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.