Two observations on restaurant service, following a meal at Le Servan, the spiffing new restaurant on rue Saint Maur by the charming and demure Levha sisters, Tatiana and Katia.
One is that I much prefer the ambiance in restaurants run by women. Natural wine bistrots have for too long been the province of grouchy old men and churlish young guns more attentive to their facial hair than to guests. With Haruka Casters' 6036, Jane Drotter's newly revamped Yard Restaurant, and now Le Servan, diners of the 11ème arrondissement are treated to a preview of what I sincerely hope will become the preferred service standard citywide. Service at Le Servan is unfailingly good-natured; staff are happy to share Tatiana's subtly Asian-inflected cuisine and Katia's boutique natural wine list.
The other observation is that a terrific meal at a restaurant, like a certain other very enjoyable act, can turn unpleasant if it goes on too long. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how seductive the appetisers are, nor how climactic the main courses might be. Even at the most promising of restaurants, when an hour passes between courses, friction occurs.
A full hour did indeed pass between appetisers and main courses on my visit, with nary a check-in nor an apology. No one evinced any hurry, not the kitchen staff, not the waitstaff. Along with most of the dining room, I sat gnawing silverware, wondering if something had been forgotten.
It's painful to dwell upon, because almost every component of my meal at Le Servan was sterling, a tour de force of talent and good taste.
The space itself is sensitively lit, its yellows and beiges perfectly under-adorned, like the inside of an eastern drum.
On the menu, Tatiana Levha rather brilliantly resurrects the Russian term "zakouskis" from its afterlife in grandmother-French, and uses it to denote a section of finger-foods that can precede a meal at Le Servan.
There were radishes with an overworked herring-butter, perfectly spicy cockles, and, most memorably, duck hearts breaded and fried and served with an Asian vinegar sauce, easy rivals to Inaki Aizpitarte's classic grain-only preparation.
A highlight of the appetisers, on the night we visited, was a crab vichysoisse, as haunting and delicate as its colours were bold.
The most affecting of the wines we drank that night was François Grinand's "La Serène Blanche," a waxen, honeyed Altesse with much more forthright acid than the grape usually shows.
Grinand is the founder of Domaine du Perron, whose wines continually fascinate me, largely because the domaine exists at the ampelographical no-man's-land between the Jura and the Savoie. Nowhere else will you find weirdo sparklers involving both Jacquère and Poulsard.
The list at Le Servan might best be described as very au courant, or contemporary. It features many of the high-value, vanguard natural winemakers whose wines comprise a reliable, if at this point somewhat facile, alternative to a mature wine list : Yann Durieux, Julien Guillot, Patrick Bouju, La Sorga, etc.
I really like most of these wines. But I think they'd benefit from more regional context. For example: should Yann Durieux represent fully half of Le Servan's white Burgundy selections? Or is that a bit silly?
Much, much later, my pintade was sheer perfection, its cracking skin and pliant interior complemented by fresh peas and almond slivers. I only wish that by then my hunger hadn't lost most of its momentum. The lamb I had meant to take, that my friends took, was also perfectly prepared right down to its succulent fat.
I was ready to skip dessert. But my friends, who live right around the corner from Le Servan, had been itching to try it for weeks, and the table was hell-bent on the full experience. I was in luck, for Le Servan's dessert menu contains the sort of under-sketched, half-savoury dish that remains my favorite substitute for dessert: in this case, a plate of sharp, flakey feta accented with honey and oregano.
Then I wanted to leave a wine-blogger-shaped hole in the restaurant's glass wall, because I had been sitting in a slightly under-ventilated room for over three hours.
The Levhas are, quite sensibly, ignoring the expectations that have attended the opening of Le Servan, deriving from Tatiana's experience at L'Arpege and L'Astrance, and from her relationship with Bertrand Grébaut of Septime and Clamato. Le Servan is presently booking only one table-turn per evening, and by the time my own 8:30PM five-top ordered, there were only two orders of lamb remaining.
But as much as I laud the foresight of a new kitchen that resists demand and operates below-capacity for a while to perfect its service, I do feel that a restaurant ought either to be open to the public, or not. Le Servan ostensibly is, after several weeks of soft openings. But judging by the restaurant's unhurried pace, it feels uncomfortably like those in charge have industry goodwill to burn, and know it, and are burning it.
Heck, even I forgive them. I'll wait several months before returning, and when I do, I hope that, like my first meal, it'll basically be worth the wait.
32, rue Saint Maur
Métro: Saint Maur or Voltaire
Tel: 01 55 28 51 82
I know I have been reading my friend Wendy Lyn's site too long when I know to read into the fact that she doesn't offer hyperbolic praise of Le Servan.
My friend John Talbott calls Le Servan the best price-quality ratio of the year.