Two Hits and a Miss: Cafe Cartouche, Shan Gout and La Societe

March 20, 2009

Allow me to get La Societe out of the way so that I can get on to two new places that are really worth your reading time. As anyone who has read HUNGRY FOR PARIS will know, I take a very dim view of the impact that the two dozen or so restaurants of the Freres Costes have had on the Paris dining landscape. To wit, they serve an almost identical menu of easily assembled dishes that require very little actual cooking, and unfortunately they’ve succeeded in seducing a big tranche of affluent young and older Parisians (who regret that they’re no longer young by aping the tastes and habits of youth) who care more about decor and seeing and being scene than they do good food. To each their own, you might say, except that the success of the Costes has spawned a wilting number of imitators, and this mass of restaurants where you don’t really go to eat competes with restaurants where the chef cooks his or her heart out everyday.

I went to La Societe, the new Costes place on the Place Saint Germain, out of a certain morbid curiosity, but also because I admire the talent of interior designer Christian Liagre, who created a wonderfully louche Asia-in-the-thirties look for this place, and, rather wistfully, because I was quietly attending yet another memorial service for the Left Bank as I once knew it. Suffice to say that with the exception of the Eglise de Saint Germain des Pres and the Cafe Bonaparte, this whole vital crossroads of what was once one of the world’s great brain trusts has now been given over to conspicuous consumption. Armani got the ball rolling when he bought out Le Drugstore, a giant Ralph Lauren boutique is looming, and now with La Societe, food as conspicuous consumption arrives on the scene. I personally don’t see any reason to pay 14 Euros for an avocado vinaigrette, but perhaps you do?

As as been the case for the last few years in Paris, it’s rare that an honestly good restaurant opens in one of the city’s best-known tourist neighborhoods (it can happen, however, as the wonderful L’Epigramme proves). Why? The rents are too high for chefs going out on their own. This is why I traveled deep into the 12th arrondissement several times this week with no regrets and very delicious results.

Credit where credit’s due, Shan Gout, my first discovery, came from reading a highly enthusiastic review by French food critic Francois Simon. Since I’m mad for Chinese food, I was perfectly happy to go out of the way for any that had won such high praise from someone whom I almost unfailingly agree with. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood behind the Gare de Lyon, this shop front space has the immediate winsomeness of a proud and serious young chef who has gone out on his own with limited resources. He cooks behind a counter in the dining room (if you can avoid it, don’t wear anything that has to be dry-cleaned to a meal here; you will come away smelling like what you just ate), and the room is devoid of any real decor save the miniature red Chinese lanterns hanging overhead.

As soon as you taste the food, however, the homeliness of the surroundings won’t matter a jot. The young chef here cooked at many of the best Chinese restaurants in Paris before deciding to go out on his own, and his most Szechuan dishes are so fine, flavorful and precise, or light years from most of the Chinese restaurants in Paris, that you immediately want to order more (portions are dainty). From the short menu–everything is cooked to order by the chef himself, we started with a gorgeous dishes of homemade noodles in a light, spicy peanut sauce with a garnish of sliced red cabbage and some of the best grilled pork dumplings I’ve ever eaten, then sampled the feather-light and very delicate shrimp cooked in egg white and an excellent Szechuan chicken redolent of green onions and garlic. With a bottle of Provencale rose, this was a light and very pleasant meal, and I’m very much looking forward to my next meal there.

In a very different register the following night–that of good old Gaul, I was back in the 12th at the new Cafe Cartouche, which is being touted as the annex of chef Rodolphe Paquin of Le Repaire de Cartouche. What Paquin’s actually doing here is backing his head waiter of ten years, Benoit, and helping the kitchen to source well and settle in, and based on what we ate the other night, this is going to be a welcome address in a part of the city that lacks good affordable bistro.

The cafe is a simple place, with a long bar in front of a row of tables, and its well-chosen wines, many of which serve by the glass, mean that its popular with locals who want to stretch their legs and stop by for a sip and a chat. Unfortunately their “Carte de la Crise” (Recession Menu) at 14 Euros is only served at lunch, so we ordered a la carte from the chalkboard menu and ate a very good, simple French meal. Both of the terrines we sampled–lamb and fig and duck with pistachio–were excellent, and a main course duckling breast was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious. I loved my faux-filet with an avalanche of freshly made frites and a sauceboat of bearnaise, and the 16 Euro vin du Pays de l’Ardeche, a Gamay, was perfectly pleasant drinking for a very fair price. While this place isn’t worth crossing town for, it’s a very good choice if you’re shopping the Viaduc des Arts or catching a film in the multiplex in the Bercy neighborhood’s Cours Saint Emilion.

Café Cartouche : 4 rue de Bercy, 12th, Tel. 01-40-19-09-95. Metro: Cour Saint-Emilion or Dugommier. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.

La Societe: 4 Place Saint Germain des Pres, 6th, 01.53.63.60.60. Metro: Saint Germain des Pres. Open daily. 

Shan Gout: 22 rue Hector Malot, 12th, Tel. 01-43-40-62-14. Metro: Gare de Lyon. Closed Monday.

  • Amy

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