Two Great New Bistros: L’AGRUME, B+/A-; LE BOUCHON ET L’ASSIETTE, B

February 19, 2010

Though it took forever to get to L’Agrume, which is an address that completely flummoxes anyone who’s as committed to traveling by mass transit as I am, the dinner I had there last night was, as they’ve been saying here in France for a very longtime, well worth the journey. Were it not for the fact that it’s located on a where-are-we? street on the edge of the 5th and the 13th arrondissements, this place has the easy groove of a neighborhood bolt-hole in Santa Monica, Cambridge, Mass., or Notting Hill, London with the obvious exception that everyone’s speaking French, bien sur, and the food exhibits all of the astonishing culinary discipline that makes me a doggedly perennial optimist when so many others are blowing hard that France’s best gastro days are behind it.

Meeting my friend David, who’s gastronomic perceptiveness functions at the speed of light and is almost unfailing accurate, for dinner, we sipped glasses of Picpoul, that cheap but under-rated Languedoc best-buy supermarket white, here poured at a very fair 3 Euros a glass, nibbled delicious pitted black olives, and tried to decide if we were up for the six-course tasting menu. As a rule, I loathe tasting menus, since it always seems pretty  improbable any chef will be able to play a symphony on my palette when we’ve never met, but since we were very curious, we decided to jump in, a pretty harmless gamble, too, for 35 Euros.

So away we went, with a first-course of excellent quality crabmeat dressed with lime zest, basil, and fine slivers of Granny Smith apple, a generous dollop that neither of us could find even tiny fault with and so just eagerly enjoyed. Next, a lovely soup of rougets (red mullet) with a great presentation–the sweet waitress, the chef’s wife in a dusty pink angora dress, ladled the hot soup over fine slices of raw fish garnished with tiny rings of cebettes (green onion, but not scallions), and for me, even though this soup lacked a little fire–I’d have added some piment d’Esplette or piment de Cayette, maybe a few strand of microplaned ginger, was just delicious, and a wonderful testimony to the chef’s talent and good-humored capacity for hard work.

As is so often the case, the main courses were a shade less alluring then the starters–sea bass in a somewhat bland foam with salsify and perfectly cooked duckling breast with a polite slaw of red beets (nice combination, that), but both were very good, and we were having a very good time, because the service was so sweet but unintrusive, eager but professional.

We slotted a slice of wonderfully creamy Gorgonzola with a miniature salad and could-be-better hazelnuts (no one should ever buy nuts pre-roasted–they go off instantly), before our two desserts and were glad we did.

“I really like this place. It’s not perfect, but I like the people, the open kitchen, the crowd–it’s fun and the food’s good,” said David, and I entirely agreed. Next, panna cotta with strawberry puree–rhubarb, maybe with grilled almonds and candied ginger, would have been better at this time of the year, but this was still good, and then a dish that brought on a weird rush of memories from the days that I was a flat-broke student in London and went to Sunday lunch at the flat of my local librarian because I liked her so much, looked forward to a good roast, and love the little box of After Eight mints she’d put out with the Port at the end of our meal. At L’Agrume, a pod of chocolate mousse swam in a Jet 28 (mint liqueur) bath, and was a fine way to end a very pleasant and very impressive meal.

Given the current gastro landscape in Paris, I fear this place will be lionized before the sweet young chef (citing his name is not yet necessary, but he cooked in a lot of fancy places before hanging out his own shingle) gets a chance to cross his Ts and dot his Is. So I’d say go now before the world rushes in, and enjoy a winsome cameo of young French culinary talent in the 21st century.

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I can’t quite decide why the upper 17th arrondissement continues to produce so many good new contemporary French bistros (L’Entregedeu, Hier et Aujourd’hui, La Fourchette de Printemps are all favorites), but think it may be a great combo of low rents and a reliable local clientele, i.e, affluent people who know and love good food.

One way or another, it’s a pain-in-the-neck neighborhood to get to, so I always show up at any new restaurant in a cranky pants frame of mind thinking, This had better be good. Le Bouchon et L’Assiette having gotten some good local press, I was pretty sure I’d be able to let my hair down after a long walk in the rain, and I did, in fact, like these two small dining rooms, anonymous low-budget spaces where all of the visual fun came from retro posters that vaunted the chef’s Basque-southwestern French roots and a peek-a-boo kitchen where you could see him cooking up a storm from the shoulder up.

Dining with two French nationals, a Franco-American (the lovely Claire Quimbrot) et moi meme, we brought a great galaxy of taste to the table, and our meal launched well with excellent starters–boudin noir with mache (lamb’s ear lettuce) for Sylvie, a charming French woman who’s lived most of her life in the U.S. and so hungers for really funky French food like boudin (black pudding is the unappealing English name for this soft black sausage made with pig’s blood), carpaccio de haddock for Bruno and foie gras with red cabbage slaw with hazelnuts for Claire and I. The foie gras was generously served, home-made, and good quality, but lacked culinary punctuation–a reduction of Xeres vinegar, some sour cherries, I don’t know, but something to back-stop it’s richness.

Next Bruno and and Sylvie went for thick slices of yellow Pollack, a fish enjoying a certain popularity in Paris these days because it’s less threatened (and cheaper) than cod, with salsify in a rather dull cream foam, and a shared duckling breast with delicious golden crispy skin and red beet slaw for Claire and I. We finished up with a shared plate of Saint Nectaire, the cheese that always makes me think of country school houses in the 19th century for its herbaceousness, generosity, and full-barrel Gallic lushness, and a homemade gasteau Basque that was excellent.

With two of us going prix-fixe and two a la carte, with a single bottle of average Irouleguy red, this meal landed at 50 Euros a piece, which was more than it was worth. Still, there’s talent in the kitchen, and I’d gladly go back at noon for the 22 Euro menu.

L’Agrume, 15 rue des Fosses Saint-Marcel, 5th, Tel. 01-43-31-86-48. Metro: Saint Marcel or Gobelins. Closed Sunday and Monday. Average 40 Euros.

Le Bouchon et L’Assiette, 127 rue Cardinet, 17th, Tel. 01-42-27-83-93. Metro: Ternes or Villiers. Closed Sunday and Monday. Average 40 Euros.

  • John Mihalec

    Alec,glad to see you in the old neighborhood.Our apartment on Malesherbes was right next to Cardinet,so we dined at Le Bouchon et l’Assiette 4 or 5 times & liked it,but I don’t remember any Basque posters, so is this a new crew? Suspect so. Don’t forget to try Bistro Rouge a block away on Jouffroy d’Abbans. Another opening on Cardinet while we were there was Tribeca,so named because the propriataire adores Robert DeNiro. "Vous etes me regardant?" Totally agree about Hier et Aujourd’hui, At L’Entregedeu, it’s hard to get a table and not much space when you get one, but worth it.

  • Rolf

    It’s notable that plats described at these two restaurants were exactly the same. Powerful coincidence, or did one meal make its way into both write-ups? They’re intriguing enough places that we’d hate to miss anything!

  • Alec Lobrano

    Rolf,

    The delicious duck at Le Bouchon et L’Assiette was ordered a la carte. The duckling breast at L’Agrume, where I ate four days later, came as part of a set tasting menu. Happily, I like duck. What is interesting, though, is the current popularity of beets in Paris. Regards, Alec

  • Kate Walter

    "The customer is always wrong": I had a terrible welcome at l'Agrume. I walked in speaking French (I lived in Paris for 12 years and have a degree in French literature from the Sorbonne – I have a slight accent but my French is good) and the waitress asked me in English whether I'd rather speak English or French. I said that I knew I had an accent, but that if I spoke to her in French I thought it was insulting to answer me in English. She got very aggressive; I tried three times to say, OK, we disagree, let's move on, but she refused to drop the subject and let me get on with ordering. I ended up leaving. I have a flat in the neighbourhood, and it sounds as if the food at this restaurant is very good, but they won't be getting my custom, nor that of my friends who borrow the flat.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Hi Kate,

    Sorry for your miserable experience at L'Agrume, but if it's any consolation–and I rather doubt it is–this linguistic tug of war is something that I think all French-speaking foreigners face on a constant basis in Paris, and frankly, it drives me mad.

    Why on earth do the French spend billions of Euros promoting the French language every year if they're often so reflexively unwelcoming to people who've made the effort to learn it? And I entirely agree that it is presumptuous, patronising and just plain rude for any native French speaker to rough ride the better-than-average French of an anglophone by replying to good French in English. I had a similar experience in the pharmacy most convenient to where I live, and after politely trying to explain to the owner why it was rude to answer me in English when I'd spoken in French several times, I just gave up. The cherry on the cake? His high-dudgeon–"We're damned if we don't (speak English), and we're damned if we do." I fear that this self-pitying but supercilious attitude says a great deal about how the French see themselves in today's world. Best, Alec