Hexagone, Paris: The New Shape of French Gastronomy
By Alexander Lobrano
There are many things to like about chef Mathieu Pacaud‘s new restaurant Hexagone in Paris. Not only does it serve some exquisitely refined contemporary French cooking that tips its hat at the great traditions of Escoffier, it also has one of the best wine lists of any recent restaurant in Paris. This lavish list, which also includes a spectacular selection of grand cru wines by the glass, is run byBenjamin Roffet, one of the city’s most talented and charming sommeliers, too. There’s also a serious bar at this address with a major mixologist in the person of Thomas Girard.
What I find interesting about Pacaud’s new place, though, is that it represents what a talented and ambitious young chef with a serious culinary pedigree–his father Bernard Pacaud cooked at L’Ambroisie for many years before turning the kitchen over to his son–thinks French gastronomy should be about in the 21st century.
Oh, and there’s also the wild card of its address in the 16th Arrondissement, a silk-stocking part of Paris which never previously attracted young chefs setting up shop. Now, though, it’s starting to simmer with the arrival of Pacaud and other terrific new tables like Restaurant Pages.
“Many of the old style three star restaurants in Paris are struggling right now,” Pacaud said during a chat I had with him when I went to Hexagone for dinner with Bruno the other night. “They’re too expensive and too formal. The meals they serve take too long, and the whole drill isn’t appealing to a younger generation of Parisians or foreigners visiting the city. So my idea here was to create a place that my friends would want to come–a place that’s relaxed and where you have a good time,” said the chef, adding, “And I chose the 16th Arrondissement, because it delivers a good clientele of business diners at noon and an interesting and international mixture of people at night. Eventually, I’ll open a real restaurant gastronomique on the same premises (Hexagone occupies a duplex space space in the former Hotel K),” says Pacaud, who also plans a new seafood restaurant sometime this year. “I think it’s a really exciting time in Paris, because the old guard is changing and the future is emerging,” says the chef, a who insists that despite coming off as a very amiable and easygoing guy, he’s actually intensely demanding. “I dine in my own restaurant regularly and we’re still fine tooth combing everything,” he said.
Pacaud may still be putting the finishing touches on this place, but it already has a lot of charm and is quite unlike any other restaurant in Paris. Arriving, it gives off a decidedly fashionable vibe that had me dreading an imminent bout of attitude from the staff and servers, but no, the welcome was warm, and the staff was charmingly playful from time to time, as if winking at the whole idea of the ‘very serious restaurant,’ and yet they were also flawlessly professional. We were immediately at ease in the good looking dining room designed by interior architects Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier, too, because tables are large and widely spaced, the lighting is impeccable, and the tongue-in-cheek look of the place–the designers were inspired by “Alice in Wonderland”–was witty without going over the top.
Waiting for our first course, it was interesting to observe the evolving clientele here. There was a business dinner going on over my shoulder, and the crew of six hailed from several different countries and went back and forth between speaking French and English. A few pearls gathered from their chatter included the observation that “The United States isn’t a serious country if anyone could really take people like Mick Huckabee and Rick Perry seriously as possible presidential candidates,” (D’accord); “The food in Holland is terrible” (Wrong, the food in Amsterdam has become very good); and “Portuguese cooking is so peasant and basic” (And this with a very good-looking Portuguese woman at the table! I’m not sure if I’d describe it as ‘peasant and basic,’ but rather as often hearty and appealingly rustic, but then I like ‘peasant and basic.’) There were also several tables of well-groomed beautifully dressed middle-aged professional women, always a good sign, since this local tribe is both keen and discerning at the table, and surprisingly, a couple of tables of young stubbled types with their plastic motor cycle helmets sitting on the banquette next to them and their apparently bored girl friends, who spent a lot of time fiddling around with their phones. Soft lounge music played in the background, and for once it wasn’t irritating.
At Hexagone, you can order the tasting menu, a gastronomic phenomenon I no longer really enjoy, or go a la carte with a starter, fish, meat and dessert, since the portion sizes are perfectly calibrated to produce satisfaction without leaving you feeling overfed at the end of a meal. With the gizzards a little squeamish after so much lavish good eating during the holidays, I loved our first course, a feather-weight ‘Marquise’ of blanc manger meringues on a bed of truffled celery root puree that contained a slow-cooked egg hidden under a tumble of black truffles cut into fine match sticks. What intrigued about this dish is that it manages to be pretty and light but deliver a full punch of comfort-food pleasure, since the thickly runny egg yolk perfectly sauced the puree.
For anyone who hadn’t guessed, Hexagone in French, means hexagon in English, and the reference here is more than just geometric, since the French often affectionately refer to France as the Hexagone, because of its six different borders with several seas and different countries. In this instance, the word has other resonances, too, since Pacaud aspires to serving profoundly French food, and in this he succeeds, because the modernity of his plated aesthetics and his dextrous culinary lightness notwithstanding, the flavor constellations in his dishes are indeed exquisitely French. If a single langoustine thatched with finely shredded root vegetables in a pool of saffron cream was pleasant, crayfish from Lake Geneva on a bed of star-anise-flavored aspic with green mango puree and cauliflower mousseline was magnificent, with flowers decorating the plump sweet tails of shellfish and the percussion of the garnishes elongating their natural taste in a way that would make Escoffier proud even if the great French chef probably never worked with such ‘exotic’ seasonings.
Making things taste of what they are is Pacaud’s compass point, and the subtlety with which he pulls this off is thrilling. But his real shrewdness comes from understanding that Escoffier would have been horrified to find himself cast in the role of ‘curator’ chef, which is how too many French cooks see him today. Instead, I suspect that he’d rejoice at Pacaud’s intelligent gustatory innovations in the kitchen.
If my sole in vin jaune sauce was pleasant and very pretty with its carrot roses, both of us preferred Bruno’s John Dory with with a reduction of Noilly Prat vermouth that shirked its retro mantle with the clever addition of mace and garnishes of finely shredded leeks, cockles and razor-shell clams. Our meat courses were excellent, too–a riff on a carbonnade (beef in beer sauce from the north of France) for Bruno and braised veal sweetbreads with a garnish of black-and-green olives and a vivid green herb reduction for me.
By the time we got to dessert, the quiet question that had been bobbling around in the back of my thoughts all night had been answered. To wit, is Mathieu Pacaud as talented a chef as his father? He is, I decided while tucking into a charming post-modern riff on a Poire Belle Helene. Meanwhile, across the table, Bruno was absent in the chocolate bliss induced by his Bayano Brésil ganache with honey ice cream, chilled buckwheat cream and a crunchy hazelnut wafer.
If Mathieu Pacaud is cooking this well just a few weeks after opening, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s on the starting blocks as one of the next great chefs in Paris.
Hexagone, 85 Avenue de Kléber 16th Arrondissement, Tel. (33) 01-42-25-98-85. Metro: Trocadéro. Bar open Tues.-Sat. 11am-2am; Restaurant open Tues.-Sat. for lunch (12pm-2pm) and dinner (7pm-11pm). Lunch menu 49 Euros; average four-course a la carte 175 Euros; tasting menu 180 Euros. www.hexagone-paris.fr