In trying to descry the origins of the hazy aura known as restaurant hype, we often overlook its simplest element, which is thrift.
Patronising restaurants is not a thrifty habit in the first place, which is all the more reason for diners to flock to restaurants that are good value for money. Surprisingly few Paris business owners seem to understand this dynamic - that increased turnover, despite the hassle, is sounder business footing than high prices. The result is a surfeit of demand at good-value establishments, or, in a word, hype. But what becomes of the capable restaurants that are just not quite good enough a deal ?
One such haunt is La Boulangerie, a Ménilmontant bistrot I seem to have avoided for the past five years on account of its hypelessness and its faceless, rather confusing name. Imagine my surprise to discover, when I finally ducked in for an impromptu dinner with a visiting friend, that it's in fact a mature, quality-oriented establishment that seems to exist just slightly out of its era. It's pricing is pre-Euro crisis, let's say, and its plating is mid-Chirac. The pleasant hospitality, broad wine list, and the staggering armagnac selection, on the other hand, are all timeless.
How refreshing is it, in this part of town, to see a solid, quality-conscious wine list that is not a natural wine list ?
Regarding it, I felt transported to the 6ème arrondissement, to places like Fish and Semilla, where one can rediscover wines already introduced to America long ago by Becky Wasserman and Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal...
Seriously, though, I do admit that the natural-hegemony on the wine lists of young, ambitious Paris restaurants is getting out of hand. At a certain point, it comes at the expense of variety. And in any case I'd rather drink Marsannay master Sylvain Pataille's basic Bourgogne Rouge any day than, say, a bottle of Yann Durieux's red Hautes Côtes at twice the price.
But prices on Boulangerie's list reflect a time before caves-à-manger came to dominate east Paris. I have to continually remind myself that these sorts of mark-ups are normal elsewhere in the world.
Feeling pinched that evening, my friend and I knowingly committed the Paris dining peccadillo of sharing an appetiser. Our loss: a plate of sautéed baby squid was flavourful and cooked to perfection, an unexpected sunburst of mediterranean seaside charm.
A main course of slow-cooked Limousin beef was a minor disappointment, dry and bitterly seasoned.
My companion probably ought to have been alerted by the menu description "au condiment thai." Chefs in French bistrots do Asian inflections with all the subtlety and nuance of a boeuf in a China shop.
My own mackerel in saffron beef broth were tastier. In their unusual surf'n'turfiness, they reminded one to what extent restaurant menus are dictated by peoples' dietary restrictions. Fish main courses very rarely arriving swimming in meat juice. In this instance, as in other, more refined ones (like James Henry's omnivorous plating at down the road at Bones) I appreciate the commercial blindness of the gesture. (At Bones, it is presumably self-conscious, intended to signal seriousness to diners. I do not think this is the case at La Boulangerie.)
We concluded the meal with an almost impeccable cheese plate, composed of cheeses refined by Alléosse, a venerable Paris cheese house whose website, I note in passing, has been memorably described by my fellow natural wine blogger Eva Robineau as "a true instrument of torture." Their Brillat-Savarin, happily, was quite the opposite.
After our meal I chatted briefly with co-owner and dining room manager Nordine Nidhsain, who was unflappably chill and welcoming. He complemented my shoes and I complemented his Armagnac collection. He explained that the restaurant had existed since the early 20th century, but that he and his brother Hassan, the chef, along with a third partner, Fabienne Gérard, in 2005. Fabienne had been our extremely genial server that evening. How was everyone so nice? I found myself wondering. Is it because they don't do much business ?
To put La Boulangerie's pricing in perspective, here are some other Paris restaurants with superior cuisine offering at least three-course menus at 36€ or less: Bistrot Paul Bert, Café des Musées, Bistrot Bellet, Chez Michel, Repaire de Cartouche.
But you cannot walk into many of these restaurants on a Friday night with three friends and easily get a table.
Personally, I hope one day to graduate to patronising more restaurants that are not quite a good deal. The calmness of their service, and the last minute availability of a table, are, at the end the day, easily worth another few euros. It is the price of convenience.
La Boulangerie reopens for service on the 19th August.
Tel: 01 43 58 45 45
A rather measured, underwhelmed note on La Boulangerie in Le Fooding. (Perhaps the only unenthusiastic review on that entire site.)
A surprisingly astute review of La Boulangerie in Time Out.