Alexander Lobrano’s Letter from Paris: Les Enfants Rouge
Before I say anything else, let me state that Les Enfants Rouge, a new bistro in the Marais, is a good little restaurant and that Japanese chef Daï Shinozuka, who most recently cooked with Yves Camdeborde at Le Comptoir du Relais, is a solidly talented chef. This established, the two main things that I took away from a meal here with a friend the other night is that “la Bistronomie,” or modern French bistro cooking as pioneered by Yves Camdeborde when he opened La Regalade in 1992, is no longer cutting edge or even particularly directional in Paris, and that the noise level in Paris restaurants is rising so relentlessly as to put them in the same deafening category as most new places in New York or London.
For anyone who doesn’t know the back story, “bistronomie’ is a contraction between “bistrot” and “gastronomie” that was coined in the 1990s by the French food writer Sebastien Desmorand, and it was arguably first championed by Camdeborde when he left the kitchens of the Hotel de Crillon, where he’d trained with chef Christian Constant, often referred to as the father of this movement, because he trained so many of the chefs who practice this style of cooking in Paris today, in 1992. The core idea was to lighten and enhance traditional bistro cooking by applying the exigencies of haute cuisine cooking to the bistro idiom. The idea was to revisit the traditional ‘cuisine du terroir’ with a certain creativity and to juxapose modest ingredients like offal or inexpensive fish like mackerel with luxurious garnishes, fresh herbs, lighter sauces, and tweaks of unexpected seasoning.
Perhaps the most ardent advocate of “la bistronomie” has been the French website and guide Le Fooding, which was founded to shake up the totemic conventions of restaurant reviewing and food writing in France in the same way “la bistronomie” was rebooting the much loved culinary traditions of the Paris bistro. What I realized during dinner at Les Enfants Rouge, however, is that this movement is now almost twenty-two years old and has become the new normal in Paris, and as the idiom has become mainstream, it’s no longer surprising. Depending on the restaurant, it’s often very satisfying, even superb, but today it lacks the originality it once had for the very fact of its omnipresence. In fact, it’s now easier to find a ‘bistronomique’ meal in Paris than it is to find a traditional bistro feed. And in similar terms, Le Fooding has become a trend-arbiting institution alongside many of the other established French food guides. Don’t get me wrong–I like Le Fooding, but its unconventional, anti-establishment edge has dulled as its business model has grown. Like almost every magazine in the world, they’ve bowed to the sirens of celebrity marketing and now have a dreary column of celebrities’ favorite restaurants, and it also still surprises me that they don’t invite readers to comment on their reviews when when even the venerable Michelin guide has opened itself up to feedback from the gastronomic peanut gallery. So ultimately, I find myself wondering, What’s next?
Still, for anyone who wants to discover a textbook perfect example of bistronomique cooking, Les Enfants Rouge is a very good address, and it also goes some way to redressing the fact that the Marais still doesn’t have as many good restaurants as the popularity of this Paris neighborhood would warrant. Arriving at this small attractive room off of the trendy rue de Bretagne, the space came off as sort of a small art gallery with contemporary paintings spot-lit on the white walls and a mixture of tables dressed with white table cloths–a break from the normal convention of bistronomique addresses, and a few, i ncluding ours, that were bare and looked like old linoleum topped school desks.
Service was attentive and charming, and after my friend Lady K from Washington and I had ordered, we were served little cups of foamy soup as an amuse bouche. It was so delicately flavored that we had trouble identifying its ingredients, but there was a vague but pleasant smokiness to the soup that suggest bacon. Next, Lady K was served a saute of mushrooms topped with an egg in a little enameled casserole dish perhaps that emphasized the stylized rusticity of the cooking here, and I ended up with a tureen of delicious chicken bouillon garnished with chopped mint, cubes of celery root and carrot, and, in very direct reference to Shinozuka’s previous kitchen (Le Comptoir du Relais) tapioca, which sounds much better in French as “perles du Japon” (Japanese pearls). Both dishes were earnest and well-executed, if more polite than intriguing.
My roasted filet of cod with baby clams was impeccable, however–a perfectly cooked piece of fish with the gently briny baby clams adding both texture and gastronomic punctuation to the quiet flavors of the cod. Lady K’s veal breast was beautifully cooked, too–browned so that it was crusted and caramelized and then slow-braised so that she could eat it without a knife. Her garnish of slivered griddled baby potatoes and chopped bacon in a light foamy cream sauce was excellent, too, for its bosomy autumnal earthiness. in fact the only problem mid-way through our meal was that the room had become so noisy that we had to shout at each other across the table to be heard. I think this was partially due to the full house in a small, low-ceilinged room with no sound-absorbing fabric in the windows, but also to the fact that the ambient noise level in Paris restaurants has risen dramatically during the last few years. I don’t regret the whispery staidness that once prevailed in many Paris restaurants, but it’s obvious that a certain aural restraint is falling by the wayside in Paris as its done long ago in London and New York. In New York, I’d note that many of the most amped up diners seem to be young Wall Street yahoos with absolutely no awareness whatsoever of those around them, while in Paris, it seems that an old Gallic taboo on being loud in public spaces has been discarded by a younger crowd out to have a good time.
I finished up with a generously served and well-selected cheeseboard, while Lady K had a nicely made Baba au Rhum, correctly soaked tableside from a good bottle of rum from the island of La Reunion. Because the room was so noisy, we decided to have coffee down the street at a cafe instead of lingering, and once we were in a calmer setting, Lady K said, “So what did you think?” “It was a good meal,” I replied, “But it lacked any distinctive signature.” Or in other words, it was like so many other ‘bistronomique’ meals I’ve had in Paris during the last twenty years, but I don’t fault chef Shinozuka for this. Instead, I think he’s a talented chef and a very diligent student of the idiom in which he was trained. But for the first time in years, I do find myself wondering: So what comes next in Paris?
Les Enfants Rouges, 9 rue de Beauce, 3rd, Tel. 01-48-87-80-61. Metro: Arts et Métiers, Filles du Calvaire or Saint-Sébastien-Froissart. Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner. Average 35 Euros.
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)