The Modern Problem in Paris

February 6, 2009

A suite of disappointing meals during the last few weeks have had me wondering why Paris has such a hard time being modern. To be sure, they’re brilliant contemporary chefs in Paris, including Inaki Aizpitarte at Le Chateaubriand, Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance, William Ledeuil at Ze Kitchen Galerie, and Christophe Pele at La Bigarrade, but these are are restaurants d’artistes, or one-man shows that exhibit a specific (often brilliant) personal culinary sensibility.

What Paris sorely lacks, however, is someone like New York City’s Danny Meyer, a spectacularly gifted restaurant entrepreneur who has an almost Freudian aptitude for understanding what New Yorkers want to eat. From Blue Smoke (barbecue for city slickers) to the Burger Shack (terrific burgers in Madison Square Park) to the Gramercy Tavern and the always popular Union Square Cafe, Meyer always gets it right, and has coined a whole new service idiom of intelligent, informed, enthusiastic servers who function as the managers of your meal. I suppose the closest Paris comes to a serially successful restauranteur are the Costes Brothers, but I find their formula–dumbed down menus, attitude, decor uber cuisine–so wilting that I can’t really even consider them in the same breathe.

For a while I thought that Thierry Costes, one of the movers of the Hotel Amour, which I enjoy, might break away from his father’s and uncle’s beaten path and do something new, delicious and important in Paris, but after a dreadful meal at Thoumieux, and an even worse one at La Fidelite, his remake of Les Zingots, I’m ruling him out for the time being. Lunch at the Zingots was so wrong in so many ways that it barely warrants comment. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those restaurants where you get the sense that no one’s in charge–it just sort of drifts along–and then they didn’t have half of their very short menu and were also missing a wine list. Yup, no wine list, although the pleasant waiter did recommend a bottle of Beaujolais, which we might have gone for until I asked how much it cost: 42 Euros. So instead we drank heady-achy Gamay in a pichet, and I’m convinced it came from a cardboard box somewhere behind the bar. Re the food, my tomato beignets made with tempura batter were pleasant enough, but essentially the only real cooking that occurred during our meal, since my steak came with leathery baby potatoes (frites would have been too much work) and an awful ramkin of industrial Bearnaise and my friend’s whole John Dory was served without eyes, which led me to assume it had been frozen. We toyed with the idea of dessert, but apparently we toyed too long, since the waiter told us the kitchen had already closed. Ultimately there were only two things I liked about this place–the pale pink and mint green neon sign that flashes LA FIDELITE above the door and the Bazooka pink statue of Micky Mouse with a huge engorged phallus by Marc Newsome just inside the front door. Neither of these distractions, however, would ever tempt me to return for another meal.

Happily, depair lifted when I went to dinner at the Cafe Moderne a day later. Despite the fact that a friend rightly describes this long, narrow dining room across the street from the old Bourse as a “difficult space,” restauranteur Frederic Schall-Hubig has created a charming spot that’s at once cozy and chic, with red banquettes, soft lighting, and a pretty chocolate-and-white décor. He’s also just hired an excellent young chef, Jean-Luc Lefrançois (ex-Astor, ex-Prunier), a quiet-man talent who impressed me with a tasting menu of truly innovative and delicious dishes like scallops with parsnip puree and grilled bacon; a salad of lentils, baby onions and deboned pig’s feet that could convince even the most reticent of the deliciousness of this latter ingredient; and a succulent sea bass filet with a spice-bread crumb crust—truly excellent food, especially for such modest prices. Service is delightful, too, and Schall-Hubig runs a superb wine list and generously serves some pretty terrific bottles by the glass. Since Schall-Hubig also runs the ever popular Astier in the 11th, I can’t help but wondering if maybe Paris won’t end with its very own Danny Meyer after all.

Cafe Moderne, 40 rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, 2nd, Tél. 01-53-40-84-10.