Adjacent to the Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus), a handsome 1852 arena between the Place de la Republique and the Bastille, the Clown Bar has always been one of the most charming places in Paris for a quick bite and a glass of wine. Now under new management–a dream team that includes Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne from the restaurant Saturne, plus Xavier Lacaud, it’s suddenly better than it’s been for many years. They recruited talented Japanese chef Sota Atsumi, who cooked at Vivant, another intimate little place with landmarked Belle Epoque tiles, to run the kitchen, and Atusmi’s short produce focused menu, which changes often, runs to intriguing small plates, which are easily composed into a pleasant and very satisfying meal.
There’s also a deep terrace on the quiet street out front, and this has instantly made this beloved address even more popular than ever with a diverse but stylish crowd of Parisians. Coming for dinner the other night with Bruno after I’d returned from New York City the same day, we toyed with the idea of the terrace, but sat inside instead to enjoy the beautifully restored little dining room, a real triumph of French Belle Epoque decor with a glass ceiling in the bar area painted with a circus theme and a wall of tiles from Sarreguemines, the northern town that was once one of France’s great ceramics towns, with a frieze of clowning clowns behind the big zinc bar. The last time I came here, the room, which had been closed for a while, still had walls that were amber tinted by years of cigarette smoke, but that’s all gone now, and the sleek contemporary furnishings, including tables with the silverware tucked away in secret compartment, are flattered by the vintage setting.
We started with a plate of two-year-aged Basatxerri ham from the Basque Country and some delicate herb strewn camembert croquettes, both of which went well with aperitifs of Edelzwicker and a Viognier from the Languedoc. The hors d’oeuvres were good, but lest I bring the natural wine (unsulfured) crowd down on my head, I couldn’t help but thinking that not all wines are better in their ‘unadulterated’ form, since oxidation can mask the nuances of gentler cepages (grape varieties). Even though they arrived at the table stone cold, an order of grilled langoustines from the Breton port of Le Guilvinec were superb–sweet, cooked just to that perfect point where the tail meat had pearled, and garnished with a winning simplicity of salt, a little lemon, a few needles of fresh rosemary.
Getting things to the table warm will be a recurring challenge here, since the kitchen is in the basement, but our second starter, bonito in a bracing foam of fresh horseradish, a really inspired idea, since the raciness of the root met that of the fish, didn’t suffer a temperature problem and was a succulent dish, which might only have been improved by being served with some hot toasted country bread.
Turbot with razor-shell clams, white asparagus and rhubarb in salted butter was one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve had for a long time, since the product was impeccable and the constellation of tastes made sense on the palate but was pushed just off-center enough by the rhubarb to be unexpected. A brilliant puree of dates and yuzu played the same role with an exquisitely well-made pithiviers de canard, or ground duck in a little dome of buttery golden pastry.
“Natural wines often taste the same to me,” Bruno said of our white Haute Cotes-du Beaune as we finished it up with a good cheese course. I suggested that maybe if he’d learned to drink natural wines before ‘traditional’ ones he might feel differently, although I personally find it really interesting to pinch hit between them and liked this provocatively different orange-colored quaff from the terrific little wine list.
A caramelized pignoli nut tart filled buckwheat flavored pastry cream was the happy ending to this excellent meal where the only recurring problem was the timing of the service, not just in terms of hot dishes delivered cold but some slackness that jarred the rhythm of an otherwise excellent meal. All told, it’s really heart-warming to see this delightful little corner of Paris renovated and rebooted in the service of seriously good food and wine once again, and I know it’s going to become a new Sunday night favorite, especially during the summer when the terrace is open. N.B. They also serve breakfast, since this place functions as a cafe cum wine bar between lunch and dinner serving hours.
Clown Bar, 114 rue Amelot, 11th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. 01-43-55-87-35. Metro: Filles du Calvaire, Saint-Sébastien-Froissart, or Richard Lenoir. Open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch (noon-2.30pm) and dinner (7.30pm-10.30pm). www.facebook.com/pages/CLOWN-BAR-PARIS/1443072882610254 Average 40 Euros.
Alexander Lobrano grew up in Connecticut, and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine and has written about food and travel for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants (Random House), and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)