11 August 2015

clowns: clown bar, 75011

To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad. - Jack Handey

My distrust of Ewan Lemoigne and chef Sven Chartier's work goes back to the time Lemoigne botched my reservation at Saturne. Had Lemoigne handled the situation with any decency, I would've simply returned some other time. As it was, I didn't return to Saturne for over three years, until a magazine paid for my lunch there in March.

I just wanted no part of supporting such an inhospitable hospitality group. Until recently I was boycotting the Saturne duo's newer project, rue Amelot's Clown Bar, for the same reasons. Friends in the Paris restaurant scene, in efforts to persuade me to try Clown Bar chef Astumi Sota's lauded cuisine, would invariably arrive at the phrase, "But Ewan's not even there!"* I wouldn't budge, preferring instead to support nicer people at neighboring places like Repaire de Cartouche, Au Passage, Pas de Loup, Aux Deux Amis, and Le Tagine.

But hell, time passes. I'm about to leave Paris for a few months and I'd like to leave all grudges behind. Lunch at Saturne was excellent in March: I left utterly convinced of Sven Chartier's talents. And despite my differences with Lemoigne, I can certainly applaud the wine list he assembled at Saturne, which ranks among the city's best. Clown Bar, for its part, is a worthy addition to Paris' dining scene, offering an unmistakably upmarket experience of fine cuisine and natural wines in a pleasantly versatile format: small plates, Sunday service, a big terrace, a bar. True, it's more expensive than all its stylistic peers. But Paris has an under-served constituency who want that.

The remains of some foie gras.

I'm not part of that constituency, it goes without saying. I don't make anywhere near enough money. But we can't all cram into Au Passage and Aux Deux Amis every night. Clown Bar is great in that it removes some of the pressure on those restaurants, while also segmenting the small-plates crowd into neater income brackets.

Chef Atsumi Sota, formerly of Vivant Table, has more room to experiment on Clown Bar's menu, which seems bracketed into cold starters, slightly more substantial cold starters, and warm main courses. The menu adheres to the never-ending vogue for self-serious, uncommunicative component lists,** but Clown Bar's servers are on-hand and well-informed.

The cuisine is sky-bright, refined, and in some cases transcendent, like a succulent lobster dish that arrived smothered under squid ink and adorned with oyster mushrooms. The heavenly flavour accord validated the gestural audacity of masking the celebrated colour of lobster with squid ink. We doubled down on this dish.

But a key flaw of menus like Clown Bar's is they are not scaleable. Each of Sota's jewel-like compositions would be perfect for a romantic dinner for two on the terrace. Trying to share them among five enthusiastic diners soon becomes an exercise in micro, micro management. One gets a leaf of coriander here, a sliver of citrus, a chunk of fish if one is lucky.

In the same way that Paris' latter-day cocktail renaissance was bound to enter a period of retrenchment when drinkers realised the service limitations of a society without bar-backs, so too does the city's affection for unshareable share plates seem destined to wane after the novelty fades.

A lightly attacked beet / yogurt salad.
To his credit, Sota addresses this issue here and there on Clown Bar's menu. Main courses are generally more easily divisible.

Clown Bar's wine list, managed by sommelier and dining room manager Xavier Lacaud, seems planned to inflict maximum inconvenience on diners. It is a cabinet of sulfur-free curiosities, which are interesting in and of themselves, but which suffer from narrow presentation. For example, if you enter Clown Bar seeking a style of white wine other than deeply oxidised or skin-macerated or both, you are just out of luck, buddy.

One could splash out and take refuge in the wines of Fred Cossard or Dominique Derain or Domaine Valette. But that's about it for whites that conform to the generally-accepted flavour profile of white wine.

Seeking something that might entertain a CA winemaker we were dining with, I ordered a bottle of Julien Courtois' "Savasol," a late-harvest Menu Pineau that sees several years aging sous-voile. Acidity is alive and well beneath the wine's nutty, dried apricot flavours. But on Clown Bar's list, the wine is a kangaroo among the kangaroos.

Basically, if you were an alien whose first experience of natural wine were Clown Bar's list, you'd leave thinking that all natural whites were brown and all natural reds had volatile acidity.

Who cares, right? C'est un truc entre nous!

Except for the fact that for restaurants as successful as Saturne and Clown Bar, the audience is global. Paris throughout the year hosts a constant procession of visiting chefs and restaurateurs, the sort of people with more money to burn than time, who often cram in four meals a day.

On the basis of accessible hours, a lovely terrace, and excellent cuisine, I would encourage them all to visit Clown Bar - as long as they don't take its stylistic presentation as representative of Parisian dining, or of natural wine.

* This seems telling in itself - as though Lemoigne's absence were actually one of Clown Bar's chief selling points for fans of the restaurant.

** An aside: writers like myself complain about uncommunicative component lists on menus. But we would complain even louder if a chef were to try and fail to write a coherent description of a dish. Cooking and writing are unrelated skills. It seems useful to bear this in mind - that self-serious, uncommunicative component lists are in many cases defensive in nature. In a polyglot city like Paris, it's understandable.

Clown Bar
114, rue Amelot
75011 PARIS
Métro: Filles du Calvaire
Tel: 01 43 55 87 35

Related Links:

Saturne, 75002

Some other excellent options near Clown Bar:

Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin, 75011
Le Tagine, 75011
Au Passage, 75011
Aux Deux Amis, 75011

A 2011 visit to Julien Courtois at Wine Terroirs.

Wendy Lyn is extremely enthusiastic about Clown Bar at The Paris Kitchen.

No comments:

Post a Comment