27 April 2011

bento ethics: nanashi II, 75003

Ordinarily I'm squintingly skeptical of any bento box not prepared to order by a Japanese mother, or, failing that, by my good friend M, who has made a teensy cottage industry out of making bentos in a similarly sincere traditional fashion. I've nothing against Japanese food. It's just that the bento format - an assortment of pre-prepped savory salady things of greater or lesser intricacy, along with some minor protein component - is so ripe for exploitation that what one often receives, under the guise of a bento, is nothing more than a precious rectangular presentation of wilty leftover crud.*

Parisians, due to some kind of holdover 1980's fascination with all things Japanese, are particularly suspectible to this type of scheme. They get blinded by kawaii. As a result I tend to regard all new Japanesey business ventures here with a gimlet eye, waiting for some sort of trap to spring.

Nevertheless, I can warily - and happily - report that 10ème bento-spot Nanashi's new Marais location shows no signs of being outwardly rapacious. In fact it's pretty excellent: a trim, calm, winningly designed corridor of a space,  in which one can enjoy fresh, healthful, completely unconventional bento-like meals accompanied by, among other things, a crude but well-intentioned selection of organic and natural wines.

It's springtime, after all. There's just no excuse for have such an overwhelming proportion of reds available - particularly for a restaurant that ostensibly serves Asian cuisine. Red wines pair with Asian food like clubs pair with baby seals. I can imagine having two or three, tops, as a bone thrown to the vast majority of unsophisticated drinkers in the world; beyond this point, one suspects that whoever designed the list belongs to said vast majority.

Whatever, though. The natural-by-numbers wine list trend - equally visible at Breizh Café, Jeanne A, even Derrière - doesn't bother me one bit. At non-wine-destinations I'm happy as long as there's something simple and potable available; at Nanashi that day, it was a Touraine Sauvignon "Cuvée Silex" by Domaine Jacky et Pascal Preys, large-scale (75ha) lutte raisonée Loire producers based in Meusnes. While Jacky and his son Pascal do not practice what I'd consider natural viticulture - they machine harvest, for one - their wines are nevertheless reliably charming, well-made, and traditional. Their brilliant Fie Gris cuvée is often in stock at my friend's ruggedly natural 11ème cave La Cave de l'Insolite.

Citric, mineral, pleasantly waxy, the "Cuvée Silex" was all I could have asked for, given the circumstances (lunch, Marais, not an especially wine savvy establishment). I vaguely object to being given full glasses of wine from a tray, but considering the marathon length of Nanashi's dining area, I can sympathize with a server not wanting to have to run bottles back and forth for the sake of tableside pours.

The Native Companion, meanwhile, took an orange ginger juice concoction, which proved to be fine and flavorful, but queasily warm.**

We were met by our friend J2, who happens to be constantly forever nonstop working right around the corner, ever since his wildly popular bar opened a few months ago.

And chef Kaori Endo's bentos? The conceptual crux of Nanashi? They are fresh and satisfying and, at 13€ for the moment, justifiably priced. They are also essentially just four low-cost contemporary western health-foody salads in varying proportions, topped with a piece of fish, chicken, or tofu cooked to order. It is how the kitchen makes a killing, and why I can't responsibly call this Japanese food, and also, not coincidentally, why I like the place. The bento concept aside, it's refreshingly post-ethnic. It's an ethos visible also in the design of the place, which notably declines to tart up the Oriental angle. It recalls a US-west coast children's museum, and - full disclosure - was masterfully (and, one guesses, thriftily) done by my friend Clarisse Demory, who also designed Nanashi's 10ème location.

It does look a teensy bit like the chef's former workplace, nearby Rose Bakery. And many of the salads and bento-accompaniments will be familar to anyone who frequents that establishment. I hear it's a micro-controversy, of the sort that can only arise among Paris ex-pat crowds, the proper reaction to which is: oh, for crissakes, get real. As if Rose Bakery invented wild rice and quinoa; as if they pioneered the entire aesthetic of under-designed restaurants. If you believe any of this, you have not stepped outside of Paris since Mitterand. There are a thousand co-ops, cafés, and lunch counters manned by hacky-sackers and fixed-gear bikers from Berkeley to Brooklyn, all standing evidence to the contrary. The difference is, you won't see a thread of fashion in these establishments, whose patrons will not have sympathized with Galliano, or even have heard of him.

For my part, I think to dwell on the questionable originality of the cuisine at Nanashi is to miss the restaurant's most important contribution to Paris' dining scene, which is how the restaurant-bento presentation short-circuits the conventional tedious multi-course formule. With a bento, you get it all at once, entrée plus plat. With the result that you can zip in and out in under an hour, even if you indulge in a frankly heavenly and unmissable strawberry-pistachio cake before departing:

If the bento thing truly catches on in Paris, all hell could break loose. Imagine if the greater working populace of France were to lose the habit of waiting eternities between courses over lunch in restaurants! Productivity would rise perilously, disincentivising companies from hiring, with catastrophic results for national employment.

The good news is we would all stay slim.

* I work for a Japanese fashion company. You should see the stoic, resigned faces of our Japanese staff when they encounter, season after season, the miserably cynical cater-bentos that we purchase at great expense each fashion week. They contain mystery meats. They are like bentos prepared by a wicked stepmother who wants you dead. They are sold to us by Issé et Cie, who despite their death-bentos are among the most reputable purveyors of Japanesey schlock in Paris. By these standards a disreputable bento would have to contain actual arsenic.

** Why do so many places get this wrong? Is there anyone on earth who enjoys warm fruit juice? I expect this is an example of good intentions ("We'll serve fresh-squeezed fruit juices!") becoming encumbered with practical difficulties ("Our fridge is either not big enough or not conviently located!") and finally just creating greater hassle for everyone ("Table three is still waiting for ice cubes from our tiny ice machine!").

Nanashi II
57, rue Charlot
75003 PARIS
Metro: Filles du Calvaire
Tel: 01 44 61 45 49

Related Links:

M's lovely Japon-Alsace dinner
More of M's killer cuisine at her Café Commun Gohan nights

A breezy mention of Nanashi @ BarbraAustin
A blurb on the opening of Nanashi in the Marais @ GoGoParis
Some nice photos of Nanashi in the Marais @ ThePuffList
A write-up of Nanashi's 10ème location @ TableADécouvert
An account of the opening of Nanashi in the 10ème @ IHeartParis

A brief note on Jacky Preys @ Jim'sLoire


  1. Certain Chinese cuisines would like a word with you, regarding allegations of non-marriageability with red wines.

    When said word has been had, I think Mark Ellenbogen would like to discuss Vietnamese for a while.

  2. Just so you know, seal meat, and that of most migratory sea birds, having strong picine notes to their dark, meaty flesh do not pair well will any wine other than fino sherry.

    Now that the population of phocids has gotten out of control of the eastern seaboard of the US it might be a good time to investigate other pairings. It wouldn't be very green to see the meat of all the culled animals going to waste.

  3. thor: i know, i know, there all manner of exceptions involving german pinot noir, mount etna, and the light of a full moon, etc. it's just that locating these rare delicate pairings seems like a quest to, i don't know, raise cattle at sea. why bother, when simpler options are so much more readily available? just to say it's possible?

    anonymous: interesting information! but i was speaking figuratively, and the mention of seals and clubs was on the opposite side of the simile. let it be generally known that i have never proposed eating baby seals.