Kings of the Bs : Le Baratin and Bigarrade

The nouvelle vague (Bigarade) vs. the institution (Le Baratin), the former before the new year and the latter last weekend. Both visits were highly anticipated, given the laudatory reviews I’ve come across for both in recent months. I cut to the chase.

Bigarrade was a reasonable alternative to my first choice, last season’s absolute must(!)Parisian restaurant, Spring. You’ve probably already read about Spring in The New York Times, but less likely you’ve eaten there, unless you know somebody who knows someone who can swing a reservation for you. You see, the new trend in Parisian restaurants is minimalism, with a little ‘m’. So it’s dog eat dog to get to one of the 3 or 4 tables that comprise the dining room. I was informed by phone that I could probably get a slot sometime after 2011, so I kindly passed and dialed Bigarrade. Same concept, easier to reserve – I clocked in at slightly under three weeks, or as they say, before next Spring.

Like it’s minimalistic cousin, Bigarrade works on the Spring-like concept of fixed menus – 35€ or 45€ and that, mon ami, is all they tell you when you order. A visit to the web site won't help either - its been 'under construction' for months, but you can watch a cool little video there about the restaurant. Co. & I opted for the 45€, throwing caution to the wind – who knows if it will be as easy to reserve next time. This was a couple months ago, and I vaguely recall around six courses, give or take an amuse bouche here or a petit plat there. Our waiter refused at the end of the meal to give me a list of the courses, so I can only detail what I scrawled into my little cheat sheet notebook. But then, it doesn’t matter anyway – although perhaps some components will reappear, the set of courses changes every night. (Check the minimalistic gallery of photos below for some sample Bigarrade dishes.) So if you like the sound of what follows, don’t exactly expect to get it when you eat there. One standard, however, seems to be the initial offering, a kind of pre-amuse bouche – a small square of focaccia bread served warm with an intense olive oil. The only drawback to this tasty morsel is that there wasn’t more.

This was followed by the actual amuse bouche, a carrot mousse with vinagrette. Relying on my scrawls, I noted a foie gras with fig and honey jelly, torteu bleu creme de chou-fleur, truffaud de canard fieileté (sic), st. pierre avec petits legumes, etc. I know, this is a pretty lame description, but like I said, you’re not going to get it anyway.

Christophe PELE opened Bigarrade in 2007 and he pairs up with Giuliano SPERENZI as the dueling chefs. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into each course. I know this because the open-to-view kitchen was right behind Co., so even though I spent much of the evening gazing intently into her lovely turquoise gray eyes, I managed to watch the action in the kitchen out of my peripheral vision. Much experimentation with interesting ingredients, such as uzu kushu, mojama, fleurs de coriandre, aneth, mouron des oiseaux . . . Be forewarned, however, that I do not use the word ‘minimalistic’ lightheartedy. So, the courses were tasty, but when you desired to have a couple more bites, they just weren't there. Nonetheless, with six (or so) courses, you don’t exactly leave with the idea of popping over to Chinatown on the way home for some curried duck and nems. And before I forget – the dessert was, by Parisian nouvelle vague standards at least, pretty copious – an assortment of four different items that we were instructed to eat in a correct order - they got progressively better (how do they do that?). All washed down with a bottle of red, whose name has long since vanished into the nouvelle vague.

106, rue nollet
75017 Paris tel. 01 42 26 01 02

Next up was Le Baratin, a totally different concept from the trendy Spring and Bigarrade. Le Baratin is a Belleville institution, an old wine bar that has some of the top Parisian restaurant critics moaning in ecstasy. For example, François Simon, controversial food critic of Le Figaro, recently profiled in The New York Times: Here’s what Monsieur Simon had to say about Le Baratin recently (my thanks to Google translator):

“Simplicity out of wells, naked and tasty.

The address of the crazy food. Unbeatable.

Attention, you have to go to form, as is the rush "decibel."

Okay, that is how many French really talk, but I agree, something was lost in translation. Anyway, it’s the thought that counts, and his thought is that we’re talking here about one of the top bistrots, albeit a noisy one (re: decibel) in Paris at the moment. As is the rumor, this is where some of the great Parisian chefs come to sit down and dine when they’re not working. Elsewhere, Alexander Lobrano devoted four full pages in his Hungry for Paris book to Le Baratin, where he wrote a review that makes one take note. His ‘in a word’ summary: “A first-rate bistrot à vin in a far-from-the-madding-crowd location in Belleville. This is the type of place that Parisians guardedly share with friends. . .” And earlier, “a buzzy, unpretentious place with a smart, sexy, arty crowd, a fabulous chalkboard menu, and a slightly bluff style.” If you think these points make more sense than Simon’s above, it is because they were written in English and thus did not necessitate Google’s torturous attempt at sense-making. Still, does anyone out there know what is a ‘bluff style’?

If you read between the lines of Lobrano’s comments, the truth begins to coalesce. But at the outset, let me dispel the false notion that you will find a ‘sexy’ crowd at La B. Unless your idea of ‘sexy’ is those winter hunting caps with the stupid ear flaps hanging down. ‘La vie boheme’ indeed- ‘arty,’ yes, if we’re talking turn of the century I haven’t washed in three weeks kind of arty.

I may not rank up there yet with M. Simon, but here’s what I have to say about this unbearably over-rated bistrot, keeping in mind that our experience leading up to this ‘far from the madding crowd location,’ but not far from the madding parked cars part of town, was anything but pleasant and left us in a pretty foul mood before entering the restaurant. First, we got lost in the labyrinth of one-way streets in the Belleville area, then spent an inordinate amount of time until, praise the gods, an illegal place to park materialized. Forget legal – that’s more difficult than reserving at Spring before 2011. That done, we proceeded to check out la vie boheme. I definitely felt overdressed - maybe if I had vomited on my shirt before we entered, I would have felt more at home. The food was pretty good, but maybe only a couple notches above typical bistrot fare.

The reviews led me to expect creative wonders from Argentinian chef Raquel Carena. I won’t deny the word ‘sincere,’ used by another reviewer. Memorable? Not very. I started off with an appetizer of caille with grapes and nuts. It arrived completely cold and that didn’t seem right. After asking, I was informed that it was no mistake – cold by intention. I don’t have a problem with that if something magical materializes in the taste as a result. But the fact that I was compelled to ask suggests to me that it didn’t work as intended. I followed this up with a tasty lotte preparation, with a subtle tomato sauce on a bed of potatoes that did tricks with my eyes – it looked like rice, it felt like rice, but it wasn’t rice. The crumble for dessert was surprisingly ordinary. Co. liked her lamb, but that’s all she remembers.

I cannot explain the effusive reviews for Le Baratin. This is supposed to be one of
those real Parisian experiences. I don’t deny it, the two small crammed rooms, with interesting locally produced paintings on the walls say ‘Paris’ with a capital P. But what do you expect? It is Paris. Maybe it's just that standards have fallen so low. In a word, Parisian neighborhood bistrot, food above average, but certainly not gourmand by any stretch of the imagination. Three courses (me) + two courses (Co.) + bottle of red = 99€. Others have proclaimed Le Baratin the best lunch deal in Paris (15€), so if you’re going to try it, lunch might be the way to go.


3 Rue Jouye Rouve
75020 Paris
tel: 01 43 49 39 70
(suggestion : take the metro ! - Pyrénées)

Note : Kings of the Bs : Working Within the Hollywood System (edited by Todd McCarty & Charles Flynn) – one of the great books about the movies.
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