15 April 2014

return to sender: blue valentine, 75011

At the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles, we had an amusing problem. One of the owners was friends with R.E.M., and accordingly that band featured heavily on the mandated nightly playlist. But the members of R.E.M. came into the restaurant relatively often. Whenever we got wind of their arrival, we had to be absolutely sure to switch to a non-R.E.M. playlist, to avoid the cosmic embarrassment that would ensue if the band walked in while their own songs were playing. In such a circumstance (for it did indeed occur once or twice) the entire restaurant comes off looking like the guy wearing the band's t-shirt to the concert.

So, what if you've named your restaurant after a classic Tom Waits song, and then you play Tom Waits all the time in your restaurant? This is lame before Tom Waits even sets foot in the door.

Luckily for the owners of newish Republique restaurant Blue Valentine, that problem is easily fixed. Unfortunately, it's representative of the restaurant's entire concept, which is almost unsalvageable. Blue Valentine is a clumsy attempt to ride contemporary restaurant trends without understanding any of them. Cocktail service, a magnum-only, mostly natural wine list, rock music, and a market menu helmed by a Japanese chef. Woau! But it's like the owners were told about these elements cohering successfully in other restaurants, and then the owners gamely tried to replicate the blend themselves, without first examining any other restaurants.* The result is a pitifully inauthentic experience, one of the most embarrassing meals I've had in years. I felt like the intended target of seduction by a college freshman.

Blue Valentine offers cocktails.

But the two we had were watery and mild. And the drink names are vapid ("Japanese Mai-Tai"; "Bombardier Maison"), and the selection is simplistic to the point of parody, and the restaurant doesn't contain enough bar space to justify cocktail service in the first place. (The cocktails emphatically do not go with the food.)

There are two useable bar seats, and two more that could be used if the entire staff were not relying upon the area as a service bar. This makes Blue Valentine a great place if you have no idea how to consume cocktails - if you drink them sitting down, throughout a meal, like an alien.

Blue Valentine serves wine from magnum-only, which, in terms of wine-director douchiness, is the step before Champagne sabering. Everyone likes magnums, of course. But a failed magnum program is like maintaining a sweet vintage Corvette that won't start.

The two- and four-tops scattered around Blue Valentine's dining room were not going to throw down on a mag anytime soon.The restaurant probably takes no more than three six-tops each night. This effectively reduces Blue Valentine's wine list to three quite basic selections each of red and white. On the night we visited, the Native Companion and I shared a 50cl carafe of the only wine that appealed to us, Jean-Claude Lapalu's Brouilly Vieilles Vignes from 2012.

Let the record show this is the only time in recent memory that I have consumed less than a full bottle of wine between two at dinner - and a rosy matte-fruited Beaujolais by a winemaker I like, at that. I blame the utter joylessness of the surrounding meal.

Sesame crisps arrive instead of bread, which is cute, but unimpactful, and also a bit odd in a menu that is otherwise not identifiably Asian. Along with the only beer selection, Kirin, the crisps seem intended as a dog whistle to Nippophilic French diners, a reassurance that a Japanese man is cooking for them.

What is Saito Terumitsu cooking for them? Mild preparations of asparagus and duck breast, which they know already but would like to pretend they don't. More innovative than the vanilla hollandaise that accompanied my asparagus was the dish's glaring parsimony: a sole medium-short stalk, cut into three segments.

Terumitsu trained at Le Mangevins in Tain-L’Hermitage and at Le Mandarin Oriental in Paris, and his cooking is balanced and refined. Unfortunately I left with the impression that he leans rather heavily on sous-vide preparations, as evidenced by the Native Companion's mealy monkfish and my own gluey duck breast.

The sphericality of a vacheron dessert reminded me of another twittish bubble the NC and I were brought recently at Goust, a restaurant that has never even heard of cool. At Blue Valentine, with its try-hard cocktails, its consensus-rock soundtrack, its magnum purgatory, its godawful psychedelic wall-art, the eager vacheron sphere felt like a mask slipping.

Sometimes what's behind the mask isn't so bad. The service at Blue Valentine is prompt, attentive, and as free of preening as the concept is full of it.

The restaurant is a collaboration between Léna Balacco, of femmy canal-side wine bar Sesame, and Simon Octobre, of canal-side Cambodian nosh spot Le Petit Cambodge. Blue Valentine is presumably what these two restaurateurs could agree was hip right now. It raises the question: is this cynicism or naivete?

An easier question: will I ever return to find out ?

* For a similar dynamic, see my description of brunch in Paris.

Blue Valentine
13, rue de la Pierre Levée
75011 PARIS
Métro: Parmentier or Goncourt

Related Links:

Adrian Moore got a more generous plate of asparagus than I did at Blue Valentine.
John Talbott wasn't overly impressed.

The website My Little Paris adores Blue Valentine, which brings up, in retrospect, a useful heuristic: if twee fairy websites go into raptures about a restaurant, I ought to stay away.

Someone evidently put something in Alec Lobrano's drink, because he also enjoyed Blue Valentine and made no mention of the restaurant's towering unsophistication.

Another unjustifiable magnum program at Jeanne A, 75011
A more successful magnum program at La Pointe du Grouin, 75010

Another recent point of disagreement with my colleagues at Paris By Mouth: Come a Casa, 75011


  1. I always enjoy your pieces – in fact I look forward to hearing what you have to say, and most times, thanks to you I get to add a new place on my list of things to check out!
    But, I have to say, this post really disappointed. What I find as distasteful as the meal you said you had, is the way you seem to have taken such pleasure and care to frankly being downright mean. I wonder if at any point in writing this you happened to think about the small team there, who indeed are human, work their guts out every day, are trying to make a living for themselves, and perhaps have feelings as well. I am embarrassed to read this, and I don’t happen to know any of the team there.
    It is indeed easy to sit in the back group and critique. I wonder if they will ever have the chance to critique the restaurant that you have the guts and stomach to work so hard to open and run every day?
    It’s wonderful to have an opinion, and most times I enjoy yours, and will continue to do so, but keep it responsible and perhaps once in a while stop to think about the humans that are behind the ‘mask’.

  2. dear anonymous,

    thanks for your feedback. i greatly enjoyed the irony in being chastised for 'sitting in the back group and critiquing' by someone commenting anonymously.

    i'm sorry if negative reviews offend you. i consider them necessary and useful. without criticism, what you get is your average boosterish twit food blog.

    as you point out, i even take pleasure in writing negative reviews. it's because i take pleasure in writing. i certainly hope this is perceptible in the text !

    i do take issue with your sentimental appeal about the "small team" of strivers, etc. guess what? all restaurant work is hard. no restaurant deserves leniency merely for being a restaurant. (humans, for that matter, don't deserve critical immunity merely for being humans. every business is run by humans. some good, some bad.) you might note that the one positive thing i could find to say about Blue Valentine was that its staff were attentive and helpful.

    lastly, you may continue to wonder whether the owners of Blue Valentine will ever 'get the chance,' as you put it, to critique a restaurant i open someday. what an interesting thought experiment! i'd say they by all means would 'get the chance' to do so, since blogging is free. would their opinions matter? would anyone read them? that would depend on other factors, such as their critical acumen.

    while i have no immediate plans to open a restaurant, you may be assured that if i ever do, i'll take it as a given that negative reviews will occur. to an extent i'll even welcome them, since i consider greater critical investment in an art form (such as restaurateurism) to be a healthy thing in itself.

    thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment.


  3. I don't usually write to people I don't know, but am making an exception to compliment you on your continually thoughtful posts. I very much appreciate that, unlike many of your "colleagues," you don't use your forum to curry favor with restauranteurs. You've found the middle ground between fawning and snotty which, I guess, is what happens when you just want to report accurately.