31 March 2014

managing expectations: les enfants rouges, 75003

Chefs deserve our pity. Critics dissect their every gesture in a search for novelty that is, through no fault of chefs, mostly futile. Dining is just not a novel pursuit: everyone does and has done it since the dawn of time, and any innovation is limited by our physical ability to digest it. What we refer to as innovation is usually clever curation of underacknowledged ingredients or cuisines that were there the whole time.

But not all chefs are clever curators. As a skill, it bears the same relation to cooking as perfumery does to fashion design. Luckily for such chefs, there is another route to celebration and influence. One can simply be incredibly charming.

Some chefs possess both skills, and manage to curate people and culinary styles with ease. But others, like Yves Camdeborde's longtime sous-chef Dai Shinozuka, who last fall took over Marais wine bar space Les Enfants Rouges, seemingly possess neither. These are the ones truly deserving of pity. Les Enfants Rouges under Shinozuka points no new directions in Paris dining, and at first glance manages to underwhelm despite terrific cuisine and serviceable hospitality. But Shinozuka, evidently no fool, has made all criticism moot by opening on Sundays and Mondays, which instantly renders Les Enfants Rouges one of the most useful addresses in Paris, let alone the quality-starved Marais.

27 March 2014

bonne chance: lucien la chance, 75017

A familiar quandary arises when discussing places like charming new 17ème arrondissement wine bar Lucien La Chance. I want to encourage them, because Paris needs more casual, no-reservation places that care about food and wine. But I also want many such places to be better than they presently are.

Preventing improvement is a kind of pervasive municipal campanilismo. (Italian for the local loyalty that extends as far as one's local church steeple or campanile is visible.) Most Paris real estate is tiny, and most Paris businesses are tiny, and if a tiny business is popular with its immediate neighbors, why should the owner care how said business compares to businesses on other side of town, let alone ones in New York or London? The hyperactive Paris-media apparatus to which I contribute doesn't help the situation, and the combined effect is to promote complacency in popular places.

So seems best to call it like it is. Lucien La Chance, which opened last month, is pokey and amateurish, and the scatterbrained natural wine list is laughably imbalanced. Yet I quite like the place and will probably return. What the bar presently lacks in sophistication is more than compensated for by its contemporary, youthful format: like Septime Cave, Touller Outillage, La Buvette, and La Pointe du Grouin before it, Lucien La Chance is a great chill place for an unstructured apéro with an unconfirmed number of flaky friends. Owner Guillaume Blanchot has the right general ideas about wine and product, and an amusing fondness for disco.

24 March 2014

heaven is a place...: café trama, 75006

In the course of an otherwise friendly conversation the other day, a chef-restaurateur I know asked me in exasperation whether Paris contained any establishments I actually like.

I protested that, on the contrary, my tastes are quite easily discerned. I like boring restaurants best. One gets so sick of interesting restaurants.

My favorite meals in recent memory are those that would interest most dedicated gastronomic adventurers the least. The first was Bistro Bellet, Nico Lacaze's spiffing bistrot re-boot on the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. More recently, I fell out of my chair for Café Trama, an impeccably tasteful rue du Cherche Midi restaurant whose reputation as a bourgeois canteen short-sells the enormity of its achievement. With a mild, unshowy menu by chef Bruno Schaeffer, a brilliant wine list by Le Rouge et Le Blanc editor Paul Hayat, and a welcoming, well-appointed dining room run by owner Marion Trama, Café Trama is like a beacon showing the way home to wayward novelty concepts citywide. All it does is positively ace the basics of restaurateurism, something everyone else has seemingly forgotten to do.

19 March 2014

a higher pursuit: chez aline, 75011

Chez Aline,* the thimble-sized lunch spot run out of a converted horse butchery by well-traveled chef Delphine Zampetti, has been open for almost two years now, no doubt providing daily delight to roughly sixty to eighty tasteful people who live or work right nearby.

For the rest of us - for me at least - the address is semi-mythical for how difficult it is to find an occasion to dine there. Chez Aline is open only at lunch, there are just four two-tops outside, and roughly the same number of bar-stools on the interior. So even when one wishes to cross town for lunch Chez Aline, a seat is far from guaranteed. By 3:30pm she has often run out of most of the menu.

To hell with it, though: it's usually worth the trip. Zampetti has created something like a jewelbox diorama of the low-key chef's ideal restaurant: a soulful space to cook for mainly friends and neighbors, with low overhead, zero design, and nights off to permit family life. If a chef were to renounce worldly pursuits and devote herself to a zen regimen of simple healthful toil, this is the restaurant that would result.

17 March 2014

somm needed? : restaurant roca, 75017

The friends I brought to Roca during Fashion Week probably thought I was taking them to Beauvais Airport. The restaurant, a charming if somewhat faceless contemporary effort by Julien Ross, a cousin of the owner of 10ème arrondissement middleweights L'Office and Le Richer, is not situated in the pleasant, blithely unworldly Batignolles segment of the 17eme arrondissement. It's situated in the armpit thereof, just a stones throw from the peripherique.

In any other quartier, Roca would be raking it in. Chef Alexandre Giesbert, formerly of Le Richer, cooks precisely what Parisians wish to eat these days: sweetly accessible variations on menu staples, finessed to a sheen and enlivened with the odd exotic ingredient (seaweed tapenade, kumquat). Prices are extremely reasonable.

But Giesbert's cuisine is hobbled by the restaurant's far-flung location, and an almost punitively boring wine list. I nonetheless quite enjoyed our meal at Roca. Where ordinarily I'd loudly proclaim that the restaurant needs a sommelier, I find myself torn. Because our server that evening at Roca did something no sommelier in Paris has, to my knowledge, ever done: he promptly agreed that my first bottle of Marsannay was corked, and fetched another bottle without debate.

13 March 2014

here's your future: frenchie to go, 75002

In the not-too-distant future, when Paris drops the pretense of being French, Le Fooding will organise several multinational corporations to erect a statue in honor of Frenchie founder Gregory Marchand.

Smaller versions of the same statue made of Claudio Corallo chocolate will be sold in Frenchie To Go, which by then will be a fixture in frequent-flyer lounges throughout the western hemisphere. As now, the original Frenchie To Go location on the rue du Nil will be frequented principally by foreigners for whom the experience of eating a pulled pork sandwich in the City of Light is unforgettably tickling. "Can you believe it?" they'll beam at one another between bites. "We're in Paris!"

The attraction-packed rue du Nil, of course, will be unremarkable by then. For it will have become an urban planning template for much of the city. (Already, some well-intentioned financeers have plans to create another foodie wonderland by Arts et Metiers.) Actual Parisians will have long decamped outside la Peripherique, where a fugitive culture of sitting around consuming nothing in well-preserved cafés will persist. For city real estate - even of the momentary kind, like a seat at a restaurant - will be priced beyond the means of all but visiting princelings. The latter will flock to Paris from all over the world in order to taste, at Frenchie To Go and its many imitators, the absolutely definitive versions of the cuisine they remember from turn-of-the-century food blogs.

10 March 2014

you've goust to be kidding: goust, 75002

A magazine I write for sometimes called Punch recently published two interesting pieces about what it means to be a sommelier. The comment threads beneath these articles quickly devolved to something approaching trench warfare, with lines clearly drawn between those who consider "sommelier" a role, like an emcee, and those who consider the term to be more like a title or accreditation, like "PhD" or "Licensed Beautician."

Personally, I would very much like to have already internalized and recited the industry catechism required for certification by any of the big sommelier accreditation bodies. Then my opposition to them could be taken seriously. As it is, any criticism I might offer would rightly have the ring of sour grapes.

I'll stay mum for that reason. I will however say that for a sommelier to emblazon his restaurant's menus with his name and the epithet "Best Sommelier in the World," as title-winner Enrico Bernardo does at his recently Michelin-annointed restaurant Goust, is a laughable act of hubris, one that inadvertently seems to trivialize the responsibilities of a sommelier. It's like calling a certain chair the Best Chair in the World. Ultimately, it's a place where you sit, not terribly dissimilar to the second or even the third-best chair in the world.  A restaurant is a place where you eat and a sommelier is the fellow who helps you navigate the wine list. To truly require the utmost services of the Best Chair in the World or the Best Sommelier in the World, one would in both cases have to be a very demanding ass.

The rest of us who enter Goust planning merely to eat food and drink wine are unfortunately in for a minor letdown, since for all its rigor the sommelier competition Bernardo won had no section on good taste in restaurateurism.