29 December 2014

blast from the present: gare au gorille, 75017

What does it mean for savvy young Parisian restaurateurs to advertise their appreciation for post-war cabaret, as chef Marc Cordonnier and server-sommelier Louis Langevin have done with their new 17ème arrondissement Georges Brassens homage, Gare au Gorille?

My dinner companion was blasé about it. She identified it as part of a wider revivalist fad among Parisians her age, rather like the superficial blues revival incited in the early 2000's by the likes of the White Stripes and the Black Keys.*

Gare au Gorille, the restaurant, not the song refrain, is a bit of a Trojan horse in this respect. Perched in Les Batignolles beside the train tracks spanning northwards from Saint Lazare, Gare au Gorille inhabits a quartier I've long considered to be among Paris' Frenchest and most timewarpy, where foreigners are scarce and their influence barely acknowledged. Yet with Gare au Gorille, its nostalgic name notwithstanding, Cordonnier and Langevin have summoned a blast from the present, replete with all the tasteful grace notes of up-to-date Parisian restaurateurism: versatile menu construction, a kindly-priced wine list speckled with foreign selections, and terrific hospitality.

The restaurant's owners previously worked together at Septime, and that restaurant's influence is felt immediately in the calm but efficient register of hospitality performed at Gare au Gorille. The servers even appear to wear the same aprons. (The restaurant's interior, meanwhile, recalls Camille Fourmont's La Buvette in its mid-century refrigerator chic.)

Cordonnier and Langevin eschew the set menu of their former workplace for one composed primarily of small-plates, anchored by two shareable main-course selections.

On the night I visited, Cordonnier, who worked for Alain Passard before moving on to sous for Bertrand Grébaut at Septime, hit both highs and lows. I had the vexing impression that his attention was not evenly divided throughout the restaurant's diverse offerings.

For example, the pigs' feet croquettes with gussied-up sauce gribiche that began our meal were a diversion that seemed to have teleported in from L'Avant Comptoir's menu of silly high-low mash-ups. The bad joke of a dish like this requires some unpacking: it consists of rustic, traditionally low-culture components (pigs' feet, sauce gribiche), transposed into a contemporary low-culture format (the croquette, a relative of the jalapeno popper), served to us in a tiny portion we associate with high-culture. Something like this would work if served like jalapeno poppers are served: in abundance, at a bar. Amid the smartness of Gare au Gorille, nestled in their spartan bowl, they fail even irony, and come across as a sort of tasty hoax. (Ingredient cost: next to nil.)

But this was followed with perhaps the most impressive new dish I've had all year, a variation on tartare enlivened with uni slivers and a double trompe l'oeil: cauliflower chiselings passed for parmesan, while the deep redness of some pickled shallots made them semi-indistinguishable against the crimson of the beef. The flavours were nuanced and seamlessly integrated; it was the rare composed cold plate whose constituent parts became something much more when combined.

The rest of the meal followed the same zig-zag pattern. Bonito with feta didn't benefit from feta (ricotta salata might have been a better choice). And a side dish of pommes darphin was a 5€
latke by another name.

I nonetheless like the overall program of side dishes. It's a clever and organic way to build a meal intended to be shared. Gare au Gorille's dismantling of dining convention is most evident in its main courses, for which sharing is practically mandated on the menu. (Rather kindly, this occurs via text and not, as is often the case, via price point. A squab was 28€, and an entrecôte was 41€, prices that wouldn't raise eyebrows in Paris as individual portions.)

That our squab for two wasn't exactly cornucopic, adorned with nothing more than scraps of sorrel and a few tiny onions, didn't bother me a bit, for it was fulsomely savoury and expertly cooked. I also appreciated the gesture of it having been plated in sections, for easy division, thereby saving us the neurosurgery of splitting squab.

Gare au Gorille's wine program, like those of most restaurants of its generation, is presently a bit limited and unexciting to my palate. It consists of solid, pleasurable natural and biodynamic French wines, unanimously current vintage, presented alongside a selection of biodynamic wines from Greece, Germany, and Italy that would be laughably superficial in New York or San Francisco, but which in Paris scans as broader than the norm. I recognise, however, that in the wilds of the 17ème, I am not a target audience. Over dinner I made do with a simple, steely Riesling from biodynamic winemaker Stefan Sander, and it's squeaky polish neither added much to nor subtracted anything from the proceedings.

So what if I would've drank much more and spent much more money if the restaurant's wine list were more interesting, if the young natural wines we all love were presented in more vintage depth, or were complemented by the wines of traditional conventional domaines who also, as if by coincidence, make no less excellent wine? Is that what I think this restaurant thing is about, money?

To be fair, amassing and maintaining a cellar is hard work, and I can forgive Gare au Gorille's owners for having backburnered this particular task, among the gazillion tasks required to open a brilliantly contemporary Parisian restaurant that succeeds admirably in all other respects.

* Being of morbid character, I can't help being concerned that there would be a full-on Brassens revival amongst intelligent young Parisians right now. It's not like a renewed interest in jazz or folk, genres that saw cross-cultural influence; the hyper-literate, satirical cabaret of the likes of Brassens can be said to have been an exclusively intra-French phenomenon, the influence of which largely stops at the borders of the hexagon. As a foreigner, I find the music curious, but impenetrable; listening to Brassens in particular is like having a pedantic uncle in the room, reciting limericks. (The closest analog I can think of in American popular culture is Phil Ochs, who hanged himself shortly after his genre had been definitively eclipsed.) For young Parisians to identify most closely with this particularly insular chapter of their nation's pop history would seem troubling at a moment when their nation's economy and culture - gastronomy and hospitality included - might do better to look outwards, and begin competing against international standards.

Gare au Gorille
68, rue des Dames
75017 PARIS
Métro: Rome
Tel: +33 1 42 94 24 02

Related Links:

Le Fooding's typical gushy-but-inexpressive blurb on Gare au Gorille.

François Regis-Gaudry in L'Express offers a slightly self-indulgent review from the imaginary perspective of George Brassens, hilarious not because of the risks it takes, but because despite the literary conceit it finally conforms to the prevailing stereotype of tedious French food writing: lists of ingredients.

Meg Zimbeck's blurb for Paris By Mouth was also a bit listy, but gets a pass for not passing itself off as a review.

Bravo to Alec Lobrano, for taking care to mention how Gare au Gorille inherited "the relaxed but gracious serving style created at [Septime] by Théo Pourriat."

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