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Saturday 1 September 2012

Terroir Parisien v. Table d'Aki

Le Terroir Parisien v. La Table d’Aki

Le Terroir Parisien (of chef Yannick Alléno)
Maison de la Mutualité
20 rue Saint-Victor
75005 Paris

La Table d'Aki (of chef Akihiro Horikoshi)
49 rue Vaneau
75007 Paris

Paris is made up of a multitude of layers. More than layers, they are different cities which, through some sort of quantum phenomenon are able to occupy the same physical space whilst remaining foreign to each other. They weave through and around each other and sometimes even come head to head, but they never really meet. It’s as if the city were a giant group-grope in a blacked-out room: one is aware that there is a multitude of people very near, but one can’t work out quite how many ; one is aware that things are happening nearby and every now and again one brushes up against another person. On occasion one even finds oneself grasping some body part. But of whose body? And exactly which part is one grasping? Everything remains indefinable : they remain just groped presences.

Le Terroir Parisien

These interpenetrations of mutually exclusive worlds are particularly notable when it comes to restaurants. Recently the name on all of my clients’ lips is Le Terroir Parisien, Yannick Alléno’s new bistro. Unquestionably it is a ‘good thing’ to source from local producers and it is an excellent idea to give craftsmen an opportunity to show off their skills and win over the palates of Parisians and temporary Parisians. So why do I have a misgiving? Could it be distrust of a man who would champion ‘localism’—very much like another mega-chef, Alain Ducasse—but whose culinary empire extends from Paris to Taipei via Marrakesh, Beirut and Dubai? Isn’t there some sort of contradiction there? When all is said and done, be a chain however so chic and expensive, like those of Messrs Alléno or Ducasse, or be it cheap and unmentionable like your common-or-garden fast-food, is it not still just a ‘thingamabob’ which has been plopped down somewhere and which is expected to churn out a standardised product? The globalisation of fashion and of the branded hand-bag is indeed deplorable, but the globalisation of haute gastronomy is bordering on the tragic. Or is it bathotic?

Never mind. Since last June or thereabouts, almost every other day a client asks me about Le Terroir Parisien, proof if any were needed that the press-relations department of the Yannick Alléno machine know a thing or two about their business. (Curiously enough, so far it is only the American clients who seem to have heard of it ; no doubt the Australian and Brazilian media campaigns are scheduled for next year.) So, now Terroir Parisien has acquired its place on the list of ‘confidential and authentic’ addresses that the trans-Atlantic clientele avidly swap in their yearning after that eternal Paris, simple and magnificent as la Tour Eiffel. It behoves one not to go to one’s grave any more ignorant than absolutely necessary, so off I go with a couple of friends headed to the venerable Maison de la Mutualité which houses the newest hot topic of New York City’s chattering classes.

The décor is sober, as is the current style : i.e. grey. A large Parisian-style, zinc-covered bar in the middle of the room, around which the tables have been spread out, nicely spaced. The ceiling has wooden elements : a happy thought to keep the noise level down in this large space. Everything is as one would wish. A large blackboard on the wall lists the suppliers : I am happy to see the name of Gilles Vérot at the forefront ; he is my local charcutier and I am utterly devoted to his head-cheese and white pudding. The staff are extremely pleasant and very enthusiastic. We order our starters : lettuce salad with sautéed chicken livers, chilled pea soup with mint, seared lettuce with a poached egg. Then our mains : fricassee of chicken with vinegar and sweet onions, black pudding with mashed potatoes, veal sweetbreads with capers and spring onions. We end the meal by sharing a layered chocolate and pistachio bavarois topped with fresh berries. My friends each ordered a glass of wine (a simple chardonnay de Bourgogne) and I asked for a beer. I am told that they only have local beers and as I don’t know any of them, I ask which is the most flavourful the staff suggests La Briarde, ‘bottled on the farm’. We’re off and running.

The dishes arrive. Everything is good. Nothing is magical. Everything has taste, but nothing seems to have much personality ; nothing is sprightly or vivid. The mash is the sort that nearly all Parisian restaurants have been serving since the 1980s : heavy on the butter, delicious, but overly rich and, when push comes to shove, not really mash... I mean, not the sort I dream of : with a home-made, potato flavour and some lightness in addition to the richness, with a texture closer to that of Italian meringue rather than mayonnaise. But I’m quibbling. Everything was good but I would not wend my way across the whole of Paris to eat here ; never mind crossing the Atlantic. On the other hand, the prices are reasonable so if I find myself in the neighbourhood, I should go back with pleasure.

La Table d’Aki

And then there is another Paris located on a plane conceptually light-years from the planet-spanning enterprises and huge press-relations services. This is the Paris where you will find La Table d’Aki.

La Table d’Aki is sixteen place-settings in a space about the size of my dining-room at home, in a street almost completely devoid of any commercial activity, Rue Vaneau. It would be hard to imagine a less-likely location for a restaurant. It is run by Mr Akihiro Horikoshi, hence the name ‘Aki’s Table’. Mr Horikoshi is one of those Japanese chefs besotted by French cuisine and who have become totally steeped in it. This is no fusion cuisine ; it is not about wild, adventurous experimentation. Mr Horikoshi’s cooking is French, classical and exhibits complete mastery. Lest you missed it : I wrote ‘classical’. Mr Horikoshi seems to have avoided the craze for bistronomie and remained faithful to a much older concept of what great French cuisine is about, made of refinement, elegance and sophistication, in addition to the sharpness of the flavours. As classic as the offerings may be, the setting is rather timelessly understated, pared down even. Clean-cut, elegant, borderline ascetic and opening onto a miniscule kitchen : putty-coloured walls with no art-work or wall-lights ; the only touch of colour is provided by the meandering red ropes to which the ceiling lights are attached.

As seems to be more and more frequent these days (e.g. Les Papilles), at dinner-time the Table d’Aki does not offer a menu from which one can pick, but rather there is a pre-set, daily degustation menu. Actually, menus rather than menu : on the day I went there was one at 40 € and another at 58 €. The difference was that the more expensive menu included an extra course and used a more 'noble’ fish. (At lunch-time apparently things are done differently : one can choose between different dishes.) Those who judge a restaurant by the size of its portions may find themselves somewhat disappointed : the focus here is on attaining perfect flavours and textures, not quantity. However, the portions were adequate for me and I did not leave the table hungry.

The amuse-bouche was a sweet-pepper mousse, as unctuous as an ice-cream, but lighter and with a mind-tingling, zestful taste of sweet-pepper. It was nestled on a sweet and fruity tomato coulis, the sort one dreams of. This was followed by a gazpacho with Dublin Bay prawns, accompanied by cucumber ‘angel-hair’. It seems almost wrong to call it gazpacho, considering how much bad gazpacho we have been served since the 1960s and the discovery of the Costa del Sol and cheap package-holidays : non-descript industrial tomato juice with some cucumber thrown in... This was in no way comparable : cool, fresh, fruity... And the Dublin Bay prawns had a disconcertingly intense taste of... Dublin Bay prawn!

The first main (only served with the 58 € menu) was a filet of red mullet with crispy skin and cooked to perfection, set atop a small mound of smoked aubergine baba ghanoush or, as the French call it, aubergine caviar and accompanied with a dribbling of pesto. Time to bare all : I do not eat aubergine. I like neither its texture nor its taste and what is more, it causes my palate to itch. I tasted the baba ghanoush, then I ate up everything I could, and cleaned my plate with my bread. The smoky taste opens up some awe-inspiring possibilities for this humble veg ; possibly even Heaven’s gates. The second main in the 58 € menu was turbot with a celeriac purée and a star-anise sauce ; in the 40 € menu the same dish was made with cod. The latter was good, but when compared with the turbot, it quite simply was not the same dish. It was obvious that the balance of flavours had been thought out with turbot in mind, with the subtle note of star-anise designed to sublime the fish’s delicate taste. A masterpiece, both in its conception and its execution.

The pudding was a cheese-cake topped with fresh bilberries and blackberries. This particular cheese-cake bears only a distant relation to the New York original: it has become lighter, more refined and has co-opted a variety of floral hints and what is more, it has acquired a crispy crust. Notwithstanding my passionate love for New York cheese-cake, I had to give it up about thirty years ago because it is just too rich and heavy, whereas Mr Horikoshi’s, well...

The wine-list is limited, but so are the prices. We opted for a Pouilly-Fumé by Denis Gaudry for 32 €, a somewhat sturdier wine than we had expected that went perfectly with our turbot.

I am a lucky devil : I live just a few hundred metres from La Table d’Aki. But even if I had to find my way from the other side of Paris, it would be worth my while to be in this little, one-of-a-kind place that is not trying to turn itself into a global concept. It would be worth my while to be, as it were, in the hands of Mr Horikoshi himself. It might even be worth my while to cross the Atlantic. But this is a different Paris from that of Le Terroir Parisien. And what is more, I wonder if perhaps the former would not better deserve the name of the latter.

Friday 14 October 2011

Agapé Substance : 66 rue Mazarine

Agapé Substance

66 rue Mazarine

 When I hit upon the idea of a blog to complement the website of the Victoria Palace Hotel, I swore that I would not turn it into yet another space where one could exercise one’s bitchiness in an attempt to capture something of the wit of a neo-Oscar Wilde, sans the talent. There are enough of those cluttering up the internet: all one need do is spend a little more time than is healthy on TripAdvisor. No, I vowed I should do no such thing and would stick with what my mother taught me as a child: if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. Nothing. Zip the lips, or the fingers in this instance.

But then I started reading too many positive reviews in the press about the newest, hottest address on the Left Bank and realised that sometimes one has a moral duty to speak out, to give warning as it were and point out that the Emperor is starkers. So here it is, my first negative post, and I hope the last.

It was a friend of mine who suggested we try out this new concept-restaurant with a rather pompous name : Agapé Substance. It seemed to speak of abundance, of bounty, of warm feelings and shared humanity. The classicists amongst you of course know that agape (γάπη) is one of the Greek words for love, but in French the word has taken on the meaning of a convivial feast : les agapes suggests tables warped by the weight of mountains of food, an abundance of wines and drink ready to be knocked back in boisterous bonhomie. Adding the word substance would seem to carry one even further along that line of thought: one imagines it is there to suggest dishes that are hearty, indeed substantial, both abundant and unashamed of their materiality. George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth could not have done a better job devising the name for this restaurant.

The restaurant itself barely is a hole in the wall: a stark, ground glass panel fills the whole of the storefront. Inside, there is one large communal table that takes up the front of the room and stretches all the way to the back where it becomes the operating table of the kitchen. The middle section of the table is taken up with a serving space used by the waiters and the sommelier. Once we were seated a waiter approached us to explain the concept: he showed us the menu which was simply a schedule of twelve ingredients, or ‘substances’ from which we should choose three apiece for 39 € or 4 apiece for 51 € (yikes!) and chef would create as many dishes as we had chosen ‘substances’ to be served in the order we chose. There was no suggested order: none were designated as starters or mains and there were very few sweet options if one wanted to follow the traditional order and end with a pudding. It seemed a somewhat affected way of going about it, but why not? We were game, we would play along.

The friend who had suggested the restaurant chose her three ‘substances’ : egg, red mullet and girolle mushrooms ; my other companion selected his : grouse, comté cheese, chocolate ; I opted for crab, carrot and grouse.

The charming sommelier came and offered wine by the glass, but it was to be a secret as to what the wine actually was, just as it was to be a secret what chef would do with our chosen substances. My companions chose red wine ; I was feeling abstemious that day and had none.

The egg arrived : as far as we could tell, chef’s genius consisted in somehow managing to peel a very soft-boiled egg, get it onto a saucer and top it with foam. (Foam? Is anyone still doing foam? Here in Paris we all thought that the years of sea-urchin cappuccino, chestnut cappuccino, macaroni-cheese cappuccino were just a bad memory left over from the 20-noughties... But not at Agapé Substance : foam apparently still is in.). Our friend eyed her raw-ish egg with some distaste and decided that she couldn’t really eat it. My crab arrived : three (or was it five?) thimblefuls of crab meat carefully set in a small bowl over which a tepid infusion of shrimp and galangal was carefully poured by the waiter ; it had the colour of weak tea and somewhat less flavour. Clarified dishwater comes to mind. And my other friend’s grouse arrived : a reasonably sized breast of grouse, beautifully browned on top ; then my friend turned it over and the unappetizingly raw underside appeared, like a slash of exposed flesh after a road accident. My friend asked the waiter if it could be cooked a little more and the grouse was whisked away again. It returned several minutes later, now severely over-cooked and shrunk to under a third of its previous size. Whatever happened to that promise of abundance implied in the name? Doubts were surfacing. But now we were on to the next set of ‘substances’.

My carrots arrived : there were three or four spindly carrots of different colours (orange, white, etc.) in a lovely sauce and they were positively delicious in a pungently earthy way. Not exactly abundant, but at least flavourful and intensely carroty. The comté cheese arrived : chef clearly was not inspired by comté that day : the grand creation he came up with was simply a few cigarette-paper thin shavings of cheese arranged all by itself on a plate. Not a leaf of anything ; not a chutney to offset the full-bodied character of the cheese and bring out some unexpected delight. No ; simply a few cheese shavings. For 13 €. And last but not least, my other friend’s red mullet arrived, with the faintest suggestion of having been sort of seared ; she was about as thrilled with her raw fish as she had been with her raw egg : she left it on the plate. When the waiter returned, he asked her if something was wrong with the fish, to which she replied that, yes, something was wrong : it was raw. To which the waiter objected that, no, it had been cooked. To which she retorted, somewhat sharply at this point, that if she said it was raw, then it was raw. The mullet disappeared.

By this point, what might have been frustration was beginning to turn into something else, probably best described as a sort of giddy hilarity. Perhaps it was just hunger-induced light-headedness. The sheer absurdity of the experience was so overwhelming, that we found we couldn’t even get angry : we had reached a state beyond that and really began to enjoy ourselves. After all, the point of the lunch was a trio of friends out to enjoy each other’s company and we had better start doing that, because quite obviously there was going to be little enjoyment to be had from the food on its own.

The last ‘substances’ arrived : the girolle mushrooms, which my friend said were in fact superb so that she finally had something she could eat, the chocolate was a sort of light, biscuit-y thing that was also found to be delicious so my other companion finally had something worth eating. And my grouse arrived ; if my friend’s grouse had appeared rather undersized , mine was about the size of two postage stamps stuck together and on that final vision, we all dissolved into hysterical laughter, paid our bill and got out of there as quickly as possible to make our individual ways each to his or her favourite bakery so as finally to get something—anything!—of substance to quell the hunger gnawing at our insides. If the Ministry of Truth can be contracted into Minitrue, then surely this restaurant is Minisubst.

The critics and the press to the contrary, I should not recommend Agapé Substance.

Thursday 21 July 2011

La Ferrandaise : 8 rue de Vaugirard

Restaurant La Ferrandaise

When Paris feels like France

If I had to pick just one restaurant to embody ‘la province à Paris’, i.e. a restaurant with the feel of the provinces even though set in the heart of Paris, it would be La Ferrandaise. When speaking of fashion-sense, this would perhaps not be a compliment, but when speaking of food, it is. No doubt that is why so many restaurants try to project that image : the red-and-white check tablecloths, the old-fashioned wood-work, the lace curtains... They try too hard and they get it completely wrong. For you see, the last thing the provinces want is to appear provincial, so they will have no truck with red-and-white tablecloths or lace curtains ; they want to be ‘with it’ and modern, and happening. Yet when it comes to the food, they often retain a simplicity and straight-forwardness which is always pleasing, as well as portions that are much more generous than you would see in a trendy Parisian restaurant. These are the qualities of La Ferrandaise. It seems to flow naturally, the food is good without being overly complicated, the prices are fair (for Paris), the staff are busy but friendly and the clientele is bustling but good-humoured and not putting on airs. This is important because, whilst the restaurant itself is fairly large, it is made up of several small spaces on different levels and as a result, the tables are quite close together so one does want to be on good terms with one’s neighbours.

Terroir food at a reasonable price

The three-course menu is priced at 32 € (March 2011) including tax and service, which all told is quite reasonable by today’s standards in central Paris : after all, the restaurant is located in the sixth arrondissement, the most expensive in Paris, across from the Luxembourg Gardens and the Senate ; some of the dishes involving pricier ingredients are subject to a surcharge. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasons as well as offer variety to returning diners but the focus is on a reasonable mix of sensible yet distinctly French foods. The name of the restaurant refers to a breed of cattle which is found in the mountains of central France and, the veal served comes from animals of that breed. It’s all about being rooted in the terroir. (Ooops! I’m afraid that is rather a poor choice of phrasing for my Australian readers ; they may get entirely the wrong idea.)

For starters most of my party opted for the ravioles de foie gras et poires, ravioli with a filling made of foie-gras sweetened with pears, whilst I went for the terrine of veal tongue and calf’s foot, because it just seemed like the sort of place where such country-style food would be appropriate. It was. I did not swoon perhaps, but I was perfectly satisfied.

For the mains, one of us chose scallops in broth (Pot-au-feu de Saint-Jacques) which was declared good and unexpectedly quite spicy. Another chose a hanger steak (onglet) with potatoes and gherkins which appeared quite satisfactory, whilst another of my companions was very happy with his spiced-up lamb shoulder served with a thin buckwheat pancake and slightly pickled onions. Ever the traditionalist, I went for the veal stew (blanquette de veau) which was good, if perhaps a little bland (as is that dish’s wont).

We ended with a mille-feuilles with chocolate, a rum baba with mango and a panna-cotta with blood oranges.

The wine-list is sensible, boasting a couple of token wines from the Auvergne and a reasonable selection of the main wine-growing regions at reasonable prices : starting around 30 € with good potables at 45 € or so. We chose a Fixin at 47 € which went well with everything and made for a pleasing accompaniment/

A Sensible Choice

This is not the sort of restaurant that would cause an epiphany perhaps, but the food is good, the prices not unreasonable and the size of the servings quite remarkable for Paris. Although I did not stay awake re-savouring the taste of each morsel in my mind, I shall be happy to return to La Ferrandaise when next I want good food at prices that do not induce a state of shock. And yes, it was not perfect : they don’t change the cutlery between courses and some of the crockery was chipped, but that just adds to that provincial, no-nonsense feel that I so enjoyed.

Sunday 8 May 2011

La Maison du Jardin : 27 rue de Vaugirard

La Maison du Jardin

La Maison du Jardin is one of those sure-bets in the ‘lower’ sixth arrondissement, which is the more residential section, as opposed to the more touristy part nearer Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Seine river. It is a rather small restaurant, with a cosy feel and is quite popular with the local residents. The décor is very simple, which is typical of Parisian neighbourhood eateries : they cater to discerning locals interested primarily in well-prepared food at a reasonable price. For the fancy dinners, when we try to impress visiting grandees or business associates, the Parisian resorts to other establishments where the food may—or may not—be equally good, but where the setting and the staff will signal money being spent on a somewhat grander scale.

Back to La Maison du Jardin. It is an intimate restaurant belonging to the chef himself, Monsieur Philippe Marquis. His style of cooking could be called ‘mildly inventive’ : it is fairly classic French, with the occasional exotic twist. Fortunately, said exotic twist never is at the expense of the dish itself and merely serves to freshen it up, without spoiling it. Most importantly, the flavours are always clear and well-defined ; Monsieur Marquis’s dishes never seem to turn into the unfortunate palate-numbing concoctions some less skilful chefs churn out when trying too hard to let their creativity rip.

The three-course menu is priced at 32 euros (March 2011) which is quite reasonable for Paris, although some of the fancier offerings may incur a surcharge of 2 to 5 euros. The last time I had dinner there, we pointedly none of us took any of the dishes with a surcharge, and notwithstanding we were perfectly content with everything we chose.

I started with a salad of smoked haddock with baby spinach leaves and piquillo peppers : it was a charming contrast of tastes and textures. The smokiness of the fish was balanced by the tang of the peppers and the earthiness of the greens ; a perfect appetiser, it was light and opened up the palate for the following courses. One of my companions chose an unimpeachable combination of green salad with warm goat’s cheese accompanied by apple and bacon whilst the other selected a tuna carpaccio which was fresh and zingy and everything one could wish.

For the main dish, one of my companions chose calf’s liver with whole baby potatoes and wilted spinach whilst the other opted for one of La Maison du Jardin’s classics : a lamb pastilla with lemon thyme. The calf’s liver was cooked precisely to the right pinkness and the lamb pastilla—one of my favourites at this restaurant—was true to form : shredded, slightly sweetened lamb which had been slowly cooked then wrapped in paper-thin filo pastry with herbs and sultanas. It was rich, fragrant, and just evocative enough to suggest the fading memory of an exotic holiday. For my part, this evening I chose the chicken waterzooi with lemon-grass, which I had seen on the menu before but never had tried : the lemon grass added just the extra flavour that tipped the waterzooi from a sort of comfort food into a truly delightful dish, without impairing the straight-forward simplicity of the vegetables and the chicken. (For my Belgian friends : I mean no unkindness to the favoured dish of Ghent, but this was a such happy variation on the theme! For those who are not familiar with waterzooi, it is a simple, hearty and occasionally bland dish of chicken or fish stewed in water with vegetables, to which a healthy dose of crème fraîche or soured cream and egg yolk are added just before serving to turn the broth into a sinfully rich sauce.)

Two of us ended the meal sharing an île flottante, a welcome classic. The custard could have been slightly thicker, but the tuile biscuit ( a sort of brandy-snap) simply was exquisite and more than made up for the thinness of the custard, if indeed it was thin. Our other companion chose a simple dessert of warm, sour cherries with pistachio ice-cream : he beamed his pleasure for all to see.

The wine list is not extensive, but just about every French wine region is represented so everyone should be able to find something to their taste. We chose a Morey-Saint-Denis which was reasonably priced and complemented our dishes perfectly.

For those wishing to have dinner here, please remember this is a small restaurant so reservations are necessary, although they often can be had on the day itself. This is the perfect restaurant for those who want an authentic neighbourhood experience, but in a ‘proper’ restaurant, with table linens that are not red-and-white check and where the food is notably more ambitious and creative than what is served in the many (and often excellent) bistros which are all the rage at the moment.

Monday 21 March 2011

Le Petit Verdot : 75 rue du Cherche-Midi

[March 2012 update : As of March 2012 and for reasons known only to himself, Mr Ishizuka has decided that he will no longer accept reservations from the Victoria Palace Hotel. Although this does not affect my admiration and esteem for Le Petit Verdot, it does mean that we no longer are able to assist clients wishing to book a table there : they must do it on their own. We do not understand the reasons for this decision, and we are somewhat dismayed by it.]

In a city with such a wealth of restaurants as Paris, finding the right match for the hotel’s clients paradoxically can be surprisingly difficult. In some cities, because there really are only three or four good—or reasonably good—restaurant options, compiling a list of the best is quite simple. But in Paris one easily could name a hundred outstanding restaurants and so the question arises, which ones should one recommend to whom? For each one is outstanding in its own special way.

Le Petit Verdot is an extraordinary, tiny restaurant, but it is not suitable for everyone. In a word, the food is exquisite ; the décor is near to non-existent ; it is not inexpensive, but for the quality of the food, neither is it expensive. The problem is that it does not play to a type, and when it comes to selecting a restaurant, very often the client has some picture in his or her mind of what the restaurant should be : the décor, the comeliness of the staff, the table linens, the rating in some guide or other, etc., all have a part to play in the ‘dining experience’ and to some people these are in fact more important than the food itself. Not that they would ever own up to that : we all like to think we are fine connoisseurs with subtle palates... But Le Petit Verdot is so unique that many will feel somewhat at sea, without their familiar bearings.

The first thing that makes it unique is the personality of Mr Hideya Ishizuka, the owner. From the name you may guess he is Japanese, but he does not serve sushi or teppanyaki. The food served at Le Petit Verdot is French. Mr Ishizuka is a man with a past, but a past about which he remains very discreet : after working in some of the most prestigious French restaurants, he decided he had had enough of the glitz and the sycophantic game-playing required in the world of big-name restaurants and wanted to open a small, personable place serving good, simple food. His refusal to ‘play the game’ actually went so far as throwing out François Simon, the food critic of Le Figaro, one of Paris’s most prestigious newspaper just because he did not want to become part of the ‘system’.

He also has chosen to work without any wait-staff. He personally attends to all his clients and only accepts as many bookings as he can look after, even if that means leaving some tables empty.(Reservations definitely are required!) His style of business is the antithesis of all the celebrity chef rolling out restaurants all round the world or even all over Paris. Like them, he is not actually in the kitchen ; unlike them he does not pretend to be, but he does keep a very close watch over what comes out on the plates.

He a has what is probably the most amazing wine-list in the neighbourhood. It is in two parts : the first part is made up of good wines at reasonable prices : typically starting around 35 euros per bottle and rising to around 200 euros or so. He also has a surprisingly large selection of champagnes, even more surprising if you consider the very simple setting of the restaurant. But there is a second wine-list, behind the first one, entirely made up of the greatest names from Bordeaux, in extraordinary years and at no less extraordinary prices, happily shooting beyond the thousand euro mark. The explanation lies in the rumour that says Mr Ishizuka was well-known in Paris as an exceptional sommelier.

The real point of Le Petit Verdot is the extraordinary quality of the food. Although Mr Ishizuka set out intending to produce very simple fare, a few years ago his instincts and love of truly good food got the better of him and he took a tangent which one can only applaud. What his kitchen turns out today simply is exquisite. Carefully thought out, with close attention paid to combining interesting tastes and textures yet without denaturing any of them, elegantly laid out but not trying to be overly fussy. Food that remains identifiable as food. The last time I went there for dinner it was deep winter, a season which can be challenging for many cooks as there aren’t all those bright and cheery summer fruit and veg kicking about. No doubt this is why some people mourn the arrival of winter and so many resources are squandered to produce or fly in irrelevancies such as peaches in January from distant lands. When properly handled, root vegetables or even the dreaded Brussels sprout can be as lovely a seasonal treat as the best of summer produce.

The starter I chose was an improbable combination of a light, flavourful Jerusalem-artichoke mousse surrounded by mussels and thinly sliced raw veal. It was an odd combination but I have learnt to trust Le Petit Verdot and I was rewarded in spades. It was superb : the contrasting flavours and textures played with each other like frolicsome children on a merry-go-round. My dining companion chose a concoction of chicken oysters with girolle mushrooms, prawns and an oeuf mollet (a medium-boiled egg, served without its shell). Another unusual combination, but his delight was easy to read on his face. (If you are not familiar with the chicken oyster, it is that delectable part of the chicken which nestles in the iliac bone, just beyond the thigh and which goes in French under the charming name of ‘sot-l’y-laisse’ or ‘the-fool-overlooks-it’.) Rather than playful contrasts, his starter took him into a world of closely interwoven winter harmony.

As a main course, he then opted for the roasted Vendée duckling ‘with a variety of turnips’, and indeed they came in every shape and colour with contrasting textures and flavours. I ordered the venison with juniper and wine sauce, accompanied by mushrooms. Both the duckling and the venison were cooked to perfection and were a veritable hymn to the irreplaceable joys of masterful winter cooking using the most appropriate and seasonal of ingredients. In a slightly euphoric mood, and to complement the warmth of the cooking, we drank a sensual Volnay from the vineyards of Chantal Lescure ; it was a little pricey, but the food deserved it.

If there is a course that my companion and I often agree to skip, it is the sweet course, but that evening we both were craving that little something that would cleanse the palate and change the mood, so we decided to share a chestnut savarin with gentian ice-cream. Once again, a perfect yet unexpected match. Gentian is a lovely blue flower that grows in the alps and which is used to produce a somewhat bitter, queer-tasting extract that is used in many aperitifs, most notably the currently unfashionable Suze. Incorporated into ice-cream, it provided the perfect flowery and exotic foil to what might have been the almost stodgy sweetness of the chestnut. The perfect note to end our winter dinner.

Le Petit Verdot is a very special place, as even François Simon graciously acknowledged after being thrown out. It is for the true food-lover, who cares neither for décor nor prestige but who is willing to be led down paths and by-ways that perhaps would not have been his or her first choice. Because the food is fresh and seasonal, like many French restaurants the menu is too limited for those who have long lists of dislikes and don’t-eats or who have too clear an idea of exactly what they want that evening. Le Petit Verdot does not go out of its way to be challenging or exotic, but neither is it afraid to follow its a whim and let the seasons and flavours dictate their own harmonies. It is one of the rare occasions when being dictated to is not only sensible, but desirable.

Le Petit Verdot
75 rue du Cherche-Midi
75006 Paris
01 42 22 38 27

Friday 7 January 2011

Les Petites Sorcières : Ghislaine Arabian

The 14th arrondissement is a mixed bag : certainly not as prestigious as the 6th or 7th, nor quite as comfortably bourgeois as the 15th or the 12th. Much of it was rebuilt in the 1980s and feels a bit like some suburban desert with the notable exception of the area just south of the Montparnasse Cemetery, around the Rue Daguerre. These few streets managed not to be gentrified under Haussmann in the 19th century nor under mayor Chirac in the 1980s and have retained that delightfully quaint and pared down architecture typical of what we used to call a quartier populaire, a working-class neighbourhood. Of course like all Paris, the Proletarians have long departed, but the neighbourhood still retains a down-to-earthness which some of our more chichi beaux quartiers decidedly lack.

This is where Ghislaine Arabian, formerly of the Pavillon Ledoyen, one of those eye-wateringly expensive temples of Parisian haute cuisine, opened her own restaurant a couple of years ago and for which I had almost abandoned any hope of every managing a to get a table. But on a rainy January evening, it finally happened.

It is one of those places : the décor is, well..., not. Or rather begs the question : what décor? In other words, this is a foodies’ place : we are not here for fine linen, tinkling pianos and cooing sweet nothings over candles. Nor are we here for pseudo-quaint bistro red-and-white tablecloths and a setting in either real or fake Art Nouveau. This place is about food and with a very interesting twist : Ghislaine Arabian is from the Franco-Belgian border region, an area that has its own cuisine but which has never achieved international notoriety. It is a place of homely food using humble ingredients such as endive and beer that the rest of France—indeed of the world—knows  little or nothing about. And these are the ingredients that Ms Arabian uses to spectacular effect. The proprietress herself takes your order and she is forthrightly friendly and attentive, but without any obsequiousness. If you are looking to be fawned upon by an overdressed mannikin, this would not be the place.

We were a large table, so we sampled many things. My neighbours started swooning at the starter : a poached egg with a simple (well, sort of simple) truffle sauce, truffle slice and a single, elegant soldier. Lobster in a pastry shell. I am told the grey-shrimp fritters were divine ; they disappeared before I was able even to beg a taste. The beef consommé was proclaimed the finest consommé ever tasted. Ever. As for my black pudding with red cabbage and chestnuts, the black pudding itself was exquisite, as was the red cabbage with chestnuts, but perhaps there was lacking just a little sharpness to bring all the elements together. Still, it was a lovely way to start a meal on a rainy evening :

The ooh-ing and aah-ing carried on through the main course. There was a rack of lamb with ribs of such dainty proportions they looked miniature but were pronounced major in terms of taste ; and there were a lot of them. A squab to my left was so perfectly cooked its pinkness would have made Schiaperelli blush. Braised beef cheeks with carrot and a fillet steak with beer sauce caused squeals of delight at my other side. My turbot was roasted with beer and served over perfectly cooked spinach ; the texture was right, the sauce was heavenly ; the fried onions on top were a mistake because they had an unwelcome, greasy taste. But I just scraped them off and carried on with my fish, happy as can be.

The puddings were no less successful, perhaps even more so. The Brussels waffle served with chocolate sauce and truffle ice-cream struck me as perhaps a little richer  than I should want although my neighbour downed every bite of it with obvious glee. So I opted for an equally unexpected offering and was not disappointed : a chicory parfait with wheat-beer sabayon. This was absolutely spectacular : the perfect blend of richness, sweetness and that touch of bitterness to set it all off. Sometimes, life is just too good to be believed.

Even the pouring rain during the walk back home couldn’t dampen my spirits after that dinner.

Les Petites Sorcière – Ghislaine Arabian
12 rue Liancourt – 75014 Paris
Closed Sunday and Monday

Starters about 10 – 15 euros ; Mains about 25 to 30 euros ; Desserts about 10 to 12 euros. Somewhat limited but sensible wine selection, most of which are well under 50 euros.