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Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Abri, a Superb Little Restaurant with a Brilliant Young Chef

Chef Katsuaki Okiyama of Abri

Two of the most interesting things going on in the Paris restaurant scene this rentree are the turbo-speed rate with which the 10th arrondissement continues to go gourmand and the wonderful acceleration of the internationalization of the culinary talent pool in Paris. As I’ve mentioned before, in much the same way that Paris has long been the global beacon for talent in the fashion business, it’s now attracting ambitious and talented young chefs from other countries in such numbers that it’s no longer a surprise to learn the chef who just cooked your dinner in Paris is Mexican or Italian or American or, most likely of all, Japanese. The Japanese, you see, continue to revere French cooking with a seriousness and passion that’s long since dwindled in other countries, and this is why talented young Japanese chefs come to France in droves to do apprenticeships in the country’s restaurant kitchens and also why so many of them stay on to open their own restaurants. It make great sense, too, since the the culinary cultures of the two countries venerate best quality produce, admire technicity, and are profoundly fascinated by aesthetics of everything edible.

A perfect example of why France is so lucky to be on the receiving end of all this talent is young chef Katsuaki Okiyama, who worked at Robuchon, Taillevent and l’Agapé Bistrot before opening Abri, his very simple storefront restaurant in the 10th arrondissement not far from the Gare du Nord a few weeks ago. Meeting a friend for lunch, I walked by this place, since the plastic sign hanging overhead at this address says CITY CAFE, and when I first stepped inside, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place either, since it only just barely presents itself as a restaurant. Instead, the decor is sort of Berlin proletariat coffee shop, which I like a lot, actually, with a few bare wood tables up front, along the wall and in back. Okiyama works in an open kitchen with a plancha and a grill, which occasionally fills the narrow space with a mist of finely aerated cooking oil which might be vexing were it not for the fact that the food he cooks is not only intriguing but deeply satisfying.
 The only choice we had to make on the 22 Euro lunch menu was between fish and duck as our main course–we both went with the fish, a nice fleshy chunk of lieu jaune, or yellow pollack, and after I’d ordered exactly the same terrific wine, Quartz, that brilliant and very modish white from La Sologne, I’d had the night before at the reformated Vivant, now known as Vivant Table and also employing several Japanese chefs, we’d resumed our vageuly tongue-in-cheek conversation about the future of gastronomic journalism. My pal earnestly wondered aloud if there’s still an audience for serious food writing, or if all people really want are recipes and the interesting first-person fulminations of the food world’s better bloggers. Insofar as I’m concerned, I’d like to think there is, even if it’s also true that so many people seem puckishly pleased that blogging has so righteously pummeled the validity of expertise.
Beet with tomato and crabmeat in miso dressing at Abri
I was in the midst of telling my pal about the dinner I’d had at Vivant Table–it was good, but there were some imprecisions in the cooking, and the meal was expensive for what it was, when our first course arrived and stopped the conversation. Composed of a thin slice of beet, a succulent tomato, and shelled crabmeat in a gently meaty nutty miso vinaigrette, it was stunning for being so vivid, light and fresh. To be sure, the earnest Mrs. Dalloway becomes a Zen Master small-plate aesthetics here were similar to those deployed by almost all of Paris’s most ambitious young chefs these days, but that didn’t stop them from being pretty and sincere.
When our next course arrived, it suddenly it made perfect sense that half of the people at lunch that day were journalists, artists and food bloggers. Not only was this potato potage with coffee-cardamom foam delicious, it was as witty and artful as a netsuke. And part of a four-course 22 Euro lunch to boot! My head spun when I thought about what a great buy this place is, especially since we’d spent over 70 Euros a piece at Vivant Table the night before and even the new ratty little Thai restaurant on the rue Taitbout that I’d tried a day earlier had run 20 Euros with a lunch menu and a can of peach-flavored Nestea. And not only was Okiyama’s food exquisitely sourced and cooked, service from the Japanese staff was gracious and charming.
Next up, grilled yellow pollack with spinach, Chinese cabbage, and yellow squash in smoked-salt butter sauce with a dusting of Cayenne pepper–a subtle composition of delicate and potent flavors, soft and sinewy textures that was exceptionally satisfying. In fact, the only regret I had here was that the portion wasn’t larger, a meagerness that echoed something chef Yannick Alleno said to me last week and with which I completely agree: “Tasting menus are fine, but ultimately, we really need and want a substantial main course or we don’t feel fed.” My neighbor’s duckling with duxelles (fine mushroom hash), spinach, artichoke, and carrots in a velvety looking pan-juice sauce looked superb, too, and I immediately decided I’d be back here in a heartbeat for the 38.50 Euro six-course dinner tasting menu.
Abri is located in the 10th
To be sure, anyone whose idea of Paris is Saint-Germain-des-Pres might be discombobulated by this scrappy if perfectly safe 10th arrondissement neighborhood and some people would doubtless be put off by the ur-bohemian setting and under-powered ventilation of the open kitchen, but if these aren’t obstacles, you’ll likely love this place as much as I did.
Millefeuille at Abri
Okiyama’s cooking was so excellent, in fact, that I was already a semi-ecstatic convert by the time dessert arrived. Instead of being just a sweet little P.S., however, it delivered an unexpected knock-out punch. We’re talking about the best millefeuille I just might ever have eaten–a magnificent rubble of delicately caramelized buttery brown pastry leaves garnished seconds earlier with vanilla-flecked creme patissiere and lazer fine slices of dried and fresh nectarine. This was easily the best happy ending I’ve enjoyed all year, in fact, and it underlined the 360 degree excellence of this miniature kitchen and its remarkably self-exigent high-performance staff. This inflection of charm, excellence and affordability won’t last long, so go now.
92 rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, 10th, Tel. 01-83-97-00-00. Metro: Gare du Nord, Poissonnière or Cadet. Closed Sunday. Four-course lunch menu 22 Euros, six-course dinner menu 38.50 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)
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