A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Assiduous readers of this column may recall that for the best part of the past 15 years I have been a great fan of the cooking of chef Antonin Bonnet.
I first came across Bonnet when he was head chef of The Greenhouse in London’s Mayfair and then I followed him on his return to his native France to enjoy his cooking at Le Sergent Recruteur on Paris’s Île Saint-Louis.
After this restaurant closed, our friendship took a new path when I played the role of listener as Bonnet, undecided whether to further his career in Paris or London, sought my advice. We lost touch but then via a reader I heard some good news – Bonnet had found a new home at a restaurant called Quinsou in the rue de L’Abbé Grégoire in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. I hurried along.
As soon as I turned into this small street I realised its importance to French cooking. On the other side, with its front door almost opposite that of the restaurant, is the imposing façade of the École Ferrandi, the French school of culinary arts that has turned out perhaps more talented chefs than anywhere else in this city. Quinsou had been, before Bonnet moved in, a bar/café where the students used to gather.
Today, Bonnet teaches the occasional class across the road and relishes its location for the attention it draws. ‘Quite a few teachers, some very well known professional chefs, call in here for something to eat either before or after they have taught a class', Bonnet explained to me. ‘There is nothing quite as satisfying as the praise from one’s peers.’
What I have always enjoyed about Bonnet’ s style of cooking is the combination he brings of a classical French training with an Anglo-Saxon respect for the importance of the customer. This combination is enshrined in a poster on display, right by the bar and clearly visible as one crosses the threshold. The poster, written in a strong black typeface and composed by graphic designer Anthony Burrill, reads simply, ‘WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE’.
This slogan, which should ideally be on the wall of every restaurant, is particularly pertinent here because since he opened Quinsou in September 2016 Bonnet has served a set menu of four courses at dinner for €48 (three for €33 at lunch), with a few extras, of course. This policy has caused a certain amount of confrontation with customers although now it is explained to everyone when they make their reservation and Bonnet has learnt to have an extra fish course available for those who do not eat meat as well as an alternative meat course for those who do not enjoy the pigeon that was the main course on the night I ate there.
Bonnet’s menu, a single piece of paper attached to a piece of card, has an asterisk to the left of the four dishes that constitute the set menu. The other two, an additional fish dish and another dessert, as well as the two dishes for tables to nibble on, a plate of pork chorizo and oysters from Utah Beach in Normandy, are there for anyone who is truly hungry.
I was, so I began with the oysters. Plump and served in their shells, they displayed the Japanese influence that has also been a feature of Bonnet’s cooking I have long admired. These had been coated in dashi, Japanese stock, which gave the dish an extra shot of umami. It was further enlivened with the zest of yuzu, the Japanese citrus. Below is his rendition of sea bream carpaccio.
Two other fish courses followed. A small piece of pollack, slightly warm with grilled new season’s shallots and then a stunning piece of brill on top of freshly shelled peas and new potatoes on to which my waitress gently poured a dish of delicious beurre blanc. The pigeon main course was good, principally because of the combination served alongside of cherries, baby turnips and Swiss chard and partly because Bonnet has learnt how bloody he can serve this particular bird. An apricot dessert provided an excellent finale.
From an exceptionally well-conceived, comprehensive and well-priced wine list I drank a glass of Equipos Navazos Fino sherry (€11), a glass of 2016 Austrian Riesling from Loimer (€7), and a glass of peach wine (€5) that Bonnet had made from last year’s peaches.
Because Bonnet writes his menus every morning, there is little chance of repetition but he seems to relish this new challenge. ‘For tomorrow’s menu, I am excited, because every Wednesday a woman drives up from the coast with 50 live lobsters in the back of her car. I will buy 10 of them and they will be on tomorrow night’s menu.’
Bonnet is also relishing being on his own. In the past he has worked with wealthy backers who have acceded to his every request. Now, his team has to work to generate the funds to achieve new purchases such as Zalto wine glasses. But as Quinsou is now full most evenings and on Saturday lunch, when Bonnet’s two daughters join in the fun, this is eminently possible. 'Everyone seems to be happy', said Bonnet with a smile. ‘My team in the kitchen, my front of house, my daughters whom I can walk to school, even the bank manager.’ And so, of course, will anyone be who eats here.
Quinsou 33 rue de l’Abbé Grégoire, 75006 Paris; tel +33 (0)1 42 22 66 09.
Open Tuesday to Saturday lunch and dinner.
Quinsou reopens at lunchtime this Wednesday 23 August.