Paris: great value, great cooking and a great Tavel


This is a version of an article published by the Financial Times. 

Although the analysis of any restaurant experience can never follow a simple mathematical model, I have, when pressed, confessed that any weighting of marks follows this rough breakdown: 40% is devoted to the menu and what we eat; a similar amount is devoted to the style and manner of how we are looked after; the balance revolves around the appeal of the wine list.

The amalgamation of these imprecise experiences has, I am pleased to report, meant that I have never had to award points or stars at the end of any review. But what I am discovering today is that thanks to one very important factor, now common to a growing number of cities, deciding quite how good any restaurant is purely on the basis of its food, wine and service, is becoming increasingly difficult.

This is because the standards of all these factors are rising simultaneously due to the presence of so many young, talented, passionate and enthusiastic men and women who, fortunately for us customers, now want to make their future in the restaurant business.

As a result, often the strongest images I take away from my time in restaurants is now not a memory of what we have eaten or drunk but of what I have learnt, witnessed or experienced by being served there. An overnight stay in Paris eating at Ratapoil du Faubourg in the 10th arrondissement and then at Frenchie in the 2nd only reinforced these sentiments.

My immediate impression of Ratapoil, opened last September by Jérôme Aubert, was of its convenience. It is only a six-minute walk from the Gare du Nord, very close to the admirable Albion, both of which also double as wine shops, with Ratapoil listing only natural wines. While Albion’s name is very English, ratapoil is quintessentially French, referring apparently to someone who owns several rows of vines from which they make wine for their own consumption. While the rest of Ratapoil’s decidedly compact interior is incontrovertibly French – the waiters in black-and-white striped tops, baguettes stored vertically on the bar, wine cases everywhere – there is also a full-length painting of Lenin on one wall.

My seat at Frenchie, directly opposite a poster that reads Whatever You Want, allowed me to watch several manifestations of quite how integrated this space has become since chef Gregory Marchand moved into this cul de sac in 2009. Today, the restaurant, the wine bar opposite and his takeaway Frenchie To Go a few doors away are named after the nickname he earned while cooking at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in London.

The first was of a young waiter running after a customer who had left his beret at one of the two seats at the counter overlooking the open kitchen. Then at precisely 10 pm the pert, blonde receptionist, in a short green skirt, skipped out, obviously at the end of her shift, to join friends in the wine bar five metres away. Finally, at about 10.30 pm as the wine bar quietened down, several chefs came in to assist their colleagues in the restaurant kitchen before becoming waiters by taking food from the open kitchen directly to the customers.

Alongside these images came an excellent-value menu at Ratapoil; extremely accomplished cooking at Frenchie; and the introduction to a bottle of Tavel rosé I will definitely re-order.

Ratapoil’s lunch menu is €22 for three courses, of which four, our two starters and two desserts, were very good: a well-dressed salad with beetroot and slices of pigs’ ears; a cool, creamy asparagus soup; rice pudding coated with salted caramel; and the first of this season’s gariguette strawberries on a thin biscuit base. The challenge for any kitchen at this price point is to create interesting main courses and here the only two on offer, cod with a lemon butter sauce and a piece of beef with sautéed vegetables, were just too simple in scope, flavour and range.

Frenchie’s menu is not that much broader, three choices at each course including a British cheeseboard via Neal’s Yard Dairy. But although it is considerably more expensive at €75 for three courses, it is much more accomplished, well seasoned, and imaginative in terms of a sensitive combination of ingredients and the colourful impressions they generate.

These were most conspicuously revealed in two starters of smoked mackerel, quails eggs and mustard and another of pale green asparagus and darker green gnocchi, then lamb with a pungent goats' cheese sauce and a modern interpretation of the classic dish of chicken, morel mushrooms and a sauce of vin jaune. A far more unlikely combination was an equally successful dessert of a mille-feuille with layers of chocolate ice cream, medjool dates and Brillat-Savarin cheese.

As fascinating was a bottle of Eric Pfifferling’s light red L’Anglore 2013 Tavel (€40). Fruity, with overtones of strawberries and violet creams, it was a wonderful accompaniment to everything we ate and could be recommended whenever it is warm enough outside for the restaurant’s front door to be left wide open.

Several restaurateurs happily reported that as the memory of the Charlie Hebdo massacre fades and the fall in the euro attracts more visitors from the US and the UK, business is definitely improving. These two very different restaurants demonstrate just what Paris still has to offer.

Ratapoil du Faubourg  72 rue du Faubourg Poissonière, 75010 Paris; tel +33 (0)1 42 46 30 53

Frenchie 5-6 rue de Nil, 75002 Paris; tel +33 (0)1 40 39 96 19