By Alexander Lobrano
Since Saint Germain des Pres remains the world’s best-loved Paris neighborhood, the recent opening of the oddly named L’Agapé Substance is very good news. Now, at long last, I have a really excellent restaurant to recommend in response to the recurring request for a great place to eat that’s within walking distance of the Cafe de Flore. Occupying a tiny railroad-car like space in the rue Mazarine, talented chef David Toutain and Laurent Lapaire have created a chic new table with oustanding contemporary French cooking, and it also offers a relaxed but stylish good time.
This is an interesting restaurant, too, since it’s a successful cameo of so many major restaurant trends in France right now, among them, small-plate dining; the cryptic menu–at L’Agapé Substance, a menu is offered, but it’s just a list of ingredients with no explanation of how they’re prepared; a decidedly Asian aesthetic in terms of the way the food is presented; a starring role for vegetables and fresh herbs and shoots, including many obscure ones; tables d’hotes serving with stool seating; pedigreed produce–the names of the producers are supplied by your waiter with a certain reverence; a relaxed and friendly serving style; and the use of foams and oils instead of traditional sauces.
Coming for dinner on a Friday night, the restaurant was packed–this rare summer opening has attracted a lot of attention, and we were seated at what’s described on the restaurant’s website as the ‘VIP table,’ which is a table for two in a niche directly across from the small, busy galley kitchen, a perch that provided a great show during our meal but not one that I would recommend on a warm night, since I would describe this restaurant as being nominally air-conditioned. From our first amuse bouche, though, I knew that we were in for a fascinating meal.
This edible miniature was not only beautiful, but it also provided the perfect preview to our meal, and a reason to use the dictionary when I got home., which is how I learned that the ‘berce’ in this composition of berce is hogweed, or an herb from the parsley family. The other ingredients were mandarin skin, a gelee of the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu, and a fragile crispy rice wafer. This dish also served as a resume of the thirty-year-old Toutain’s peripatetic career–prior to teaming up with Lapaire, Toutain, a native of Normandy, worked at L’Arpege, Marc Veyrat, Mugaritz in Spain and New York’s Corton, and he clearly learned his lessons well enough to have invented a distinctive cooking style of his own.
After skimming the good wine list, here on an Ipad, we decided to drink by the glass–a good decision, even though I normally prefer to stick with a wine or two during a meal, and to go with the carte blanche tasting menu at 99€, which is what I’d recommend. At noon, the other options are three dishes for 39€ or four for 51€, but I don’t think these shorter versions let you adequately discover the impressive culinary imagination of the chef.
Next, a sublime hen’s egg in a puddle of gentle new garlic cream with fresh almonds and lemon verbena foam, a composition that was angelic in its purity and modesty. It was also delicious. Tasting menus don’t work unless they’re served with a rhythm that leaves you enough time to ponder what you’re eating and then a brief pause, but the timing on this one was absolutely impeccable.
Tiny baby carrots followed, and if they were pleasant, they were eclipsed a few minutes later by a an exquisite dish of two cork-sized spoonfuls of impeccably dressed crab with grapefruit confit and a hauntingly good consommé of sweet gray North Sea shrimp. This delicate and perfectly balanced miniature was one of the best and most satisfying dishes I’ve eaten this year.
A truly beautiful edible still life of lightly griddled razor shell clams, squid and zucchini in lavender foam with yuzu cream and a scattering of dill flowers arrived a few minutes later, and it was simple, lucid, and shrewd, or just plain brilliant. hen, just when I’d begun to wonder at a kitchen with such a restrained sensuality, it seemed nearly asexual, two courses followed that showed some quiet muscle. A creamy lotte filet came with epeautre, a foamy tonka bean sauce and a griddled baby green onion, and the tone of the meal gently shifted to an earthier appeal to the palate. The sweet tones of the fish were followed by a politely assertive chunk of tender veal clad in black tapenade and accompanied by a grilled gray shallot.
And now for a warning before dessert. Toutain changes his menu constantly, sometimes even twice daily, so there’s a very good likelihood that you’ll only be served a few of these identical dishes when you come to dine. With any luck at all, though, the cheese course will still be shavings of the magnificent two-year old Comte cheese that Laurent Lapaire’s father makes in the Jura, and the peach poached in lemon-verbena syrup will still be on the menu. Oh, and since it will inevitably be difficult to get a reservation here, you may be wondering if you should go to one of the other L’Agape addresses–the original L’Agapé or L’Agapé Bistrot, both in the 17th arrondissement. My advice is that both of them are good, but that you should hold out for L’Agapé Substance, a truly remarkable little restaurant.
L’Agapé Substance, 66 rue Mazarine, 6th, tel. 01-43-29-33-83, Metro: Odeon, Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.
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.(Photo by Steven Rothfeld)