12 February 2015

effortless success: martin, 75011

With Au Passage currently topping many critics most-visited lists (including mine), it's easy to forget that, before James Henry got involved almost by accident, the extended Pères Populaires family of establishments had evinced no ambitions towards fine restaurateurism whatsoever. Commercially-minded American bystanders like myself might expect that, having succeeded at winning a high-value clientele, the Au Passage team would continue to cater to them. 

But as of last December, we have the Au Passage team's perplexing stepchild Martin, an almost confrontationally détendu bar serving small plates in a largely unrefurbished space on windy boulevard du Temple. Named after its genial co-owner Loic Martin, who formerly bartended at Au Passage, Martin the restaurant reminds us that we have fundamentally misunderstood these people. 

I think, in the wake of Pères Populaires' Bones, everyone was expecting the Au Passage team, on their own this time, to launch something similarly savvy, festooned with hip signifiers. Instead, Martin is a discreet, welcoming, and forthrightly egalitarian little all-day bistrot, aimed at inadvertent tastemakers like themselves - those who have certain standards, with regards to food and wine, but who don't need to see them exceeded at every meal. In season when quality-conscious Paris restaurant projects seem ubiquitously to open guns blazing with 65€ five-course tasting menus, Martin is gloriously off-trend, and kind of a godsend. 

At Martin, Au Passage's chef, Edward Delling-Williams, oversees a menu run by his former sous, Matthew Robinson, a demure American who, rather amusingly, doesn't hide the fact that he'd rather be farming in Auvergne than making small plates in Martin's vibeless downstairs kitchen. Whatever his dedication to the small-plate medium, his work has improved measurably in just the two months since the bar opened. 

On the first night I visited, plates were a little unpolished, lacking finish on their punchy flavour combinations. A pile of succulent duck hearts abutted a squirt of mayo. Duck beneath tarama was cut slightly grisly.

It was, however, impossible to complain, given that everything tasted fine, and menu prices were mostly south of 5€ per plate. 

A few weeks later, everything showed much better execution, particularly a plate of marvelously tender and crunchy fried squid I shared with a friend one evening.

Martin's wine list remains disappointingly unambitious, given the potential of the space. It's like they just culled a greatest hits list of Au Passage's perennial glass-pours: natural entry-level cuvées by the likes of Pithon-Paillé, Henri Milan, Laurent Lebled, etc. A few less workmanlike selections would go a long way, in this case.

If it's a question of layout space, Martin might consider reducing the lowbrow diversity of overpriced gin and tonics on offer, which, on the first page of the beverage list, momentarily made me feel as though I'd entered a bar in small-town Spain.*

The limited beverage program is less of a problem at lunch, for obvious reasons. Less obvious is the pleasant surprise that the restaurant really shines at lunchtime, when the sun enlivens the otherwise downtrodden dining room and Robinson prepares French comfort food that seems to play more to his strengths. At 15€ for two courses, it's also among the best deals in the city, reminiscent of back when Au Passage served lunch. 

The bright, tomato-toned tripe I enjoyed there the other afternoon was the best I've had since a visit to Mazzo in Rome last February, and simpler.  

The Italians called the act of impressing without giving the appearance of expending effort sprezzatura. When we encounter the same in France, we usually revert to invoking je ne sais quoi, for in fact we encounter it so rarely here that it has no name.**

On boulevard du Temple, its name is Martin.

* While gin and tonics are elementally satisfying drinks, over-thinking them is inherently funny to anyone with even a passing familiarity with more complex cocktails, in the same way that one tends to avoid theorizing on checkers strategy after one has discovered chess.

** Conversely, we often encounter its opposite - the effortful act of appearing to expend effort. I often suspect this is the origin of the breathy fillip that marks the conversation of many Francophones, wherein they pronounce a word, usually oui, with what sounds like a painful intake of air.

24, boulevard du Temple
75011 PARIS
Métro: Filles du Calvaire or République
Tel: 06 16 15 70 61

Related Links:

Le Fooding's article on Martin was, for once, mildly critical and pretty much on-point.

John Talbott didn't get Martin at all, when he visited recently. He went so far as to assume there had been "PR" to "lure" "Yankee" critics, which is giving the Pères Populaires team rather too much credit...

My friend and editor Meg Zimbeck's article for the Wall Street Journal, incidentally, shows how, in Martin's case, the critics are the PR team. I like the Pères Populaires / Au Passage gang as much as anyone. But by no stretch of the imagination is Martin's wine list "packed with gems," as she rather enthusiastically puts it.  

1 comment:

  1. Don't know if my previously comment came through but totally agree. I was very disappointed by the wine list but appreciated the frankness of the place (although the flooring choices were a bit *too* effortless for me) and the excellent value food menu.