Les Fables de la Fontaine, Paris | Julia Sedefdjian, An Audacious New Talent, Debuts on the Left Bank, B-

November 10, 2015
Les Fables de la Fontaine oyster with kiwi juice

Oyster in kiwi juice


An intriguing if imperfect recent meal at the new version of Les Fables de la Fontaine, an expensive Michelin starred fish house founded by chef Christian Constant in its previous incarnation, made me more wiltingly aware of the pernicious effects of listification (if I might invent, I think, a new word) on food writing and the restaurant world than ever before. To wit, if you look at almost any of the lists of the top 50 or top 100 restaurants in the world that are out there, and there are more than you can count, you’ll find Paris invariably does rather poorly in these rankings.

But what does this really mean? That Paris chefs and restaurants are less interesting or innovative than those in other cities? Well, unfortunately that is the take away from these lists, when the reality is that Paris has never been as gastronomically exhilarating as it is today. Why? The city is brimming with new talent from all over the world, and the whole experience of a French meal is being more intensely and incisively scrutinized, tweaked, revised and reinvented than at any time since the last raft of great Gallic chefs, i.e. people like Michel Guérard or Roger Vergé, came on the scene in the early seventies. The new chefs of Paris are obsessively interested in good produce and healthy eating, too.

Les Fables de la Fontaine whole salle



This demure renaissance ranges from the emergence of a new generation of star chefs like David Toutain (Restaurant David Toutain), Bertrand Bertrand Grébaut (Septime), and Jean-François Piège (Le Grand Restaurant), to the fact that there isn’t a neighborhood in the city that doesn’t have a constellation of small excellent and intelligently inventive new tables, or places like A Mere in the 10th Arrondissement, Le Servan in the 11th Arrondissement (both reviewed on this site) or, somewhat surprisingly, Les Fables de la Fontaine in the 7th Arrondissement.

Les Fables de la Fontaine squid - butternut

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Dilia, Paris | A Talented Modern Take on the Italian Kitchen, B-

October 22, 2015

Dilia sign

Up in Menilmontant, the over-night success of the oddly named Dilia, a new bistro serving stiffly priced prix-fixe menus of contemporary Italian cooking, offers proof that a strong whiff of La Vie Boheme remains irresistible to the world’s style setters. Occupying the same simple little neighborhood tavern that formerly housed Michael Greenwold and Simone Tondo’s Roseval, Dilia has become every bit as much of a modish address as its predecessor since it opened a few weeks ago.

The nervy contemporary Italian cooking of chef Michele Farnesi, who previously cooked at Pierre Jancou’s restaurant Heimat, a place that’s never really caught on, is very good, too. But during a recent dinner here with Bruno and another Parisian couple, it was apparent that most of the people in this small and rather cramped dining room with plank floors, bare white walls and zero décor beyond the light fixtures, weren’t in the room because of the food, but because they’d heard or read somewhere that it was the place to be.

Dilia table top

Such is the immediacy of the world’s gastronomic media these days, in fact, that the gas has rarely been turned on more than once or twice at any half-decent new Paris restaurant before it becomes fodder for the insatiable maw of media, more multifaceted than ever in this world of blogs and user-driver or crowd-sourced restaurant sites than ever before. This rabid appetite for the new is wonderful in many ways, because it demonstrates just how deeply engaged by good food a huge swathe of the general public in every country in the world has become, but on the other hand, its king or queen-making powers are frequently deleterious to fragile, newly born restaurants.

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Faggio, Paris | Great Pizza, Lousy Name, B

October 5, 2015

Faggio pizza regina 2

So I’m having a cautious flirtation with Faggio, the ur hip new pizzeria in ur hip Pigalle in Paris. I’m not sure if it will last for lots of different reasons, but for the time being I’ve found a pizzeria that makes me really happy. The thing is, though, when it comes to pizza in Paris, I’ve fallen in and out of love dozens of times. The reason is that I come from the best pizza belt in the United States, or the long urbanized band of the American East Coast that runs from Boston to Baltimore and which luckily received millions of Italian immigrants a century ago. This is why every major city in this zone-Providence, Rhode Island; New Haven, Connecticut; Trenton, New Jersey, etc.-has at least two or three seriously good pizzerias. And this is why I’ve never found a pizzeria in Paris that measures up to my American baseline, the late and hugely lamented Apizza Center in Fairfield, CT, which predictably bit the dust after an ill-fated attempt to make it modern. much less those I’ve so rapturously eaten in Naples.

Faggio facade

Those were the pizzas we ate as a family on Sunday nights, and I loved going with my father to pick them up, since I was as fascinated by the inferno-like coal-burning pizza oven as I was by the teenagers on dates, greaser boys with tattoos and girls with teased hair and dark eyeliner. I loved sitting in the second front seat of my father’s Saab, too, with the three cardboard boxes piled on my knees, and the smell of hot cardboard mixing with those of melted mozzarella, yeasty dough, and the sharp tomato sauce that came out of big cans with Italian writing on them was my favorite perfume of desire before puberty. Ultimately, it was that tomato sauce that made these pizzas so good, since it was sharp, almost acidic, and a perfect foil for the mozzarella and occasional garnishes of crumbled Italian sausage with fennel seeds or mushrooms, real mushrooms, not canned, that had been hand sliced and sauteed.

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La Bourse et La Vie | Daniel Rose’s Excellent New Bourgeois Bistro, A-/B+

September 18, 2015

La Bourse - foie gras 2

This past summer I wrote a happy piece for the Wall Street Journal about the quickening bistro revival in Paris. Since then the trend has gained even more momentum and also attracted the attention of other food writers, which is a wonderful thing, because it attests to the enduring popularity and improving prospects of the cooking that’s the ballast of the French kitchen, bistro food, bien sur. Now, with the opening of chef Daniel Rose’s new 29 seater table La Bourse et La Vie, it looks like another nearly extinct Paris restaurant idiom, the bistro de luxe, or an upmarket bistro specializing in la cuisine bourgeoise, is slated for a comeback.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between regular bistro cooking and cuisine bourgeoise bistro cooking, the latter is more refined, delicate and likely to make use of luxurious produce than its ruddier and more rustic gastronomic sibling. A perfect example of la cuisine bourgeoise is the riff on artichoke hearts and foie gras served by Rose’s wife, Marie-Aude Mery, who runs the tiny kitchen at the couple’s new restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.

At a restaurant like Chez Pauline, a bistro de luxe in the rue Villedo, long gone but for years a standard-bearer of la cuisine bourgeoise, along with tables like Pierre au Palais Royal and Le Recamier in the days when it was run by Burgundian chef Martin Cantegrit, the firm fleshy artichoke bottoms would have been filled with foie-gras mousse. The base-note tastes of artichoke with its false sweetness and foie gras with its soft waxiness and barnyard funkiness have always paired beautifully, but what improves the dish at La Bouse et La Vie is that the foie gras is served in generous slabs. This rescues this dish from the somewhat elderly lack of texture from which it suffered in its classic version, and to flirtatiously temper the richness of this plush pairing, it’s accompanied by almost aspic-like shallot vinaigrette, a brilliant detail.

La Bourse - Salle best couple

So it’s this type of exceptionally shrewd cooking that makes the new version of La Bourse et La Vie such an exciting addition to the Paris restaurant scene. It’s a sexy little restaurant, too, with a gun-metal gray interior by interior architect Elliott Barnes, former partner of the late Andrée Putman, that highlights its best feature, the original 1820s vintage moldings that surround the mirrors which visually amplify the diminutive space of the former stationer’s shop. A few other details wink in sort of a coy post-modern way at the decorative idioms of the traditional Paris bistro, including a heavy velvet draft-blocking curtain at the door, a zinc bar and the modern globe lamp lighting fixtures designed by Italian designer Gina Sarfati in 1965.

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A Mere, Paris | The Delicious First Flowering of a Young Chef’s Talent, B+

September 4, 2015

A Mere - Brazilian column 2

Most animals hibernate during the winter, but not me. My annual digestive downtime occurs every August during the ten days I spend in a small Catalan beach town. While I don’t actually stop eating, I do look forward to the invigorating simplicity of the food I eat there. To wit, after dining in Paris and many other large European cities all year long for professional reasons, it’s a pleasure to eat pan tomate, the olive-oil-and-garlic anointed tomato-juice smeared toast beloved of the Catalans, to make a whole meal of nothing but clams steamed in a little oil, garlic, parsley and white wine, and eat no dessert more complicated than melon or the succulent peaches that grow in the hills nearby. Stepping to one side and eating simply isn’t only a pleasure, however, but a necessity, because I feel it’s incumbent upon me to sit down to any meal I might write about with a real appetite, sincere enthusiasm, and honest curiosity, because cooking is such hard work that it would entirely unfair to present myself at the table otherwise.

A Mere Salle 3 at the bar

It’s always exciting to return to Paris after this much loved annual break, too, since while I’m away my palate eventually begins to crave food that’s more creative and complex than what I can find in the beach town, and this is why I was looking forward to dinner at A Mere, a contemporary French table that opened a few weeks ago in the gastronomically blossoming 10th Arrondissement, when I went the other night. Bruno was already drinking a nice glass of Austrian Grüner Veltliner, a preview of the excellent wine list created by Mikaël Grou, a sommelier who had previously worked at Le V at the Hotel George V, when I arrived. “We’re back to menu haiku again,” he said, pushing the nine-entry menu–three starters, three mains, three desserts–across the bare wood table to me. By this he meant that the dishes were somewhat obliquely described as just a list of three ingredients.

A Mere - Zebra tomatoes, faiselle, currants, lieu jaune 2

I knew what he meant, which is the rather tedious tendency of many young Paris chefs to mystifying menu minimalism,  but in this instance, I wasn’t bothered, because this verbal feint was actually pretty accurate when our first courses arrived. The only important ingredient that hadn’t been listed in my starter described as ‘Tomatoes Green Zebra, Lieu, Cassis” (Green Zebra tomatoes, yellow pollack, currants) was faiselle, or the softy runny white cheese that provided the lactic base backdrop that allowed the varying tones of acidity in the other ingredients to become so interesting. The variety of texture in this dish made it exciting, too, since the currant skin and seed brought more mouth feel to the raw marinated fish and the pulpy tomatoes. Lemon balm leaves and flowers (Melisse, in French) provided some puckishly pertinent punctuation to this dish, too.

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La Table de Breizh Café, Cancale | A Culinary Romance Between Brittany and Japan, A-/B+

August 14, 2015

Cancale coastline

I’ve been in love with Brittany for nearly thirty years, which isn’t surprising, because I grew up in New England. From my very first visit, this friendly delightfully shaggy and craggy green Celtic province of western France that’s lapped on its back and belly by the Atlantic Ocean has always struck me as an even better version of my own much loved home turf. Why? Well, the food, among other things.

If I’ve always loved the tourist Brittany of crepes, oysters, langoustines and homard (lobster) a l’amoricaine, over the course of the decades I’ve lived in France, Brittany has become one of France’s foremost gastronomic regions. Today it rivals, maybe even trumps, parts of Gaul with more established and deeply rooted gastronomic cultures, places like Burgundy and Provence, for example.

Pretty girl at oyster stand in Cancale

These were the thoughts that were bobbing around in my head as we greedily scarfed down a half dozen wild oysters on the edge of the port of Cancale before heading to a superb Sunday lunch at La Table de Breizh Café on a beautiful recent summer day. Since I first dined here a year and a half a go, Japanese chef Raphaël-Fumio Kudaka’s restaurant has become one of my favorite tables, and I was looking forward to having a meal here with Bruno, who loves Breton produce and Japanese cooking as much as I do.

La Table de Breizh Cafe - DIning room

Arriving, we were the first customers of that Sunday lunch service, so we eschewed the Japanese style tables, and opted to sit at the counter where we could watch Kudaka and his team at work and also enjoy the sweeping views and salty breezes of the aquamarine-colored Bay of Mont Saint Michel , which was dotted with exposed oyster parks at low tide.

Since there are only two tasting menus available here on Saturday and Sunday, 75 Euros or 135 Euros, it was easy enough to make a choice. With a train ride back to Paris before us after lunch, and having lavishly well eaten during the previous days, we went with the former, to which we added a tempura course at a supplement. That taken care of, I was able to explain the genesis of this restaurant to Bruno.

After hotel school in Dinard, Breton Bertrand Larcher worked in Switzerland and then moved to Tokyo, where he opened that city’s first Breton crêperie in 1996. Eventually he returned to France and opened crêperies in Cancale, Saint-Malo and Paris that rebooted a genre made stale by tourist induced mediocrity by using seriously good quality produce, much of it organic, and making his crêperies into little showcases for the superb foods of his home province. When Larcher met Raphaël-Fumio Kudaka, who had previously worked with Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, they decided to open a restaurant where Kudaka would cook his own very personal Breton-Japanese cuisine.

Breizh chicken and lobster in bowl

Breizh lobster and chicken

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