You all know how I feel about Paris…and my brief trip there earlier this month led me down a new path of divine dining delight with five distinctly different yet somehow similar feeling meals. I’ve written about two of them already, Albion (which was just featured on Bloomberg News) and Gyoza Bar. Both serve excellent quality food in casual settings and are not particularly French in their ingredients. I’ve thought about writing a blow by blow, dish by dish rundown of my other three meals, but frankly I find it a little boring (and am certain you must too) and what I found emerging was a bigger trend that I want to explore. This week I’ll write about the three remaining spots and what I think they are doing to the Paris dining scene. No white table cloths or waiters in uniforms in sight, just delicious food with a whole range of influences and chefs who love to share their inventiveness and hospitality with their customers.
Pierre Sang at Oberkampf – he’s winner of Top Chef France 2010 (can you even imagine how insanely good the food on that show must be?) and it’s only been open since this past summer. He’s not really in any of the English language Paris foodie sites yet and it was one of the few notable spots I’ve been where American accents weren’t echoing off the counters. He’s a Korean born Frenchman, adopted by a couple from the French countryside when he was seven years old. His food is heavily influenced by Asia but is still firmly rooted in France and his work ethic is like none I’ve ever witnessed in a top chef.
I arrived early, they open at 7pm and me being me, I was there 20 minutes early. There was no line, but I peered in the large windows of the small corner space, and saw just a few staff busy with prep. Seating consists of a narrow counter that separates diners from the galley kitchen (really, it’s smaller than mine at home), and a few tables. The gap-toothed, moustachioed host came out for a cigarette and asked me what I was waiting for. Well, um, for you to be ready, I said in stuttering French. He laughed and was joined by the chef who said they were working out the menu just now as they waved a pad of dupes at me – apparently their notebook. You see, Pierre Sang offers no menu to its diners. You get six courses for 35 Euros and that’s that. If you want wine pairings it’s an additional 30 Euros.
My gap-toothed friend invited me to sit inside and wait and we talked a bit and it came out that I cook for a living (chef is somewhat of a stretch sometimes) and immediately Chef Sang’s ears perked up and he offered to cook me a special 10 course tasting menu if I wanted to pay a little more. He said that his main goal in the six courses he traditionally offered, was to give young people in the neighborhood a fine dining experience at a reasonable price. But, if I wanted he had some fantastic lobster he was dying to use and oysters and smoked haddock. How could I resist? So I perched on a stool directly across from his kitchen counter and watched as he calmly finished prep and directed his young helper. The space was shared by the host and two other waiters (also absolutely friendly – and may I add, thrilled that Obama had just won reelection the night before). Quickly the spaces at the counter filled up, the room began to buzz with couples and a few obvious regulars, a dog sat beneath one table very patiently, and the large windows steamed up. I loved it.
Dish after dish was carefully constructed for me out of prepared ingredients pulled out from lowboys under the counter. I watched Chef prepare a whole leg of lamb with so little fuss I was in awe. Foams and creams and exotic spices seemed to come out of nowhere (literally, I don’t know where he put them all given the space they have). He tasted as he went, using the same spoon he ate off of to serve the food (yes, it does happen). But he was utterly unself-conscious about every gesture he made. Meanwhile, if there was a lull in his activities, Chef went over to the dish washing closet and washed dirty plates and glasses. Seriously! When he placed the dishes in front of me, he didn’t give a drawn out speech on every ingredient he’d used, in fact, he said nothing at all and only told me when I asked. He seemed somewhat shy and yet perfectly at ease in what he does.
Some standout courses were the lobster tail sitting on a beetroot puree with sherry vinegar and fleur de sel and a parsnip crisp. That leg of lamb was delicious and I don’t even care for lamb – but it was served with a corn, parmesan and walnut puree, garlic crisps, lentils in a sharp vinegar sauce, and white beans. Oh, and a pumpkin and chestnut soup with a liquorice foam and purple cauliflower grated on top. AND….a little puff pastry gem filled with pureed rabbit, black mushrooms, garlic, thyme with a cold Asian style slaw on top and a red wine jus made from the drippings of the aforementioned leg of lamb. It was all so good and I got so many fabulous ideas about flavor combinations and textures and temperatures. Really ingenious stuff, even if it wasn’t all exquisite.
Meanwhile I struck up a conversation with a French couple next to me who were visiting Pierre Sang for the first time too. They were well-heeled and friendly in a way I so often find in Paris (but others seem to find elusive). They talked about how they used to dine at three star Michelin restaurants regularly, but were finding them boring these days, too much of the same thing even if the food was terrific. Now they were seeking out less expensive but more exciting meals like this one with Pierre Sang. There is so much of this happening in Paris at the moment, they said. Just look at this guy, they said, pointing at the Chef. How much better does it get than this?? And I think this style of dining suits a whole slew of young new chefs who have done their time in a Michelin starred kitchen and are now looking to express themselves in a modern (and much less expensive way – yes, we are in recession).
I waved good bye and thanked Chef profusely for the excellent meal he’d just prepared for me (and he did literally prepare every dish himself). His reply? It’s only this good because of my team, I couldn’t do it without them. Maybe not, but a far cry from some of the arrogant chefs I’ve come across before. How nice. The gap-toothed host, energetically swirling wine in the umpteenth glass he’d served, made me promise I’d come back and visit them again. I sort of wanted to give them all big hugs and say, yes, I’ll be back next time I’m in town. I’ve learned so much and want to see what other magic you might perform – but that would be terribly American of me, wouldn’t it?Pierre Sang Oberkampf 55 rue Oberkampf. Paris, 75011 http://pierresangboyer.com/