Chez l’Ami Jean
A flying trip to Paris (busing, actually) gave me a chance to visit two of its currently most popular eateries. Both had been highly recommended by people I trust and both put excellent food on the table, but I left them in totally different states of mind; the differences between them showed up in the detail.
October 2010 Spring has reopened in a new location (address given below). The following is a review of its previous incarnation, but the infallible John Talbott assures me that, if possible, it’s better than ever. In fact, his latest review puts it at the top of his list of personal favorites.
November 2010 John Talbott writes:
There has been the change at Spring, where in the 9th Daniel had some extremely good but reasonably priced wines. Now, not only are they no longer available, except at the Boutique, but the wine-guys seem driven to up the ante with an attitude like “at a high priced place in the 1st, customers expect higher priced wines.”
To which a reader adds:
Wine pretty much double to tripled my first meal at Spring.
So be warned.
If I could summon up the bistro of my dreams, it would be located just around the corner where I could go whenever I liked for an imaginative and healthy meal, knowing that the menu would offer something new and inventive every time. The food would be filling, but not so calorie-dense as to require days of dietary penance. The presentation would be imaginative and attractive to the eye but not extravagantly architectural. The dining area would be small, intimate and unpretentious. Finally, the food would be reasonably priced relative to the ingredients and the skill required to prepare them.
Daniel Rose must have looked inside my head, because Spring fulfills all my requirements except location – to visit it as often as I’d like, I’d have to leave London and move across La Manche to Paris’ 1st Arrondissement. During a post-prandial conversation, he told me how he had arrived at his modest but winning formula. You can eavesdrop by clicking here.
A friend once told me of wandering into a small restaurant in a Greek town and spending the evening there before discovering that it was a wedding party in a private home, where he had been accepted as cordially as if he were one of the family. Spring, with its small cooking/dining area seating only sixteen and its welcoming kitchen/waitstaff of three, made me feel similarly welcome. Luncheon was prepared at an easy pace that seemed all the more remarkable when Daniel told me later that it was totally improvised—it was like a jazz riff among musicians used to working together and able to take off on any theme thrown at them.
There was no choice and no carte; the dishes arrived at a leisurely pace with a brief verbal explanation. First a basket of wonderful crusty bread and a little pot of pork rillettes, gentle and delicate in flavor. I was offered seconds, which I abstemiously refused.
Then an étrille [crab] soup with a perfect little slice of Saint-Pierre (click for the waitress' description), of an intensity that suggested that an ocean had been emptied to supply the vital ingredient.
Next, lamb fillet poached with olive oil and served with a sweet sauce accentuated by a scattering of pomegranate seeds that would have kept Persephone in Hades the year round. Then some luscious little fragments of merangue au chocolat and a final dessert of clementine, chocolate and chestnut that I was just too spaced out to remember to photograph.
There were no half bottles on the wine list, but the waitress offered a single glass. I asked for a robust red and was served a very satisfactory Languedoc which I didn't make note of. Good espresso to finish off, and all the time in the world to drink it; no table turning here.
When I suggested to Daniel that he served up simple ingredients as they might be prepared in Plato’s heaven, his eyes lit up. I discovered that, like England’s legendary Shaun Hill, he had first trained as a classical scholar. Is Spring really heaven? It's close enough for me.
August 2010 Included in John Talbott’s The Perfect French_________(fill in the blank)
Chez l'Ami Jean is another destination bistro. Established as a Basque restaurant in 1931, it is now hosted by chef Stephane Jego, who cooked at La Regalade. It had been recommended by so many trusted informants that I felt lucky when a phone call yielded a brief hour and a half from 7:30 to 9 on my one-day Paris marathon.
The tables were jammed together with a concentration that defied the laws of nature. Having arrived half an hour early just to be sure |I had time, I became apprehensive as 7:45 approached and I was unable to catch a waiter's eye to place my order. Meanwhile the phone was ringing every minute or so with a penetrating electronic harp motif which Amnesty would have condemned as cruel and unusual punishment.
When my order was finally taken I erred on the side of caution and ordered a single course. I had no difficulty in selecting it. On the carte was lievre travaillé puis roulé farci, cuit du cochon, a luxurious version of lievre royale: wild hare boned, stuffed, tied into a ring, topped with foie gras, braised in red wine and the sauce thickened with the blood and liver. The price tag was a hefty 45€, but on the rare occasions when it appears on a menu it's easy to pay double that amount.
An amuse-goule arrived in a little tin with a snap-off lid, the sort that anchovies might come in. Inside was a rather watery cheese dip. What was the point of serving it up so wastefully? Further examination revealed that the entire top was only held on by gravity: peeling back the lid with the ring was a useless and wasteful gesture. With perhaps five sittings in the course of lunch and dinner, how many hundred of these do they get through in a day? Do they invest their profits in tin futures?
There was a single half-bottle of red on the wine list, a Basque Harri Gorri Irouleguy Brana at 21€. Hairy and gory indeed. It brought back memories of the cheap Gallo Muscatel that I consumed in college when the money ran out — harshly tannic and acidic, with a strongly medicinal aftertaste. This was one of the rare occasions when I left a restaurant wine unfinished. As a health warning, I attach a photo of the label, which, if I had the technical skill, I would overlay with a skull and crossbones.
The lievre, when it arrived, was suberb; I felt like Sir Gawain in possession of the Holy Grail after his heroic encounter with the Green Knight. I was not even put off by the sticky food-processor texture of the puréed potato that accompanied it. But once through this ritual ordeal is enough. If I'm in Paris when the next game season comes around, I'll ask if they do takeaways.
On the way to catch my bus I passed the Erik Satie municipal conservatory, an educational institution of the 7th arrondissement. Good old Paris, such a quixotic musician to be so honored! Can you imagine the City of London setting up the Lord Berners School of Music and Drama?
Spring Restaurant 6 Rue Bailleul, Tel 01.45.96.05.72, 1st Arr
Chez l'Ami Jean 27 rue Malar, Tel: 01 47 05 86 89, 7th Arr, Mº La Tour-Maubourg
©2008 John Whiting
2009 There are many food bloggers who disagree with my negative response to L'Ami Jean. This one is typical. In fact, John Talbott even mention it in passing in