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Paris Culinary Scene: Spring, Frenchie, Guy Savoy, l'Arpege
Daniel Rose of Spring
If you belong to the school of thought that cuisine should be about creation rather than replication, then it’s time to return to Paris. In recent years, critics have labeled the city—known for a culinary heritage so strong that many French would sooner lay claim to sole meunière than to Balzac—the new London. Who could blame them, when once upon a time not so long ago, their only real options were old-fashioned recipes, stuck at either end of the spectrum? Diners were left to pick their poison: a humble peasant dish, stuffy and untouched for ages, or a tribute to Escoffier, prodded into another era. But now a new wave of modern, imaginative Parisian chefs are reminding us that the mark of a truly memorable meal doesn’t lie in simple enjoyment, but also in challenging and pushing the way we view food.
Tastes prove fickle, even in face of France’s enviable heritage. At a recent 92nd Street Y lecture in New York City, Anthony Bourdain spoke of the shift in approach. According to him, up-and-coming French chefs no longer cite the greats as their inspiration, but instead point to one of the more experimental minds on the American food scene, admitting, albeit a little reluctantly, “We like this… David Chang.” The public appears to be responding—voraciously. As Bourdain points out, the toughest reservations to get in Paris these days are no longer dictated by formal standards such as the Guide Michelin, but by updated ranking systems including Figaroscope, Le Fooding, Fodor’s or, even more interestingly, word of mouth and social media. His 100th episode of No Reservations focuses on this trend, as he visited chefs at modern, rising-star restaurants like Le Comptoir du Relais and Le Chateaubriand. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon also makes a cameo, as Robuchon was arguably the first to do an innovative small-plates restaurant in Paris back in 2003, leading a stampede of followers. These eclectic choices highlight a stark contrast to the bloody meat and potatoes joints featured on the show several years ago—statement enough from an outspoken carnivore and culinary purist.
A yellow beet and lemon confit salad at Frenchie
While it’s not exactly a storming of Versailles, both high and low establishments experiment freely these days, reclaiming Paris’s title as a capital of gastronomy. Rebellion against haute cuisine comes from the most unexpected sources, as even the best of the best are adopting increasingly informal attitudes. For instance, Guy Savoy, recipient of three Michelin stars, also earns ample popular praise for his whimsical approach and warm staff—not to mention his recent domination of the bistro scene. Similarly, critics celebrate Alain Passard’s vegetable-centered L'Arpège, which all but shreds the precepts of typical fine dining. However, the really unusual talent lies under the radar, as foodies flock to try something perhaps unsuited for a white tablecloth. Frenchie, the jewel box effort of Gregory Marchand, touts an even tinier menu of market-fresh products that people can’t stop talking about. Simple but carefully prepared smoked trout with asparagus and free-range pork with celery purée are often on order. After a brief exit and an even briefer replacement by Table 28, American Daniel Rose’s dearly missed Spring reappeared late this summer, more prepared than ever to satisfy the curious hordes demanding to try his novel yet unpretentious dishes, including smoked heirloom tomato and eggplant four-ways with eel.
All of these chefs understand that it’s not about discarding tradition, but rather about riffing off of it. Because of this foundation of respect, the staid temples to haute cuisine won’t disappear and the old bistros will never die. Even the most well-educated palate isn’t immune to the charms of bœuf bourguignon, just as anyone who says that they can’t enjoy an expertly executed sauce because it “doesn’t make them think” is almost certainly lying. What was irresistible before will always appeal to us, and luckily, Le Guide Culinaire says nothing about not having it both ways. After all, there’s more than one meal a day for a reason, and a way to serve nostalgia without making it seem stale.
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