Bad Mama, Good Mama

November 20, 2008

The new Mama Shelter hotel (109 rue de Bagnolet) in the 20th arrondissement couldn’t have opened with better timing. The brain child of Serge and Jeremie Trigano, whose father Gilbert founded CLUB MED, slings a lot of style, comfort and fun for a bargain price (rooms start at 79 Euros, or about $115) and the rooms here were designed by Philippe Starck, who obviously had some fun converting this former parking garage into a hotel. All rooms come with an I-MAC, good quality bedding, a little kitchenette with sink, fridge and microwave and Kiehl’s toiletries in the well-designed bathrooms. To be sure, this place is a hoof from central Paris, but on the other hand, the immediate surroundings–the Menilmontant and Belleville neighborhoos–are just about as bona fide bohemian as Paris gets these days.

Aside from the fact that I enjoyed a night I spent at the hotel, I also liked the simple supper we had downstairs in the bar-lounge-restaurant–a decent caesar salad, pasta with decent pesto sauce and nicely served beef carpaccio. The friendly waiter told us that Mama’s “real” menu would be coming in a few weeks later and was being created by none other than chef Alain Senderens.

Well, I took the bait and went back to Mama for dinner on a rainy Sunday night with three friends last week, and am sorry to say that we had a very sad meal. It wasn’t that the food was bad–most of it was decent enough, but it was completely sans ame (without a soul, or an identity), and the comic highlight of the shockingly bad service during our tragically overpriced meal was when the waiter brought bottles of wine and mineral water to the table and then vanished for twenty minutes without opening them. An appeal to the hostess on duty elicited a shrug and a “Faut voir ca avec votre serveur” (you have to see about that with your waiter).

Mama’s menu takes a stab at the trendy comfort food that’s done so well at places like Cheri Bibi (which I include in Hungry for Paris), but misses because the produce isn’t as good and there’s no pride or generosity in the cooking. To start with the starters, lentils with a soft-boiled egg were, er, lentils with a soft-boiled egg, a mesclun salad was wilted and stingily served and if a casserole of autumn vegetables was decent enough, it hardly warranted its 15 Euro price tag.

The Landes chicken braised in a cocotte had almost no garnish, little sauce and was dry, while scallops with “zucchini” spaghetti (or grated zucchini, a cliche if ever there was one) were pleasant enough but lacking any originality whatsoever. Ditto dessert–the same recitation of Bobo treats found all over town, i.e. fondant au chocolat, baba, chocolate mousse, roasted pineapple. All things considered, an expensive and very dull meal, which means that those little kitchenettes upstairs just might come in handy if you’re staying here.

Given the fact that this Senderens pedigreed meal worked out at 50 Euros a head, and I know an awful lot of wonderful places to eat in Paris for 50 Euros a head, I couldn’t help but contrasting it to the 15 Euro lunch I’d had the day before at the wonderful Pates Vivantes in the rue Montmartre. This little cubby hole of a place where a cheerful Chinese lady spins fresh noodles from long coiled wands of dough all day long is a charming spot that’s become a big hit with everyone from journalists working in the offices of surrounding newspapers, to antiques dealers, bankers, and some of the growing numbers of Chinese tourists visiting Paris. My lunch menu include a small salad, two grilled ravioli, and a generous spool of fresh noodles in delicious, flavorful bouillon garnished with fresh coriander, thin slices of beef, bean sprouts, tofu, chili paste and an errant vegetable or two.

During the trip home from Mama Shelter, it occurred to me that it would have been so much more in keeping with the idea of a fun, hip, cheap, thinking-out-of-the-box type of place to have opened a branch of Les Pâtes Vivantes as the hotel dining option instead of doing that tired old thing of going for a brand-name chef who comes up with a “concept menu” but isn’t in the kitchen. And with the rollercoasting global economy, I have a hunch that smart, fun, delicious cheap eating concepts like Les Pâtes Vivantes are going to become a culinary growth industry in big cities everywhere.

Mama Shelter, 109 rue de Bagnolet, 20th,

Les Pâtes Vivantes, 46 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 9th,

  • Mary Lerner

    Hi ALexander,

    I couldn’t believe it when I read your latest post! We went to the same restaurants last week and had exactly the same reaction.
    In fact we’ve already been back to Les Pates Vivantes a second time–it’s fun, cheap and very good eating.

    Keep it up with this wonderful website.

    Mary Lerner

  • Sharp Knife

    Hey Alec,

    If anything, you were too kind with Mama Shelter. I’ve been a couple of time cuz I work up there, and if it started out well, it’s most recently become a snotty disaster. Service is total crap, food is just the right side of edible, but like you, I wonder, what happened? They were off to a good start and then it all went wrong. A shame, since the hotel is totally cool and the hood is fab.