This article is also published in the Financial Times.
The Michelin Guide has directed many towards the best that Paris has to offer. But over a weekend during which I visited two very different restaurants – Bistroy Les Papilles in the 5th close to the Sorbonne, where the €35 set four-course menu costs less than one course on the à la carte menu at Les Tablettes in the far more soigné 16th arrondissement – I came away with an appreciation of the guide’s longer-term implications for the style with which certain Frenchmen so professionally manage their restaurants.
Les Papilles (right) belongs to Bertrand Bluy, a tall, rugby-playing patron who has patrolled his narrow restaurant for the past 10 years, having spent the same amount of time prior to that at the renowned Taillevent.
Jean-Louis Nomicos worked the stoves alongside the highly decorated Alain Ducasse and at Lasserre before he opened Les Tablettes four years ago. As we walked back to the metro Victor Hugo under a moonlit sky, I realised that after such long service it is obviously not possible to take Michelin out of the man.
Although in style, the sense of formality and price (our dinner for two was €320) Nomicos obviously has Michelin in his sights (and in fact the restaurant has justifiably one star), his restaurant is radically different in two essential ways from so many starred restaurants.
Firstly, it is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and when I quizzed the manageress about how business was on a Sunday when so many Parisian restaurateurs believe nobody wants to eat or drink well, she responded that it was very good indeed.
Secondly, rather than being frosty or uninterested in their clients, those in charge of reservations here are warm and friendly. They responded to my email booking in August when few seem to be at their post in Paris. They emailed to reconfirm, rather than making an intrusive phone call, and seemed delighted that we were making our first visit.
Les Tablettes occupies a bright corner site with ultra-modern décor, unobtrusive overhead lighting, space between tables and good acoustics. And the room’s open layout allowed us to witness a Korean couple enjoying a bottle of Château Figeac and six Swedes moving from bottles of Puligny-Montrachet to a magnum of fine red burgundy while we, more modestly, drank a bottle of Domaine Sarda-Mallet Grenache 2007 (€65) from Roussillon.
Nomicos’ culinary goal is to transport the flavours of his native Provence to Paris. In this he admirably succeeds not just by selecting the freshest and most appealing ingredients but also by ensuring that, without any ridiculous combinations, the flavours and colours of his dishes are more than the sum of their parts.
First courses of squid, stuffed clams, bergamot and chorizo, and cubes of crisp red mullet on sweet onion confit were really excellent. The juxtaposition of diced vegetables and anise on the fillets of sea bass and the steamed fennel, lemon and liquorice with the sweetbreads were attractively precise, as was the alliance of gariguette strawberries with a peppery yoghurt cream.
Nomicos has not yet, however, had the courage to imbue the joie de vivre that obviously infects his cooking into his waiting staff. They are still dressed in funereal black. The sommeliers still carry clusters of grapes on their lapels even though the wine list comes on an iPad. By opening seven days a week, Nomicos obviously appreciates how his customers live, work and want to enjoy his restaurant. The style of service needs to follow suit.
Bluy has made this transition at Les Papilles and at the same time put his experience at Taillevent to best advantage. He has laid out a very narrow space to great effect even if the tables are extremely close together.
The most striking aspect of this is quite how this place sparkles. There is not a trace of dust in the air. The windows, the copper pans in the kitchen, the tables and bar counter, the frames containing the signed rugby shirts, all reflect the owner’s obvious enjoyment of his role.
Although actually I should say roles because these are the tasks I saw Bluy carry out. He explains the menu himself to each table; points out the long shelf of red wines that are available retail and at €7 extra in the bistro before he opens them; behind the bar he cuts the baguettes; rolls the linen napkins and slips them into their wooden rings; and as the first main courses appear from the kitchen in the far right hand corner, he prepares the individual plates of the cheese course, in our case Bleu d’Ambert with a preserved plum.
Bluy is forced to do all this because the kitchen is only big enough for Tom, his long-standing chef, and one assistant. And this overriding lack of space dictates the style of service too. At our lunch a luscious pea soup was served in a tureen, the soup plates already garnished with peas, croutons, and crème fraiche; the main course was a large dish of slow-cooked lamb with aubergines, red peppers and tomatoes that was left on the table; while the dessert was a cool glass filled with layers of fig, panna cotta and caramel.
Les Tablettes 16 avenue Bugeaud, Paris 75016; tel +33 1 56 28 16 16
Bisroy Les Papilles 30 rue Gay Lussac, Paris 75005; tel +33 1 43 25 20 79. Closed Sunday and Monday. (The photo is taken from the their website.)