Shortly after 11pm the second of two sliding doors which separate his kitchen from his restaurant opened noiselessly and chef Hiroyuki Hiramatsu, dressed in immaculate whites, stood on the threshold. Blinking rather incredulously, as though a room full of happy customers was the last thing he had expected to see, he rubbed his eyes, smiled almost imperceptibly and promptly turned on his heels and went back to work.
As well as 11 restaurants dotted around Japan, Hiroyuki Hiramatsu has been cooking in Paris for almost four years now but until last October his tiny, 16-seater restaurant on the Ile Saint Louis was probably the most difficult reservation to get in the city. Now that he has moved into what many readers may recall as the former home of the long-running and once highly-regarded restaurant Faugeron in the 16th it is somewhat easier to get a table, although sadly for anyone planning a weekend trip to Paris, Hiramatsu is closed on Saturday and Sunday.
But what comes as the biggest surprise about this restaurant is quite how determinedly, despite a Japanese chef, a Japanese manager from the northern province of Okhaiddo and a series of Japanese objets throughout the room, it strives so hard, and ultimately so successfully, to be French. Forget globalisation, fusion and experimentation for an evening – it is his nation's renown for precision execution which Hiramatsu best demonstrates with a style and application which, on the evidence of what we ate, would have even impressed Escoffier.
Perhaps it was the absence of the unexpected or merely the excitement at finally being able to taste Hiramatsu's cooking but no sooner had we been handed our menus than the four of us decided, in strict contravention of what is expected of a group including a restaurant correspondent, to choose his seven-course gastronomic menu at 180 euros. Undoubtedly expensive, it was to prove memorable.
Two of the dishes, a succulent piece of foie gras wrapped in a cabbage leaf with a glistening truffle jus followed by soufflé of Breton lobster topped with a risotto of more truffles, white on this occasion, were masterful. Elegant, rich but not overly so, this latter dish was timed to perfection. Even more fascinating was the presentation of the venison as a main course with half an intensely roast onion holding a delicious creamy onion purée, snuggling next to slices of warm pear and triangles of chestnut gnocchi.
The star of the meal, however, was a fennel mousse topped with caviar and langoustines served before the venison which the menu described as 'smoked with spices'. 'Smoking with spices' would have been more accurate as it arrived on a perforated dish above a soup bowl in which small pieces of cherry wood and cinnamon had been lit just before the dish had left the kitchen. The mousse, initially quite cool when it arrived, took on different characteristics as it gently cooked which in turn accentuated its contrasting, and more expensive, ingredients.
Talent aside, one of the reasons Hiramatsu has hit the ground running since he opened on October 25th is because he has taken over a long-established restaurant where the kitchen, private dining room and other essential ingredients are correctly located even if they have undergone a radical and expensive makeover.
Lovers of more traditional, less expensive Parisian institutions should head for L'Ami Jean, just south of the Asemblée Nationale, particularly if they also possess a hearty appetite.
L'Ami Jean's unashamed emphasis is on all things Basque, from the far south west of France, and its walls are covered in strings of garlic and peppers, stuffed ducks, pelota rackets and berets with the odd rugby ball wedged into the corner.
The four-page menu, embellished with rather wistful drawings of the region, is headed Souvenir d'Euskal Herria, a Memory of the Basque Country but if all this seems rather nostalgic the kitchen makes no bones about delivering a succession of dishes packed with powerful flavours, served by a young waiting team who manage to keep smiling despite the extreme proximity of the tables. This can be a noisy restaurant.
Our first courses included a skewer of scallops with figs; an intensely perfumed pot of stewed ceps; a voluminous tureen of game soup; and an unctuous terrine of marcassin, young wild boar, with foie gras running through it. This magnanimous approach continued with two red mullet perched precariously on top of one another; a plat du jour, detailed on a small, portable blackboard, of monkfish cheeks with mussels; and their interpretation of 'shepherd's pie' served in four small Le Creuset pots.
L'Ami Jean is justifiably popular. There was a queue at the intimate bar as we came to the end of our dinner in the 19.30-21.30 time slot we had been allocated. But the cooking and the great value for money (with first courses and desserts around 10 euros and main courses in the region of 20 euros) made for a hugely enjoyable evening. Or as two chic Parisiennes commented as we left the warmth of L'Ami Jean for the heavy rain outside, "C'était vachement bon" [that was damned good], a comment no restaurant correspondent could argue with.
Hiramatsu, 52 rue de Longchamp, 75116 Paris, 01.56.81.08.80
L'Ami Jean, 27 rue Malar, 75007 Paris, 01.47.05.86.89 Closed Saturday and Sunday