By Alexander Lobrano
There are not a lot of ‘forgotten’ or overlooked neighborhoods in central Paris anymore, but the Quartier de l’Europe, that curious hive of streets which bear the names of various European cities between the Place de Clichy and the Gare Saint Lazare is still sleepy and relatively unknown. To be sure, the neighborhood was once home to the headquarters of many big insurance companies and was also known as ‘Le Quartier des Assurances,” but most of them have decamped to unlovely suburban office buildings overlooking the peripherique these days. All of this may be about to change though, because Google is setting up shop in the rue de Londres, and once they finally finish the eternal renovation of the Gare Saint Lazare, I think this neck of the woods is going to take off.
When I lived here some years ago, it was a veritable restaurant desert aside from a half-decent Indian place in the rue de Moscou and a good and now gone pizza tosser in the rue de Saint Petersbourg. With the recent opening of Neva, however, this island of 19th century urban planning par excellence finally has a really good destination restaurant.
Arriving for a blind-date lunch with a Californian-in-Paris, another journalist, I was a bit crestfallen when I realized that it was right next to the postal-sorting station just north of the Place de l’Europe. But inside, it’s a lovely art-moderne space with a big zinc bar, beautiful parquet floors, deco moldings and period chandeliers that would cost a fortune if you came across them in a fleamarket. For two seconds I wondered about the curious name, and then I realized that it’s the name of the river that flows through Saint Petersburg, and enjoyed this little flourish of wit.
The welcome was warm, and the spacious, sunny dining room was filled with business diners who were clearly already in the know. I dawdled over a glass of good sauvignon blanc and read the menu, which looked terrific, while waiting for my date. I also found myself wondering if this place would find a dinner crowd.
Well, it turns out that my ‘date’–we’d been set up by a mutual pal, a New York magazine editor who thought we’d like each other — was very pretty and very smart, and we immediately tumbled into a long interesting conversation about the future of the magazine business. I suggested that anything that’s still printed on paper has to become really, really good–great writing, photography, graphics, and a lot of personality, and she agreed. Interestingly, our views seemed to be echoed in the New York Times a couple of days later. Suffice it to say that I can’t wait to read the first issue of Lucky Peach.
We were so busy gabbing that it took us a while to order, but when our first courses arrived and were tasted, we were riveted by the food. My shrimp stuffed ravioli were filled with crunchy chunks of ginger-spiked prawn and came in a pretty tangy sauce decorated with razor-fine slices of baby beet, and they were light, bright and delicious.
Since my date had had a late rose-sodden dinner the night before, she was grateful for her delicate, creamy fresh pea soup, which was made with an earthy ham-bone bouillon and garnished with an organic egg yolk and a delicious wand of toasted baguette garnished with finely sliced baby onions and crumbled bacon. “This is just what the doctor ordered,” she said with a grin.
Main courses were excellent, too. My half-salted fresh cod steak was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and came on a bed of delicious smoky eggplant caviar, while her monkfish was generously served and beautifully presented inside of a wreath of delicate gnocchi and girolles mushrooms with a few sprigs of tarragon and an impeccably made sauce that was gently acidulated with citrus.
By now we were curious about the chef. I’d come here on the recommendation of my banker, a refreshingly good-natured gastronome who, like myself, would much rather talk about food than money, but knew nothing about this place beyond the fact that he’d told me the food at this just-opened place was really good. Somehow neither of us were surprised when the waiter told us the chef was a woman, Béatriz Gonzales, a delightful Mexican who cooked at Senderens and most recently was second to Frédéric Robert at La Grande Cascade. Why weren’t we surprised? Because this food was so sweet and sincere.
We stalled before the idea of ordering dessert, since both of us will soon be on Mediterranean beaches, and I don’t want to feel any podgier than I already do after such a well-fed year, but the waiter insisted we try something, because they have a major pastry chef in the kitchen, Yannick Tranchant, who’d also worked at La Grande Cascade. So we shared a pretty little lemon meringue tart that was so good it was gone before I remembered to snap it.
“That was a terrific lunch, Alec,” exulted my new pal, and we agreed to reconvene here in September, when I’m sure this very good restaurant will be showing up on all of La Rentree’s must-go-to lists.
Neva Cuisine. 2 rue de Berne (corner of rue de Saint Petersbourg), 8th, Tel. 01-45-22-18-91. Metro: Europe or Liège. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner. Saturday dinner only. Closed Sunday. Closed from August 6-August 22.
Prix-fixe lunch menu 29 €, three-course menu 36 €, a la carte 55 €.
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris” (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.