10 October 2011

worst hospitality in solar system: saturne, 75002

Anticipating a dinner with friends from New York in town for fashion week, I booked a table two weeks in advance for a Monday night at Saturne, a renowned, self-consciously high-end "cave à manger,"* where on basis of reputation I'd expected a sparkling experience. Chef Sven Chartier and sommelier Ewan Lemoigne both previously worked at Pierre Jancou's Racines in its heyday, and Chartier had put in time at Alain Passard's L'Arpège before that. It seemed reasonable to think my friends and I were in the hands of professionals, when we arrived a few minutes after 9pm for our reservation.

We never sat down, however. To my totally incredulous dismay, Saturne had botched the reservation in a laughably amateur manner, and instead of apologizing for the restaurant's error - it was without a doubt their error, for several reasons to follow - the Lemoigne fellow instead refused to seat us and, with such unquestioning emotionless self-certitude that I began to suspect he was developmentally challenged in some way,** proceeded to insist it was my own fault.

To jump ahead a bit, I'd like to publicly wonder: is this where we are now, with dining? Have we so fetishized fine product and fine wine, on both sides of the service equation, diner and restaurant, that a place like Saturne can succeed despite its operators having no sense whatsoever of basic hospitality principles, even civility? The situation disimproved, as you might have guessed. My friends and I left for a last-minute reservation hastily gleaned elsewhere before the police arrived.

What happened, in all its mundane tedious detail, is this: despite the fact that when booking the table I'd requested that they phone me to confirm day-of (Saturne asks those making reservations to call again to confirm, an execrable diva-like practice), and despite my having nonetheless phoned again two days in advance to change the size of the table from five to six people, Saturne had cancelled our reservation, because their reservationist had misheard my phone number by a digit and was unable to reach me to confirm earlier that day.

Having previously run a restaurant with a month-long wait for tables, I can empathize with the uncertainty and annoyance restaurants face when trying to keep things full but no fuller than full. If a table flakes, that's 400€ or so out the window. That is why I'm assiduously communicative when making all reservations, regarding table size, hour of arrival, and so on. The only reason I didn't call Saturne to confirm that day is it was during fashion week, and as is customary during this time period I was maniacally busy. I didn't even notice I had received no confirmation calls from them, which silence resulted from their reservationist having misheard my phone number by a digit. I was told we could wait an hour or an hour and a half for a table, but even then M. Lemoigne could make no promises.

Photo jacked from the excellent blog of Bruno Verjus

He flatly refused to accept any blame for these circumstances.  I pointed out a free table our party's size at the other end of the room. Lemoigne said it was reserved.  Then he walked away and began delivering plates to other tables while I was still mid-sentence talking very reasonably about what could feasibly be done to rectify the situation.

(Here, for the record, is all it would have taken to rectify the situation, which is frankly one that I have trained no less than ten teenage hostesses in LA to deal with.

You apologize for the error, even if there is some uncertainty whether it was your error. [In my own instance there was no uncertainty.]

You immediately put the guest at ease by assuring them - whether or not you have yet figured out how - that you will get them seated tonight, and that you will do everything in your power to make sure they have an awesome time once they get seated.

If there is at that moment an empty table reserved for another party, and if the error was indeed your restaurant's fault, the thing to do is to seat the wronged party at that table, and then prepare for a night of tight table turns and apologising to later tables. You will run a wait, but that is what charm is for.

If there are no empty tables - if there is physically nothing you can do for the guests - then you invite them to wait at the bar, and get them a round of inexpensive drinks. If it's going to be a significant wait, bust open an inexpensive bottle of white or sparkling wine, and later send out some charcuterie. Time it so that the guests never feel ignored, and that your appeasement gestures arrive at an effective pace.

If these simple guidelines - which essentially consist of just convincing the guest that you care about their plight - are followed, situations do not get out of hand, as they did at Saturne that night.)

With Ewan Lemoigne off delivering plates, having seemingly washed his hands of our problem having done less than nothing to resolve it, I cast about for someone else to speak to.  There being no other service staff in sight, I wandered over to the kitchen, and, in the hopes that one of the folks cooking might be a co-owner, I asked aloud whether anyone could help us, since Lemoigne was ignoring us.

Getting no response, I then asked whether anyone at Saturne was acquainted with basic principles of hospitality?

I had brief interactions with M. Chartier and one of his chefs, neither of whom could help me with the situation. It was nevertheless nice of both of them to at least make the gesture of engaging with me, particularly since I must have looked like a total nutso by then.

I wandered back to the host stand and picked up the phone to make a reservation elsewhere (I got no service on my cell in the restaurant), which is when some other service dude waddled over, grabbed it out of my hands, and handed it to Ewan Lemoigne, who phoned the police - evidently his Plan B after blanket rudeness fails to appease people.

I can admit that all this was intentional on my part. When all is lost I tend to give as good as I get, figuring that one might as well keep complaining, since at best one's situation will miraculously get resolved, while at worst, one will have at least gleaned the satisfaction of sharing the squawking awkwardness with the guilty parties - in this case, pseudo-sommelier Ewan Lemoigne and the rest of the helplessly incompetent Saturne service staff, who ought to be stripped of their pull-taps and Reidel carafes and sent back to the Girl Scouts to earn a civility badge.

* Scare quotes pretty justified here. The term cave à manger refers to wine shops that double as restaurants. Saturne is sort of a parodically high-minded riff on this established trend. Going to Saturne to purchase a bottle of wine would be like entering an Apple Store to use the restroom. 

** Should this indeed be the case, I'm sorry. But dude should find a new industry, or wear a sign around his neck or something so we know to treat him with kid gloves. 

17, rue Notre-Dame des Victoires
75002 PARIS
Metro: Bourse
Tel: 01 42 60 31 90 (but don't trust a thing they say) 

Related Links: 

A better place in the neighborhood: 

Some recent reviews of these jokers: 

Bertrand ‎ - 15 Feb 2011

Disappointing and best avoided First contact: 1/5 poor ; 3 couples in line to get their reserved table on a not-so-busy night; no one offered to take our coats; actually people had their stuff lying on the banquet so it was hard for my wife and I to get to our seats; people had to move their stuff so it was embarrassing. Sitting: 2/5 cramped. You feel like you are having diner with the people next to you; the tables felt too smal; we could smell what other people were eating which was disturbing; at one point, I could hear the chewing sound made by my neighbor (I think he was eating with his mouth open to get a better feel of the flavor...). Space: 2/5. There is a nice airy dining with glass ceiling; unfortunately we were seated in a sort of long and narrow corridor leading to it; rather like the old disaffected smoking area! We found this to be frustrating at best, especially as we had made our reservation several weeks before. Service: 1/5. friendly but completely unprofessional and so slow... menus took a long time to come ..

Rachel ‎ - 9 May 2011
ate at Saturne this evening with a friend and we were both very much forward to trying out this restaurant. Unfortunately it was an expensive mistake and the experience was really quite disappointing. The service was worse than the standard snobby Paris bistro reception you could expect in a touristic brasserie and our plates were practically thrown in front of us like a school canteen… and well the food- under-seasoned, rather bland and lacking love all round. Yes everything was cooked to perfection but for the price and the write-up you would expect something a little more special.

Miss Zen says:
Never, ever again. Food is good BUT the service is terrible, rude and completely unprofessional. The wine might be good but we did not had the privilege of the sommelier: someone mumbled a list of wines without even asking what we chose to eat, and with the enthusiasm of a depressive clerk. Anyway, the wine arrived after they served our entrees. And please do not dare to make a single comment about anything or you will get insulted with such arrogance. It is my worst experience ever. And I’m French so I’m used to arrogance but at this level, the Michelin should create a special category!


  1. My experience with the service at Saturne wasn't great -- it's one of those places where you feel they are doing you the favor of waiting on you (and taking your money). I can't believe that they canceled your reservation even AFTER you called just two days beforehand to add another person to the table!?

    A similar thing happened to me at a place called Mon Vieil Ami on Il St. Louis (they claimed I hadn't made a reservation when I specifically remember calling and speaking to someone who confirmed the reservation). They offered no apologies, much less a table for that evening and went so far as to imply that I was lying!? I haven't been back since (going on 4 years) and I actively encourage everyone I know to boycott the place.

  2. The whole experience sounds very Parisian, to me. Your expectations are totally justified but rather unlikely to be fulfilled in a city of restaurants where the customer usually does not come first. We didn't much like the service at Saturne either after we at least sat down to eat.

  3. allesandra: exactly! it's not like they hadn't heard from me recently. there's no chalking it up to anything but idiocy. which would have been excusable, except that they refused to correct the situation or even admit they were in the wrong.

    ben: i don't know. it seems like a cop-out, not to mention unfair to parisians, to attribute ewan lemoigne's vileness to parisian standards. it's true that what many expats would consider unconscionable hospitality experiences are not out of the ordinary here. but it's also true that in all my years of dining in paris i've never had an experience this boneheaded, this mean-spirited.

  4. Kind of funny to compare this level of service with hotels. Show up at the front desk of most hotels/motels and if they don't have a room they'll call around for you to find out who has rooms. Of course usually the desk clerk isn't as busy.

  5. TWG: on the one hand, it would be totally unreasonable to expect hotel level hospitality at a restaurant, particularly one in paris. on the other hand, if a hotel had screwed up like these guys did, the hotel would have not only booked the other place, but paid for it.

    what makes it all so laughable is that with just the barest minimum of hosting know-how none of this would have happened. it's not like the situation called for any special expertise.

  6. Thanks, Aaron, for a refreshingly personal blog about the Parisian wining and dining scene. I just left Paris after a two year stint, during part of which I was intrepidly working in the overcrowded Anglophone food and travel industry. Compared to all the oily sycophants one can read out there (and I read a lot of them for want of options), coming across your blog 18 months ago was like discovering the pristine no-bullshit flavor of a good Chablis for the first time. Most importantly, your blog is just about going out with friends to a situation-appropriate place. What could be simpler, and yet what could be harder to find in these days of the sceney reign of Chateaubriand?

    Given your candid and consistent efforts to go beyond the locci classici of Parisian gastronomy and oenology, I think posts like this one (I'm also reminded of the Ô Château one) demonstrate what blogs are for. I can read the whole gamut of reviews on Paris by Mouth -- which all sound the same, bracketing out stylistic differences -- and still never get a sense of what a restaurant is all about. I hope this leaves some impression on your readership.

    Unrelated: I've now moved to the Bay Area and am in need of a similar blog to educate me on Californian wines. From your West Coast heyday, do you have any favorites?

  7. AAP: thanks so much! that was the nicest complement i've ever received on this blog. i'm afraid i can't be much help with CA wine, or CA wine bloggers... i drink so little of the former and read so few of the latter. i'm sure there's good stuff out there.

    for a good CA based blog i might recommend Saignée, by Cory Cartwright of Selection Massale. though he covers a great deal of european stuff.

  8. Aaron, Great piece on a huge problem in Paris. I liked the food at Saturne but have never been back because there was not only absolutely no hospitality at this place, but a sort of slow simmering hostility shading to disdain from staff towards customers. I totally don't get where this comes from, but it's important to bite back, since this type of attitude is too common in Paris.

  9. alec: glad you made it to the table at least! one thing saturne did achieve that night was they ensured i'll never have the occasion to criticize their cuisine or their wines...

    oh well. many thanks for reading, and for your feedback! along with the other comments, it makes me feel a lot less like an isolated lunatic on this issue.

  10. This experience sounds so Paris - so French - Welcome to La France - zi great pays where customers are certainly never right and the patron has always raison...
    You should also try a review of Parisian taxi attitudes... or parisian waiters...

    Parisian service tends to be as arrogant as parisians. Parisians have better things to do that ensuring impeccable customer service.


  11. anonymous jake: i empathize with all of your points, but i worry they might distract from what i'm trying to get across in the above article. while service attitudes are generally poor here, the experience i had at saturne still managed to burrow well below the norm, specifically in terms of the gaping disconnect between culinary standards and service standards. in that, of the latter, there were none.

    i wouldn't go so far as to say this is typical of france, or of paris, where i've on occasion had wonderful service from excellent people. i would say only that, judging from the other comments here, i can stand by my initial assertion that zero decency verging on cruelty is typical of ewan lemoigne and the saturne team.

  12. That Ewan guy's a pretentious prick. Reconfirming the same day is a common practice at hard to book places in Paris though

  13. adrian: agreed! re: reconfirming, i have no problem with the practice as long as it is the restaurant that phones me, and not vice versa. simply because the restaurants that demand to be called back are very often the same ones that don't staff a reservationist and only pick up the phone at weird hours of the day. "please try repeatedly to get us on the phone throughout your workday on the day of your reservation even if it's busy or we don't pick up" is a little too much for any restaurant to ask of any diner in any city, wouldn't you say?

  14. Yeah, I'd agree partly, but almost every Michelin starred place requires diners to call them , not vice versa, and they can afford staff... Lots of other places too. I always like to make sure. Then again, many are a pain in the ass, but thanks in part to the instantaneous food fetish blog culture that's spinning out of control and giving an international dimension to local restaurants ..

  15. The comments on our Saturne page show you're not alone. Lots of complaints about the lack of welcome and poor service.

  16. Ewen is such a pain in the ass. I think he's always been rude, as the first and only time I met him at Racines, he was already very similar to what you described (he does not care about his clients).
    You are right, he should not be allowed to work with other people, he should retire in a cave.

    Another time, you could have tried the Café Moderne, where food is mroe than decent and service higlhy civilized!

  17. adrian: i defer to your expertise in making reservations at michelin-starred places. and i think you bring up an excellent point about our role as bloggers in turning international attention - and the expectations that go with it - to local restaurants. i would insert the caveat that Saturne is not a typical local restaurant. if your chef has michelin experience, if you are located in a business center, if your restaurant is screamingly overdesigned, if you have been covered with a stand-alone piece in the nytimes, you are not a bistro du coin, quoi.

    meg: what's most interesting about the Paris By Mouth Saturne page is the near-comical discrepancy between the blogger coverage and the majority of the commentary that follows it. i'm curious whether it derives from any one-time savvy the saturne staff may have had w/r/t charming bloggers, or whether the bloggers were just being uncritical for whatever reason.

    chrisos: which begs the question: HOW DOES THIS DOOFUS SUCCEED? my guess, on the basis of various industry testimonials, is that ewan lemoigne is very talented at sucking up to winemakers, who perhaps wear nametags when entering Saturne to avoid being taken for plebs. this is sort of an overlarge topic for the comments section (in that to delve too deeply will pit me against many of the winemakers i write about on the blog). i would just gloss the point by saying that the value of lemoigne's hospitality to members of that demographic has to be measured against the sheer viciousness with which he treats the people who actually consume their wines. at this point, i'd think twice about supporting anyone who's friends with him.

    also, many thanks for reading, chrisos!

  18. Not to continue the chronicle of shocking service, but I heard a very similar story at Ze Kitchen Galerie recently, you're at their whim I guess.
    I passed your post on to one of saturne's suppliers, lets see if the point gets back to him (not sure I would expect an Olivier Magny-esque defense from what I've heard of Ewan though :)

  19. clem: many thanks! certainly would be happy if news like this got around to everyone who does business with saturne.

  20. My experience at Saturne isn't worth recounting in detail, but in short it started fine and disintegrated into utter indifference. And the food was nowhere near interesting enough to make it worth giving them another chance. With specific regard to Ewan, though: my wine service (such as it was after the initial order) was handled by someone else, who was quite friendly, and when I'd finally managed to tackle someone to the ground, there he was again. I was a little low on bottles at the apartment, so -- why not? I asked him to put together a dozen or so at his whim that I could cart back. Which he started to do...and then Ewan came over, and very nearly ruined the transaction by being abrasive and insulting. In the end he had to leave, and so things went smoothly after that. But it stuck with me, and even though there were a few more wines I wanted to go back and try, I never did.

    Someone upthread mentioned that this was culturally typical, and whether or not that's true I couldn't say, but I would agree that the thing that has set all my worst French service encounters apart from my worst service encounters elsewhere is the bald-face lying that accompanies the blame-shifting. "It's not my fault, it is absolutely your fault" is, by now, expected, but there almost always comes a point where the person saying this is deliberately lying to justify it, and while you know they're lying and they know you know they're lying, they do it anyway, without shame. That part, at least in my experience, is something I've only found in France. Blessedly, not that often.

    Next time I'm in Paris, remind me to tell you the story of the (former) Michelin 4-peak hotel in the Loire and the mysteriously invisible winery fax. It's better over a bottle than a blog comment section.

  21. thor: i think there's an good sociological observation in there, about the bald-faced lying. it's the kind of lying one can only uphold if one has zero concern about the truth bringing reprisal of any kind. again i think this goes back to the structure of the french employment system. it even incentivizes manager figures to a priori side with their employees who are caught in lies, because to do otherwise would expose the hollowness of the managers' authority.

  22. I don't have a stake in this so I'm not even sure why I'm contributing but every one of the outstanding restaurant service experiences I've ever had has been in Paris. From the staff at L'Astrance who seamlessly accommodated our bungling of a reservation, to Pierre Jancou who, during the early days of Racines, kept up a fascinating and substantive discussion with us for over two hours, to the patronne who remembered me as I walked into her restaurant after a two year absence, I guess I want to show my continuing, albeit anonymous, gratitude. (Maybe I could explain these experiences if I were a hot babe but that's hardly the case.) Your treatment at Saturne sounds deplorable but surly service is not the norm as I've encountered it.

  23. anonymous: it sounds like you live a charmed life! it's true that exceptions to the norm of godawful service in paris are always ready at hand, particularly in the sort of quality-conscious restaurants i try to cover here. i suspect, however, we as clients wind up grateful for these moments precisely because they are exceptional.

    i don't say it's the fault of the french or the fault of anyone in particular; in the comments above i merely point to societal factors that i believe influence mass behavior in such a way as to encourage what seems like rudeness to anyone familiar with the hospitality conventions of other nations.

  24. To Anonymous' point: I've been fortunate to have experienced service of the multi-starred variety (and its analogues) in various cultures and in various forms, and I think that if I could choose one type of service and be guaranteed of getting it each and every time, it would be the knowledgeable, friendly only to the bare necessity thereof, basic and utilitarian service that a perfectly-operating, average-priced French restaurant achieves (not just French, but it will do as an example of the style rather than the culture).

    I think Frenchie is a good example of what I mean. Your friend was at my table (and until the peak of the rush, at all the tables), there was a very helpful wine discussion at the outset when the room wasn't packed, and then of course it got far too busy to accomplish more than the absolute essentials. But all of those were done, without fault, and the meal was entirely about the food, the wine, and my dining companion; the service never once distracted in an attentive or dismissive way. I like that, a lot.

    To the extent that proper French service (sub-starred level) is not about the customer, but about the restaurant and its operation, I think that form thereof is pretty perfect. Your friend is Québécoise, is she not? And thus, she probably could have practiced a more fawning sort of North American service had she felt the necessity. But it would have taken too much time, and would have damaged the service to the entire restaurant while preferencing my table. Which is exactly why it doesn't work, but also why certain tourists get (unfairly) annoyed.

    Aside from the fact that it puts the diners' emphasis on the meal and each other, the thing I like so much about it is that it scales without undue disruption. At Rino, with essentially the same experience in its details, the bigger room and some details of the meal soon overwhelmed the sole waitperson. But she managed it with only slight delays in the heart of the prix fixe, despite working up an immense sweat, and that really couldn't have been done if customers expected their hands to be held along the way. Whereas if two waiters called in sick during the same shift at Gagnaire, I think there'd be chaos and widespread dissatisfaction.

    All that said, it requires a "will" to serve in this fashion. It's a much less populous pursuit than North American-style service, and thus requires the full commitment of the personnel. If that fails, everything goes to absolute hell. And if they're actively hostile to that mission, you end up having the police called on you. ;-)

  25. ...so much ink for a place you don't like...I'd like to go see by myself, thanks for the ad!

  26. anonymous: will restaurateurs please get wise to the fact that no normal impartial reader would ever write something like that? you're not fooling anyone. good lord.

    i understand that when hurt by public criticism, restaurateurs unanimously seem to console themselves with the "no bad press" idea. fine with me. but it's never quite enough for people like "anonymous," who must then chip in their pathetic two centimes to try to ensure that everyone else sees it their way. when in fact, no one does, and bad reviews do add up, and matter.

    ink, however, is quite immaterial on the internet.

  27. You make a good point about the clash between reviews and comments. I will admit to being present at two of the meals that resulted in reviews that we later excerpted on the Saturne page (http://parisbymouth.com/saturne/). Neither reviewer was wowed by their meal, but there's a pressure to cover what's new and current and few publications are interested in negative reviews. Also, one of these took place during opening week and I think the writer wanted to give Saturne the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that even if the writer later changes his/her opinion (for the worse), the positive ink stays in circulation and isn't replaced by a negative review. In any case, Saturne seems to be one of the most contentious restaurants in Paris (the other, perhaps, being L'Arpège). People love it or hate it.

  28. meg: i understand re: writers changing their opinions, and being unable to revise what's already in print. i will admit that even this blog contains positive notices on places i've since soured on. i could go back adding negative updates, but i have the feeling it would make me look somewhat capricious and petty.

    the only effective solution would be to actually think through an establishment, meet the proprietor, get to know a place, digest it, over the course of entire seasons, before writing about it. but the blog format discourages this tempo, so we must, or ought to, fall back on simple avoidance of superlatives. (also discouraged by the format, i know.)

  29. I really feel I have to report fantastic service and food at L'Epi Dupin and the crowded, allegedly over-hyped Comptoir du Relais. When I ordered a Morgon at Compt. the waiter wondered if I wouldn't prefer a less expensive bottle that he thought was better and it was terrific. Truth be told, on that trip, all our Paris waiters were friendly and efficient. I know this is an unusual account but it was so.

  30. anonymous: i think you're misreading the comments here, and also perhaps the point of this entire post...

    no one is saying that all service in paris at every restaurant is bad. i say only that ewan lemoigne and the staff of saturne are a cast of unconscionably nasty people who bring shame to the whole profession.

  31. Wife and I went to Saturne, some time ago, and got to sit at bar. Which, proved to be quite pleasant. We aren't usually all that demanding diners, and weren't that evening. I asked Ewen for a recommendation, a lighter pinot noir, which he found quite easily, and it was good, and reasonably priced — Jura, I think, of which I am fond.

    Long way of saying it was a pleasant meal. Until we got the bill. All was expected, but the 6€ espresso? They replied "It's special." Yea, I bet it is.

    Haven't been back. So maybe that says something. We did enjoy ourselves though.


  32. hi timothy! that is indeed a lot to pay for espresso. perhaps the recent opening of the hideous and similarly piratic racines 2 near louvre-rivoli will siphon off some of the dazzled unthinking rich twit crowd, upon whom saturne relies completely, at which point the latter restaurant could, conceivably, descend to earth, ideally with a new FOH staff.

  33. Great article. My worst meal (of many) in Paris in a decade. Ewan Lemoigne was exactly as depicted above. Also, the food...not even up to par. Seriously, I can't believe this place is still in business. As a lover of Paris, I am embarrassed. Americans in particular speak of the stereotypical haughty Parisian waiter. We rarely encounter that but M. Lemoigne of Saturne is precisely of that mold.

  34. We eat at Saturne 2 weeks ago. Being very familiar with Inaki's Chateaubriand, we thought Saturne would be a "néo bistrot" in a similar vein: Fun creative food that can sometimes be a miss but is always brave and interesting. We were wrong. While the food was OK, it was entirely too tame. The pigeon was the highlight of the meal, the desserts were good, but the 2 entrées were certainly nothing to write home about. In the end, it was a decent meal but one we won't go back for.