I am a truly down to earth eater. Writing my blog in Paris and having such uninhibited appetite has paradoxically distanced me for restaurant reviewing. In a city where food has been an enduring part of the culture, my attitude is due in part to what I can only consider as an overwhelming obsession bestowed upon restaurants, chefs and cooking in general. Of late it has been causing me an unnerving suspicion that we are slipping into a condescending attitude towards food.
The trouble is that we take food too seriously. My recent experiences in two popular places illustrate this better than any long explanation. The austere décor of Septime, in the trendy rue de Charonne, exudes an air of an 18th. century tavern. Rough wood table surfaces, Flemish greys and rustic chairs envelop the dining experience. You are not offered a menu to choose from, nor any guidance as to what you are going to eat. The surprise element is part of its choreography: it is only when food arrives that your dish is minutely described and sometimes, depending on the surprised reaction of the diners, only after you have tasted it. Most of the courses were experimentally elaborated. A poached egg was cooked ten times longer than usual at very low temperatures and was served with grey crevettes and “respountsous”, a sought-after type of wild asparagus in a parsley coulis. Two filets of red mullet were subjected to the same “slow food” principle. The kitchen, open to the dining-room as in most new restaurants in Paris, had the air of a pharmaceutical laboratory.
Two days later, I had an unexpected surprise having lunch at Vivant, located in the increasingly food-conscious 10th arrondisement. The surprise was not provoked by the house management but for the vibrant dishes served. I ordered a salad of thin slices of suckling pig tossed in pungent herbs, celery leaves and Noirmoutier potatoes with some chunks of boiled egg. My friend was served orechiette with a silky ricotta and a perfumed tomato sauce. We looked at each other both perplexed and happy. Here was food unconcerned by trends, no doubt joyously concocted and seductive to the palate. The place is tiny, a former bird shop with beautiful Art Deco wall tiling, few tables and a welcoming staff. Pierre Jancou knows his food and has a way of avoiding categories when it comes to treating it.