It almost killed me,” says Duca).
“I loved the free-style approach to modern cooking in New York, where chefs draw inspiration from around the world, and this is what I brought back to Paris,” says Duca. “New Yorkers also like primal flavors, a taste they share with people from the south of France,” the Marseille born chef mused. “For better and worse, Paris is more refined. So at Rooster, I’m doing a personal mash on the three cities I’ve cooked in,” he explained.
This means a short menu that features three or four suggestions for entrees, mains and desserts as a way of showcasing Duca’s love of fresh produce and earthy tastes. A perfect example? The veal and razor-shell clam tartare garnished with bergamot and grated smoked ricotta that Bruno had as a starter. There’s also a dish for two to share, a roasted shoulder lamb with its kidneys and artichokes on a bed of spelt in a cocotte.
Like so many of the dishes on Duca’s menu that night, my starter was subtly different in this chef’s execution and so a pleasure for anyone weary of the wan and expensive gastronomic mannerism that has come to characterize late-stage bistronomie (modern French bistro cooking) in Paris. In this very clever riff on a classic pissaladière, or southern French tart topped with sautéed onions, black olives and anchovies, Duca replaced bread dough with tart brise (shortcrust pastry) and garnished it with a perfectly cooked rouget (red mullet) filet and some mustard cress. These adds transformed a market snack into a dish that was brawny in a very Mediterranean way, but also surprising delicate and refined.
Probably because he’d been able to read my mind, Duca added a pasta to our meal, too–homemade agnolotti with a vivid stuffing of parsley, sage and button mushrooms, which was served al dente in a gentle but perfectly sharp Parmesan cream. What really made this dish special, though, were nearly transparent ribbons of Lardo di colonnata, which added the perfect amount of salt and texture.
Duca’s a terrific seafood cook and saucier, skills that were deliciously displayed by our mains. Seared scallops topped with a hazelnut viennoise (crushed hazelnuts and a bit of bread crumbs) was a brilliant idea, since the earthy sweetness of the nut flattered the iodine-tinged sweetness of the bivalves, which were framed by roasted Jerusalem artichokes–another tonal echo of the scallop, salsify chips and an umami-rich jus de viande. A beautifully cooked piece of yellow pollack–the fish’s fleshy was pearly even though the skin had been appealingly crisped, offered another riff on the terre-et-mer (earth-and-sea) yin and yang dishes Duca composes with such skill.
I’m sure the beef dish on the menu that night–filet with parsnips, carrots, pickled citrus and a jus de daube would have been excellent–I mean, how could anything with a jus de daube be bad?, but like the true Marseillais he is, Duca exhibits a profound love of fish and seafood.
Desserts were pleasant, too, including Menton lemon cream with meringue, anise-seed sables and olive oil sorbet and bay-leaf panna cotta with cider gelee and Granny Smith apple sorbet.
If this restaurant was in South Park Slope, it would be packed at both lunch and dinner, but because this Paris location straddles the bobo Batignolles and the more bourgeois eastern precincts of the 17th, the sociological shape of the clientele here is still a work in progress.
My hope for Duca is that word of mouth spreads among all of the lawyers and legal types who have left the Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cite for Renzo Piano’s stunning new building in Les Batignolles and that his restaurant becomes one of their canteens. One way or another, the cocorico-scored-by-Spike-Lee cooking of a chef who still misses his daily bicycle commute over the Brooklyn Bridge will definitely find me in the crowd again soon.
137 rue Cardinet, 17th Arrondissement, Tel. 01-45-79-91-48, Bus 31, 66, 528 – Stop: Parc Martin Luther King. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. www.rooster-restaurant.com Lunch menus 26 Euros and 32 Euros. Average a la carte 60 Euros.
Because 2019 is still so new, telling you the meal I had at Ibrik Kitchen the other night was one of the best I’ve had all year doesn’t deliver adequate praise for the excellent “neo-nostalgic” Romanian cooking of chefs Ovidio Malisevschi and Bogdan Alexandrescu a.k.a. Dexter chef (check out his Instagram feed: https://www.instagram.com/dexterchef/). So instead I’ll only say that this dinner was not only the best non-French meal I’ve had in Paris during the last twelve months, but one of the best ones full stop. In fact, this art-gallery-like little restaurant on a side street in the Sentier came as a delightful surprise in almost every way. And now when people ask me what ‘foreign’ kitchens I recommend eating during a trip to Paris, Romanian will now join the usual Israeli, Moroccan, Tunisian, Laotian and Vietnamese.
@Pierre Lucet Penato
This is because these two guys have found a way to serve up the cooking of their homeland that has a frankly brilliant gastronomic equilibrium between tradition and modernity. To wit, they’ve managed to make dishes like sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls) lighter and fresher without losing their authenticity, and they are also keenly attuned to the aesthetics of the Instagram era.
Further, this pair are a happy testament to one of the best things about eating in Paris today, which is that the city has never been more of a beacon for ambitious young gastronomic talents from all over the world. They come here, like Ovidio Malisevschi, to attend cooking school–the Cordon Bleu in his case, and then stay on to do a stage (apprenticeship) or two–he cooked with Frederic Simonin and at La Dame de Pic, Anne-Sophie Pic’s place in the rue du Louvre, before launching projects of their own. For his part, Bogdan Alexandrescu, one of the best young chefs of his generation in Romania and a star of Master Chef Romania, is a native of Cluj, the beautiful city in northern Transylvania, and recently attended l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes du Goût in Paris.
@Pierre Lucet Penato
To be honest, on a rainy Tuesday night, I headed out to meet my friend Agathe for dinner at this new place with modest enthusiasm, because it just seemed so unlikely I’d find food anywhere near as good as the home cooking I enjoyed at several guest houses during a trip to Transylvania, one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe and a place with landscapes on par with those of such famously scenic places as Tuscany or the Loire Valley, last October. Why? This type of sincere, hearty, rustic farm cooking almost invariably loses its character when it’s translated to a big-city setting in a foreign country. And memories of my very occasional meals at the other Romanian restaurant I know in Paris, a long-running place on the Left Bank that’s gone slightly senile, dampened my expectations, too. Still, Agathe’s father is Romanian, so she knows this cooking from vacation visits back to the handsome city of Brasov.
Just a few weeks after the holidays, my appetite was skittish, too, but my friend, whose recently moved into the lively young neighborhood with a lot of good restaurants that the Sentier (2nd Arrondissement) has become, insisted I’d be happily surprised. Sitting in the Metro, though, I found myself musing on my first experience of Eastern European cooking at the long-gone Cafe Barna, a Hungarian place in Westport, Connecticut, which served up a memorable annual Cub Scouts banquet of soggy dolma (stuffed grape leaves), alarmingly scarlet goulash and stuffed cabbage that was more like meat loaf draped with wilted cabbage leaves than the real McCoy. Still, it was quite a gust of gastronomic exoticism for me as a seven-year-old kid.
@Pierre Lucert Penato
Over an excellent glass of Slovenian white wine, we perused the menu, and I recognized some of the decorative totems of the dining room from travels in Romania, including a hairy mask from the Murmes region, the tell-tale heart shape decoration on a hand-forged wrought-iron coat rack–it’s a traditional motif in Hungarian speaking regions of Romania, and a couple of willow-switch fly swatters on the wall. Then we ordered from our charming waitress and were engrossed in conversation when our first courses arrived. Immediately I knew this would be a wonderful meal.
I’d ordered pastramă, the roasted Romanian brined beef known as pastrami in most English speaking countries, and it came to the table in a bell jar filled with fragrant fumes. When the smoke cleared, I found myself before a pretty little pile of sliced beef garnished with black Transylvanian truffle shavings. Served with excellent bread from Terroirs d’Avenir, the meat was succulent, gently brined and full of flavor. My friend’s starter–mămăligă cu smăntănă, or corn-meal porridge shaped into patties, then grilled and garnished tangy sour cream, was almost miraculously light and tasted pleasantly of toasted grain. Both dishes were winsomely impressive in terms of their presentation and the quality of the produce the chefs worked with (most beef served here comes from the celebrated Polmard butcher, dairy goods from Laiterie Les Fayes).
During dinner, I also talked about my recent trip to Transylvania, and how good the food has been. What’s been driving this transformation is tourism, and especially agro-turismo style rural guesthouses established in some of the region’s most beautiful villages, including Copsa Mare and Viscri. Much had changed since I’d first visited the region in 2012 to write this article for SAVEUR Magazine: https://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Eternal-Terrain But better still, most things hadn’t, including the small-scale traditional agriculture and the way so many people still grow and produce much of the food they eat themselves.
Our main courses were excellent, too, with a remarkable lightness and freshness continuing to be the signature of this kitchen. What I especially loved about my sarmale was that the cabbage leaves had been brined before being stuffed, which added a bracing tang of ferment to a dish that’s otherwise as gentle and consoling as a baby’s flannel blanket. The funky garnish of crumbled pork crackling was very welcome, too.
With a pronounced taste of green peppers, Agathe’s chicken goulash displayed the heterogeneity of the Romanian kitchen, which has been heavily influenced by Hungary, Austria, its Balkan neighbours, and most recently, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. The ethnic diversity of the country, which once had a large Jewish population and still has sizeable minorities of Hungarian speaking Szeklers, Moldovans, and Gypsies, is reflected in its cooking, too. In Transylvania, another local cooking tradition is that of the ‘Saxons,’ or German-speaking colonists from the Moselle valley, Luxembourg and the Rhineland who were invited to settle on what were then the lands of the Hungarian crown beginning in the 12th century. They arrived with their food ways, including a love of charcuterie and smoked meats and herbs like lovage and marjoram. When the Communist Ceaușescu regime collapsed in 1989, approximately half a million Saxons fled to a newly reunified Germany under the German nationality law known as Auslandsdeutsche, which offers citizenship to ethnic Germans wishing to repatriate to Germany.
“What makes this dish more Romanian than Hungarian is that it doesn’t include lashings of paprika and sour cream the way it might in Hungary. Instead, the vegetables–onions, tomatoes and peppers were slowly stewed into almost a jam to which the chicken was then added to cook. This explains its succulence and richness,” Agathe explained. Served with homemade potato puree, it was deeply satisfying, as was the organic Hungarian red wine from Sopron that we drank with this excellent meal.
While we ate our main courses, I had been eyeing the delicious looking beignets being shared by the couple at the table next to us. Called papanaș in Romanian, they’re filled with fromage blanc, garnished with jam or jelly, and they’re irresistible. Since we were lavishly well-fed, we decided to share a dessert, and since it was Agathe who had shared this discovery with me, I let her chose our sweet finale. “You have to try the pistachio cake,” she said, and a large slab of this dense, pudding like cake filled with fruit and pistachios and topped with a simple sugar glaze and more pistachios arrived at the table. It was so good, I was almost tempted to order a piece to bring home, but caloric caution had me think the better of this indulging this yearning.
So the next time I come for a meal here, I already know what I’ll be having–whatever ciorba, or soup, is on the menu, the grilled trout, and an order of papanaș.
Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, an Ibrik is a small fluted metal pot with a long handle used to make Turkish coffee, which is very popular in certain parts of Romania, large swathes of which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
9 rue de Mulhouse, 2nd Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-70-69-42-50. Metro: Bonne Nouvelle. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Sunday for brunch and dinner. Closed Monday. Lunch menu 15 €, average a la carte meal 40 € www.ibrik.fr
Heading for dinner at Virtus on a rainy Saturday night, I couldn’t help but thinking about how this address in the 12th Arrondissement has always been sort of a cradle for the gastronomic ambitions of foreign chefs in Paris. The first time I went here, I discovered the wonderful cooking of the young Swedish born Petter Nilsson. After he returned to Sweden, there was a brief moment when Italian chef Luigi Nastri took over this kitchen. He was followed by the excellent Sardinian native Simone Tondo, who’s now cooking some superb Italian food at Racines in the Passage des Panoramas. So I hoped the new foreign-born duo who recently moved their restaurant to these premises would live up to thee storied past of a restaurant once known as La Gazzetta and now called Virtus.
Coming through the door, I immediately liked the new decor by Argentine interior designer Marcelo Joulia. He’s who’s created a warm and attractive atmosphere with a witty retro under-toe conveyed by antique suspension lamps and flea market ceramics. Tables are generously spaced here, too–a luxury these days, when so many Paris restaurants seem crowded and noisy.
While a friend and I settled in over a glass of very good Chenin Blanc, the eager young waitress implored us to order the seven-course tasting menu. She advised that it would be the best way for us to discover the cooking of the Japanese born Chiho Kanzaki and Argentine Marcelo di Giacomo, both of whom trained at Mauro Colagreco’s restaurant Le Mirazur in Menton. I replied that we needed more time before ordering. The discussion that followed was a mutual expression about how both of us are weary of tasting menus, which almost always ended up lasting too long, overfeeding you and finally leaving you with a muddled impression of a chef’s cooking.
This is mostly because there’s something too prim and schoolmarmish about the idea that the purpose of a meal is to submit to a demonstration of a chef’s talent. I think most people go out to have a good time and a good meal, which might include a delighted discovery of a new chef’s talent, but on their own terms. Also, for me a good part of the pleasure of going to a restaurant is choosing what I want to eat, especially because I often have an idea or two as to what I might want.
All of that being said, I’d also admit that I’m not a great audience for tasting menus anymore for the simple reason that I’ve probably done too many of them as a food writer. As my friend rightly pointed out, “Maybe if you didn’t go out as often as you do, Alec, a tasting menu might still have a sort of exciting, magical quality to it.” In the end, however, we agreed to the tasting menu, with the caveat that portions should be modest.
As soon as our first course arrived, however, I was very glad we’d signed on for the multi-tiered meal. Accompanied by a spectacularly good and very beautiful brioche roll, scallop ceviche with three different colors of cauliflower and coins of Granny Smith apple was winsomely pretty, thrillingly fresh and beautifully seasoned by a gently acidulated pool of marinade with a subtle bracing dash of lemon verbena. “This is just lovely,” my friend said, and I agreed–the dish was radiant with earnestness and a bashful desire to please.
Bonito with Chinese cabbage, hazelnuts and Pimenton was a superbly conceived dish, too, with a range of textures and palate of flavors that never overwhelmed the taste of the fish, which had been briefly grilled to leave it appetisingly rare. Silently, I concluded that the waitress had been absolutely right–the tasting menu is in fact the best way to experience the sincere, tender, almost angelic cooking of Kanzaki and di Giacomo.
Lotte (monkfish) with daikon and anchovy sauce was a charming dish, too. “You know, I’m actually really enjoying this meal,” my friend remarked. “The portions are perfect, the timing is excellent, service is delightful, and every dish has sort of a shy Faberge like elegance that’s very understated.”
Duck breast with baked pumpkin was a appealing, too, since the barnyard richness of the fowl paired perfectly with the earthy Cucurbita and a scattering of its toasted seeds. And in this dish as in all of those that proceeded it, the near reverence the two young chefs have for the produce they work with created an appealing frame of humility.
Two excellent desserts concluded the meal: a poached pear with rosemary cream and yogurt ice cream and a composition of coffee pudding with coconut and pistachio. This meal was a wonderful experience of light, fresh, healthy and intelligently original cooking, which is why it’s a place I’d happily return. It’s also a terrific choice for anyone looking to celebrate a special occasion in Paris without spending an exorbitant amount of money.
My only suggestion would be that aside from the interesting and well-chosen selections of wines by the glass that accompanied our menu, it would be good to propose a single bottle that might accompany the menu for those who don’t want to flit from one wine to another.
29 rue Cotte, 12th Arrondissement, Tel. 09-80-66-08-08. Metro: Ledru-Rollin. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Lunch menu 35 Euros. Prix-fixe tasting menu 64.50 Euros, average a la carte 70 Euros. www.virtus-paris.com
Astair is the newest address of a trio of the French capital’s most innovative restaurateurs–Jean Valfort, Charles Drouhaut and Jean-François Monfort. This team has real gift for delivering restaurants that hit a bull’s eye in terms of what Parisians want to eat right now (Canard et Champagne and Farago are theirs, too), but their signature talent is the sincere and polished hospitality they unfailingly deliver.
Settling in at this good looking dining room with a natty decor by interior designer Tristan Auer that includes terrazzo floors, ox-blood banquettes and bentwood chairs and an art-moderne style cocktail bar in the middle of the room, we immediately liked the lively and very Parisian atmosphere. Then our waiter, a Frenchman who’d lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for many years, was charming and very knowledgeable about the menu. This was a big help, too, since my mind was racing as I tried to decide what to order. Almost everything on the menu sounded appealing, but the real reason for my slightly frantic indecision was that it’s signed by one of my favorite French chefs, Gilles Goujon, who has three Michelin stars at his superb restaurant L’Auberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncouse in the Aude.
Goujon is that increasingly rare chef in the higher echelons of French gastronomy today, or a cook whose pleasure and purpose is to work in his own kitchen day in and day out rather than build a franchised international empire. He’s as talented as he is modest and friendly, too, which I learned many years ago when I first went to his restaurant for lunch. I was writing something about the best restaurants in the Languedoc just after he’d won his third star in 2010.
Somehow or another, I completely miscalculated how long it would take for me to get to Fontjoncouse from Montpellier, and then I got lost on top of everything else. When I was already forty-five minutes late, I called to apologize and let them know that I was on my way. “No problem at all!” said the man who answered the phone. “Drive carefully, and we’ll see you soon.” It was 1.45pm when I arrived at the restaurant, where the serving hours are normally noon to 1.30pm.
“Welcome!” said Goujon when he came to the table himself with the menu.
Flustered and still flapping, I apologized profusely and suggested that maybe I should just have a single dish, since I’d arrived so late.
“Stop! Please, stop! You are welcome here, and it will be my pleasure to cook for you! No one’s in a hurry today. So take off your watch and put it in your pocket, or you’ll ruin your lunch!” He had no idea that I was a journalist either, in case you’re wondering.
Matted against such kindness, the meal that followed was superb. A coddled egg came with fine slices of black truffle and a thrillingly feral puree of the tuber, plus a warm brioche to mop it all up with. Next, a nacreous rouget filet sat on top of a potato filled with brande de morue surrounded with steamed shellfish and a lashing of saffron rouille; this was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten, and I’m still yearning to return to Fontjoncouse and eat it again eight years later. That, and a rack of roasted cochon noir pork with a potato puree with boudin and a jus that include the fleshy green Lucques olives from the Languedoc.
When I finally left around 4.30pm, I got sort of teary with gratitude as I unwittingly headed for an entirely different experience, which was an evening alone in a hotel room with a water bed and mirrored walls and ceiling in Gruissan Plage. Needless to say, I wasn’t the one who chose this hotel.
So we settled on two starters signed by Goujon, linguine with squid’s ink and a ragout of squid cooked with cardamom for me and a coddled egg with wild mushrooms and brioche for Bruno.
If both of these dishes were excellent, the subtle flavor of the cardamom in the creamy squid ragout and the way it married with the the perfectly al dente pasta made this one spectacular. Other available starters were resolutely French, including oysters, escargots and frog’s legs.
Though the lamb shank with eggplant, pickled lemons, tomatoes and North African spices is usually served for two, they kindly made an exception for me, and I loved the way the differing tones of acidity in the lemon and tomato cut the richness of the fork-tender meat, while the aubergine soaked up its luscious cooking juices.
Bruno opted for the Bulinade de la Côte Vermeille, another Goujon dish and a ruddy fish soup of filled with mussels, cuttlefish, monkfish cockles and sliced potatoes. “What makes it different from a bouillabaisse is that it tastes like there’s some lard (bacon) in the sauce, and it has stronger flavors of pepper, probably Piment d’Espelette, and garlic than a bouillabaisse does. It’s delicious, but I wish it came with some croutons to mop up the soup a little bit more,” he said.
Rather embarrassingly, I guess I’d stared so hard at our neighbor’s roasted quail with grapes and figs that she asked me if I’d like to try some, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I allowed pure desire to override the ancient curse of my self-deprecating good manners. “Yes, please, if you don’t mind, just a little piece,” I said. It was a good call on my part, too, since the bird was juicy and gently gamey and the resinous flavors in the hot fruit flattered it perfectly.
Though portions here are hefty, sheer gluttony had us finishing up with a very good fruit-garnished baba au rhum for me and an excellent fig tart for Bruno that vanished before I’d even thought to photograph it.
Beyond the dishes by Gilles Goujon, the menu also offers sole meunière, calf’s liver deglazed with vinegar, grilled sole and cote de boeuf–either Charolais or Salers, for two. What’s interesting here, too, is the way that menu shows off how the gastronomic boundaries of the brasserie are being revised for the 21st century–now many brasseries are offering simmered dishes that were once more often found in bistros alongside such brasserie standards as grilled fish and meat. “Young Parisians have fallen in love with the urban glamour of the brasserie–their liveliness and brisk service, but they don’t necessarily want to eat choucroute garni like their parents did. This is why we asked Gilles Goujon to work with us at Astair–we wanted to create an offer that’s more gourmand,” explained Jean Valfort.
They certainly succeeded, which is why Astair is one of the very best of the new brasseries that are so successfully rebooting this much loved Metropolitan idiom.
Astair, 19 Passage des Panoramas, 2nd Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33)09.81.29.50.95. Metro: Richelieu-Drouot. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch menus 15 Euros, 20 Euros, 25 Euros, Average a la carte 65 Euros. www.astair.paris
In the dialect of the Bearn region of southwestern France, Jòia means “joyous.” But ever since chef Hélène Darroze’s new restaurant by the same name opened in Paris, it also means great eating and good times.
“I found this space when I was looking for a new address for my gastronomic restaurant on the Left Bank,” Darroze told me and Bruno when we chatted with her across the counter that separates the counter seating in the dining room from the busy open kitchen where half the staff are women at dinner the other night. “It wasn’t right for my gastronomic table, because I’d been thinking I wanted to be somewhere in the 8th Arrondissement, but I fell in love with the space and decided to do a new restaurant-bar that would serve the kind of southwestern French comfort-food I make when friends come over for dinner. So this restaurant is about relaxing, sharing, and having a good time,” said the chef, who’s spending most of her time in Paris again, with just a few trips monthly back to London to oversee her Michelin two-star table there at the Connaught hotel. (N.B. Darroze’s gastronomic restaurant in the rue d’Assas is currently closed for renovations and is scheduled to reopen in Spring 2019).
Over hors d’oeuvres of velvety jambon noire de Bigorre and mash-and-season-it yourself guacamole–a clever idea both for the resulting guacamole but also the restaurant theater, I explained to Bruno why I admire Darroze. To wit, after business school in Bordeaux, she ended up working in the offices of Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monaco until the day when he came in and told her she had more business being in the kitchen than in front of a computer. This was doubtless because she comes from one of the most distinguished gastronomic dynasties in southwestern France, a family which ran an eponymous restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan for more than a century.
So after a stint cooking in Monaco, Darroze took over the kitchens of her family’s restaurant and became the fourth generation to run them. She won a Michelin star for her cooking at the family table, but left to move to Paris and open her own restaurant in 1999 (the Darroze’s original restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan is now closed).
“She must have felt sort of intimidated when she started cooking,” Bruno said in response to my timeline.
“Perhaps, but I don’t think she probably had any other choice,” I replied, musing vaguely on a question that a young journalist writing about the New Yorker during the days that my grandfather was fiction editor there had posed to me during a telephone interview recently.
What he asked was: “Was it difficult for you to find your own voice and style when you had such a famous grandfather and also an aunt who worked at the New Yorker?” I didn’t hesitate. “No, not really, because my voice is mine, and the vector through which I’ve chosen thus far to express it has been food in the broadest sense of the word.”
Insofar as Ms. Darroze is concerned, her love of the foods and cooking of southwestern France is evident at all of her restaurants, but her style is quite different from the food I ate several times at her family’s restaurant before she took over the kitchens. To wit, it’s fresher and lighter, with more legible seasonings and shorter cooking times.
Delicious examples of Ms. Darroze’s style arrived with our first courses, a sublime creamy garlic soup made with l’ail rose de Lautrec (yes, that Lautrec, since the painter Toulouse Lautrec came from the same town), which is my favorite French garlic for being gentle but umami rich both cooked and raw, and my sauté of wild mushroom with foie gras and an egg yolk confit. This blissfully autumnal dish is one I could eat every other day for the rest of my life, because it’s such a perfect symphony of earthy tastes and textures.
Both starters paired beautifully with the wine our charming Italian waiter suggested, too–a Fontanasanta Manzoni Bianco from Italy’s Alto Adige region by winemaker Elisabetta Foradori. Interestingly, the entire wine list here is devoted uniquely to wines that are made by women, in France, of course, but also in Australia, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.
Among the main courses here, most are for two people, and since they were out of the beef short rib with a ‘ranchero’ condiment, we went with the poulet jaune from the Landes, which was roasted with a stuffing of brioche and foie gras tucked under its skin and served with several heads of baked Lautrec garlic as a garnish. With sides of ewe’s milk cheese enriched polenta and crunchy roasted potatoes, this was a Pantagruelian feast that left us both elated and deeply sated.
Dessert seemed highly unlikely under the circumstances, but the Italian waiter insisted we’d be making grave mistake if we we didn’t try the millefeuille of crepes with Matcha and yuzu cream, and since I’d been eye-balling it from afar all night, he didn’t have to work very hard to persuade me. It was hefty but wonderfully delicate at the same time.
The next time I dine here, I’ll try the herb-filled ravioli, or maybe the roast hake with chimichurri sauce, the stuffed lamb’s neck, or the rouget stuffed with squid and mushrooms in a jus de bouillabaisse. But I know I’ll be back, because this is a very happy restaurant created by someone who not only knows and loves good food but who’s biggest pleasure in life is in sharing it.
Jòia 39 rue des Jeuneurs, 2nd Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-40-20-06-06. Metro: Grands Boulevards or Bourse. Average 60 Euros. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday.
Coming through the door for the first time on a warm Sunday night, Au Petit Panisse delighted me, since it was such a perfect sketch of everything I miss about Paris when I spend a long period of time away from the city. This is because Paris is now where I feel more at home than anywhere else in the world.
Oh to be sure, when I step out of a New Haven railroad train onto the platform in Westport, Connecticut at the end of a summer day and am roused by the tidal saline stink of the nearby Saugatuck river and then slightly stunned by the almost shocking greenery of the town I where I spent my childhood, I’ll always be the boy who grew up here all over again. But then that boy yearned to get on the very same train and take it in the other direction, first west to New York City, and after that, to hopefully light out for parts even further afield, ceaselessly driven by the unslakable wanderlust that is the wick of my curiosity.
Now that I’ve lived in Paris for more than thirty years, though, the exotic and the unknown has to some degree become the country where I was born. And this is why I was possibly even more fascinated by what I heard, saw, ate and learned on a five-day road trip from Sarasota, Florida north to Savannah, Charleston and finally Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and back again than Bruno was. This is probably because he expected to be discombobulated, whereas I, well, I honestly didn’t know what to expect, since I not only hadn’t been to those two very beautiful cities on the Eastern Seaboard since I was 22, and I knew nothing of Florida between Tampa and Jacksonville.
“It actually looks sort of like Normandy, doesn’t it?” Bruno said when we broke out of the suburban sprawl north of Tampa and found ourselves in some stunningly beautiful countryside with cows grazing in the lush pastures of well-tended farms with split-rail fences. “It does sort of, but I doubt you’ll find anyone making Pont L’Eveque out there,” I replied. And when we stopped for lunch–big juicy greasy cheeseburgers, thank you–the waitress in the Five Guys that was the only viable option we’d seen for two hundred miles, was as charming, warm, friendly and witty as anyone I’ve met in years. “Americans are very polite,” Bruno said, and though I hesitated for a minute, I finally agreed, because yes, we are just so much better than those who occupy our air waves and television screens most often these days.
The best meal we had during our trip was at The Grey in Savannah, and I loved absolutely everything about this restaurant. The setting in the city’s old Greyhound Bus station has an irresistible tongue-in-cheek charm that’s more pointed than arch–to wit, the free black-and-white postcards they give away here show that this facility was “Whites” and “Colored” segregated in the past, so its history is put forward rather than white-washed; the staff are professional, spontaneous, informed, good-natured and enthusiastic; and most of all chef Mashama Bailey’s food was as full of flavor as it was full of heart, which means it was some of the best eating I’ve done in the United States for a longtime.
And the unpretentious goodness of Mashama’s cooking brings me back to Paris, and specifically to Au Petit Panisse, because chef owner Jeff Schilde may never have met Mashama, but the pair share the same love of really excellent seasonal produce; gastronomic specificity, i.e., the glory of eating food that could only have the same taste if it came from one single place on the planet; and a great big need and desire to make people happy by feeding them well. And in this roiled and roughed-up world, this makes me happier than ever before, because I really believe that good food and cooking can create bonds and understanding in even the most improbable of situations.
At our table, though, we didn’t need any help to be happy, since we were five people who adore each other and who were all eager to rabbit on about their different summer holidays now that we were so happily back in Paris. Where had we been? Corsica, the south of France, Greece, Le Pyla, Savannah, Charleston, Sarasota, New York City, and lots of weekends away as well, which is why the first gastronomic subject that came up at the table of five people who love good food and wine was, well, natural wine.
“I hate it, I hate the whole thing, it’s so damned pretentious, it rarely tastes good, and it’s too expensive,” said one of my tablemates, and three of the five agreed. “Natural wine (unsulfured), biodynamic wine, organic wine, it’s all become a big pain in the ass,” paried another pal. “Okay, wait–I always prefer organic wines, and biodynamic wine is usually excellent, but the fact that vins nature have become a bristly a priori in so many young Paris bistros is a drag, especially since these wines offer an occasion to charge eye-watering mark-ups,” said another friend, and I tend to agree with her analysis of the situation. And the Azzoni white from the Ardeche, a vin nature, that we ordered was very good.
One way or another, it was a relief to have escaped from the surrealistic mark-ups on wine that have become the rule in New York City restaurants–it still stings to have paid a thumping $12 for a water glass of very ordinary rose at a West Village bistro, and $60 a bottle for an undistinguished Albarino at a trendy Spanish restaurant on First Avenue was highway robbery, too. All of which to say that today Paris is a much more affordable place to eat well at mid-level everyday prices than New York or London, or almost any other major American city.
Since we were five, we basically ate the entire menu at Au Petit Panisse, and enjoyed this witty modern French comfort food made with well-sourced produce. Since I’ve developed a samphire ( a delicious crunchy seaweed) fetish, I ordered that as my starter with a nice milky ball of mozzarella, while the terrine du chef was excellent, too, and a deconstructed oeuf mayonnaise with radishes, crabmeat and powdered almonds was a dish all of us immediately decided to copy at home.
Paris is going through a decidedly tentacular phase at the moment, since octopus seems to show up on almost every menu. Happily, I like it a lot, and it was prepared two ways at Au Petit Panisse, as a starter with heirloom tomatoes and Scamorza, and grilled as a main course with a wonderfully ruddy stew of fresh white Paimpol beans, tomato, fennel and bacon.
Steak tartare was excellent–coarsely chopped to order, seasoned with fresh herbs and piment d’Espelette and topped with a grating of ewe’s milk cheese, a clever idea, while a thick slice of gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb) was grilled and accompanied by lentils with roasted hazelnuts.
Desserts were a perfect hinge between the seasons, too, with Fontainebleau cheese garnished with stewed Mirabelle plums and shortbread and an airy flan scattered with blueberries, raspberries and cookie crumbs.
The dining room here was a charming setting for this meal, too, since an old cafe du quartier had been so lovingly restored, with its original wooden doors being scrapped of paint, the bar buffed up, and the winding metal staircase to the first floor left in place. Service was friendly and efficient, and everyone agreed that it had been worth traveling across town to have dinner here, because the food is as appealing as the atmosphere.
And for my part, I loved the meal, because it made me so happy to be home again.
Au Petit Panisse, 35 rue de Montreuil, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-43-71-37-90. Metro:
Faidherbe – Chaligny or Rue des Boulets. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
On a warm summer night, Le Rigmarole turned out to be a perfect choice for dinner, because Franco-American chef Robert Compagnon’s small plates menu of yakitori, pastas, and tempura was light, bright, fresh and full of flavor. I’d been wanting to get to this place ever since it opened in October 2017, but frequent travel and the long hideouts needed to work on my latest book meant that this took some time. Well, the long wait was more than worth it.
I hugely enjoyed every single one of the nine dishes Bruno and I shared the other night, especially given the fact that our appetites were heat-wilted and balky. In fact, it was almost as though Compagnon had designed a menu that was especially intended to tantalise languid taste buds, since what’s on offer here is comfort food of the highest and most inventive order, and this is why I’ll be eagerly looking forward to eating here again very soon after a much needed summer vacation.
Robert Compagnon became obsessed by cooking with Japanese Bichotan charcoal while working at the famous Yakitori Tori Shin in New York City and decided to return to Paris and open a Yakitori bar of his own. What makes Le Rigmarole very different from the Japanese places that inspired it is that he cooks with superb French produce and is also serious pasta-lover. Also, co-owner Jessica Yang is a very talented pastry chef who formerly worked for Guy Savoy in Paris and at Rebelle and Per Se in New York City, and the delightful Crislaine Medina who runs the front of the house, has helped the owners put together a really excellent wine list, including the lush biodynamic Buteo Gruner Veltliner from Austria that we chose to accompany our meal.
And a quick note here for anyone who might be unfamiliar with Bichotan charcoal. It’s an exceptionally high quality charcoal made from oak and chefs prize it because it burns at a lower temperature than ordinary charcoal for a longer period of time and it doesn’t release any odors, which means that the char on foods cooked over it is strictly the natural flavor of that particular food. This creates a much cleaner finer taste than traditional charcoal.
The menu at Le Rigmarole runs to some twenty small plate dishes meant for sharing, including fish, poultry, meat, vegetables and pastas. You can also order a chef’s tasting menu, but since I’ve become very weary of this gastronomic trope, which is a fixture of young Paris Master Chef type chefs and la bistronomie, or the modern bistro movement, we decided to order a la carte. After all, I know what I feel like eating of a given meal and choice is one of the pleasures of going to a restaurant.
So we chose nine different dishes, and our meal began with a pleasant assortment of pickles–radishes, carrots and turnips, and then a baby red-onion tempura that was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. I’ll come right out with it–even after over thirty years in Paris, I still have an atavistic love of certain low-brow American comfort foods, like onion rings, for example. I love onion rings, and well, these were onion-ring nirvana–such light tempura batter on quarters of tender sweet baby onions with a sprinkling of salt and red pepper brought on bliss. Next, a perfect chunk of salmon yakitori in a dipping sauce of herbed yogurt with a dribble of olive oil, another excellent dish, because the dominant flavor here was that of the firm and very fresh fish.
It was sort of interesting to try and decipher the logic with which the dishes we’d ordered came out, because there definitely was one, and ultimately it shaded from quieter flavors to more assertive ones and then sometimes back again, like a nice little melody After the frank taste of the salmon, for example, the homemade spaghetti with cockles and sea urchin sauce that followed with luscious and umami rich to make it one of the best pastas I’ve ever eaten in Paris.
Next, a pause–skewers of chicken breast with basil leaves and chopped pickled lemon, a brilliant cameo of a dish where every element retained its gustative integrity but played in a charming little skit of different tastes that winsomely flattered each other–the barnyard succulence of the chicken was gently awakened by the heat dimmed basil and flattered by the lemon. This was a brilliant little miniature.
Roasted round zucchini with charred skin and a half a lobster with spingoli pasta followed, and then curls of pork breast cooked on bamboo skewers yakitori style. All three dishes were excellent, especially the lobster, where the flesh of crustacean from Chausey in the English Channel was just pearled, or cooked enough so that it wasn’t raw but was still incredibly succulent and almost crunchy. Our last dish–pork polpette (meatballs) had great base notes that came from the pig’s liver and was politely feral.
Blissfully well fed, we couldn’t manage dessert this time round, but I’m eager to discover Yang’s talent the next time I come here.
An just FYI, Le Rigmarole is open until August 12, and the closes for the summer holiday from Augsut 13-September 11, during which time the team will travel to Taiwan and Tuscany in search of new inspiration.
10 Rue du Grand Prieuré, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-71-24-58-44, www.lerigmarole.com Open for dinner only from Wednesday to Sunday. Average a la carte 50 Euros, chef’s tasting menu 49 Euros.
Tucked away in one of the ancient and atmospheric side streets that survived the massacre of Les Halles*, the great central food market that was once ‘the Belly of Paris,’ La Poule au Pot is a long-running address that once attracted a bon-vivant crowd of celebrities and night owls with a comforting version of the dish from which it takes it name. Now, happily, it’s been saved from becoming yet another clothing boutique or sandwich shop–the most common fate of any commercial space that changes hands here today, by talented chef Jean-Francois Piège. Piège, 47, has three other excellent restaurants in Paris–Restaurant Jean-Francois Piège, his gastronomic table; Clover Grill, a steakhouse that’s also near Les Halles; and Clover Green in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. This fourth restaurant, however, is the one that feels like the most personal expression of the chef and the traditional French cooking he loves.
I’ve been smitten by Piège’s cooking ever since I first discovered it back in the days when he was head chef at Les Ambassadeurs, the now-defunct restaurant of the Hotel de Crillon. If I loved the wit of his deconstructed spaghetti carbonara–a chunk of crispy pork belly accompanied by a fragile parmesan cartridge that contained the pasta, just napped with cooking water, butter and black pepper, and love what he does at eponymous his Michelin two star restaurant, La Poule au Pot is the table that most deliciously reveals this amiable chef.
Chatting with the chef when I went for dinner with Bruno the other night, he told me, “My idea was to serve the food that I grew up eating in Valence. I love this cuisine bourgeoise French food, and this is a profoundly French restaurant.” To that end, he freshened up the old restaurant without jarring the wonderful 1950s ambience created by mirror-tile covered pillars, floral wall paper, a work-a-day tile floor, wooden chairs, or the big wooden-boxed table radio on the copper bar where little brass plaques bear the names of famous patrons of yore, many of them show-business people most English-speakers won’t know. Adding an amusingly populaire aural note to this mis-en-scene, the restaurant’s soundtrack is the seventies and eighties Pop music Piège grew up on, a detail I like, because it basically tells you, Don’t take this place too seriously–you’re here to have a good time. And we did, a very good time.
We were happily eating some oeufs mimosa–here stuffed eggs topped with riced egg yolk, chives, and finely chopped crackling, an excellent idea, with a flute of Champagne when all of a sudden a guest at the large table of ten on the wall across from us stood up and started singing opera. He had a beautiful voice, and he sang for a good five minutes, which stopped the restaurant in its tracks as patrons and waiters listened appreciatively. Who was he and why was he singing? I have no idea, but I did see a couple of excellent bottles of red Burgundy on the table where he was sitting. Beyond that, La Poule au Pot in its new version remains the same bastion of complicit conviviality that it’s always been, or a far cry from the kind of modern Paris bistro where the waiter feels that it’s incumbent upon him to explain the chef’s ‘concept.’
Looking at the menu, it was tough for us to decide what we would eat, since we pretty much wanted everything. But finally Bruno chose the split and roasted marrow bones and me the galantine de canard, a vieille France marvel that’s much too rarely seen on Paris menus these days. Bruno went into a sort of Cro-Magnon trance eating his bones, while I drifted off into a reverie of gastronomic content induced by the beautifully made and perfectly seasoned galantine, a coarse pistachio-studded fowl forcemeat surrounding a lobe of foie gras and garnished with radishes and a gorgeous amber gelee of deeply flavored duck stock.
And because Piège is a reflexively generous man, a quality very much reflected by his cooking, he also sent out an order of frog’s legs en persillade (garlic, parsley, butter) for us to share. These succulent little morsels came from frogs raised in his native Drome, and they were tender and had the subtly mossy taste of a clean country pond.
On the way to dinner, I had every intention of having the poule au pot, or chicken poached in bouillon with vegetables, but since Piège has sensibly decided to serve it only during the cooler months, I had a perfect excuse to zero in on the blanquette de veau–veal in a creamy sauce with baby vegetables and mushrooms, here served with steamed rice, although I was sorely tempted by the turbot with hollandaise sauce. This gentle beautifully made stew was as happy and consoling as a grandmother’s hug, too.
Meanwhile, after dithering between the veal sweetbreads with girolles and the merlan (whiting) frit, Bruno chose the latter, which came to the table with fried parsley and tartare sauce and was good eating on a warm summer night.
Dessert seemed a long shot for us after being so lavishly well-fed, but we decided to share the sampler of three tarts. This turned out to be a wise decision, too, since the apple tart was one of the best I’ve ever eaten, I loved the big juicy blackberries on another, and the chocolate tart had a gently bracing bitterness and was perfectly made.
“This was the food that made me move to France,” I told Piège at the end of our meal. “It’s the French food I like best, too,” he replied, bashfully but obviously happy to have created so much pleasure. Walking home on a summer night with a moon in the sky, I also wondered at how fresh this cooking seemed. But this just goes to show that if you live in Paris for over thirty years like I have, what’s old invariably and quite wonderfully becomes new again. On the fulcrum of great Gallic cooking, it’s the city’s old-school cooking old that not only balances the new, but makes the new both possible and interesting until it stops being new, and you start craving the edible varities of tradition again.
*The original market, a handsome cluster of glass-and-cast-iron Baltard pavilions, was destroyed after Paris’s wholesale food businesses were moved to suburban Rungis in 1969 and a notably ugly ill-conceived urban renewal project built–a modern mostly subterranean retail mall and transport hub, on the site. It’s recently been renovated with an undulating yellow-lollipop glass roof, an arguable improvement, but the gardens that surround the mall are still a torn up mess, perhaps awaiting a final redesign when tycoon Francois Pinault’s new museum of modern art opens in the former Bourse du Commerce.
9 rue Vauvilliers, 1st Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 01-42-36-32-96. Metro: Les Halles or Louvre-Rivoli. Open daily. Prix-fixe menu 48 Euros. Average a la carte 75 Euros. www.jeanfrancoispiege.com