21 September 2011

somm needed: le chatomat, 75020

The second-most curious thing about the inconsistently ambitious new 20ème bistro Le Chatomat is the name, which in American English sounds unavoidably like "laundromat." I have some French familiarity, of course, but even this only led me to imagine an unappetizing cross between a cat and a tomato. It was only towards the end of my meal there that I was reliably informed by a friend of chef-owners Alice di Cagno and Victor Gaillard that the restaurant's name is intended as a punning tweak on the name of a more famous Paris restaurant, Le Chateaubriand: Chateau + (sounds like) Brillante vs. (sounds like) Chateau + (sounds like) Matte.

If that sounds like astonishingly obscure, insidery, borderline nonsensical reasoning, suggestive that the proprietors live at least part-time in a closed internal dream world, we may still forgive them because the food is terrific. What I am less likely to forgive, and what implies a similar weird naïveté regarding contemporary dining convention, is the most curious thing about the place: that accompanying the marvelous and underpriced Michelin-lineage (Le Gavroche, Ledoyen, L'Arpège), globally inspired (Brazilian / Italian / French) cuisine on offer at Le Chatomat, is a pokey loser wine list containing nothing of any interest, clearly put together by a mediocre caviste seeking to unload some vacuous backstock.

C'mon, you want to say. You couldn't find a single well-informed somm in this city?

I understand that the restaurant's tiny size made hiring a sommelier unfeasible, and that lack of funds probably prevented engaging an expensive consultant. What about a cheap consultant? I can't help but think there are probably a dozens somms in this city who would've been delighted to provide opening input in exchange for little more than free food, or delayed payment. Instead Le Chatomat opens with its wine list providing awkward testament to the limits of its owners interests and/or expertise in the whole wine thing. No identifably natural producers. No especially acclaimed producers, even. Joseph Drouhin. As a wine geek - a demographic that overlaps quite a bit with discerning diners - there is nothing to do in face of a list that seems to constitute active shrugging on the part of a wine director, except shrug back, and get on with the meal.

Happily, there were only two of us at table shrugging at the wine list the night we went. We let it drop. 

The most successful starter was a sublimely textural wedge of celery root, served with champignons de Paris* and parmesan flakes in an inscrutable but discreet foam.

I had a regrettable jones for squid that evening, and so ordered the calamari, overlooking somehow that it was to be served with a red pepper sorbet. Iced squid is one of those things you never think of trying, because you shouldn't.

Furthermore it was an instance of unsubtle showiness on an otherwise admirably restrained menu. The entire dish would have been improved had they just let the sorbet assume liquid room temperature, and called it a sauce. 

A pork chop main course was, on the other hand, understated perfection, gleamingly fresh and so nuanced as to highlight the delicate sweetness in the accompanying cabbage purée.

We did indeed order wine, a serviceable 2008 Bourgogne Chitry by Olivier Morin, a DJ-turned vigneron with 11ha based in the relatively recent (1993) Chablis-adjacent appellation of Chitry.

Not a bad wine by any means, but it displayed no more than wan quaffability and an export-ready politeness, when the quality of the cuisine and the circumstances demanded something grander, or at least more-than-beverage. Hell, the mere circumstances of a restaurant being located in Paris and not Cincinatti are enough to call for something gutsier.

Given that the proprietors of Le Chatomat are well-traveled people and by all accounts very well-liked in the Paris restaurant scene, we can probably assume that the current iteration of the restaurant's wine list is not representative of the spirit of the endeavor, and that it will improve. What did seem representative of Le Chatomat, the perceptible excitement and promise of the place, was a delirious, hands-in-the-air watermelon & melon baba à la vodka, a dessert that was even fun to pronounce.

It was fluffy, feather-light, yet still felt thrillingly indulgent, with its riotous aerial flavors of booze and watermelon water. There was genuine sophisticated humour in the dish - and unlike the restaurant name or the wine list, it had us laughing along.

* I find these mushrooms resist effective translation. In the states we know them as simple dull button mushrooms. They are the same thing. The flavor could not be more different here, however. In Paris, they actually have a flavor, ghostly, understated, and earthy. 

Le Chatomat
6, rue Victor Letalle
75020 PARIS
Metro: Ménilmontant
Tel: 0147972577

Related Links: 

A typically enthusiastic review of Le Chatomat @ LeFooding
An astute review of Le Chatomat @ HungryForParis, also notable because Alex Lobrano seems to have really changed his tune re: parts of Paris that are not Saint-Germain-des-Prés, since the very recent days (May) when he felt obliged to warn that the 11ème was a "decidedly outlying" location. In discussing Le Chatomat he seems to take pains to endorse Ménilmontant, almost as though he were compensating for something.
A short review of Le Chatomat @ FannyPackTravel

A profile of Olivier Morin @ PolanerImports


  1. Interestingly, it looks like the space was formerly occupied by a place called "La Féline". Curiouser and curiouser...

  2. la féline is the fun slightly lawless rockabilly bar right next door. it's still there!