18 April 2013

beyond compare : le mary celeste, 75003

Most comparisons of cities are offered as a way for the speaker - usually an inhabitant of the smaller or less lively of the two cities being compared - to make a display of worldliness and, in doing so, reassure him or herself of the wisdom of winding up in the smaller or less lively city. It's a human phenomenon, as common in Paris as in Boston and San Diego. One also hears it constantly from any New Yorker who has ever chosen to settle elsewhere.*

But, as Italo Calvino hints in his book Invisible Cities, in which narrator Marco Polo describes a seeming infinity of exotic metropolises that all turn out to be Venice, cities might more accurately be considered closed system unto themselves, incomprehensible to outsiders. Narrator Marco Polo's descriptions exceed the imagination his interpellator Kublai Khan, and indeed of the reader. It's impossible to accurately judge one city by the scale of another.

So far, the greatest benefit I've derived from this way of thinking is that it has permitted me to love Le Mary Celeste, an oyster bar some good friends recently opened in the Marais.

Le Mary Celeste - named after a legendary ghost ship - is the third establishment Carina Tsou, Adam Tsou, and Josh Fontaine have opened in the past two years. If I haven't commented publicly on the other two - Marais taco bar-slash-speakeasy Candelaria and rollicking haute-divebar Glass in Pigalle - it's because neither serve wine, and that thematic disincentive was enough to convince me to keep schtum, as I have no great desire to criticise good friends or kick hornets' nests. But Le Mary Celeste does indeed serve natural wine. Furthermore, the trio's establishments have attained such total preeminence in Paris' bar scene that were I to keep silent on Le Mary Celeste, it would reflect poorly not on Le Mary Celeste, but rather on Not Drinking Poison In Paris.**

Fontaine and the Tsous have not just enlivened Paris' bar scene. They've arguably re-invented it.

Good bars in Paris predate Candelaria, of course. There is, notably, Experimental Cocktail Club on rue Saint Sauveur, which opened in 2006. It was as a client of that bar that I first met Carina Tsou and Josh Fontaine, who managed and bartended there, respectively. But the ECC group's subsequent bar openings (Curio Parlour, Prescription, ECC London, La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Beef Club, soon the Fish Club...***) have seen the proprietors reiterate their laudable, if self-evident original idea - good product in a nice discreet environment - in forms more and more legible to the party girls and hollow suits they once screened out at the door. All they've done is keep pace with a drinking market that now demands a dash of gourmet pretension atop the usual plush seats and gilt-framed mirrors.

But how a bar serves is as influential if not moreso than what a bar serves. The ECC group deserves credit for teaching a Parisien clientele that it is cool to have standards about hospitality and cocktails. The Candelaria group has succeeded by insisting that these standards should be assumed - that they are not luxuries in themselves, and need not be treated as such. (The concept of luxury, in fact, is antithetical to honest egalitarian fun in a bar. To even go out to a bar is to permit chance and randomness and strangers into one's life. Otherwise we would just stay home.)

The unifying scrappiness of the Candelaria group's bars therefore serves an important psychological function. It's an inviting form of sprezzatura - of succeeding without appearing to try too hard. People seem to call it "Brooklyn-style," but I think it's more accurate to say scrappiness is simply a mark of sophistication, an evolution in taste that Brooklyn just happened (as often happens) to manifest early. Paris changing, too: you'll find fine product married with scrappy or non-existent design at L'Entrée des Artistes, La Retrobottega, Septime Cave, etc.

This is why the menu design bothers me at Le Mary Celeste. It was the first thing I noticed when I sat down. In what I'm told was an effort to break from what the owners saw as a dull consensus of minimal menu design, they present at Le Mary Celeste not one menu, but four. On separate indistinguishably-sized bits of cardboard. With wacky fonts that slant across the page.

If I didn't know otherwise - if I'd just strolled into the place on a whim without knowing the back story - I'd assume from the menus that the ownership were first-time restaurateurs who were getting bilked by some wily graphic designer who was charging them every time the cocktail list needed updating. This is not the case with Le Mary Celeste, but in business it's important not to give the impression that one is a sucker. Moreover, the maximalist menu malarkey is precisely the sort of thing one typically finds at hokey over-branded over-funded restaurants - L'Auberge Flora, for example, or Terroirs Parisien.

Graphic design quibbles aside, Le Mary Celeste is, for now, the flagship of Paris' re-invented bar scene. Nowhere else will you see people uniting in such droves for fine product unfettered by tableside formality, or tables, for that matter. At the restaurant's heart is a magnificent semi-circular bar that allows guests to stay focused on what they came for, which is, fine product notwithstanding, the other guests.

The restaurant's proprietors have long since proven their mettle at uniting interesting people, and Le Mary Celeste is another roaring success on this front. The vibe is addictive, a echo-chamber of bon mots, a mirror hall of discreet appraisals. The staff appear to be having as good a time as the guests, and that they do so while providing sterling service is nothing short of miraculous.

Over the course of several dinners there, however, I had to remind myself that this is the first real kitchen the group has attempted, not counting Candelaria's trench-warfare taco bunker. Le Mary Celeste's chef, Haan Palcu-Chang, previously worked at Restaurant Kokkeriet in Copenhagen and at Paris' premier haute-cave-à-manger for hypocrites and masochists, Saturne. (Not his fault.)

His menu changes daily, but typically it scans as a greatest hits list of pan-Asian appetizers, with the occasional guest appearance of a curiously taco-like dish. In Paris it comes across as appealingly exotic - how nice not to chew through a steak now and then ! But in practice meals can sometimes seem like a brown rainbow of sweet-n-sour brown sauce variations. (It's partly a result of kitchen constraints: there's no extraction in Le Mary Celeste's subterranean kitchen, so no frying, hence more salady things.)

The menu contains a separate section for bar snacks. Pickled topinambour and beef jerky are both idiot-proof and tasty, as long as one ignores presentation. (A friend of mine memorably described the jerky as looking "like something scraped off a boot after a long walk in the woods.")

The bar's other snack is a perfectly nice-looking kim-chi, but one which, rather gravely, possesses neither the taste of fermentation nor any perceptible spice component, making it not kim-chi but rather a sweet-and-sour cabbage salad. This is the one dish that feels like an actual concession to timid native tastes, a total anomaly in all my friends' businesses.

All this still comprises better bar food than is available anywhere else in Paris, excepting L'Avant Comptoir. (Which in any case at most hours is less a bar than a tourist cattle pen.)  And Palcu-Chang's laudable ambition and skill shine through in numerous more successful plates. Modest little lettuce wraps were among the best I've ever had, sensuous and tender, the yakitori-like chicken cooked with a thrillingly light hand. And on a recent evening a mullet ceviché was fresh and succulent enough to forgive the brittle taco-like shell needlessly underpinning it.

But the place is, after all, an oyster bar. In this function everything is delightfully comme-il-faut : the oysters change regularly, they're well-presented, and they arrive in a timely fashion. It's also a minor revelation in Paris to encounter a little oyster diversity - nickel-sized kumamotos from Maldon, flat full-flavored plates belons, and so on. A least three different varieties are on offer at any given time, all of impeccable freshness.

Fontaine and his sommelier Julien Courmont handle the wine list. It's everything I'd hoped for from Fontaine, a good friend with whom I've done a bit of wine travel. Natural-to-organic, well-balanced between classics (Bernard Baudry's heavenly, perpetually underpriced Chinon Blanc) and the inspiring upstarts (Yann Durieux's Aligoté grand-slam, "Love et Pif"). Nowhere else in Paris can you drink this well standing up.

My go-to remains Guy Bossard's magnificent "Gneiss," a total princess of a biodynamic Muscadet, delicate and refined, whose flowery sweet-corn flavors beam down from its towering minerality like a beneficent gaze.

All bottles are appealing and appealingly priced - as I imagine they must be, since at Le Mary Celeste the wine program competes with Brooklyn Lager and Brookyln IPA on draft, and, of course, an ambitious cocktail program, this time headed by the immensely entertaining Carlos Madriz, formerly bartender at left bank boutique hotel L'Hôtel.

Le Mary Celeste's most impressive aspect, finally, is that it manages to present something truly new in in Paris - high quality Asian bar food, paired with a welcoming madcap atmosphere - without leaving anyone out. If you've ever stayed up around a kitchen table trying to come up with restaurant concepts with drunk friends, you'll know how difficult this is. Parisians and expats and tourists all have a reason to get on board Le Mary Celeste - for, respectively, food that isn't French, an ambiance that isn't Parisian, and the oysters we associate with both France and Paris.

You might experience all this, and, as a visiting stylist friend from NYC did, point out that Le Mary Celeste is like a lot of moderate-to-excellent bars in Brooklyn. Good product, rock 'n' roll, on with the evening. That's missing the charge Le Mary Celeste brings to, and receives from, its home port in the Marais. Ask many Brooklyn weeknight drinkers whether they'd rather be doing same in Paris. They'd say yes, not realising that until Josh Fontaine, Carina Tsou, and Adam Tsou came along, it wasn't possible.

* An interesting feature of the Paris - New York relationship is that while New Yorkers tend to unquestioningly adore Paris for how different it is, Parisians are, generally speaking, rather more ready to find equivalencies between the two cities. Witness the brainless Paris Vs. New York blog-turned book that made the internet rounds last year: however cute or wry the individual comparisons were, taken together they comprised an implicit argument for comparing the two cities.

**A fairly tired wine blog, all told, deficient in hard info and prone to florid editorializing. Two stars.

*** I'm hoping they someday open The Baby Seal Club. 

Le Mary Celeste
1, rue des Commines
75003 PARIS
Métro: Filles du Calvaire
Tel: None as far as I know. Reserve by email: reservations@lemaryceleste.com.

Related Links:

Meg Zimbeck's early rave about Le Mary Celeste @ ParisByMouth
A blurb on Le Mary Celeste @ LeFooding
A pretty slapdash piece on Le Mary Celeste @ TenDaysInParis, where the author manages to misrepresent the bar's ownership in such a way as to a) leave out Fontaine, and b) imply that Madriz and Palcu-Chang were involved in Glass and Candelaria. Ouch.
A write-up of Le Mary Celeste @ Vogue

A visit to Yann Durieux's cellar in Villiers-La-Faye

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