18 July 2012

situation vacant : l'office, 75009

I learned relatively recently that a restaurant I often passed in the 10ème arrondissement - a miserably named,* anonymous-looking establishment called L'Office - had been garnering great reviews under the direction of a newly-installed American chef.

Then the other day - after having met said chef, Kevin O'Donnell, through mutual friends, and after having dined once at his restaurant - I learned that O'Donnell is already slated to return back to the states. In Paris one gets used to people passing through; acquaintances often last for the duration of their summer courses or fellowships or internships. This still seems like quick turnover, particularly for a place that appears to have some momentum.

Maybe I have just been in France too long - I've forgotten how fast American careers can move. In any event, I thought I might as well share my impressions of L'Office, before they lose all relevancy. They can be summed up by saying that O'Donnell could perhaps benefit from more time in Paris restaurants, but I totally understand why he might want to escape France pronto. To phrase this less enigmatically: the cuisine at L'Office was a little under-sketched, which is something that can be improved, and one of the servers completely sucked at his job, which is something that, in France, cannot easily be improved.

For those not acquainted with French employment law: it is almost impossible to fire employees here without paying huge, business-busting sums of money. This has the benefit of making France, for those already established inside its systems and coincidentally born without ambition, a place of marvelous social stability. It is also why most restaurant servers act as if they own the establishments they work in. They virtually do ! Sometimes I feel like I write, or I should write, a version of this same paragraph in every discussion of hospitality in France. Hospitality in France is to a large extent handicapped by the French employment system, which ensures that the employees of any establishment are free to prioritise their personal convenience over the comfort or enjoyment or basic needs of anyone patronising said establishment.

On the other hand, it allows bank tellers, ticket sellers, and bartenders to finish their lengthy conversations about the weather or football with the next person in line before attending to you. So the system has its benefits, at the expense of meritocracy as we know it.

The fellow at the L'Office wasn't malicious at all. He was just bad at his job - the kind of server who would be railroaded right out the door at a professional restaurant in a major city not located in France. His opening salvo to the table, while my out-of-town friends were still hanging their bags from their chair-backs: 'You will all have to order very quickly because there is a table of six and a table of eight also ordering very soon and otherwise you will have to wait a very long time for your food.'

I appreciate the honesty. But at this table was just one French speaker (me). Two visiting Greeks, two visiting Americans, and an Italian who lived in Tokyo. The cultural-linguistic clusterfuck meant the order was simply not coming in quickly, and our table was not late enough (about ten minutes?) for us to feel guilty about this. Instead of reading the situation and adjusting his plan accordingly, the server launched into a rapid-fire description of the preparations of each dish. In the middle of this I rose to briefly greet the restaurant's other server, with whom I'm acquainted, and this earned me an actual rebuke from our server when I sat back down.

'You're not listening? You won't know what is in each dish !' he warned me.

To which I had to reply that I already know what burrata is. I didn't particularly care for the shpiel, since I'm not picky about ingredients and will happily eat whatever is placed in front of me, and moreover my exit from the table had done nothing to prevent the server's urgent descriptions reaching the audience that actually needed them, my guests. The dude was simply doing a bit of insufferable waiter-preening, distracting everyone. Especially the rest of the table, who were as appalled as I was.

At L'Office, checks are presented lodged like bookmarks in books from the small library of conscious-eating literature scattered around the bar. I found it cute, in a small-town sort of way. 

What made all this even more painful and unnecessary was that the fact that this server who I am describing at such tragic length was the probably only staff member in the restaurant at that time with whom I was not acquainted on a friendly basis. (Here's hoping the basis remains friendly with the rest of them.)

Our order, when we finally gave it, came out fairly promptly. There was no undue wait and all that hustle was for nothing.

In the meantime I'd had a chance to dig into the wine list, which was quality-oriented, if not exceptionally natural or organic. I appreciated the gestures at globalism - Domenico Clerico and Elio Grasso from Piedmont, Barranco Oscuro from Granada - even as the simplicity and high prices of these bottles sort of depressed me. (Non-French wines will remain overpriced curiosities on French wine lists until the French become interested in, and willing to spend money on, wines from other nations. There is not a great deal of incentive, however.)

What I found less easily explicable was the wide range of Burgundies from Jean-Marc Bouley. I hadn't planned to mention it on the blog, but my friend J and I visited this estate in Volnay during our road trip last October, and it was the one tasting from which we walked away shaking our heads in utter incomprehension of why anyone ever recommended we go there. The wines are inky, graceless bruisers, and their presence on the list at L'Office indicated that the other producers on same list - Bruno Clair, Jean-Louis Trapet - were selected more on the basis of their consistency than their quality (both, incidentally, much better than Bouley).

It was murderously muggy the night of our dinner, so we kept to white wines and rosés. A disappointingly innocuous 2009 Aligoté from Domaine Marquis d'Angerville, a reliable, delicious 2011 Sancerre Rosé from Domaine Vacheron...

What wound up suiting what we ordered best was a steely and marvelously balanced 2007 Mâcon-Lugny "Les Crays vers Vaux" by Jean Rijckaert,* former partner of Jean-Marie Guffens of Domaine Verget. Since he and Guffens ended their collaboration in the late nineties, Rijckaert has been producing his own acclaimed squeaky-clean whites from vineyards in the Mâcon and Jura.

Ordinarily they hold no great appeal for me, being squeaky-clean, but on this occasion there was nothing more interesting in the price point, and I'd been curious to see what a quality operation would do with the undistinguished Mâcon-Lugny appellation. (The last time I had a Mâcon-Lugny was with Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionney over lunch as refreshment before we began drinking real wine.) Rijckaert's 2007 Mâcon-Lugny was a pleasant surprise, showing an athletic sort of lime-mineral profile with enough dewy fruit to match the mussels that accompanied my swordfish.

(The mussels were another surprise, not having been listed on the blackboard as part of the dish. Shellfish are usually an important thing to mention. I'm not allergic or kosher or anything, but still I entertained the idea of faking a death scene in which my final words to our waiter were, "I should have listened to your desciption... Argh!")

My swordfish was scrumptious, sort of an Italo-bouillabaisse, and I was happy to note that the fish wasn't cut weirdly thin like one often sees it at the street markets here. (I'm not kidding, some French fishmongers seem to dole it out like prosciutto or something.)

Unfortunately pretty much every other savory dish struck us as a little confused. O'Donnell previously worked for my former employers, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, at their restaurant Del Posto in NYC, and I've read that his stated intention at L'Office has been to offer Parisians a slightly Italian take on bistrot cuisine.

In our starters and mains, this amounted to a deranged, soupy burrata dish in which there was no perceptible textural contrast between the burrata and its accompaniments, and some pancetta in my swordfish broth.

Other dishes, like a slightly too-acidic appetizer of beets with hazelnuts and goat cheese, felt completely autopiloted, like the sort of thing a reasonably sophisticated garde-manger cook would come up with in his or her sleep.

My friend D's duck, while fine meat, was totally lost and abandoned on a bed of dry sauceless rice and Chinese cabbage, as though it had taken the wrong connecting flight and wound up in a Chinese restaurant in Montpellier.

The meal's high point, strangely, came in my friend E's dessert: accompanying her tarte aux fraises was a basil ice cream of such powdery, understated sweetness that I was tempted to order a bowl of it for myself.

The kicker, which I've neglected to mention until now, is L'Office's menu pricing, which at 33€ for three courses is tremendously generous - it's the price of a steak at many worse restaurants in Paris. There are, however, quite a few restaurants here that seemingly do the Franco-Italian marriage more convincingly: Vivant, Rino, and La Gazzetta, to name just a few.

I nevertheless have enough trusted friends who adore L'Office to wonder whether I arrived on an off night for the kitchen. I hope to have the chance to get back there sometime before O'Donnell departs, ideally when that one server isn't working.

* In every city I've ever lived in, there's been a bar or restaurant called some variant of 'The Office.' Who finds this amusing? To be cheekily reminded of that from which one has presumably just escaped?

** I've always admired his last name for how it looks like someone fell elbow-first on a keyboard. 

3, rue Richer
75009 PARIS
Métro: Cadet
Tel: 01 47 70 67 31

Related Links:

Kevin O'Donnell gives his Paris recommendations to my friend Wendy Lyn @ ParisKitchen
A 2012 rave about L'Office @ JohnTalbott
A 2011 rave about L'Office @ HungryForParis


  1. I like your blog, but I believe you should get over the French employment clichés you're repeating every other post.

    "For those not acquainted with French employment law: it is almost impossible to fire employees here without paying huge, business-busting sums of money. This has the benefit of making France, for those already established inside its systems and coincidentally born without ambition, a place of marvelous social stability. "

    Come on.
    You're talking about waiters, not state employees or CEOs. "huge sums of money" and "without ambition" appear quite out of place here. Most waiters are under short terms contracts really easy to break, and don't plan on doing it all their lives.

    I lived two years in the US, I was never really fond of the whole "I'm Jenny, I'm so glad to be your waiter tonight, everything in the menu is so great and awesome, thank you very much for being our guest tonight" thing and the chitchat every two minutes even if you're trying to actually enjoy the evening and the food with your real friends. But I actually enjoyed it sometimes and anyway didn't feel like I should explain to American how they should behave and didn't feel I had any right to tell them why their culture is crap.

    1. hi mixlamalice ! thanks for you comment. if you don't like my feelings about French employment law, I cordially invite you to go read other wine blogs. In the above post, I myself noted that I seem to go off on the subject quite often; it's something I feel fairly strongly about at this point. it seems to me that the relatively flexible short term French contracts to which you refer - and indeed the stereotypically chatty US hospitality - are both hallmarks of of large scale corporate restaurateurism, a subject I rarely cover on this blog. the establishments that interest me are the small scale ones, which typically have much less turnover, and which rely proportionately more on long-term contract staff, who are effectively unfireable. in my non-blogging working life in France, I encounter this dynamic constantly. In this instance, "huge" sums of money simply means "enough money severely impact the business in question." are you familiar with the average margins of a small restaurant? I have worked for international companies in France that are nonetheless absurdly cagey about letting go of entry level workers due to the costs involved.

      all this is to say, I'm not being entirely flippant in my lamentation of French labor law. it is very constrictive to business, and it does have a great impact on daily interaction.

      the complaint about chatty US waiters seems to have been internalized by a number of French people, and I would blame bad Hollywood comedies for this, rather than reality.

      if however you had taken it upon yourself to lecture an American readership on table side etiquette, I think you would have done the nation a service, and been a big success to boot. why not start a blog? I don't think lecturing nations on their shortcomings is a bad thing at all. if I lived in America, I'd be bitching about the American employment system, which is riven with its own flaws, almost the opposites of France's, and equally wrongheaded.

    2. Well I have a blog myself, thanks for asking; I just didn't want to publicize it here since it is only about a French state employee (academic researcher, with, as you may not know -and probably do not care anyway- almost 50% of colleagues with short term contracts that only run for 10 months or so) who only talks about wine and restaurants from time to time*. I never worked in the industry and probably never will, but I am not, as you seem to imply, only eating out at Bertucci's and Brasserie Flo.

      Sure I could read other blogs, which I do, and I could also go f*** myself as your kind answer seems to suggest, but a blog is made for sharing, even opposite point of views, isn't it?
      As I said, I usually like what you have to say about restaurants and wine and some of your "philosophical" comments, but do not feel comments on our working system are very "deep", sorry. I could have suck it up, and next time will, but well, there is a comment section, you should close it if you don't want any.

      My complaints about US waiters is about as cliché as yours about French ones (and maybe as real as yours), that was my point; bad Hollywood comedies may have the same impact on both sides (we are rude, greasy and smelly, aren't we? you are loud, over-talkative and cheesy, aren't you?). Reality is somewhat a bit more complicated than cliché though, even if clichés exist for a reason.

      It appears to me that foreigners living in Paris for too long become just like parisians (with the clichés your friend O. Magny wrote about), sometimes even worse: always ranting, always staying.

      * if you are curious about it, which I don't believe you are, you can just google mixlamalice.

  2. Every city also has a bar called The Library, without fail

  3. The name might not be so bad. In French “un office” is a paring knife so I assumed this was meaning of L’Office but could be wrong. It also used to refer to a room attached to the kitchen used for service, so it could very well refer to this as well. In any case it may not be used in the English sense of the word.

    I think another problem with French service is there is no incentive. You don’t need to hustle because you aren’t making tips. I worked for nearly 2 years in a restaurant in Paris and the pay was miserable compared to what I made in the US. We were paid the SMIC (about 8 per hour then) and then made a small amount of tips (we pooled them and the kitchen got a cut as well which I think is fair). Without the tips, I could never have survived. My employers however paid double that because of all of the social charges and so in France you might have one waiter working 10-15 tables because a small restaurant can’t afford to have an army of waiters.

    In the US, I easily made 4 times as much and had four tables, a bus boy, expediter, and host. Here you often do it all (including answer the phone) and are paid roughly the same if you have 5 tables per night or 20. So, while not an excuse for bad service, I can understand why many restaurants have trouble attracting high-quality, passionate servers. The pay is just not appealing in many places.