NOTE: It’s only fair to point out that our negative reaction to this establishment is very much in the minority. It’s one of John Talbott’s favourites – see his latest comments in
“Voila! I make ze edible sculpture, non?”
Ze Kitchen Galerie
In 2001 Chef William Ledeuil opened Ze Kitchen Galerie just a couple of doors away from Les Bouquinistes, Guy Savoy’s sleek modern “baby bistro”. Ledeuil had made his reputation there after studying with Savoy at the Ecole Superior de la Cuisine Francaise and the menus of the two establishments are in similar format, with English translations interspersed between the French descriptions (a large clue as to what to expect). Both offer a tasting menu for 70€—only a quarter of the tab at Savoy’s eponymous three-star, but quite enough to rattle the piggy bank.
As a rule, I'd find such a sobriquet about as attractive as Foodie’s Delight, but there's a gastronomic consensus that Ze Kitchen Galerie, though sounding like an ejaculatory suspiration, is not to be sneezed at. And so Mary and I, together with my old friend and traveling companion Frank, scheduled it as the culmination of our Paris pilgrimage.
The exterior suggested that we were about to enter a converted Tribeca warehouse in the Big Apple. Inside, designer Daniel Humair had been playing hardball. The silent telephone on the counter was solid stone; a flower vase contained a bunch of luminous plastic tubes. With half-a-dozen chefs at work in a glass cage at the end of the dining room, the restaurant’s name started to make sense (like the apparently surrealist Le Boeuf sur le Toit which turns out to mean dancing on the roof.)
Upon entering, we were greeted with a smile as all-encompassing as that of any American waiter and shown to our table at the apex of the dining area. The table top was unyielding slate, the chair backs of thin molded steel. Ambiguous pop music floated just above the buzz of conversation—the sort of sonic environment we come to Paris to avoid.
On the table was a dish of small hard olives, together with a few carved wooden cocktail sticks—the artisanal products, perhaps, of a Lilliputian cottage industry. When I tried to impale an olive it slid around in the oily dish, its firm skin impervious to penetration. In the end I gave up and used my fingers like a French peasant.
The carte offered a selection of starters, main courses and desserts at virtually identical prices within each category, so that both an omnivore and a vegetarian would end up paying around 50€. There were two meat-based dishes; the rest of the non-dairy protein was sea-sourced.
To start, I chose the marinated mackerel, Mary the avocado soup. For a main course, Frank and Mary decided to go vegetarian, while I was intrigued by the Grilled Squid and Octopuss [sic] . Would the latter prove to be eight cats, one inside another, a feline version of the five-bird roast?
None of our chosen dishes called for a red wine so I opted for the second cheapest white, an Eolienne Vin de Pays d’Oc at 32.90€, plus our usual carafe of Eau de Paris. For the latter we were given thick-bottomed glasses with thin delicate sides. On the knobbly plastic table mats they tipped over easily if pushed, and so I failed my second dexterity test by knocking my empty glass over onto the hard tabletop and breaking it.
When our dishes started to arrive, the “kitchen galerie” conceit became self-explanatory. Each was a carefully composed visual structure—it was like edible Andy Goldsworthy! My colorful dish of mackerel promised a culinary forte but in the mouth, alas, it was a bland pianissimo. The chef had recently traveled to Thailand and reaffirmed his dedication to their cuisine, but here there was no hint of their passion for strong flavors and hot spices. I would happily have paid extra for a side dish of Nam Jeem Guy Yang. Mary found her soup pleasant enough but not as exciting as it looked; the pattern would repeat itself.
My photogenic squid and octopus proved to be virtually inedible. I’ve encountered tough overcooked calamari in cheap Greek restaurants, but this was like chewing strips of rubber tire. For variety and color, there were a few short lengths of stringy leek. Once again, the green apple and turmeric sauce was so bland as to provide small compensation for the masticatory gymnastics. Even Lewis Caroll’s Father William would have found it tough going.
Mary and Frank’s “Grilled” Vegetables & Wok with Herbs Juice (the wok was not forthcoming but it would have been almost as easy to chew as my recalcitrant cephalopods) were another pair of sculptures only marginally related to hunger. They consisted of a few green vegetables together with a cooked (!) radish, a baby carrot and a tiny turnip—scant carbs, no protein. For a main course costing 25€ (only 3.50€ less than the lamb), one might even call it a rip-off.
Mary, curious about the desserts, opted for the “Glanduja” (hazelnut) chocolate on the grounds that it was likely to be the most substantial. It proved to be a little meringue mushroom surmounting a crunchy melange of chocolate, nougat, glace coco and unchewable little nuggets of indeterminate origin. It was super-sweet comfort food, very like a Mars ice cream bar.
WITH Ze Kitchen Galerie's Franglais name and bilingual menu, you might expect the punters to be predominantly transatlantic. The relative blandness of everything we tasted suggested a conscious effort not to challenge Midwestern palates—I was reminded of Samuel Hoffenstein's wonderful title, Poems of Passion, Carefully Restrained so as to Offend Nobody.
Halfway through the evening a conga line of departing Japanese tourists snaked past our table. The natives also seemed to be out in force—many of our fellow-diners of all four sexes were dressed in fashionably crumpled cotton straight off the racks of Printemps and Lafayette (ze ozzer trendy Gallerie). Yes, the joint was definitely jumping. You could feel the Wi-Fi vibes emanating outward to the city's lifestyle gurus.
Missing our beloved old-fashioned Paris, we skipped the coffee and walked back along the river towards Saint-Michel. There would be lots of cafés still open where we could get a pression, perhaps even share a plate of frites. I was already starting to work up a second appetite.
NOTE: If you still want to push the boat out, the water is shallower at lunchtime, when there are menus at 23€ (two courses) and 34€ (three courses).
Ze Kitchen Galerie 4, rue des Grands Augustins, 6 th Arr, Tel 01 44 32 00 32, Mº St Michel
©2007 John Whiting