Good New Bistro, and a Very Bad Idea

September 12, 2008

Browsing through LE FIGARO’s Sunday supplement, LE FIGARO Magazine, France’s pretty miserable excuse for a good Sunday read, I came across a back-and-forth moderated interview with Pierre Gagnaire, chef extraordinaire, and Catherine Dumas, a Paris politican, on the subject of the French application to have the country’s food classed as part of mankind’s patrimony by UNESCO. 

Suffice to say that I think this is an absurd idea from many points of view. How can anything as vital and alive as cooking be classed as part of human heritage? What French cooking does Mme. Dumas have in mind–farmhouse cooking, Escoffier cooking, bistro cooking, Corsican cooking? It’s a ludicrous and chauvinistic feint that needs to be stopped in its tracks before the UNESCO label becomes any more debased–how, for example, could the UNESCO list of world heritage sites equally value Angor Wat and downtown Le Havre!?!?

So bravo to Pierre Gagnaire, who expressed a very healthy skepticism of the idea, saying that his cooking changes all of the time, and that today such ingredients as soy sauce, ginger and wasabi, so profoundly not French, are an important part of his larder. And a tiny-cornichon award to Mme Catherine Dumas for her silly idea.

If she really wants to know what’s up with French food she should head for La Table d’Eugene, this rentree’s hottest new bistro, in a quiet residential part of the 18th arrondissement near the local Hotel de Ville. Here, two smart young chefs, Geoffrey Maillard and Francois Vaudeschamps, are serving up the sort of excellent and very cosmopolitan contemporary bistro cooking that Parisians keen for this Fall.

At dinner tonight, this pretty willow-green dining room was packed (it’s noisy), and there was a great atmosphere in this shopfront space that’s been getting a lot of ink in the French press this season. It’s easy to see why, too. A starter of grilled chipirons (tiny squid) on a bed of arugula with dried tomatoes was marred only by the nastry Balsamic vinegar reduction graffiti on the plate (please, oh please, will French chefs ditch Balsamic vinegar once and for all), while risotto was excellent and very originally presented in a grilled cube (god knows how they did it) with a generous garnish of wild mushrooms. Main courses were excellent, too–perfectly cooked duck breast with a garnish of tomatoes stuffed with mozarella and a juicy veal chop with a baked potato spread with a paste of sobrasada (the Mallorcan sausage that’s one of the most popular ingredients in young-chef land these days) and a handful of baby spinach leaves.

The end of the meal was a bit of a letdown, though. Why use Jamaican rum on the Baba au Rhum when the best in the world comes from Martinique? And why serve Saint Marcellin as the only cheese directly from the refrigerator so that it could never have time to become properly unctuous? The wine list was a bit problematic, too, since aside from 4 or 5 bottles at 25 Euros or less, it was very top heavy. And this begged the question of how a good new neighborhood place like this one is going to make a go of it.

Our bill for two was 150 Euros (two 30 Euro menus, a 5 Euro supplement for the veal chop, two glasses of white wine, a nice bottle of red Saint Joseph and two coffees). At current exchange rates, this meant $210/120 pounds for a casual meal in a low-key neighborhood, which is troubling math. And even if the food here is very good, it’s typical of the polite, even cautious cooking that seems to characterize young chefs in Paris these days–there wasn’t a single dish on this menu, which, granted, changes regularly, that might be described as original. Still, i’ll definitely be back, because there’s real talent in the kitchen.

La Table d’Eugene, 18 rue Eugene-Sue, 18th, Tel. 01-42-55-61-64.