Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Two Great New Bistros
Though it took forever to get to L'Agrume, which is an address that completely flummoxes anyone who's as committed to traveling by mass transit as I am, the dinner I had there last night was, as they've been saying here in France for a very longtime, well worth the journey. Were it not for the fact that it's located on a where-are-we? street on the edge of the 5th and the 13th arrondissements, this place has the easy groove of a neighborhood bolt-hole in Santa Monica, Cambridge, Mass., or Notting Hill, London with the obvious exception that everyone's speaking French, bien sur, and the food exhibits all of the astonishing culinary discipline that makes me a doggedly perennial optimist when so many others are blowing hard that France's best gastro days are behind it.
Meeting my friend David, who's gastronomic perceptiveness functions at the speed of light and is almost unfailing accurate, for dinner, we sipped glasses of Picpoul, that cheap but under-rated Languedoc best-buy supermarket white, here poured at a very fair 3 Euros a glass, nibbled delicious pitted black olives, and tried to decide if we were up for the six-course tasting menu.
As a rule, I loathe tasting menus, since it always seems pretty improbable any chef will be able to play a symphony on my palette when we've never met, but since we were very curious, we decided to jump in, a pretty harmless gamble, too, for 35 Euros.
So away we went, with a first-course of excellent quality crabmeat dressed with lime zest, basil, and fine slivers of Granny Smith apple, a generous dollop that neither of us could find even tiny fault with and so just eagerly enjoyed. Next, a lovely soup of rougets (red mullet) with a great presentation–the sweet waitress, the chef's wife in a dusty pink angora dress, ladled the hot soup over fine slices of raw fish garnished with tiny rings of cebettes (green onion, but not scallions), and for me, even though this soup lacked a little fire — I'd have added some piment d'Esplette or piment de Cayette, maybe a few strand of microplaned ginger — was just delicious, and a wonderful testimony to the chef's talent and good-humored capacity for hard work.
As is so often the case, the main courses were a shade less alluring then the starters–sea bass in a somewhat bland foam with salsify and perfectly cooked duckling breast with a polite slaw of red beets (nice combination, that) — but both were very good, and we were having a very good time, because the service was so sweet but unintrusive, eager but professional.
We slotted a slice of wonderfully creamy Gorgonzola with a miniature salad and could-be-better hazelnuts (no one should ever buy nuts pre-roasted–they go off instantly), before our two desserts and were glad we did.
"I really like this place. It's not perfect, but I like the people, the open kitchen, the crowd–it's fun and the food's good," said David, and I entirely agreed. Next, panna cotta with strawberry puree rhubarb, maybe with grilled almonds and candied ginger, would have been better at this time of the year, but this was still good — and then a dish that brought on a weird rush of memories from the days that I was a flat-broke student in London and went to Sunday lunch at the flat of my local librarian because I liked her so much, looked forward to a good roast, and love the little box of After Eight mints she'd put out with the Port at the end of our meal. At L'Agrume, a pod of chocolate mousse swam in a Jet 28 (mint liqueur) bath, and was a fine way to end a very pleasant and very impressive meal.
Given the current gastro landscape in Paris, I fear this place will be lionized before the sweet young chef (citing his name is not yet necessary, but he cooked in a lot of fancy places before hanging out his own shingle) gets a chance to cross his Ts and dot his Is. So I'd say go now before the world rushes in, and enjoy a winsome cameo of young French culinary talent in the 21st century.
Le Bouchon et L'Assiette.
I can't quite decide why the upper 17th arrondissement continues to produce so many good new contemporary French bistros (L'Entregedeu, Hier et Aujourd'hui, La Fourchette de Printemps are all favorites), but think it may be a great combo of low rents and a reliable local clientele, i.e, affluent people who know and love good food.
One way or another, it's a pain-in-the-neck neighborhood to get to, so I always show up at any new restaurant in a cranky pants frame of mind thinking, "This had better be good." Le Bouchon et L'Assiette having gotten some good local press, I was pretty sure I'd be able to let my hair down after a long walk in the rain, and I did, in fact, like these two small dining rooms, anonymous low-budget spaces where all of the visual fun came from retro posters that vaunted the chef's Basque-southwestern French roots and a peek-a-boo kitchen where you could see him cooking up a storm from the shoulder up.
Dining with two French nationals, a Franco-American (the lovely Claire Quimbrot) et moi meme, we brought a great galaxy of taste to the table, and our meal launched well with excellent starters boudin noir with mache (lamb's ear lettuce) for Sylvie, a charming French woman who's lived most of her life in the U.S. and so hungers for really funky French food like boudin (black pudding is the unappealing English name for this soft black sausage made with pig's blood), carpaccio de haddock for Bruno and foie gras with red cabbage slaw with hazelnuts for Claire and I. The foie gras was generously served, home-made, and good quality, but lacked culinary punctuation–a reduction of Xeres vinegar, some sour cherries, I don't know, but something to back-stop it's richness.
Next Bruno and and Sylvie went for thick slices of yellow Pollack, a fish enjoying a certain popularity in Paris these days because it's less threatened (and cheaper) than cod, with salsify in a rather dull cream foam, and a shared duckling breast with delicious golden crispy skin and red beet slaw for Claire and I. We finished up with a shared plate of Saint Nectaire, the cheese that always makes me think of country school houses in the 19th century for its herbaceousness, generosity, and full-barrel Gallic lushness, and a homemade gasteau Basque that was excellent.
With two of us going prix-fixe and two a la carte, with a single bottle of average Irouleguy red, this meal landed at 50 Euros a piece, which was more than it was worth. Still, there's talent in the kitchen, and I'd gladly go back at noon for the 22 Euro menu.
L'Agrume, 15 rue des Fosses Saint-Marcel, 5th, Tel. 01-43-31-86-48. Metro: Saint Marcel or Gobelins. Closed Sunday and Monday. Average 40 Euros.
LE BOUCHON ET L'ASSIETTE, B
Le Bouchon et L'Assiette, 127 rue Cardinet, 17th, Tel. 01-42-27-83-93. Metro: Ternes or Villiers. Closed Sunday and Monday. Average 40 Euros.
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)