08 July 2014

ponzu scheme: tsubame, ito izakaya, peco peco, 75009

I'm a bit late in discussing the tsunami of twee Japanese concepts that arrived on my doorstep in the 9ème over the course of last year.

I like Japanese cuisine as much as anyone - indeed, I assume I'm genetically inclined towards it - and Ito Izakaya, Peco Peco, and Tsubame all make a point of serving natural and organic wines, which, until recently, have functioned as a useful indicator of conscious restaurateurism in Paris and beyond.

But these restaurant openings mark the discomfiting moment that a natural-by-numbers wine list became a feature of contemporary Parisian décor, like Tsubame's blackboard, or the hideous scratchy DIY cardboard table in Ito's rear room. Within the context of a Japanese restaurant in Paris, a natural-by-numbers wine list is, perversely, a sign of inauthenticity, an indicator that one is sitting in a Parisian Japanese concept, rather than an unselfconscious Japanese restaurant. Whether there is really anything wrong with that will depend on the rigor of one's aesthetic demands, and whether it is lunchtime.

Peco Peco, a slightly claustrophobic canteen opened by former Bones / Peres Populaires server Benjamin Perrier and his chef Kenji Hoori, is the least pretentious and the least Japanese of the three. I stopped in for a mild vegetable donburi with my colleague L during the springtime, and appreciated the quick, responsive service, the simplicity of the concept, and the slim list of natural vins de soif. (Perrier gets points for stocking actual natural wines - Alain Allier, Stephane Morin, etc. - not just one natural wine plus random organic domaines.)

I regrettably chose a salad to accompany my donburi, a mistake, since it turned out to be just more of the arugula which already accompanied my donburi. The sauce, a sesame-inflected nothing of the sort one finds stateside at Trader Joe's.

If Peco Peco's westernised cuisine is nowhere near on par with the Nanashis, Kaori Endo's increasingly influential Nippo-canteens in the Marais and the 10ème, well, we can't all be Kaori Endo or have her investors. Peco Peco remains a fine addition to Pigalle's lunch options. Should Perrier and Hoori ever wish to expand further, I'd suggest they visit, for inspiration, any given 7-Eleven in Tokyo, where the presentation of take-away foodstuffs blows away the slipshod standard currently sufficing in Paris.

Uneven presentation likewise undercuts nearby Ito Izakaya, another Japanese concept founded by Frenchmen, this time Rafael Wallon and Vincent John Soimaud, two enterprising fellows whose backgrounds are perceptibly more rooted in fashion than in cuisine. (Wallon DJ's fashion shows. Soimaud, according to Wikipedia, played tambourine in a flash-in-the-pan French rock band who were immediately, if briefly, fêted by Lagerfeld. I think these credentials speak for themselves.)

Their experience shows in Ito's eager décor, which apparently ran out of budget in the back room, where my friends and I sweated out a frustrating meal during fashion week. I had not been informed, when I made the reservation, that we'd be seated at a communal table, let alone one made of cardboard and scratchy enough to destroy most shirtsleeves, in a room with almost no ventilation.

Service was for the most part splendid, and my tablemates seemed to enjoy our rinky-dink, zero-ingredient cost portions of aubergine, shiitake, and dashi-toned "Ito Risotto." (The latter is the only filling dish in Ito's teensy ten-course sharing menu.)

Some supple veal tataki in ponzu benefitted from Frenchification, to which I'd credit the discerning native taste for tartare.

The tiny self-proclaimed natural wine list was not very natural at all, and failed to cite the producer of its Champagne - so we drank sake, litres of it, most memorably a grippy and sweetly complex nigori (cloudy) sake called "Dreamy Clouds" by Rikahu brewery in Shimane.

More than an innocuous wine list, poor décor, or timid, business-plan cuisine, what marred the meal at Ito was a particularly bad case of the poor communication endemic to the service-client relationship in France. Ito's menu, for instance, is a model of confusion. Nowhere is it stated that the ten-course tasting menu is intended for two people, but the menu indicates that it will upcharge 30€ for a third person.

More gravely, we weren't told until the end of the meal that due to technical cock-ups the restaurant accepted only cash or personal check, which is rather a catastrophe for a press dinner. I don't plan ever to return.

Conversely, after lunching at Tsubame some months ago with my surrogate grandfather blogger figure, I decided to withhold judgement until I could return for dinner. The restaurant's lunch menu offers just two rather spartan bentos - chicken or salmon - and both had shown a sensitivity to product and cook temp that seemed to bely their witheringly nondescript format and general under-seasoning.

A black sesame ice cream, meanwhile, was glorious matte-finish understatement, the sort of dessert that redeems the trend it's hopping. (Worse black sesame desserts can also be found at corporate lunch chains Cojean and Boco these days. Not to mention Ito Izakaya.)

I left wondering whether the blandness of the bentos was a concession to French tastes, or merely a concession to lunch tastes. I had the occasion to settle the issue last week, over a pleasant meal of izakaya kid-stuff with a colleague in town for fashion week.

The wine list, always a bit of a simplistic gouge, had not changed, so we drank sake, a beverage I greatly enjoy because I know almost nothing about it.

(Whereas the knowledge that my friend Sebastien Riffault's basic "Quarterons" Sancerre is under 10€ wholesale would otherwise have prevented my enjoyment of it at Tsubame, where they charge €36.)

That meal's highlight was some impeccably tender squid with ginger and scallions, rather daringly plated with what appeared to be the beak.

The rest of the evening's small plates were as exciting as choosing a tint of grey for wall-trimming. Sliced tomatoes; a broth so light it barely supported three lonely shrimp halves, themselves bereft of flavour.

But service was engaged and charming, and the open walls of the restaurant's narrow front room are a pleasure in the summer.

Tsubame is the project of Clement Nguyen and Masumi Tao, of upscale 17ème seafood shack Atao, and the duo's greater experience is perceptible; Tsubame is, by a large margin, the most confident and mature restaurant of those under discussion.

Nguyen and Tao know their clientele. But this is, counterintuitively, the problem they share with the owners of Peco Peco and Ito Izakaya. There is nothing shocking about any of these places. They are safe bets, existing mere millimeters outside the comfort zone of your average Parisian diner, just enough to give him or her fodder for bad conversation. Where in Paris, I might ask, is the Japanese equivalent of Q-Tea, the helplessly sincere Chinese joint near Saint Georges that slayed the city's critics before decamping to Grenoble a few years back? Where is the Japanese Deux Fois Plus de Pimente, for that matter? Where is the excitement, the fright, the tears?

Some may rejoice that the 9ème is now crowded with Japanese concepts, simple places for health-and-design-conscious nibblers. I'm still waiting for Godzilla.

Ito Izakaya
2, rue Pierre Fontaine
75009 PARIS
Métro: Saint Georges
Tel: 09 52 91 23 00

Peco Peco
47, rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle
75009 PARIS
Métro: Pigalle
Tel: 01 53 16 19 84

40, rue de Douai
75009 PARIS
Métro: Blanche
Tel: 01 48 78 06 84

Related Links:

François Régis-Gaudry found Peco Peco impeccable.
Some overcaffeinated word-spray about Peco Peco at Le Fooding.
A rather kind take on Peco Peco's cuisine at Ten Days In Paris.

Vogue France naturally endorsed Restaurant Ito, as did Le Nouvel Observateur. Because it's slightly Japanese.
Time Out astutely called Ito out for tiny portion sizes.
So does Little Black Book, a French blogger who otherwise was completely smitten with Ito's version of Japanese cuisine.

John Talbott rightly found Tsubame a bit mild.
An astute read of Tsubame's culinary shortcomings at this rather impressively-focused blog called CECJ2. It offers encyclopaedic coverage on Japanese restaurants in France, organised by city and arrondissement.

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