35 ouest, Paris, Francealto adige

Back to Restaurant Season in Paris

by Everett Hutt
December 1, 2006

The new year for most people begins in January but for the French it effectively begins at la rentrée, the beginning of September when everyone returns from their long August vacations. Schools start again, shops re-open, museums put on new exhibits and, most importantly, lots of restaurant openings.

Even in Paris, however, there is lots of chaff to sort from the wheat with new restaurants. I have been fortunate to eat at three of the hottest new places, with surprisingly mixed results.

Le Sensing
19, rue Bréa
75006 Paris

The first was the one everyone in Paris was waiting for: Le Sensing. Chef Guy Martin of Le Grand Véfour fame had finally decided to open a bistro. Like Pierre Gagnaire last year with Gaya, he decided to open a decidedly contemporary restaurant in a well-established place that had fallen on hard times. The restaurant certainly has had a complete makeover but one that stretches your senses, both to wonderful highs and to quite disappointing lows.

First impressions weren’t stunning. The front room looks like something out of a bad 1970s vision of the future — white marble tabletops and bars, with sycamore chairs. Fortunately, we were "downgraded" to sit in the back, where the designer went with a more restrained décor of muted beiges. The wine list was also a disappointment. It was short with only about twenty wines and quite heavy on rather un-inspired Burgundy and standard mid-level Bordeaux. While waiting for my dinner guests, I sipped a rather bland house champagne that I never got to take note of the label as it was poured out of sight. So far things were looking quite bad.

And then with the arrival of my three dinner companions — two American gents and one French lady — things improved. The service suddenly became that wonderful mix of attentiveness and discretion that the French do so effortlessly at top restaurants. The food also started to arrive.

For starters, we split the assiette de Sensing, a mixed starter plate with mixed results. Indeed, the range was astonishing. At the low end were several cheese balls (for lack of a better word), which frankly tasted like they had been bought from a frozen food section and nuked. At the polar opposite were cooked mussels in a cream mousse with beets — perfection. The beets cut through the brininess of the mussels and accentuated both. The foie gras with raspberry gelatine and the tuna tartar were both classic, but perfectly executed.

The main courses continued on this curious mix of culinary highs and lows. The star of the evening was a veal chop served with cannelloni stuffed with mushrooms. You could feel how the veal must have suffered to be so tender, while the mushrooms and pasta contrasted the milky texture of the meat perfectly. The overall sensation is one of purity infused throughout the dish. Another success was raw tuna with foie gras. The richness of the latter nicely complemented the slightly bitter taste of the raw tuna. Just when we thought all was headed in the right direction, along came the biche (doe), which was far too gamy and wasn’t helped by the berry sauce and Jerusalem artichokes. The sea scallops with beets were prosaic as well, which was odd since beets were so good with the mussels in the starter.

Need I say it? The desserts were again a mix. Rolling the dice, my female friend got lucky with the sponge rum cake. It was a stunner — the burnt flavors of real seven-year-old aged rum made the vanilla sponge cake explode with all sorts of nut flavors. The chocolate dessert — all restaurants do at least one — was typically rich and good, but not particularly original. The other two (something with thyme — we never could really figure out — and a dry quince tart) missed the mark.

The wine too was all over the place for the evening, but at least went on an upward trajectory. After the disappointing champagne aperitif with our starter, we had a completely ordinary Jurançon sec. It was, as the French say correct, but nothing more. For the main course, we had a lovely Madiran from 2004. It developed nicely as the night wore on into flavors of cooked cherries, without the overpowering pepper spices so often associated with Madiran.

Overall, if you hit the right combinations at Le Sensing, you could come out feeling as though you have discovered the best place in the world. If you hit it wrong, you would wonder what all the fuss was about. I think Monsieur Martin needs to spend more time perfecting his menu and technique in the kitchen.

35 Ouest
35, rue de Verneuil
75007 Paris

Another top opening this autumn, 35 Ouest, is almost the anti-Le Sensing. It opened in a very unassuming way with an equally unassuming decor of unvarnished wood and muted colors. There is a bar section where you can eat alone. The menu focuses heavily on fish paired with a small but creative wine list. When entering I had a bit of déjà-vu — which makes sense since the owner used to work at the old Gaya in my neighborhood before it was taken over and made-over by Pierre Gagnaire last year. In this case, the nut hasn’t fallen very far from the tree, and since Gaya was pretty darn good, I expected this to be too.

I dined alone at the bar for lunch and was impressed with the service (Parisian restaurants sometimes snub solo diners). While I would have loved to try some of the wines I had never seen, I contented myself with a lovely glass of Sancerre. Crisp and dry, it went well with both my dishes.

My starter was a plate of warm sardines with rougail, a spicy West Indian condiment. The trick with sardines is to cook them just so they lose all of their bitterness while retaining their flavor. 35 Ouest succeeded exquisitely; it was lovely, simple and perfect. My main dish was a roasted cod fillet with asparagus, cooked in a veal juice. Everything was again perfect, from the tender flakiness of the fish, to the tangy asparagus and the sauce that complemented but didn’t overwhelm the fish.

So why am I not raving? The problem is that the meal was boring — and not just because I was dining alone. I didn’t feel any excitement in the food or in the patrons. The dishes, though perfect, lacked any soul or vibrancy. They weren’t new or adventurous — nor was the clientele, which looked exactly like the old Gaya clientele transferred here. So while I would recommend this restaurant for someone who wants a great fish standby, I wouldn’t recommend it if you are just passing through town and want a fabulous fish meal. (Fabulous fish meals are hard to find in Paris as anywhere. Most of my recent forays have been rather disappointing. I can recommend three staples: Le Dôme, Le Duc and Gaya.)

28, rue de la Tour d’Auvergne
75009 Paris

I love small restaurants where you can see the chef cooking and where he does everything himself. The problem is often to find a place where the chef also has the time to really cook. But chef-owner, Daniel Rose, manages to pull it off at Spring, a postage stamp-size restaurant (only sixteen seats) in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Daniel is an American who has been living in France for many years. You would be hard pressed to find anything non-French about his cooking (or his language — we actually spoke French to each other when discussing the food as it came more naturally).

I settled into my functional table and was offered an original assortment of wines by the glass while waiting for my Filipino friend who works for the UN. The owner chose a Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur Lie for me — and then offered the rest of the bottle to finish off at no extra cost. Muscadet is not known for its sophisticated wine, but the 2005 Domaine de la Tourlaudière was a real joy, with lovely ripe melons yet enough acidity to keep it fresh.

Eating here is not for those who like choice, however. The menu (at €36 or about $50) is a set four-course dinner — with no variation. The advantage to this however is that it makes ordering the wine easy. We chose a lovely 2003 Bordeaux Supérieur from Clos Normandin. It was light and fruity — a classic young Bordeaux made with predominately Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

We started with a pumpkin soup with beets, chives, bacon and cream. Unlike so many pumpkin soups, this one was not too heavy — and the beet’s tanginess cut across the pumpkin’s sweetness in an unusual way. For our second dish, we had a cold lamb salad with potatoes, frisée greens, orange and foie gras. I found it a little under seasoned — more orange, less potatoes would have worked better — but when the right combinations were put together, it was a perfect mix (more, though for a summer’s day than a cold November evening).

The main dish was a guinea hen with turnips. This time it was close to perfection — the slightly bitter turnips balancing out the sweet taste of the guinea hen with a reduction sauce. Dessert was a slight miss with an apple tart which was just ordinary. Fortunately, Daniel had suggested a lovely Maury (a sweet wine from South West France) to liven up the dessert.

As with all new culinary years in Paris, there are highs and lows, even for the trendiest new places. For the highest highs, you can try your luck at Le Sensing. For a safe bet, go for 35 Ouest. For adventure and the most fun, I’d go for Spring.

Everett Hutt is Cravings‘s France correspondent, whose contributions include Discovering Jura Gems.

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