Chef Christophe Philippe's new Bastille-adjacent restaurant Amarante, like the cacklingly under-designed eponymous restaurant he maintained for a decade in the shadow of the Panthéon, is open Sundays and Mondays, the better to cater to his principal clientele, his fellow restaurant folk. On any other restaurant's off-night, he entertains tastemaker regulars like food writer Bruno Verjus, Le Baratin's Raquel Carena and Philippe Pinoteau, and Autour d'Un Verre's Kevin Blackwell. When my friend and editor Meg Zimbeck and I visited last Sunday, we ran smack into our friend Thomas Legrand, formerly of La Muse Vin, now manning the decks at La Crêmerie. Philippe, lumbersome of gait and shy as a shoe, is the unlikely mascot of a certain very discerning milieu.
Why should this milieu particularly admire his cuisine, among all the others on offer in Paris' present-day cornucopia? Well, who but his fellow chefs and restaurateurs, those who endure the pressure to present an impression of novelty with each new restaurant and each day's menu, are as likely to have realised, like Philippe, that the search for novelty in cuisine is futile?
Philippe is among the few chefs courageous enough to live the implications of that realisation. At Amarante he offers the exact same pointedly-unfussy, rigorously-sourced bistrot menu and the same well-priced natural wine list as at his former establishment. Amarante is duly aglow with the same monkish sense of serenity and confidence, albeit with slighter better lighting, and a less hideous font on the windowpane.
Part of the suspense of my first few meals at the old Restaurant Christophe was wondering whether the chef himself was in on the joke - whether he saw the humour in how he presented such simple country cuisine with such stern aesthetic rigor. We are used to encountering simple country cuisine with a side of dowdiness, in the form of curled parsley garnishes or hopelessly outdated pseudo-Asian flourishes. Whereas at Restaurant Christophe, a titanic, pliant sweetbread arrived alone on a white plate, like an invitation to consider its sublime beige form. It was followed sometime later by its accompaniment, some mashed potatoes hypersaturated with butter.
The only change at Amarante is that Philippe, in a concession, perhaps, to his dishwasher, puts everything on the same plate. So, yes, I'd say he gets the joke. Given the opportunity to change, to introduce himself to a new quartier with a cuisine livened up to suit the times, he has decided to stay his damn self.
I applaud the decision. If he could get us to cross town for his cuisine before, he must have been doing something right.
It's how little Philippe actually does that constitutes his appeal. At a time when unprecedented ease of information transfer has resulted in constant deafening congratulation of anything even momentarily perceived to be new, its rare to find a classically-trained chef who works with such awesome restraint.
Before opening his former restaurant at the age of 24, he'd worked for Anne-Sophie Pic, as well as for Alain Ducasse at Paris' Hotel Plaza Athenée, and at Le Cinq. His work ever since has felt like a pointed rejection of the meals he prepared in that era. A homely appetiser of endives and ham feels spare, even by Phillippe's standards, until one tastes the immensity of flavour he has managed to pack into the endives.
Philippe's wine list, meanwhile, retains its reputation for bargains. Across the board, bottles by natural wine standbys like Emmanuel Lassaigne, Jean Foillard, Sebastien Riffault, and Nicolas Carmarans are offered at prices just north of what one would pay at your average cave-à-manger.
At the time we visited, the restaurant had only been open a month, however, and Philippe hadn't foreseen that every industry regular would alight upon the same unusual bottle of Julie Balagny's Fleurie. Philippe's experienced new dining room manager Mouloud Haddaden informed us they were fresh out. (Therein lies the double-edged aspect of being a restaurant industry hangout. It requires a really extremely interesting wine list, which he hasn't yet had time to assemble at Amarante. For an example of what I'm talking about, visit the new Pigalle location of Entrées des Artistes, where co-owner Edouard Vermynck's list is a serious geek-out cornucopia of nil-production curiosities.)
We settled for a ripe but middleweight 2012 Hautes-Côtes de Beaune "Orchis Mascula" by Claire Naudin. It wasn't yet in a closed stage, thankfully, but nor did its slightly coarse dark cherry and currant fruit have much length or impact that night.
Later with Philippe we shared an extremely agreeable bottle of Alain Allier's "Pitchounet," a blend of 80% Cinsault and 20% Grenache that in 2013 shows the slightest fillip of residual sugar amid its energetic, red bonbon fruit.
At that point, a dollop of Philippe's famously intense chocolate mousse seemed like an unmissable ritual.
I suspect it's one I'll be repeating very often, now that Christophe Philippe has crossed the Seine.
For there's nothing I'd love more than for the unwavering focus that he brings to traditional recipes to be rewarded with the mass realisation, among the present generation of Paris diners, that the old has become rarer than the new, and is proportionately more gratifying to discover.
4, rue Biscornet
Tel: 09 50 80 93 80
A positive, but slightly puzzling review of Amarante by Alexander Lobrano, who for paragraphs on end proudly holds up Christophe Philippe's cuisine as a counter-argument to a litany of bad Paris restaurant trends, before pronouncing that he is "a cook, not a chef." I see what Lobrano was getting at, and he's not wildly off the mark, but the line can't help but read like a dagger of faint praise.
Wendy Lyn's brief and effective summary of Amarante's charms at The Paris Kitchen.
François Régis-Gaudry endorsed Amarante in L'Express last month.
Gilles Pudlowski lays it on a bit thick when he applauds Amarante's dining room for it's "spirit and gaiety."
A kind note on Amarante by Bruno Verjus, who isn't kidding when he cites the former Restaurant Christophe as one of his favorite restaurants. I first met Verjus there.
Christophe Philippe's former restaurant, Restaurant Christophe