09 February 2012

b minus: agapé bis, 75017

When I was introduced to restaurateur Laurent Lapaire at Le Grand 8 a few months ago, I confessed that while I'd heard a great deal about them, I'd yet to visit any of his restaurants - not the 17ème's Agapé, not its "bistro" sibling Agapé Bis, not Agapé Substance, his tiny nigh-unbookable haute-gastro kitchen on rue Mazarine. I asked him which I ought to hit first. He suggested trying them in ascending order of price and refinement: first the Bis, then Agapé, Substance last.

To be fair, it's natural for restaurateurs to consider their restaurants as parents would their children. He was probably taking care to provide equal attention, and making allowances for differences of personality. But, taking his advice at face value, some colleagues and I took two taxis out west to the 17ème after showrooms one night this past fashion week, planning to check out the tasting menu at Agapé Bis.

Let's say that if any of us ever make it to the other two restaurants, the bar is set pretty low.

Five of us arrived at 9pm, and we trooped over to our assigned table, which, while circular and sufficiently-sized, was unfortunately ostructed by a column at one side and situated in a shadowy corner beneath a forest of laden coatracks, barely a meter from a boorish birthday party transpiring at the restaurant's semi-private rear table. Since every restaurant has less-than-ideal tables that must nevertheless be filled every evening, I decline to mention these things usually, unless, as at Agapé Bis that night, there is such a concatenation of unpleasant circumstances around a given table that one begins to feel hexed. I half expected vultures to be circling overhead.

But no - just the waiters. They circled, and circled, and continued circling far beyond all reasonable standards of decency for the issuance of menus, wine lists, water, simple bonsoirs, etc. It must have been a solid fifteen minutes, which wait was all the more galling since the restaurant was about half-full, and servers were in our field of vision all the while, visibly ignoring us, looking away when we waved.

Is it too facile to attribute this oversight to the parochial habits of a Paris restaurant in a depressingly conservative quartier - a restaurant whose usual patrons are possessed of at least twice our age, and at least three times our income? Usually I shy away from this sort of touchy reasoning, because it's the same used by every American tourist who feels in any way slighted by his or her waiter. I would however urge each one to visit Agapé Bis, to experience the real thing (routine condescension).

I conferred with my friend D and we decided to forgo the tasting menu, however much we'd been looking forward to it, since if the opening rhythm of the meal obtained throughout, it would mean we'd finish the tasting menu sometime around Armageddon.

We were not in good hands, a suspicion confirmed by the agonizingly gauche service of a somewhat pricey bottle of white Burgundy I ordered, the 2008 Hautes-Côtes de Nuits grown near the Abbaye de Saint-Vivant and vinified and sold - as a charity endeavor supporting restoration of same abbey - by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

In Burgundy this past October I visited this abbey with neighboring winemaker Axelle Machard de Gramont, and learned about the existence of DRC's Hautes-Côtes then. Apparently about 60 cases are made each year, and it goes for 40€-something in the village bistro in nearby Curtil-Vergy. It's almost double that at Agapé Bis; the bottle indicates it was "Selected by Caves Augé."

A bottle like this is fascinating partly for what it tells us about the limits of terroir, since the underlying assumption is that if anyone can be relied upon for faultless vinification, it's DRC. The Abbaye de Saint-Vivant Haut Côte, finally, tastes like very exceptional Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, not, to the disappointment of all who have tried it, like very unexceptional Montrachet. It's silvery, modestly fruited, and betrays precisely zero expectations for greatness in its production, attaining only a tantalizingly faint smoked salt - pineapple accord.

It was nevertheless sort of appalling to see it glugged out into our glasses in gargantuan Super-Size pours, totally unswirlable, as if the server were in a great hurry to finish the bottle before he even topped up my tasting pour. He did neither in the end, merely twaddled off.

Now, every night across Paris many grave incivilities are committed in the guise of the "bistro," a word that for a certain class of restaurateurs is synonymous with total abdication of all service responsibilities, such as silverware, or non-violence. I should make it clear that the folks behind Agapé Bis are not that sort of restaurateur. The service the night we went was clumsy, ignorant, and obsequious, but not barbaric or vicious. Then again, Agapé Bis is not much of a bistro. It possesses none of the spontaneity or classic French staples we associate with bistro-hood; instead it has two levels of tasting menu, a normal one and a "carte blanche." In that it serves much more refined cuisine and has a voiturier (valet), it is a bistro aimed at people for whom a visit to an actual bistro might be semi-ironic, or too risky.

I will say that at least these people have decent taste. The wine list is a diplomatic document that devotes gestural lay-out space to dumb-money critic wines from dead-obvious regions, only to soar off into joyous natural-wine geekiness - Robinot, Noella Morantin, Derain, Villemade, and so on. It is a good list, containing several actual back-vintages of natural wines, something one really ought to encounter more on actual wine lists (as opposed to, say, hidden by the caseload in the private cellar of Les Fines Gueules).

And the cuisine, with one or two exceptions, was very competent, if slightly lacking in acid throughout. The kitchen has changed hands in the last year, and is now run by two young chefs, Frédéric Lyard and Antoine Michelson, who between them have worked Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire. I could criticise their present work for being a bit too ikebana, a bit too focused on visual prettiness at the expense of flavor cohesion or heft, but that's mostly a personal preference.

This carpaccio made me long for a nice Italian crudo preparation - something with oil, or citrus, or any type of moisture whatsoever. This was like space carpaccio for astronauts. 

The avocado added precisely nothing to this dish, save colour. 

Plate presentation took a left turn at 90's-Asiatic and arrived at nuevo-Mexican.

It also would not explain why my friend E and I disliked our hampe de veau fermier, which, while substantial, was as anomalously bland as it looked.

It felt salt-forgetful, something that happens in kitchens sometimes.

Desserts were uniformly enjoyable, displaying admirable nuance both gustatory and architectural.

As a corollary to my mild criticism of the appetisers above, I might note that dessert is the moment in a meal when I most welcome visual trickery and evanscescent flavors. By then I am full.

Sadly, none of us were in a mood to linger, given the series of delays and missteps we'd already endured. If I remain vaguely curious to visit the other two incarnations of Agapé one day, it is in the hopes that the Bis is just the unruly prodigal son, going through a phase, unrepresentative of the family.

Agapé Bis
75, avenue Niel
75017 PARIS
Metro: Pereire
Tel: 01 42 27 88 44

Related Links:

A very excited 2007 post about DRC's Hautes-Côtes @ EnPrimeur

An glowing 2011 review of Agapé Bis @ GillesPudlowski, in which he basically just lists ingredients
An uncritical awed review of Agapé Bis @ ParisExpat

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