Le Tourbillon, A Nice Modern Bistro in the Latin Quarter, and the Service Problem in France

September 7, 2009

Reading a pocket restaurant review in the New Yorker the other day, I was struck by the main motor of the writer’s little critique, which is that anyone who lives in a big city, any big city, needs a dozen or so restaurants that you can decide to go to at the last minute without a reservation for a good and reasonably priced meal. Such places are becoming scarcer and scarcer, which is why I really like Le Tourbillon, a very sweet modern bistro in the deep Latin Quarter.

Young chef Cedric Tessier trained with Michel Rostang and Alain Dutournier before setting out on his own, but the influences of these maestros are minor in a brief menu that’s generous–24 Euros for three courses!–well-conceived and self-effacingly creative. Before you dash off to pick up the phone, though, please understand what this place is all about. It’s a simple, low-to-the-ground, first-time-at-bat young chef’s table in a former cafe in a quiet corner of the 5th arrondissement. Tessier’s charming wife Rebecca waits table and is a master-class eve’s dropper (when my friend Judy and I were talking about how we mutually loathe truffle oil, one of the biggest fakes of contemporary cooking, it curiously vanished from an otherwise excellent starter salad of crunchy vegetables and Parmesan shavings).

Judy loved this salad, and both of us enjoyed my mushroom (mousserons, cepes, chaterelles) omelette, a wonderfully retro starter that was perfectly cooked–bronzed exterior, creamy center redolent of the mushrooms, a dish neither of us had seen on a Paris restaurant menu (all cafes serve them) in ages. Next, turbans of sole on a bed of leeks and lemon for Madame, and one of the best risottos I’ve ever eaten in France for me. Though Tessier didn’t use arborio rice, the dish was impeccably seasoned, garnished with runner beans, zucchini chunks and slices of Iberian ham, and it was generously served and absolutely delicious. A lovely mesclun salad with a shallot vinaigrette and two slices of nicely ripened brie and peaches poached in lemon verbena concluded this pleasant, low-key meal, which we enjoyed with a bottle of their excellent Beaujolais vieille vignes at 25 Euros.

Le Tourbillon, 45 rue Claude-Bernard, 5th, Tel. 01-47-07-86-32. Metro: Monge or Censier-Daubenton.

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What I’ve been mulling about: French service, which is often disappointing. Consider a very expensive meal that I had a Jacques Decoret in Vichy in August. I was so looking forward to sampling this talented chef’s cooking again and also eager to see his new digs–when I went for the first time some five year’s ago, he was in a store-front space near the train station. Now he occupies a grand Napoleon III villa that overlooks the genteel park in the heart of this faded but oddly appealing old spa town. Unfortunately, Decoret, previously one of France’s wittiest and boldest chefs, has gone Michelin. Consider the following script–when I chatted with the young sommelier about drinking a white Saint Pourcain to start, and then a half bottle of Irancy (it was a very warm night), he told me that Irancy tastes like a white wine and that this was a terrible idea. Next, our first courses arrived before our wine had been opened and served, a real pet peeve, and then every subsequent course was proceeded by a stiffy, fussy sing-song recitation that was a real insult to this previously daring cook’s talent. Suspecting the worst, I asked the charmless young waitress if she’d been to a French hotel school, and got a disdainful, bien sur.

Bien sur, indeed. And a few days later, at the lovely Auberge du Paradis in the Beaujolais, the rather arch maitre d’hotel informed us that the tasting menu always lasted three hours. THREE HOURS. Now why was this necessary on a very hot night in an airless and mostly empty dining room. Clearly, the chef was imposing his will in defiance of the preference of any client. We’d driven five hours to get to this meal, and while keen, were tired. So why was it necessary to inflict a 25 minute interval between each course?

In both instances, and others–the meal I carped about a year ago at La Grenouillere (it’s still posted in DINER’S JOURNAL)–the real problem in that contemporary French service still often fails due to a misconstrued mission. To wit, the client is NOT there to bow down at the altar of a chef, rather the chef and his staff are there to offer the client as much pleasure as they can.

Too often hidebound and driven by antiquated rites and routines, the service in most French restaurants desperately needs to be revised and modernized.

  • Bonjour Alec,

    Regarding the “service problem” — and specifically, your “pet peeve,” the failure to serve wine before the first course arrives — this happened to us four times recently, three in the countryside (all were fine restaurants) and once in Paris. (And two of the occasions, ironically, concerned demis of St. Pourcain — we were in the Allier, and wanted to start with something local.)

    Anyway, all three times we were being served by very young staff who had obviously been trained at a hotel & restaurant school (we confirmed this in discussions with the proprietors). One server (at the Chez Michel in Paris) admitted to us that she really didn’t know how to open a bottle. This is something we’d expect in some places in the United States, but in France? What are the hotel schools teaching (or not)?

    PS: We’ve read your work for years in Bon Appetit, etc., and have been enjoying your blog. And for what it’s worth, we have mentioned your site on our own little site, http://parisandbeyondinfrance.blogspot.com/. Now I have to get your book, which should not be difficult. From the reviews I’ve seen, it does indeed seem a worthy successor to Patricia Wells’ great "Food Lovers’ Guide."

    Jake Dear

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks for your comment. I think the wine problem is just the tip of the iceberg, and I know that it’s going to be a rough ride, when I hear that sing-songy hotel-school-giveaweay question, "Ca etait?" (How was it) or "Ca vous a plu?" (Did you enjoy it?) when each course is cleared.

  • Bonjour Alec,

    Everything is relative — at least those canned and candied phrases (Ca etait?, etc.) are not as bad as what we still get in many U.S. restaurants — “are you still working on that”? — a truly inelegant and unwelcome utterance.

    (PS: Thanks also for the notice/ review of Le Tourbillon — we will try it as soon as we can, probably in early February. And by the way, thanks also for your other notes about dining in the countryside, and for reminding us that there is much more to France than Paris.)

    Jake Dear

  • Alec Lobrano

    "Are you still working on that?" always sounds to me like something a construction foreman would ask a mason building a wall. Inelegant indeed!