When a restaurant or bar really blows me away, I think I instinctively look for ways to compare it to Bruce Springsteen. It's just a habit I've developed. But I think the analogy is for once justified in the case of new 9ème bar-of-all-trades Artisan.
It's an appealingly under-designed space with a big broad bar, competent cocktails, decent beer, not enough wine, and an astonishingly successful menu comprising miniaturized version of French classics: roast lamb shoulder, steak tartare, etc.
In much the same way that Springsteen's songwriting, while rarely credited with the originality of peak-era Dylan, pleases both in spite and because of its predictability, so too does Artisan's careful craftsmanship draw cheers without being the least bit innovative. In fact, that's what I like best about the place.
Artisan is the project of Frédéric Le Bordays, who previously created cocktails for 9ème house of mediocrity La Maison Mere, and for private clients through his consultancy company, Mixed Drinks. (Le Bordays, intelligent and unassuming in person, seems to have a talent for coming up with ultra-generic names. A Google search for "Artisan," for instance, brings up a lot of locksmiths and perfume companies. Anyone seeking to launder money through a nonexistent shell business might do well to seek Le Bordays' naming services.)
Artisan is less a bold new path than a studious and masterfully-executed synthesis of recent Paris cocktail bar trends. There's a restaurant and a menu, for one thing. The era (2006-11, roughly) when cocktail bars could draw crowds on the strength of drinks alone is effectively bygone. Artisan's wide, inviting horseshoe bar, par for the course in New York or London, might as well be called post-Mary Celeste in Paris.
But I'd argue that what the cocktail industry as a whole, and particularly Paris' adolescent scene, needs is less innovation, not more. Artisan presents sophisticated drinks and a lively atmosphere without Asian inflections, without caricatured Cali vibes, with no silly hidden doorways, no Mexican themes, and no vile perfumes sprayed on the cocktails - and as such, it represents the inevitable but already-overdue maturation of cocktails and bar culture in Paris. The theme is there is no theme, nor is one needed.
Instead, Artisan's appeals are classic and unimpeachable: sterling service, a sociable atmosphere, and food that is significantly better than it has to be, served from a kitchen open until 00h30. The secret weapon is chef Vanessa Krycève, a formidable polymath who at age 26 has already put in time with Ladurée, Pierre Hermès, and Guy Savoy. Her cuisine - formally trained, and delightfully unadulterated by small-plates fads - fairly slays the competition. It's the best bar food in Paris, bar none.
I arrived late the other evening to join the Native Companion and her friends, and despite all having dinner plans later in the evening, we tasted our way through much of Artisan's menu and left nothing on the plates.
The aforementioned lamb shoulder was roasted to savoury perfection, and arrived with the classic but perennially overlooked accompaniment of room-temp aubergine mash.
A steak tartare was the equal of any other I've had in Paris, fresher than a slap in the face. I'd also argue that this is a dish that can benefit from miniaturisation. I've often felt like a bite or two of tartare, while still preferring not to wolf raw beef for the duration of an entire course.
An appetiser of mussels arrived in a vermillion chorizo broth, the sort of clichéd, forehead-smackingly simple, ultimately satisfying recipe that more chefs ought to revisit.
Having trained in some of Paris' premier pastry kitchens, Krycève excels in the dessert realm. Explosively delicious chèvre-stuffed figs came with enough arugula to get lost in. Meanwhile a raisin and honey-infused Russian-Jewish cake called vatroushka was homey and seductive, and all the more memorable for being Artisan's menu's sole trend-setting moment.
This being a wine blog, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Artisan seriously underwhelms in this department. There are two uninteresting whites and two dishwater reds by the glass, plus some dull Billecart-Salmon. I understand that wines are the sideshow to cocktails at Artisan. But bad product has no place on the menu of a good establishment. It was out of blog-obligation that I ordered a glass of lumpen, flabby Chablis by Domaine d'Elise, a conventionally-farmed 13ha estate founded in 1970 with no story worth relating.
Better was a "Sherry Cheri," on the trim and unshowy listed of cocktails. It was mild and comme il faut, the sort of simple, unobtrusive aperitif that passes far too quickly.
The cocktail list isn't without flaws. It's user-friendly to a fault, and the drink names are a little obvious, at least to Anglophone eyes. But given Artisan's sundry graces, I can't help feeling it would be my loss to focus too much on this.
When Le Bordays later informed me that the menu at Artisan, along with the cocktails, will change roughly every two weeks, I was almost heartbroken. I wanted to shake him by the lapels and say, "When it's this good, why?"
14, rue Bochart de Saron
Tel: 01 48 74 65 38
A pre-opening profile of Artisan at TimeOutParis.
A piece on Artisan at LittleBlackBook.