13 November 2013

an oyster bar for a better paris: clamato, 75011

I squirmed with embarrassment reading a recent NYTimes opinion piece bemoaning "How Hipsters Ruined Paris." Not because I consider myself a target.* But because I recognised another addition to the annals of expat self-hate, a genre to which I contribute from time to time. The author, Thomas Chatterton Williams, drapes his tirade in art history references worn as thin as the five-euro foulards for sale beneath Sacre Coeur. Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec - swaddle it on as thick as he may, nothing can bandage the authority-hemorrhage that begins with the opening clause of paragraph six: "When my wife and I first moved here in 2011..."

Seemingly dismayed that other New Yorkers preceded him to Paris, Chatterton Williams takes particular aim at the proprietors of Glass / Mary Celeste / Candelaria, incorrectly disparaging them as "a bunch of NYU grads." (Only one went there, to my knowledge.) It's hypocritical flanneur posturing to claim, as Chatteron Williams does, that brothels provide a better service to the South Pigalle area than Glass' sharp cocktails. But that author's  desire for a vaguely Parisian experience is something I share, at least with regards to restaurateurism.

Its why I'm delighted that Bertrand Grébaut and Théo Pourriat, the consummately tasteful duo behind Septime, have opened a third establishment on their stretch of rue de Charonne. Clamato - a no-reservations oyster bar with seven tables and a long L-shaped counter - cements their reputation as the standard-bearers for fine contemporary French restaurateurism, unself-conscious and ungimmicky. Clamato's stellar cuisine is accompanied by the same well-selected natural wines and polished service that mark Septime and Septime Cave. The only sign that Grébaut and Pourriat might be succumbing to globalist trends is the goofy name.

Clamato means tomato juice with clam juice. Grébaut has been working alongside a lot of Canadians, who insist that including clamato in a Bloody Mary makes it a Bloody Caesar. I know certain American Bloody Mary afficionados who swear that clamato is just one of a number of elements in the arsenal of a competent bartender making an ordinary Bloody Mary. But I'm not getting into it. The point is that Clamato will at one point begin serving Bloody Marys.

While awaiting seats at the bar my friend D and I dissected the décor and horfed down bivalves. Clams from Normandy were lovely, tart and knuckly and nicely priced at 9€ for a plateau of 8.**

A plate of six Maldon oysters, on the other hand, is a little steep at 18€. They were superb, fat with a peanut finish. But I don't remember paying so much for six of the same at, say, Le Mary Celeste, which will be the city's point of comparison for Clamato.

Clamato's small plates are, however, pretty peerless in both conception and execution. If I were to quibble I'd say the celeri remoulade with curry marinated shrimp could've used less mayonnaise, and the potato crisps topping a veal tartare are a personal pet peeve of mine. All other elements were divine.

A bottle of Savoyard vigneron Jean-Yves Péron's 2011 "Cotillon des Dames" was a fine match for the aforementioned clams.

Péron, incidentally, is the only French winemaker I've ever met who'll come right out and say that he wants to make wines like the greats of another country, in this case the Friuli region of Italy, Radikon, Gravner, etc. He skin macerates a number of his whites, including the "Cotillon des Dames," which, I believe, also sees some elevage sous-voile. The tannic grip of the maceration was more perceptible than any voile influence on this bottle. It had the classic parsnippy, grapefruit pithy qualities of the genre, coupled with a mellow, lemon-in-Hefeweizen fruit. While the wines I've had of his have none of the grandeur of his Italian idols, I enjoy them all the same for their originality and sense of place.

Sames goes for Clamato's list as a whole, which, while slim, is evenly balanced between French natural pearls and the slim band of biodynamic Italian and Greek guys whose wines have found a market among Paris restaurant staff.

Clamato's upscale sea-shanty décor contains a few puzzling elements. Too many different types of alien-looking lamps were used. One that looks like a dangerous bronze pineapple top is installed at eye-height right where the pastry chef works all night.

D and I also found it curious that oysters arrive through a dumb-waiter system, rather than being shucked at the bar. The only rationale I can think of is they were trying to lessen the frequency of palm-stabbings by shuckers distracted by bar-banter. It's a high price to pay in ambiance, however. In France if you order oysters and don't see anyone shucking them for five minutes, you begin to feel your order has been forgotten.

That's at places not managed by Théo Pourriat, however. Septime's central innovation is not serving fine cuisine and natural wine in a beautiful environment. It's accompanying those things with engaged service, which instantly lifts Septime, Clamato, and Septime Cave far above the stature of the city's over-applauded natural wine boys' clubs.

Significantly, because the Septime group's restaurants don't press too hard with overtly foreign themes, the hospitality doesn't feel foreign either. It feels authentic - maybe even Parisian.

* I make a point of only ever using the H-word, or the B-word for that matter, when quoting other, worse writers. Both words signify authorial conservatism, a refusal to examine further the societal trends under discussion.

** Weirdly, I've found that at street markets and restaurants, clams are typically more expensive than oysters in Paris, a total reversal of American pricing. Why is this ? It is a function of demand - are there just way more farmed oysters than clams in France? Someone enlighten me. 

80, rue de Charonne
75011 PARIS
Métro: Charonne or Voltaire
Tel: 01 43 72 74 53

Related Links:

A sneak preview of Clamato by Wendy Lyn at TheParisKitchen.

Septime, 75011
Septime Cave, 75011


  1. I too found the NYT article very obnoxious. Thank you.

  2. Please tell me it is open on the weekend!