Inaki Aizpitarte is not a chef whose cooking leaves you indifferent. To some he’s a culinary genius and one of Paris’s most interesting chefs, to others his reputation is overrated, inflated by adoring fans*.
I’m not sure that I would consider myself a fan, but I do like Aizpitarte’s cooking.
Aizpitarte got started in the restaurant business late in life while travelling in Israel of all places, where he worked as a dishwasher and then later behind the line. It was enough to get him hooked on cooking and learn the basics before returning to Paris where he worked in Gilles Choukroun’s popular Café des Delices on the rue d’Assas.
He eventually branched out on his own as chef of La Famille, which is where I first heard of him and tried his cooking. He then moved for a short stint at Le Transversal, the restaurant within the MAC/VAL modern art museum in Vitry-sur-Seine. I still remember my dinner there, a ten-course set menu for 38 €, which was my first introduction to modernist cuisine and very different from most of what was going on in Paris at the time. The first course was a lone apple seed on a large white plate, followed by a succession of interesting small plates like a cod-liver macaron, calamari with a « chorizo » foam, and a playful deconstructed pot au feu. I went with a group of French friends who absolutely hated it, but I was delighted to try such remarkable flavours, some delicious, some not so delicious, but interesting nonetheless (I wrote up the experience on eGullet at the time and was happy to see that the account, including other’s impressions, can still be found here.
Transversal didn’t last long however and Inaki had already moved on to open Chateaubriand some 6 months later. I have eaten at Chateaubriand a handful of times and some of the dishes I have had there have been startling, while others were less memorable which explains why it gets such mixed reviews. Placing 11th in Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, ahead of Gagnaire, Robuchon, Barbot and Troisgros, didn’t help as Chateaubriand became a dining destination attracting culinary globetrotters with high expectations. But for 45 €, I think it is worth the gamble, as when his food is good, it is very good.
Aizpitarte recently took over Le Dauphin, a non-descript café a few doors down from Le Chateaubriand. He kept the name, called in Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who gutted the place, transforming it into a modern white cube carved from Carrara marble, and serves small tapas-like plates and natural wines. It may be tapas, but it is definitely French.
The menu, which seems to change often, includes Inaki’s modern and playful take on traditional French dishes like brandade, bœuf bourguignon, blanquette de veau, oxtail with carrots, oysters, steak tartare, and pig’s feet. The steak tartare, with hand-cut steak, capers, fresh herbs, deep purple greens and crosnes, was outstanding and showed what good ingredients can do for a dish. The delicate ceviche with cucumber water was another standout, along with the crisp pig’s feet with oysters and seared pluma with radicchio. Each original, potent bite had us trying to guess what a particular herb or flavour was and my only complaint is that there wasn’t more. Desserts included Aizpitarte’s take on French classics like apple tart, chocolate mousse, and a Saint Honoré.
I loved Le Dauphin but can already see the naysayers coming and imagine that some people who travel great distances to taste Aizpitarte’s cuisine will wonder what the fuss is about. With such high expectations, it’s easy to be let down. I understand the criticism but even when Aizpitarte misses, I like what he’s trying to do. After all the media buzz that Chateaubriand has gotten, clearly he could have set his ambitions on a more well-heeled crowd, but I’m happy he chose to stay in the still-somewhat-scruffy part of the 11th, turning out his own style of inventive cooking, using exceptional ingredients, at affordable prices. In doing so, he makes avant-guard cooking, a little more accessible to all.
31, avenue Parmentier
01 48 06 58 41
Prices: small plates for 8-12 Euros, reasonable wine list with natural wine
*For some reason if you’re a woman and you like Aizpitarte’s cooking, you’re a groupie or fan–If you’re a man, well you just like his food. Go figure.
With two women in the kitchen, an Irishman in the dining room and an American barrista, it’s clear from the onset that this former 1920’s cabaret turned art space is anything but typical.
Located just a short walk from the Place de Clichy, on a surprisingly charming impasse, it turned out to be the perfect place for Sunday brunch. Warm scones, fresh squeezed OJ, eggs over easy, real bacon (and not what usually passes for bacon in Paris) and undoubtedly some of the best coffee in Paris, made for one of the better brunches in Paris.
However, there’s more to the menu than just brunch and from all reports, Alice Quillet and Anna Trattles’s simple, British-influenced cuisine is more than satisfying with dishes like Welsh rabbit, cauliflower and cheddar soup, pork chops with roasted endive, and woodpigeon with beets. The wines get noticed as well, which is not surprising since two of those involved used to work at Willi’s Wine Bar, which also explains the charming bilingual service. You can finish up with a plate of Neal’s Yard’s Stichelton with Carr’s biscuits and chutney, a delicious looking Eton’s mess, or an excellent cheesecake, which is what we opted for.
While the restaurant itself is reason enough to cross town, I wouldn’t miss the first-rate photography and film exhibits, shown downstairs from the café. At the moment you can see Anonymes: L’Amerique Sans Nom, a depressing, albeit fascinating, look at the lives of ordinary Americans through film and photography from the 1930s till present times.
Be warned however that this address, which is barely a few months old, was swarming with middle-aged intellectual types by 13h00 who had just gotten out of the nearby Cinema des Cineastes, so if you want to enjoy your brunch, go early.
Le Bal Café
6 Impasse de la Défense
Métro: Place de Clichy
01 44 70 75 56
Open: Wednesday-Saturday 10h-23h, Sunday 10h-21h
Stray a few blocks from the marché Aligre, one of Paris’s most interesting markets, and you’ll find Rino, a newly opened, pocket-size restaurant, which happens to be one of Paris’s most exciting tables of the moment.
The simple dining room seats all of 20 or so diners, with a few high tables over looking the slender, open kitchen, and then another eight or so tables in the sparsely decorated modern dining room with its wooden tables, cherry red banquettes and matching light fixtures. And in case you didn’t get a look at the menu, the funky music wafting into the dining room and the waiter/sommelier with 3-day stubble, cool retro glasses and a charming Italian accent are all tell-tale signs that this is not going to be your run of the mill Paris bistro.
And ordinary it is not. The chef, Italian born Giovanni Passerini, has an unusual culinary background, especially for France where chefs enter the profession at a very young age and go through rigorous training. Self taught and late to the game, he started his career in 2002 at a hip, yet elegant, 16 seat Michelin-starred French restaurant in of all places but Germany. He then went back to Rome for a stop at Uno e Bino, a highly-regarded Italian wine bar, before landing in Paris where he did very brief stints at both Arpege and Chateaubriand before settling in with Peter Nilsson at Gazetta, arguably one of Paris’s best modern bistros.
His daring market-based cuisine is light without the use of heavy sauces, using the best of seasonal ingredients including stunning vegetables by Annie Bertin. A recent lunch began with a brightly colored barley risotto with carrots, vinegar-soaked bulots (sea snails), and grated bottarga. Main courses included a choice of superbly cooked grondin, a very nicely prepared colin, and crispy fried lamb sweetbreads, all served with Bertin’s spectacular beets and roasted endive. Desserts were equally good with a choice between a simple caramelized apple tart with tangy fresh cream and hazelnuts or a delicious financier with a delicate, creamy blood orange ice cream. We shared a very good bottle of “I Feudi di Romans ” refosco, chosen by Pietro Russano, who has put together a very reasonable and interesting wine list that strays from the usual suspects so often found on Parisian wine lists. And to finish, not surprisingly, some very good coffee.
I am anxious to return in the near future for dinner, with its 4 or 6 course tasting menu which, I am told, is a real expression of Passerini’s passionate and inovative cuisine.
Lunch menus: 18 and 22 €; dinner: 38 € and 50 € (4 or 6 dishes, no choice).
Wines: Most bottles under 30 €, wines by the glass between 4-6 €
46, rue Trousseau, Paris 11th. Métro : Ledru-Rollin.
Reservations: 01 48 06 95 85. Closed: Sunday, Monday