By Alexander Lobrano
This year in Paris, a late, damp and often overcast Spring has been pushing and pulling my appetite in all different directions. To be sure, I’ve eating as much French grown asparagus–both green and white, as I can get my hands on, but the gray skies and cool temperatures have left me yearning for sturdier comfort food than I’m accustomed to craving at this time of the year. Then I went to dinner the other night at Les Climats, a very pleasant new restaurant in one of my favorite restaurant venues in Paris, the elegant Belle Epoque dining room of a handsome old dormitory building that once housed young single ladies who worked for the P.T.T. (Poste Telegramme, Telephone), and found my seasonal groove again.
In the early nineties when this place first became an open-to-the-public restaurant, it was called Le Telegraphe, and it enjoyed a two or three year run as one of the most fashionable restaurants on the Left Bank, despite the fact that the food was never better than a little better-than-average. Tipped off by a friend who lives nearby that it had recently re-opened yet again–it’s been through several middlingly successful incarnations since it was Le Telegraphe, Bruno and I decided to treat ourselves to what we hoped would be a good dinner on yet another drizzly cool Friday evening. I knew nothing about the chef, but my friend did tell me that it had a ‘lush’ decor and that the wine list was all Burgundies, right down to a Cremant du Bourgogne instead of Champagne, and since I find Burgundies, especially white ones, absolutely perfect drinking for Spring, I thought we might be able to will the season into existence over a good glass of Burgundy or two.
Arriving, we had a choice to two different settings, the dining room up front with lots of scarlet wing chairs with leopard print trim and some very beautiful Secessionist style art-nouveau reproduction chandeliers, or a pretty terrazzo-floored terrace with white wicker chairs and a greenhouse walls overlooking the lush courtyard back garden where meals are served at noon only in deference to the neighbors. Since the dining room was one of those spaces that look too designed to be comfortable, we opted for the terrace, with its mix of British colonial and art-nouveau references.
Over a glass of very good Cremant de Bourgogne — I long ago learned that these sparkling wines not only offer exceptional value for the money but are often excellent — we studied the menu, which had clearly been been constructed to flatter the restaurant’s remarkable wine list. Willing summer to begin, Bruno ordered the sea bream carpaccio on a bed of razor-fine cucumber scales garnished with ambered colored gelee flavored with Xerex vinegar, a brilliant idea, and I had an impeccably well made Opera de foie gras on a bed of spice-bread sponge with Gewurtztraminer gelee. The steely artistry present in both of these dishes made me curious about the chef, and whom our very nice waiter informed me is Phan Chi Tam, a young Frenchman of Vietnamese origin who had most recently been working for Thierry Marx at Sur Mesure, his restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Paris.
The smart counter-casting of the eager young serving staff, most of whom commute to this plush corner of the Left Bank from far afield suburbs, leavened the atmosphere of the restaurant in a useful way as well. To wit, even the stuffiest B.C.B.G. poseurs were guilessly brought to heel by the sincerity of this trying-so-very-hard-to-please young crew.
Our main courses were excellent as well. Bruno loved his steamed turbot with baby clams and a rich foamy dashi broth and was delighted to get his hands on a glass of the same sublime Puligny Montrachet I’d had with my foie gras (in addition to the spectacular wine list, they also offer a terrific variety of pours by the glass). My veal tartare, a fine foil for good wine, was coarsely chopped excellent quality meat that was garnished with a puree of fava beans and baby peas and very timidly seasoned with a little bit of citrus zest. Even though it was lovely with a glass of Hautes Cotes de Beaune, a little pinch of piment d’Espelette and a light sprinkle of coarse sea salt with sea weed would have given this fine product more personality.
Desserts were excellent, too, including the Pierre Herme-inspired litchi and fresh raspberry macaron I enjoyed and a lime-flavored ‘boule de neige’ (frozen dairy confection) with ginger-and-passionfruit coulis that Bruno chose. Though it’s rather expensive at dinner–you could easily spend 130 Euros a head with a glass of wine or two, I suspect this sophisticated, worldly and well-conceived place will be hugely popular this summer at noon, when they serve two reasonably priced prix-fixe lunch menus (36 Euros and 45 Euros) in their secret garden. And after all of the years during which this type of restaurant–serious tables with seriously good French cooking for a well-heeled and well-dressed clientele, have been dying out, it’s nice that even during this balkish Spring, a welcome trend to their renewal continues not only with the charming Les Climats, but Goust and places like Les Tablettes de Jean-Louis Nomicos, this latter restaurant being a real forerunner of this gastronomic redux.
Les Climats, 41 rue de Lille, 7th, Tel. 01-58-62-10-08. Metro: Solferino. Open daily. Lunch menus 36 Euros, 45 Euros. Average a la carte dinner 120 Euros.www.lesclimats.fr
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. 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)