Friday, March 12, 2010 at 14:04
Ever since I first tasted Petter Nilsson's food over lunch with an old fried in Uzes some years ago--he was cooking locally at the time, I've been fascinated by the nuanced Nordic nudity of his style. Who else could paint yogurt onto fish, steam it, give it a pinch of seasoning, and end up astonishing a bunch of blase holiday diners? I know, I was there, I saw what happened--our lunch was a social occasion, no one had given much thought to the food, or rather a lot more thought to the chess-board like social composition of our table, and yet it all went out the window when we started eating. Nilsson's food was so good, so intense, that it became the most interesting thing about this otherwise artfully cast meal. And thank goodness, since I guilessly go out for pleasure, and it never occurs to me that a meal can be a heavily freighted social occasion.
Nilsson's style--a quietly baroque take on the simplicity of Scandinavia--only gets better and better at La Gazzetta, the Paris restaurant where's he's been cooking for a couple of years, too. And now this talent is sending disciples out into the world. Earlier this week, a friend called and insisted on lunch at an oddly named new restaurant called Rino in the rue Trousseau. "It's Nilsson's sous-chef, Giovanni Passerini. I've been trying to get in for a week, and finally scored a table this morning. Come!"
So I did, and I had a delicious and fascinating meal. Passerini clearly absorbed all of his master's snow-blinding Nordic lessons--the main one being the primal purity of produce, but has slyly made Nilsson's slightly disciplined and occasionally austere style a little bit sexy, and this modest dose of sensuality lights up the medium in a major way.
We ate barley risotto with orange zest and silky strips of squid; a sublime pork shoulder cooked sous-vide so that it was still succulent, pink and tender, served with white cabbage, raisins and crushed hazelnuts; and a superb apple tart with a sable base and a glossing of apple caramel. Simple, sincere, delicious, intense, this was one of the best meals I've eaten in a longtime, and I can't wait to go back for more.
I'd walked by L'Aromatik many times, since it's just up the street from my flat (I'm midway between La Trinitee and Saint Georges) and had always been curious about this place. Why? It's packed at noon with local office workers, and then again in the evening with a mixed crowd of theater-goers and locals. Clearly they must be doing something right to cater to two such disparate clienteles, I told myself, and put a "GO TO" Post-It note on this place months ago.
So there I was still day-dreaming about the truly spectacular food I'd eaten at Ciya in Istanbul a couple of days earlier, when the phone rang today at noon and Marius, a South African friend whom I hadn't seen in years, asked me to meet him for a quick lunch. He was calling from the corner, so I rang L'Aromatik, booked us in, hastily changed out of my sweat-pants and T shirt, and dashed out the door.
On my way to the restaurant, I found myself hoping it wouldn't be too expensive, because Marius, like many Afrikaners, is admirably thrifty and finds Europe exorbitant. One way or another, I planned to invite him for lunch, and coming in the door, there he was, little changed from the days we were students in London picking up lost carrots and potatoes from the sidewalk after the North End road market in Fulham shut down for the day.
Tall, solid, conservative, blonde, he's become a very successful insurance exec in Pretoria, father of four, etc., etc. And me....well, who's to say. But he was clearly happy to see me when I came in the door, and a friendly waiter stood a chalkboard menu on a chair and I was immediately relieved to see that lunch was only 15.90 Euros.
We had so much to say, but were also shy, so we ordered, and sipped a glass of white, sizing each other up after such a longtime. "Alec, who'd have ever though it! My eldest son wants to become a food writer. I tell him it's a terrible, terrible idea all the time. But the other day I came home from work, and he told me he'd left something for me in my study. Your book. A food book. It made me angry--with him and with you. I never understood why you chose to write about food. But then I started reading it, and I had some fun. Oh, Alec, you're still crazy aren't you?"
Probably am, but was much too busy tucking into a delicious Staub casserole filled with creamy scrambled eggs and country ham to offer a verdict on my mental state. Marius loved his lentil soup with a garnish of smoked fish, too, and my cod steak with a garnished of Chorizo and sauteed red onions was exquisite, as was his ragout of veal with Mediterranean flavors.
To be sure, our "pancake" with Grand Marnier wasn't wonderful--it really was a pancake, instead of a crepe, but all told this charming little place--a 1928 vintage former "mercerie," or notions shop, is a charming spot for a meal, and earnest young chef Bertrand Martin really delivers the goods. Interestingly, his main background was in Costes brothers restaurants, but as he told me at the end of Marius and my lunch, "Here I'm really cooking for the first time." Indeed.
"That was a delicious meal, Alec. But what is there to say about it? This is what I don't understand about food writing. Didn't your father think you should write about politics? I still think you could. Or art. Or business...."
L'Aromatik, 7 rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 9th, Tel. 01-48-74--62-27. Metro: Pigalle or Trinitee. Closed Sunday dinner and Monday. Lunch menu 15.90 Euros, Dinner prix-fixe 35 Euros.
Rino, 46 rue Trousseau, 11th, Tel. 01-48-06-95-85. Metro: Ledru Rollin. Closed Sunday and Monday. 22 Euro prix-fixe.