On the surface, not much differentiates Pierre Gagnaire-trained chef Atsushi Tanaka's Restaurant A.T. from most staid Left Bank fine-dining. Its presentation is in thrall to Le Guide Michelin, from the boardroom lighting right down to the weighty, over-designed furniture. The format of Tanaka's 95€ tasting menu is in keeping with the exquisite tastes of a previous generation of diners.
But Tanaka has struck out on his own in two quietly revolutionary ways. Firstly, with his "wine-selector" Lulie Kaori Tanaka, he has embraced natural wine wholeheartedly, breaking ground not just for his otherwise arch-conservative restaurant style but also for his neighborhood. (Restaurant A.T.'s semi-anonymous storefront sits quietly in the shadow of La Tour d'Argent.)
More recently, Tanaka has, in one bold stroke, up-ended his concept by hiring explosively amusing sommelier David Benichou (ex-Ten Bells, ex-Vivant Table) to run an incongruously fun natural wine bar in his restaurant's heretofore underused cellar space. One effect has been to re-orient late-night drinking for the 5ème arrondissement, which hasn't had a decent watering hole since Curio Parlour closed a few years ago. But, more importantly, the opening of Bar à Vins A.T. demonstrates the newfound sense of freedom with which its owner and its habitués - a certain circle of influential young Japanese chefs - are changing their adoptive city.
Since at least the late-2000's era of ex-Verre Volé chef Ryotaro Miyauchi, critics have been noting the increasing Japonification of the Paris' ambitious kitchens. The phenomenon attained ubiquity in 2013 - at restaurants like Encore, Abri, and Vivant Table - and has continued unabated, with Atsumi Soto's work at Clown Bar and Taku Sekine's at Dersou both drawing raves over the past year.
As much as I admire the cuisine at many of these places, I sometimes feel uneasy about the HR dynamics. It may or may not be the case, at some of these restaurants, that Paris restaurateurs are exploiting young Japanese chefs for their work ethic, their attention to detail, their cheap press appeal to French audiences, and their relative unfamiliarity with the nuances of French labour law. But the opportunity is there, and I worry.
Atsushi Tanaka's newly hybridized establishment inverts this dynamic. He hired Benichou because they're good friends, and because the grinning, bearish Benichou is like a walking festival when it comes to hospitality. He manages to enliven even the tomb-like confines of the Bar à Vin space, presently seriously encumbered by the aforementioned awful furniture. (To sit in these immovable deadweight chairs is to feel strapped into them.)
Tanaka, for his part, seems to relish the collaboration. He has a profoundly amusing personal style, resembling a Japanese man impersonating Charlie Chaplin impersonating Hitler, and flits in and out of his upstairs kitchen for frequent appearances downstairs.
Downstairs, the menu consists of high-value hams, saucisson, and cheeses, plated by Benichou, plus a quartet of magnificent, jewel-like plates triaged down from the upstairs tasting menu.
I made the happy mistake of bringing my generous friend C to the wine bar on a night he was feeling extra peckish. After sharing a few slivers of ham and half a magnum of deeply lees-y macabeo at the Bar à Vins, C suggested we all head upstairs for a wee thirteen course tasting menu. (The bar à vin's chief drawback, for folks otherwise willing to cross town to visit, is it offers no filling, main-coursy option, and neither does the surrounding pre-fast-food neighborhood.)
Here we were able to appreciate the full range of Tanaka's varied, aerial aesthetic, which flits daringly from land to sea and back, and from savoury to sweet and back, from course to course.
Dessert arrived, unexpectedly, second, in the form of a richly sweet parsnip cake, and indeed sweetness never seemed far from the palate, returning in one of the meal's highlights, a long black pepper dusted landmine of foie gras, camouflaged with shards of meringue.
Sensitive use of savoury dusts keeps flavours grounded throughout, most notably in a haunting tartare that arrived powdered with roast hay.
As if to refresh the palate after its dust-bath, the course that followed was delectable puddle of tender, filigreed calamari and tiny green asparagus in bergamot.
The greatest challenge of lengthy tasting-menu meals is less their intrinsic cost than the cost of the wine that must last throughout them. I sense that Restaurant A.T. is grappling with this same problem from the other angle, for its all-natural wine list is relatively low-priced compared to similar restaurants serving the classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
I vaguely dread that the path to sufficient check averages at the likes of Restaurant A.T. lies in the ascendance of more overhyped, self-consciously luxury natural wine bottles like the outrageously priced new-oaked Burgundies of Bernard Van Berg.
Our table instead took a bottle of Andrea Calek's 2014 white, a magnificent, silvery viognier that seems to improve with each vintage. (I can still remember when back in 2009 the bottles often showed gassy and oxidised.) It was a fleet-footed counterpoint to the decadence of the parsnip cake. Later, a bottle of 2007 Clos Milan by Henri Milan was an interesting, if somewhat indulgent accompaniment to the meal's sole rich meat course. It's majority-grenache fruit showed an initially fascinating, Nebbiolo-like character, only to fade rather quickly in the glass.
We finished the last of it downstairs, in the company of Benichou and of Tanaka's numerous peers in the Paris culinary scene, who arrived late, en masse. It was a veritable invasion of Franco-Japanese culinary talent, but one which, rather miraculously for a bunker-like cellar in an elderly arrondissement, felt like a homecoming.
|Benichou and Tanaka have inaugurated the bar à vin with a series of soirées entitled "Skin Contact," inspired by the latter's passion for white wines made using maceration pelliculaire. The promo photos are priceless.|
Restaurant A.T. / Bar à Vins A.T.
4, rue Cardinal Lemoine
Métro: Cardinal Lemoine or Jussieu, or Pont Marie or Maubert-Mutualité
Tel: 01 56 81 94 08
An early notice of the opening of Bar à Vin A.T. at A Paris Food Affair.
Wendy Lyn at The Paris Kitchen was rather cool on Restaurant A.T. when it opened.