An address that often seems to get overlooked or underrated in the perennial 'Best Bistrot' features these days is chef Thierry Breton's first restaurant, Chez Michel, opened in 1995.
The reasons why are manifold. For one, it's near Gare du Nord, and despite now owning practically the whole block, Breton has proved unable to single-handedly disperse the neighborhood's tenacious loiterers and miscreants. The Paris gastronomes who do brave the trek to the restaurant might still be put off by its glamourless clientele, mainly tired train-travelers and Asian tourists. In my own case, I neglected to dine at Chez Michel for years because the restaurant retained a reputation for being incongrously pricey, a result of an ill-advised and since abandoned highbrow push sometime in the past few years. (This 2011 blog post by Bruno Verjus, for instance, reports that the menu then was 50€. It's 34€ now.)
Whatever the restaurant's ups and downs over the years, it's in a fine groove right now, having attained an effortless sweet-spot consisting of informal service, an idiosyncratic, well-priced wine list, and a menu rendered exotic for its unswerving devotion to Bretonne country-cooking.
Breton plays his menus less safe than many of his competitors.
In place of the usual steaks, scallops, sole filets and what-not are wondrous creations like a salad inside a huge crabshell, or kig ha farz, a Breton variation on pot-au-feu that includes chunks of buckwheat stuffing.
A small pile of black bigorneaux, or sea-snails, arrives as an amuse-bouche. The little metal picks speared into a cork on the plate are emblematic of Breton's quietly commanding flair for plate presentation. Soups at Chez Michel are poured from generous tureens that remain on the table to tempt one's tablemates.
I've chatted with Breton a lot, and recently interviewed him for Punch Magazine, and on each occasion he insists he doesn't know much about wine. One glance at Chez Michel's wine list betrays his modesty. The list is laden with greats, at mostly great prices. Each time I visit, it's hard to resist starting with Pierre Overnoy's Arbois Pupillin Chardonnay.
But even more impressive are some of the restaurants back-vintages, which range from minor curiosities like a 2007 Pouilly-Fuissé from Domaine Vallette, to true geek revelations like Jean Thévenet's Mâcon-Clessé Rouge from 1991. The latter was, remarkably, still in form, with a languorous, luminescent, lightly spiced red fruit pitched somewhere between old Nebbiolo and Turkish Delight.
|Pictured at La Pointe du Grouin, where I first tasted it.|
Chez Michel, incidentally, is anything but a young restaurant. Breton retained its name because of the two renowned Michels associated with its former greatness: Michel Malapris, its founder in 1939, later a president of the Académie Culinaire de France, and Michel Tounissoux, a maitre cuisinier under whose direction the restaurant attained two Michelin stars, before closing in 1992. When Breton took it over, it had been shuttered for three years.
Even as the restaurant under Breton has become a venerable landmark in its own right, it retains the same scrappiness and sense of improvisational service as Breton's other two restaurants. So while a meal at a more polished traditional restaurant like Bistrot Paul Bert or Le Griffonnier feels, above all, satisfying, a comparable meal at Chez Michel feels no less than miraculous - at least until one returns, for more miraculous meals.
10, rue de Belzunce
Métro: Gare du Nord
Tel: 01 44 53 06 20
A recent piece I wrote on Thierry Breton's adjacent wine bar La Pointe du Grouin for Punch.
La Pointe du Grouin, 75010
Chez Casimir, 75010
A 2011 post on Chez Michel by PatriciaWells, who (probably rightfully) decried the pricing at the time.
A 2011 post on Chez Michel at FoodIntelligence.
A 2011 post on Chez Michel by my friend Meg Zimbeck.
LeFooding on Chez Michel.