14 January 2015

happy returns: simone restaurant & cave, 75013

Aggrieved chefs and their supporters routinely cite, among the evils of journalism, the neophilic tendency of critics to descend upon a new establishment and review its infancy, without ever returning to see how it matures.

I more or less agree with this gripe. It's the reason why the public face of an overachiever restaurant like Simone Restaurant & Cave in the 13ème remains frozen in September 2013, when it was no more than a welcoming and simplistic natural wine bistrot with a fine terrace. The Paris press duly reported this, but in most cases could think of nothing more to say besides how sympa the place was. (Whether niceness and decency constitute newsworthiness in contemporary Paris is, for now, beside the point.)

But chef Arnaud Soinsot took over from opening chef Mike Stewart in late August of last year, and Restaurant Simone's cuisine now shows significantly more ambition. For a diner such as myself, disinclined towards innovation in cuisine, it's a development that cuts both ways. What is undoubtable though, is the restaurant deserves re-visitation en masse, and higher, more interpretive praise, for how its owners have taken a desolate streetcorner in a neglected arrondissement and built a little beacon of enthusiasm and good taste.

Gone, at dinner at least, are steaks with potatoes. The restaurant's appetisers now range as far as deer with chestnuts, and abalone in its shell. A lovely dashi-tinted tartare is laced with oysters and cepes.

Main courses, on the night I visited, suffered from overadornment, with a filet of John Dory in particular having seemingly been accompanied by components from every other dish on the menu. A similarly unrestrained noix de veau managed to shine through the laborious surf'n'turf preparation (seaweed and seawater figured).

Such strenuous main dishes would be laugable if encountered in an overdesigned space in the center of Paris. On an isolated stretch of the 13ème, in a charmingly underdesigned neighborhood bistrot, they scan as sincere and enjoyable, the work of a young chef trying to outdo himself.

It helps that the restaurant has an unimpeachably smart natural wine list, longer and better than most you'll encounter in the city center. I leapt for a bottle of Jean-Marie Berrux's "Le Petit Tétu," as I do pretty much wherever I see it, in whichever vintage: it is one of natural wine's remaining undervalued greats, a coiled and saline Chardonnay with more lime-peel vim than a margarita rim.

In the unlikely event nothing on the list takes their fancy, diners may turn to Simone's wine shop, accessible on the perpendicular rue Pascal or via a backdoor leading to a tiny shared courtyard. It too boasts a splendid selection, including rare bottles from savant-ish cult vignerons like Xavier Caillard* and Pierre Beauger.

Neither of those winemakers' wines come cheap. Nor, truth be told, does a meal at dinner at Simone, although with a little abstention one could navigate the appetisers in such a way as to comprise a full-ish meal. The restaurant's commitment to offering quality at the expense of accessibility, in a quartier notably populated by broke students and Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, is striking, and has the effect of lending the place the pleasant, carefree air of a vanity project.

Owners Florent Brannens, Alain Muzzi, and Julien Chiche were all absent when I visited. But nor did their presence seem essential: the wine list is openly larded with great bottles, whether or not the staff know it, and local diners at surrounding tables all seemed relieved merely to be there, at the sort of conscious and engaged restaurant they'd otherwise have to cross town to access.

* I seem to recall someone telling me that one of the principals of Restaurant Simone acts as an agent for Xavier Caillard in Paris. 

Restaurant Simone
33 Boulevard Arago
75013 PARIS
Métro: Les Gobelins
Tel:01 43 37 82 70

Simone La Cave
48, rue Pascal
75013 PARIS 
Métro: Les Gobelins
Tél :+33 (0)1 43 37 82 70

Related Links:

A very nice September 2013 piece on the friends behind Restaurant Simone in Libération.
Télérama complained of small portions in their positive review of Restaurant Simone in December 2013.
My friend John Talbott didn't like Restaurant Simone at all in September 2013.
A fairly cursory September 2013 piece on Restaurant Simone in L'Express Styles.
Terrific photographs of Restaurant Simone, alongside some hilariously wide-eyed writing, in this 2013 post at Le Gastronome Parisien
More of the same in this May 2014 post at La Vie de Lili.

Another good wine shop in the area: La P'tite Cave, 75013

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