31 January 2017

in with the old: chez la vieille, 75001

I have never quite understood Daniel Rose' conservative streak. I'm too young to remember the initial, bare-bones Spring in the 9eme arrondissement. By the time I met Rose in 2010, he had already moved his restaurant to the 1èr arrondissement and a space that resembles an exec-lounge. The restaurant's service and menu pricing have always felt prematurely elderly for such a dynamic personality. Nor did Rose really switch gears when he took over the weirdo slapstick steakhouse La Bourse ou La Vie last year. He changed the grammatical conjunction, raised prices, improved the cuisine, and sapped the restaurant of its spontaneity.

Rose' recent revamp of the tiny historic 1èr arrondissement bistrot-bar Chez La Vieille is, in its way, more newsworthy than the rave reviews of Le Coucou, his chic New York restaurant début. For, discounting the abortive Buvette below Spring, Chez La Vieille is the first serious move Rose has made towards a more lively style of service.

Spanning two floors joined by a gorgeously warped staircase, Chez La Vieille is a near-complete success, where the humor and verve of its new owner find outlet in a concept as precise and versatile as a Swiss Army knife.

Chez La Vieille's roomy, well-appointed wine bar, which accepts no reservations, occupies the ground floor. The restaurant's intimate dining room occupies the floor above. The same bargain menu of fine-tuned, scaled-down bistrot staples is available in both.

It boasts what you might call "linner" pricing, very appropriate for a menu that doesn't change between services, and downright generous at dinner in the 1èr arrondissement. Moreover, one senses immediately that care has been taken to present dishes that are neither too grand to consume at a bar, nor too pokey to be enjoyed at table.

The wine program, headed by the almost perturbingly young sommelier and manager Remi Segura, is downright ace, a savvy and well-priced mélange of conventional and natural wines, all tending organic and / or biodynamic.

On my visit I shared a bottle of a Jean-François Ganevat négoçiant wine called "Kopin," a lightly volatile but refreshing blend of Jurassien and Burgundian chardonnay, the conceptual politics of which cuvée are too fraught for me to go into here. I'll observe only that it came from a page bearing the regrettable title, "Les Ephemères de la Vieille." (A good oyster bar I used to frequent in Boston had a system like this. The more expensive and / or interesting bottles were kept on a hidden wine list, called 'The Pearls.' Chez La Vieille's list of "Ephèmeres" is more egalitarian, not being hidden. But that means there is even less reason for it to exist.)

Chez La Vieille's kitchen, like the rest of the restaurant, is partitioned between two floors, a situation that, for a chef, must be a daily waking nightmare. But executive chef Oleg Olexin, who cooked for Rose at Spring before stints at the erstwhile Bones and elsewhere, is manning the decks with impressive panache.

A succulent tête de veau was served lightly crisped on both sides, with an enlarged mountain of sauce gribiche and a handful of flavourful potato halves. It was less a re-imagining of the dish than a reapportionment, yet it felt revelatory. But then I have never been too sentimental about the enormous coiled gelatinous tête de veau one consumes in the countryside of Champagne.

Equally satisfying was the "Bouillon de la Vieille," a hearty broth teeming with spaetzle-like pasta, landmined with lardons and one fat poached egg. Ingeniously, this dish is also offered take-away, meaning the Chez La Vieille, alongside being a wine bar and a bistrot, also functions as the city's greatest take-out soup kitchen.

Even on a menu as focused as Chez La Vieille's, one can forgive a few misfires. The whelks need tighter plating and nicer toothpicks. My oyster was oddly dry. The "demi-coquelet à la diable," while perfectly executed and tasty, is nowhere near as interesting as its name, and probably belongs rather in a toothless chef-branded restaurant like Alain Ducasse's Champeaux over in Les Halles. Some mâche wilting in heat does not a garnish make, and certainly not atop a cutesy casserole of the sort too often intended to wow cro-magnon diners.

There is a knowingness to the restaurant concept as a whole that Rose and Olexin should probably handle with oven mitts. On an adjacent table I saw a better example (not pictured here) of the dowdy-chic they're going for: the adorably flower-cut carrot slivers in a herring and potato salad.

The only really troubling aspects of meal at Chez La Vieille could be avoided by skipping dessert and dining downstairs. Upstairs, one must gaze upon black-and-white blow-ups of the old Les Halles, decoration far too reminiscent of schlock cafés across Paris. Several desserts, meanwhile - not just the rose-praline rice pudding my friend and I ordered - seemed to be conceived for service in glass jars.

When ours arrived at the table I felt transported from Chez La Vieille's over-designed upstairs dining room to a superficial corporate lunch spot, namely Boco, which has locations in Paris airports. It didn't help that the dessert's lurid colours resembled a shat-on valentine. What with Stephane Jego, Bruno Doucet, Yves Camdeborde, etc., the bar is just higher than this for rice pudding in Paris.

These are, finally, minor quibbles in light of Chez La Vieille's overall achievement. In one neat little bistro-bar, Rose has raised the bar for wine bars and small-plates establishments throughout Paris, few of which can match Chez La Vieille for professionalism, diversity of offering, and sheer enjoyability. (I would genuinely like to see half the 11ème arrondissement even try.)

With end of a meal at Chez La Vieille comes a pleasant glow at having experienced, in a space so suffused with nostalgia, something genuinely new.

Chez La Vieille
1, rue Bailleul
75001 PARIS
Métro: Louvre-Rivoli
Tel: 01 42 60 15 78

Related Links:

A good interview with Daniel Rose regarding Chez La Vieille in Le Figaro.

For once, a spot-on and comprehensible review in Le Fooding on Chez La Vieille.

It's interesting to note that Chez La Vieille's menu has barely budged since opening in October, when John Talbott visited. His friend took good photos.

Alexander Lobrano, in his amusing, discursive piece on Chez La Vieille, demonstrates why a food writer of his longstanding experience is a national treasure, and also, why he needs an editor.

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