18 April 2016

the grown-ups' table: le petit keller, 75011

If I were ten years younger, I'd probably spend a lot of time on rue Keller. Recent years have seen a cornucopia of earnest young bars and restaurants open on this Voltaire-area side street, some pristine and intelligent (Aux Deux Cygnes), others less so (Barcardi Mojito Lab). I'd dig rue Keller's slew of vintage boutiques, book shops, and records shops, and the curious contrast between the innocence of these endeavors and the heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the street for the safety of its most famous and incongruous resident, Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

As things stand in this lifetime, however, I haven't spent much time on rue Keller. I do most of my shopping on Amazon, and when I dine out, I seem to gravitate towards businesses run by my elders. My reasoning for the latter is simple: I have more to learn from them. Paris' younger bars and bistrots can blur together at times, particularly if, as is often the case, they're sourcing their wines from the same handful of agents.

But now rue Keller, too, is growing up. The celebrated Franco-Japanese chef Kaori Endo (ex-Nanashi, ex-Rose Bakery) and her husband, the hyper-discreet O.G. natural wine caviste Michael Lemasle (Crus et Découvertes), have transformed quaint bistrot Le Petit Keller into something new and intriguing in the Paris restaurant scene. With ambitious opening hours, refined cuisine drawing equally on western health-consciousness and eastern home-cooking, and a smart natural wine list, the new Le Petit Keller is a savvy small-plates restaurant that dials down the masculine indulgence of the format without sacrificing an iota of sophistication.

The tactic of most small-plates restaurants is a bait and switch - get clients to horf down high concentrations of pork belly, lardo, egg yolk, chicken liver, and so on by offering these components in small portions.

Endo, for her first foray into restaurant ownership (she was a salaried chef at the Nanashi group) and serious dinner cuisine, has instead drawn heavily from her background in clean, model-friendly lunch cuisine. At its best - like in a salad of half-cooked rouget with fennel, olives, and parmesan - the plates at Le Petit Keller are light, elegant, and nuanced.

A bowl of marinated, long-cooked beef nerves hit like a depth charge, its luxuriant richness of flavor and silken texture belying the meat's modest origin.

At other times, a meal at Le Petit Keller can feel sort of like cleaning out one's own fridge at home for a snack-based, improvisatory dinner. Crudité with miso mayonnaise is delicious, but a diner's immediate reaction is to consider how efficiently it could be reproduced at home. An "it is what it says it is" appetizer of steamed vegetables with anchovy dip (not pictured) is offered in a larger portion as a main course. The confit mushrooms felt left over from some other preparation.

There are also moments where Endo seems to be following trends, not setting them. The overly honeyed lamb shoulder we shared as a main course lacked her signature, and seemed to have been triaged in from a different restaurant.

Yet the menu on the whole - mostly lean, pretense-free - remains very refreshing, particularly in light of Lemasle's wine list. Lemasle is one of the few natural wine cavistes in Paris who continue to practice the highest calling of the metier, actually aging bottles until they're ready to present to clientele. He maintains two off-site locations for the stock of his perpetually jam-packed wine shop. One senses, in regarding Le Petit Keller's lean, but unstintingly high quality wine list, that he made a conscious effort to create something simple and approachable.

The good news is that simple by Lemasle's standards is still groundbreakingly excellent by the standards of any bistrot serving even remotely Asian-inflected cuisine in Paris, let alone health-conscious cuisine. (Most restaurants offering "healthy" cuisine are insulting on some level or another. One has the impression of being taught how to eat by people who self-evidently, on the basis of their terrible wine lists and their overall thrashing of culinary tradition, do not know how to do it.)

Where else outside Tokyo can one drink Guy Breton's laser-beam of a Beaujolais-Villages, the "Cuvée Marylou," with marinated beef nerves? With our appetisers we enjoyed glasses of a bracing, wintergreen-toned biodynamic pinot blanc by Vincent Fleith, a magnificent match for the rouget.

Kaori Endo set stratospheric standards with her desserts at Nanashi, and those at Le Petit Keller don't disappoint. I am not exaggerating when I say that Endo alone among Paris chefs regularly creates desserts I truly enjoy. (I am otherwise, by my own admission, not much of a dessert guy.) She has a remarkably restrained hand with sugar, as demonstrated by an orange and rhubarb compote, sweetened only by the orange. I also like how the macha crisp resembles kryptonite.

Le Petit Keller offers café service before and between mealtimes, opening at the impressive hour of 8:30AM. The dining room is slightly table-jammed, evidence of a tension between Endo's canteen background and the comfort requirements of dinner service. Yet given the novelty and the quality of what Endo and Lemasle are proposing with Le Petit Keller, I have no doubt they'll soon fill each and every seat.

Le Petit Keller
13, rue Keller
75011 PARIS
Métro: Voltaire or Ledru-Rollin
Tel: 01 47 00 12 97

Related Links:

Nanashi II, 75003

An uncharacteristically pointed review of Le Petit Keller in Le Fooding.
A blurb about the opening of Le Petit Keller by François Simon

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