11 December 2012

planet of women : l'auberge flora, 75011

One would like to cite beauty, good taste, and pleasure as one's dining ideals. But, as in most fields, there are extra-aesthetic concerns. One has to rate establishments according to the scope of their ambition, and according to the service they provide in a given community.

By the latter standard, Bastille-quartier chambre d'hôte L'Auberge Flora is a certain kind of paradise, appearing like an oasis on an otherwise creepy and barren strip of road just east of the Marais. It's the new project of a veteran Paris chef called Florence Mikula, whose previous restaurants, judging by early reviews of L'Auberge Flora, permanently endeared her to a certain generation of Paris food writers. Several elements of the new restaurant are expertly in place, or nearly so: the staff (all ladies, when I visited) are warm and considerate, and a meal is fairly priced, given it's a hotel. What the byzantine menu of tapas lacks in precision or focus it makes up for in sheer novelty. (How nice, once in a while in Paris, not to consume a hunk of meat for dinner.)

But dear god, the décor. It's like getting nuzzled by a unicorn, and waking up surrounded by twittering birds beneath a rainbow on a cotton candy cloud floating magically above a Land Without Men, where wine lists are delivered with butterfly hairclips holding the pages together. (I am not kidding.)

Now I know what certain women must feel like when they enter one of Paris' numerous acclaimed testosterone-charged bro-hole restaurants : Le Verre Volé, Aux Deux Amis, Le Chateaubriand, etc. I set foot in L'Auberge Flora and I think: "No member of the opposite sex has been consulted in creating this ambience."

The problem is, the wrong women were consulted. I have no idea who'd condone such jarringly vile froof. The silver-edged plates on the walls? The incongruous rattan thrones at the entryway? The artificially weathered tabletops? The gourds on said tabletops? The pinecones?

Restaurant décor, like restaurants overall, must be judged according to its ambition and utility, and L'Auberge Flora fails catastrophically on both counts. Its owners have paid interior designers great sums to create an environment that incites livid resentment of the sums paid interior designers. Perhaps more importantly, they have created a hotel in Paris whose décor could only be loved by female Parisians who have not traveled much.

What makes this a shame is that the restaurant, as I mentioned earlier, is demonstrably useful for more than just hen nights.

On the basis of the frightful décor and our own low incomes, my friend IF and I opted against both of L'Auberge Flora's more involved menus, which run either 45€ for three large courses or 55€ for six smaller courses. We witnessed, at an adjacent table, the arrival of former menu's "assortiment de tapas froides et chaudes selon Flora," and were confirmed in our abstention when we saw that it was basically a two-tiered Christmas tree of dainty bar food, all the tapas menu's least-effortful items.

Instead IF and I ordered six items from the tapas menu, with mixed but enjoyable returns. Nothing was outstanding, but an array of parmesan-topped razor clams were well-presented, and a terrine of beef cheek containing a chunk of foie gras was oddly lively and refreshing.

Pigs' feet with sauce gribiche were nearly identical to those served at the Yves Camdeborde's Avant Comptoir in the 6ème.

A half guinea fowl atop polenta would have profited from more flavor in the jus, or any flavor at all.

But the only outright disaster was a dish in which snails and chorizo were stuffed into a marrow bone whose marrow had been unceremoniously flushed into the surrounding sauce. I had ordered it out of curiosity and upon just viewing the thing my curiosity was already completely satisfied. We mopped it up because we were quite hungry, but avoided looking at it for too long or dwelling on the diarhettic texture.

The wine list is about as natural and ethical as one can expect to find at a hotel these days.

While there's nothing on it I'd go wild for, it's also full of things I'd be pleased to encounter whilst fatigued and unwilling to leave a hotel. IF and I started with two glasses of Jean Rijckaert's refined, robotically-precise 2009 Côte du Jura "Les Sarres."

At the same moment we orderd a bottle of Domaine Chantal Lescure's 2010 Côte de Beaune "Le Clos des Topes Bizot," and I sincerely appreciated that our kind servers brought both wines simultaneously, thereby allowing the Côte de Beaune to breathe a bit and also relieving us from having to wonder, as one invariably would do otherwise, whether said servers would ever remember to bring the second wine.

Domaine Chantal Lescure is a Côtes de Nuits estate dating to 1975; I believe Lescure (who died in 1996) was the aunt of my friend Axelle Machard de Gramont of Domaine Bertrand Machard de Gramont, which domaine previously was joined to Lescure and to Domaine (just) Machard de Gramont (of Prémeaux-Prissey) as one larger estate, run jointly by Lescure, Bertrand, and Bertrand's two brothers. I haven't had the wines of Domaine (just) Machard de Gramont. I can say that in my experience Domaine Bertrand Machard de Gramont's wines are vastly more soulful and interesting than those of Domaine Chantal Lescure.

The 2010 "Le Clos des Topes Bizot" comes from 50 year old vines in a south-east facing vineyard of 3,5ha situated on the Montagne de Beaune - but none of these details showed much in the wine itself, which was cherry-ripe, bright, pleasant, and basically tasted confected, despite the estates' certified organic status.

Fine for a hotel, anyway. But for a restaurant in Paris ? Probably still acceptable at odd hours of the day on Sundays and Mondays, when L'Auberge Flora is one of the only civilised places open, and when desperation increases one's tolerance for the surreal.

L'Auberge Flora
44 boulevard Richard Lenoir
75011 PARIS
Métro: Breguet-Sabin
Tel: 01 47 00 52 77

Related Links:

An extremely fond, well-observed piece on L'Auberge Flora by Alexander Lobrano @ HungryForParis, although it's worth noting the kitchen hasn't improved as much as he'd hoped at time of writing, back in July.

An extremely fond piece on L'Auberge Flora @ JohnTalbott, who was even fond of the décor.

Avalanche of fondness for L'Auberge Flora @ TableADécouvrir

A profile of L'Auberge Flora @ FigaroScope, which publication, I've just noticed, actually counsels diners on which specific table number to request at restaurants, as though simply by reading a mass market newspaper, readers could become truly in the know, like a horde of quasi-concierges unleashed on unsuspecting Paris restaurants all demanding table number 7. A wonderful idea, and one surely appreciated by restaurant staff citywide.

A drippy little blurb on L'Auberge Flora @ MyLittleParis (Every time I come across this site I begin to vomit butterflies.)

An uncritical profile of brunch at L'Auberge Flora @ OuBruncher, an entire site earnestly dedicated to catalogging Paris' panoply of shite brunch offers.

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