Almost nothing could be more telling of the impact of this year's steep recession on the Paris restaurant scene than the instant notoriety of Yam'Tcha, a sweet little restaurant that recently opened in an ancient side street in Les Halles. To wit, this 20 seat place run by earnest, amiable young chef Adeline Grattard, former second to Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance, has passed through global gastro cyber space with the intensity and speed of a comet. Because Grattard actually is a serious, talented and original cook, I'd like to think her table, which she runs with her Hong Kong born husband Chiwah Chan, will withstand the blow-back of a culinary media world that's so desperate for news that it exalts anything that's even slightly different and half plausible.
So am I being hypocritical in writing about this fragile new flower on this website? No, not really--though I'm flattered that your eyes may be rolling over these words, I wouldn't pretend to be such an oracle that famished throngs will be pressing their faces to Tam'Tcha's window on Monday morning. I assume that those of you who find their way to this quiet little patch of the culinary cyber world are people who are very seriously interested not only in eating well, but in thinking about gastronomy in all of its facets, which brings me back to Yam'Tcha. Quite simply, I worry that the relative paucity of restaurant news out of Paris this year means that the city's substantial core of food writers is going to pick this tasty morsel to the bone before its had a chance to find its groove.
I've been three times, and if I've eaten well on every occasion, and I like Grattard's shrewd, subtle and original Franco-Chinese approach to cooking, I've also been exasperated by the very slow (if well-meaning) service, the fiddliness of the idea of a different tea with each course in the dinner tasting menu (I like tea, and I like drinking tea with my food, but poor Chiwah Chan is way out of his depth as the sole tea steward meant to track twenty different meal from a single service bar). I also think that the tea option needs to be more carefully explained, and that there should also be a wine-by-the-glass option. Finally, no dinner in a casual Paris bistro should take longer than three hours; the last time I ate here, I thought the attractive young Brazilian couple at the table next to ours would become violent before their dessert arrived. Like us, they loved Grattard's cooking, but like us, they eventually briddled at the very long waits between courses.
We started with a delicious tiny complimentary appetizer of slivered broad beans with crumbled sauteed pork dressed with ginger, garlic and sesame-seed oil, then loved plump Mozambique shrimps steamed as over-sized pot-stickers, sublime duckling with sauteed eggplant, a lovely piece of Citeaux (an abbey cheese from Burgundy) with toasted country bread and a few drops of delicious olive oil, and a delightful dessert of homemade ginger ice cream with avocado slices and passion fruit. Fresh, healthy, original, sincere--this was a great meal, and Yam'Tcha is a place I'd look forward to enjoying regularly if I didn't know that it's going to be taken by such a storm that it will soon be impossible to get a table without booking two months in advance.
I've known Yannick Alleno's cooking every since I first discovered him in a dreary Howard Johnson like dining room in the basement of the Hotel Scribe, and it's been a delicious pleasure to follow his deserved ascension to the Mount Olympus of French chefs--today he's head chef at Le Meurice and he received Bibendum's ultimate benediction--triple twinklers--several years ago. Because Le Meurice is shudderingly expensive, it's not a place that I go with any regularity, which is why I was delighted to be invited to lunch there this week.
We decided to go with Yannick's new "Terroir Parisien" lunch menu at 90 Euros, and what followed was one of the best meals I've had in a very longtime. Ninety euros is a hefty chunk of change to be sure, but this stunningly good feed would have been worth twice as much. We nibbled on impeccably fried white-bait to start, and then the meal began with an exquisite lozenge of Norwegian salmon sauced with a vivid green watercress sauce and a charming confetti of spring vegetables. Next, steamed sole with pencil-sized asparagus from the Paris suburb of Auteil in a light sauce made with vin jaune, then Ile de France lamb cooked for a long time at a low temperature so that it was so tender you could eat it with a spoon. At this point, Alleno came by and explained the idea of "Terroir Parisien," which is to work with seasonal produce from the Ile-de-France, or the region surrounding Paris, and even to revive some of the region's signature produce. "French cuisine was born using the produce of the Ile de France," Alleno explained. "When the first restaurant's opened after the French Revolution, the chefs used what came from the countryside surrounding Paris. This explains dishes like a la Crecy, which always indicates the presence of carrots in a dish, since the village of Crecy was originally known for its carrots. Similarly, a la Montmorency, always means cherries and references the village of Montmorency, once known for same." Other local products that Alleno is using include brie de meaux, mint poivree from Milly-la-Foret, asparagus from Argenteuil, champignons de Paris, jambon de Paris, honey from the hives on the roof of the Opera Garnier, and, eventually chickens from Houdan. Located in the Yvelines, Houdan was once famous for its fowl. "La poule de Houdon was more famous in Europe than the poulet de Bresse," Alleno explained. "What changed everything was the Great Depression, when the government encouraged Paris chefs to use produce from all over the country and also the urbanization of the Ile de France between 1945 and 1970. The region still produces some wonderful comestibles, though, and I want to use as many of them possible in creating a new cuisine de Paris." Suffice it to say that I volunteered to become a recipe taster for the initiative as often as Alleno might need me. I think "Terroir Parisien" is a brilliant idea, and five days after left the table at Le Meurice, I am still savoring that exquisite spring lunch.
Le Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, 1st, 01-44-58-10-10. Metro: Tuileries
Yam'Tcha, 4 rue Sauval, 1st, Tel. 01-40-26-08-07. Metro: Louvre-Rivoli