The news for those who enjoy eating out in France appears to be encouraging. The last election saw the departure of a teetotal president – an acute source of chagrin for the country’s winemakers – while the new cabinet was formed without Martine Aubry, who introduced the 35-hour week that forced so many restaurateurs to curtail their opening hours.
And now from Paris come three exciting openings. While Les Jalles and Semilla are very different, they are both, unusually, open seven days a week – a boon for those who enjoy a weekend in this city when so many independent restaurants remain closed. Albion, in the 10th arrondissement, joins Chez Michel and Chez Casimir in offering excellent food within walking distance of the Gare du Nord.
Certainly, nothing could have looked more Parisian-chic than Les Jalles as we staggered in with our suitcases. There was a liveried doorman outside, modern art deco inside and excellent views into the kitchen. There stood Magali Marian, dressed in black, who, with his partner, Delphine Alcover, opened Les Jalles following their success with Bistro Volnay nearby. While the latter draws its vinous inspiration from Burgundy, Les Jalles derives its name and the bulk of its wine list from Bordeaux.
The kitchen produced some excellent food: a ravioli of goat’s cheese with broad beans; a ceviche of bream with lime and cubes of artichoke; a cocotte brimming with monkfish and potatoes; and a fillet of cod with summery vegetables. Only a bland cherry clafoutis disappointed. But with a menu on which three of the six main courses were fish, it was difficult to find a suitable mature red or white wine to accompany our food, particularly when the two whites we initially ordered were out of stock.
What marred this meal more than anything else, however, was Alcover’s apparent determination to control the dining room rather than to manage it. Only she could greet the customers, seat them, take their orders for food and wine, open the bottles and pour the wine, as well as prepare our bill, which we had to ask for three times. This very rigid, and very French, approach to dining room etiquette is perhaps not in the customers’ best interests.
A more relaxed approach is taken by New Zealander Drew Harré and his Cuban/American partner Juan Sanchez at Semilla on the rue de Seine, close to their ever-popular restaurants Cosi and Fish. Having stripped back a dilapidated interior and installed steel beams across the ceiling and an open kitchen, these two restaurateurs have cleverly recruited as chef Eric Trochon, a teacher at the esteemed Ferrandi professional cookery school. Last year, Trochon passed the highest professional exams to become a Meilleur Ouvrier de France.
As the Mexican maîtresse d’ handed me my menu at 1.15pm, I watched Trochon scurry in, change into his chef’s jacket and quietly lead his young brigade. The two-course, €19 lunch menu included a plate of three starters (a broccoli soup, beef carpaccio and two walnut biscuits), followed by an outstanding main course: a precisely steamed fillet of cod lying on diced, sautéed, buttery strips of endive and topped with passion fruit. A simple dish which, contrary to expectations, worked very well, combining freshness, acidity and exciting colour.
Fish was once home to the British chef Matt Ong, who, with New Zealand restaurateur Hayden Clout, has moved on to convert a former tabac into Albion, an extremely exciting wine shop and restaurant. While Clout oversees a wide-ranging and well-priced wine list, from which we drank a Domaine des Lises 2010 Crozes Hermitage from Alain Graillot’s son, Ong produces a small but well-balanced menu whose highlights included a confit of salmon with a salad of daikon radishes; a risotto of peas and asparagus; and sweetbreads with girolles and Corsican liver sausage. Most intelligently, those normally very expensive fraises des bois – tiny, delicious wild strawberries – are here served as a parfait for €8.50.
And all of this was delivered with wit. The baguettes stand proudly in a bright red bucket while a bottle of wine acts as the counterweight for the outer door to the lavatories. Albion and Semilla exude fun, an ingredient sadly missing from our evening at Les Jalles.
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