Monday, 14 October 2013
There's a certain cruel pleasure for a Londoner to report on the fact that Paris, for so many years the international icon of gastronomy and trailblazer of culinary invention, now seems to be taking some of its more popular cues from across the Channel. Both Septime and Chateaubriand are unofficial members of the "Bistronomy" movement, which aims to do for the traditional Parisian bistro what the gastropub did for the British boozer - namely great food at affordable prices.
Of course, this being Paris, "affordable" is a relative concept. At the Eagle in Farringdon, the original gastropub, you can pop in for a pint and a smoked haddock chowder and be out of the door for under £15. Lunch at Septime comes in two varieties - €28 for three courses or €55 for five, but in a city where Alain Ducasse is charging €140 for a single starter, you can see why Parisians have the place booked up months in advance.
Front of house staff were all male, beardy, friendly, spoke very good English, and, in the words of the female members of our party, were "smoking hot". There was a tangible youthfulness and energy about the whole operation, boosted by the busy open kitchen and lack of soft furnishings to soak up the chatter, and with the artfully distressed tables nicely spaced apart it really was a lovely spot to spend a couple of hours.
The setting and general attitude, in fact, made up for some minor (and one major) niggles with what arrived on the table. I thought it was a bit mean of them, for example, to not offer a pescatarian alternative to the salami snack (for we were With Pescatarian) but the house bread (a sourdough) and butter were so good it didn't seem to matter too much.
We certainly started on a high. Stone bass was a triumph, the gently ceviché-d fish paired with chunks of soft pear soaked in red wine, and - a real stroke of genius - shaved white cabbage that looked like parmesan before you took a bite and realised what was going on. We were all still talking about this dish for the rest of the trip - one of those moments that defines a holiday.
That's not to say the rest of the meal tailed off too much, it just didn't really hit those heights again. Braised octopus with "tomato water (eau de tomate)" and lardo had seafood with just the right amount of bite and a good strong flavour, but our pescatarian had to pick out the pig fat from her dish, the French having still not quite got the hang of the whole pig-is-not-a-vegetable thing. I realise France is never going to be the most accommodating place for non meat-eaters, but the Royle Family attitude to vegetarianism ("Can't she just have some wafer thin ham, Barbara?") was still a surprise in a restaurant so otherwise forward-looking.
A teeny in-between course of baked oyster with toasted nuts went down very well, tasting fresh out of the sea and nicely autumnal.
Monkfish, the next dish, was similarly hard to fault. The fish itself was very cleverly cooked so that a gentle char on the outside hadn't been allowed to spoil a soft, translucent flesh beneath. A tidy pile of rolled spinach was perfectly seasoned, a black sesame and squid ink sauce packed a wonderful seafood flavour, and a giant leaf of god-knows-what (that's it on the right - any ideas?) tasted of sort of a cross between nasturtium leaf and sorrel, only it was way too big and the wrong shape to be either. Tasted great, though.
The meaty main was a tranche of duck breast so massive I am considering avoiding the French countryside near Landes in case I am set upon by one of the many 10ft-tall ducks that are clearly being bred there. It was vast, but also - and more importantly - lovely and pink and mosit and served with a mini turnip and a mini radish, both incredibly good. Our Pescatarian Friend had, at least, not been asked to eat red meat ("'ees like fish, but 'ee walks") but had her own arrangement of John Dory (crispy skin, perfect flaky flesh) with baby carrots which she seemed very happy with after checking underneath just in case they hadn't sneaked some bacon in or something.
Desserts were simple, but satisfying. Solliès (near Toulon) fig with physalis and white peach ice cream came with some toasty shortbread and was very easy to enjoy, and vanilla ice cream surrounded with a sort of corn mousse didn't do much for me but everyone else thought it was great so I'll leave it there.
It's my "job" (such as it is) to nitpick and criticise on these pages so that occasionally the faults with a meal seem to outweigh the successes. Therefore, despite the occasional mis-step, the important thing to remember about Septime is that it is a very accomplished operation and we enjoyed our lunch very much. Yes, the pig fat in the "vegetarian" course was pretty unforgivable, but otherwise the top-notch ingredients and pared-back cooking style were a delight to experience, and we left very happy. For the same money (£71 a head with 2 bottles of wine) I'd still rather go to the Clove Club. But let's not open that can of worms just yet.