Here at JJ Buckley, January brings with it thoughts of Bordeaux, as the Union des Grand Crus travels the country pouring the latest releases while we make plans for attending the en primeur tastings in France. And with Bordeaux on the brain, it’s not too hard to start dreaming of Paris, the city where we land before traveling south, and where I always make sure to get in an extra day to check out the latest and greatest culinary pit-stops.
Like almost every major city these days, Paris is undergoing another seismic shift in their dining scene. With strong influences from American cuisine (including the arrival of many expat chefs), the plates arriving on today’s Parisian tables highlight bold colors, fresh ingredients and light-handed cooking techniques. In short, they are quite different from the requirements of haute cuisine, which dominated French cooking for decades. Traditional French dining once meant maintaining a large staff and paying rent in pricey neighborhoods. All of the required overhead kept prices too high at a time when diners started tightening their wallets and eating out less. At the same time, the strong traditions surrounding French cuisine and service left little room for younger chefs to innovate in the kitchen and promote a relaxed environment in the dining room. Paris was ready for change and (thankfully) that change has arrived.
To further keep costs down, the locus of dining has shifted away from the city center to districts on the fringes of Paris where rents are cheaper. Buoyed by an energetic and youthful population moving into areas like Canal St. Martin, these new bistros have an eager audience ready to book reservations at the newest arrivals to the dining scene.Gone is the formal attire of dining room servers. Chefs have tossed away their hats and starched jackets. Today’s contemporary restaurant is small, with a relaxed atmosphere and hip French music to set the mood. The small, multitasking staff is friendly and the service casual. Tables are bare, the silverware mismatched. Cooking is done in open kitchens, further breaking down the barriers between chef and patron. New ideas are finally allowed to prosper in more accepting and affordable environments.
The success of these new restaurants has spawned another exciting new trend. Faced with overflowing crowds and diners who simply want to sample the latest trends, many chefs have opened up intimate secondary rooms where small plates and wines by the glass provide a less expensive way to experience their cuisine. More affordable than the establishments that catapulted these chefs to fame, these new ventures are perfect for those who want to witness what the new Paris is all about. Diners often simply stop by (‘no reservation’ policies are oftende rigeur) and nibble on food at the bar before they dash off to another place to drink and eat – another indication of how Paris has moved away from the formality of the past to embrace a relaxed, yet vibrant way of dining. I can’t wait to return!One does not eat in Paris without wine and the selections available in most of the city’s new establishments are quite intriguing, despite the fact that they all tend to follow a common approach. Most wines are inexpensive, with strong representation from the Loire, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. Wines are largely organic at the minimum but are more likely to be biodynamic, with a sprinkling of natural wines as well. Lists are usually small, representing thoughtfully-selected growers.
The arrival of Daniel Rose in 2006 marked the beginning of a sea change to the establishment dining scene in Paris. A native of Chicago, he opened a small bistro in the 9th arrondisement where plates composed of fresh local produce quickly found a rabid audience in 16 diners per night – all of whom booked their seats months in advance. Success, however, came at a price and the original location did not allow Rose the ability to expand. He instead found a new space near to Les Halles, where an 18-month renovation project allowed Rose to cook in upgraded surroundings while serving a few more people.
In the course of renovating and preparing his new space, a small cellar dating back to the 16th century was uncovered. In the delays one would expect when permits and red tape were handled, Rose revised his plans and installed a wine bar in the basement. In a space as casual as the main dining room upstairs, small plates and glasses of wines are served to a thirsty and hungry audience, all eager to see the revolution that Rose has brought to Paris. It’s a perfect way to have a glimpse of how it all started.
6 Rue Bailleul 75001
Spring opened up the eyes of many Parisian diners to the serious potential of American chefs, so when Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian arrived in 2007 to start their underground venture Hidden Kitchen, the city was ready. Tucked away in an apartment building near the Tulllieres garden, the couple hosted monthly dinners in their apartment that showcased their fresh approach to cooking. Despite the fact that neither one had much restaurant experience, their venture quickly attracted seats booked months in advance.
Fast-forward some three years later, when they took the big step to simultaneously opened a new restaurant and wine bar. Stretched across the width of a block next to the Palais Royal, the small wine bar has quickly become a favorite destination for locals. Once again, small plates with strong American influences rule the chalkboard that overlooks the narrow room. Bustling and energetic, your head will spin trying to figure out why some of the best fried chicken made today is coming from a small kitchen in Paris.
52 rue de Richelieu, 75001
Hidden away in a dark alley in the increasingly hip 11th arrondisement not far from the Place du Republique, Au Passage is another bistro that has captivated Paris with its straightforward presentation of fresh ingredients. James Henry left Australia to pursue a new life in Paris with his girlfriend and soon found himself working with Daniel Rose in the kitchen of Spring. Soon after, Henry and some investors renovated a small café and the city’s foodies were soon flocking to grab a table.
Sporting a rocking attitude and a hip, comfortable interior that would not be out of place in the hipster mecca of any city, James works away in the small kitchen, quickly turning out dozens of composed plates. The menu changes daily depending on what the market has to offer and features a series of simple (and quite affordable) small plates that are described in more detail by the staff. Featuring two to four items with fresh and vibrant flavors, the emphasis of each small plate is clearly on the produce here with little additional adornment from sauces.
James has just left Au Passage to take a break before embarking on a new venture but all reports indicate that the food is still stellar and true to his vision.
1 Bis passage de Saint-Sebastien, 75011
Another new addition to the booming restaurant scene east of the Bastille/Place du Republique axis is Septime, which follows the new mantra of ever-changing presentations of seasonal ingredients. The open kitchen faces two adjoining rooms that show off a rustic, homey interior décor that brings America’s countryside to mind. Roughly hewn wood tables and sparsely accented walls add to the charm of the room.Septime
Chef Bertrand Grebaut spent his formative years at Arpege, the Michelin three-star restaurant that pushed the boundaries of haute cuisine with its all-vegetable menu. On his own now, Grebaut offers up a short menu with a minimalist approach that simply lists the ingredients of each dish. Like Au Passage, each plate is a careful combination of a few ingredients. Beautifully presented plates of freshly shaved vegetables are doused with a few crumbled spices and other intriguing ingredients. Fish is cooked with a delicate touch with a smattering of leafy greens in a light broth.
The folks at Septime have recently opened a small cave across the street, modeled on a similar concept that was used by Spring. You can stop by to take away a bottle of wine or simply visit and sample a few wines to match the small nibbles that are offered as well. Recently opened, it promises to be packed until everyone is kicked out, each and every night.
80 rue de Charonne, 75011
La Cave de Septime
3 rue Basfroi, 75011
Almost no restaurant has made as big a splash in Paris as Le Chateaubriand, which has occupied the position of France’s best restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants of the world rankings for the last three years (it was ranked 15 in 2012). Inaki Aizpitarte is another in a series of Basque chefs who have brought innovative combinations of forgotten ingredients to Parisian dining tables. Inaki did his part a few years ago to ensure that the low-priced offshoot trend would take Paris by storm, opening Le Dauphin a few doors down from his signature restaurant in the 11th arrondisement. The clean, white room, supplemented by gleaming silver accents was designed by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.Le Dauphin
Always packed with diners on the waiting list for Le Chateaubriand, they often bide their time here sipping on aperitifs at the white marble bar. The unadorned tables surrounding the bar are full with those who have made Le Dauphin their dining destination. Snacking on small plates here is a very affordable way to immerse yourself in Aizpitarte’s distinct cooking style. Open bottles of wine are emptied quickly as glass after glass is poured to diners who have caught a seat along the bar eating plates of squid ink risotto or tandoori smoked octopus. While service can be a bit brusque at times, especially at the busy bar, most of the time they’ll warm up, and by the end of the evening you’ll be chatting away.
131 avenue Parmentier, 75011
For more on Chuck’s culinary adventures in Paris, don’t miss his first blog on the topic here, and more of his photos on Flickr!
And check out some of our favorite Paris cuisine-inspired pairings at JJ Buckley Fine Wines:
2009 Maison Jean Rijkaert, Cotes du Jura ‘Vigne des Voises Vieilles Vignes’ Chardonnay
2010 Domaine Lucien Crochet, Sancerre ‘Le Chene’ Sauvignon Blanc
2011 Chateau de Pibarnon, Bandol Rose
2010 Vincent Girardin Domaine de la Tour du Bief, Moulin a Vent ‘Clos de la Tour’ Beaujolais
2008 Domaine Comte Lafon, Monthelie ‘les Duresses’ Pinot Noir