It's springtime in Paris. The peas flowers are beginning to blossom, morels tulips are starting to be seen, and restaurants things stay open just a little bit later. Yes, it is a happy time here, particularly when restaurants embrace the life that spring brings to the vegetable garden. My friend from Genova was in town this weekend, and had e-mailed me the two restaurants he was "thinking" about visiting during his short trip to Paris: Le Bristol and La Bigarrade. I knew Le Bristol had garnered a third star this year, so I was excited about that. But what was the second one, La Bigarrade? A quick reference to my Michelin guide revealed they too had just gotten a star. I thought about it, at first with reservation, but I quickly remembered that my wise friend has a knack for finding interesting restaurants, even in cities where he doesn't live ! I humbly agreed and suggested we make a reservation. "I already made one ... last month," he told me. He's also very organized. Located in the seventeenth by the Brochant metro stop off the thirteen, La Bigarrade is located just outside of convenient. Did my Genovese friend want to go here because one of the chefs, Giuliano Sperandio, was also from Northern Italy? My suspicion grew, as I knew Italian pride could be very strong.
We arrived for lunch in the early afternoon to a completely packed restaurant, the size of my small studio apartment. With space for only twenty diners, the restaurant's wait list, I learned, can exceed a month. How does he always find these places? We were seated in the sun-drenched dining room with the open kitchen, also petite, just behind us. We saw the two chefs Christophe Pelé and Giuliano Sperandio working in-sync with each other just a few feet behind our table, casually checking on diners to see if they were enjoying their dishes. There were no menus, only a chalkboard on the wall that read: Gourmand: 45€, Gourmet: 35€. Was this the right restaurant? How could the prices be so ... reasonable? The waiter explained that chef prepares an impromptu tasting daily using market fresh ingredients that would be around 7 - 10 courses. Well, that sure made ordering easy.
It should be noted that there was no written menu for this meal so I wrote as quickly as I could every ingredient I heard and saw on the plate. It's possible that some of the ingredients as missing or incorrect, just a heads up.
Our waiter placed a slate slab on the table containing a piece of salted focaccia with a small bowl of olive oil. The limited size of the slate and symmetry of the bread suggested that this would be a single serving. I was worried that I wouldn't get full happy to have this moderation enforced upon me; besides, carbs are the enemy, right? Right ...
The first course of shellfish came next served in two parts: oyster and clam. The single oyster was held in place by a bed of Brittany sea salt, which is a good thing, considering it tasted so fresh it may have jumped off the table. Covering the raw oyster was a tea-colored bonito flake gelée with a wedge of lime and wild pepper. The flavor was crisp, sweet, and acidic. The small pieces of wild pepper made the center of my tongue tingle without spicing it. The ocean water was left inside the oyster which, when combined with the bonito flake gelée, tasted like Japan the sea.
The clam was cooked ever so lightly, just enough to open the shell, essentially leaving it raw; but "safe" to eat. The clam was garnished with wild sorrel, white radish, a grapefruit broth, and a few drops olive oil. Also acidic and sweet, with a small aftertaste of olive oil giving the flavor a tough of earth. Like the oyster this was light, clean, and refreshing.
If spring could be embodied in a single plate, it would be what came next: a light and refreshing pea soup with sepia, black garlic, and red flower petals. The soup was served cold. Chef Sperandio explained that from the peas he got this morning, he used the larger more bitter ones to make the broth, and the smaller, sweeter ones for eating. The peas were raw making them crunchy and flavorful. The broth had little to no salting -- it didn't need it; all the salt was in the black garlic along the side of the plate which, when mixed with a spoonful of broth, salted everything very nicely. Thin strips of lime zest were placed throughout the broth adding an element of citrus completing the balance of flavor between sweet, salty, acidic, and savory. The sepia was cooked so its texture remained firm and crunchy, and was ever so lightly garnished with piment d'espelette. Spring was here.
Next came a filet of yellowtail belly served with small wild onion, jamón ibérico de bellota from Spain, lemon, and wild purslane greens. The minimalistic presentation allowed each flavor to be tasted individually and in different combinations, from an earthy pairing with the jamón to a garden fresh ensemble with the purslane. The yellowtail was lightly seared on each side leaving the inside nice and cool. Scattered about the plate were small bits of piment d'espelette which, like the previous course, added a sensation that widened the spectrum of flavor.
The following course was line caught mackerel, caramelized and acidulated onion, wild herbs, and garden fresh watercress. The filet of fish sat atop a reduction of Valencia orange, which chef Sperandio explained had arrived a little bitter. The orange reduction smelled a bit of vinegar and chile oil, even though later I learned there was none, alerting my senses that there may be an acidic and spicy component to follow. The fish was very lightly cooked, skin in tact, leaving the full flavor of the mackerel and its piscine aroma. After eating this course it became apparent to me that each course we'd had so far left a dominant flavor in my mouth. First the bitterness of grapefruit, then the spice of chile, and now, the sweet bitterness of Valencia orange. It kept me interested and curious about what the next course would bring.
Next came the meat course a filet of lieu, or pollock, a strong flavored white fish lightly lightly sautéed with Sichuanese red pepper and wild black pepper. The filet was topped with course sea salt. Alongside the pollock was spring asparagus with small shrimp, thin strips of lemon, and wild red sorrel. This dish tasted slightly acidic from the lemon rind; but this acidity was expanded by the ever so delicate spice from the wild peppers. Remember this is France, home of not spicy food; perhaps spice is too strong of a word ... tingling? In addition to the dish's visual simplicity, the flavors were very explicit and easily distinguishable making it fun to try different flavor combinations with the assortment of fresh vegetables and spices on the plate. Everything worked.
By this point I realized that I was still pretty hungry had probably eaten enough, but gladly welcomed the plate of Reblochon and Crottin, which come from Savoie (by the Alps) and the Loire valley, respectively. I don't really like the light creaminess of Reblochon, but the prune reduction with which it was served brightened the flavor. Crottin, like a table-side truffle shaving, is always welcome. The two cheeses were plated alongside vadouvan, a south Indian spice blend that seems to be popping up on menus all over the place in the past couple of years.
Our pre-dessert was a refreshing soup of fava beans in a medlar fruit broth. The beans were very lightly cooked, so they stayed crispy. The broth was slightly sweet and acidic.
The first official dessert was a lemon pot de crème with a saffron gelée and rosemary flowers. This was the first pot de crème I've had which didn't leave a greasy residue in my mouth. The flavors were of bright lemon with a slight citrus acidity; but, this was tempered by the earthy flavor and scent of saffron. The texture was pure and smooth and the portioning just right to both satisfy and leave you wanting more.
Next came a pistachio crème anglaise with raw mango in a mango reduction. This was garnished with a pimpinella saxifraga leaf. The crème anglaise was served chilled but not frozen which made it more like a heavy mousse. The flavor tasted very strongly of pistachio -- not sweetened at all -- just pure pistachio, as if the entire nut, shell included, had been included. This was my favorite of the dessert courses; my only complaint was the lack of brioche of some other sweet bread to return my plate a polished white.
What came next tasted as interesting as it sounds: an oatmeal and tobacco infused mousse topped with a dash of cocoa powder. Throughout the mousse were weightless crôutons of brioche making some bites crunchy and others rich and smooth. Most interestingly was the taste of the tobacco. It was a spice similar to black pepper; except it caused a tingle towards the back of my tongue -- an area untouched by other spices. It wasn't a "hot" spice; it was a light prickle that added depth to the sweet mousse. It was as if every ingredient in this was intentionally placed to achieve a certain affect: this dish was intentionally delicious.
The last dessert, and the only course I did not like during my lunch, was a chilled dark chocolate crème in a coffee-chocolate reduction with tonka bean crème. I didn't care for this much. This dish was as heavy as all the previous courses combined and completely offset the delicate progression of the meal. Just as my palate was unwinding, it was overwhelmed by the intense taste of Domori chocolate from, coincidentally, Genova where my friend was from. The chocolate was just too rich for me after having eaten four weightless desserts in succession. It didn't seem to fit in the progession of this meal. As a bit of consolation though, without me having said anything, chef Sperandio explained at the end of the meal that were it up to him the chocolate would not be on the menu: he doesn't like it. He said he puts it on the menu at lunch time to please the Parisian palate. I'm not sure if I completely buy that; he might have just seen my plate returned nearly full. Nevertheless one strike out of fourteen is still remarkable.
Along with our bill came two small thyme-infused bavarois petit-fours topped with candied almond. Nothing life-changing. Then I actually read the bill: 70€ for two people. Was this for real? I rubbed my eyes and checked again. It's official: this is the highest quality to price ratio I've seen in Paris so far. La Bigarrade could have easily charged double to triple this amount and still had customers calling months in advance to secure reservations.
As we finished our meal our waiter began to prepare the chalkboard for dinner service, thus increasing the prices. Dinner is a little more expensive so I hope you're sitting down. The cost: 45€ for the Gourmet tasting, 65€ for the extended Gourmand tasting of 12-courses. No wonder this place is so crowded.
After lunch my friend and I sat around talking to Giuliano Sperandio, while chef Christophe Pelé finished up in the kitchen, for the next hour. He explained that the small restaurant and lack of a menu allows him to improvise on a daily basis and optimize use of farm-fresh and seasonal local ingredients. "Not only do the plates change every day," he added, "but not everyone in the restaurant eats the same food!" He criticized the restrictions on creativity many Michelin 3-star restaurants have in striving to provide a consistently perfect experience. "Here," he added, "we cook depending on our mood, how we felt when we woke up in the morning ... it is very free." That type of freedom and airiness came across very clearly in the food which, for me, was light, balanced, and enlivening.
For now this small restaurant is still being discovered by diners across Paris. I hope that as its flavors mature, which they no doubt will, it maintains the flexibility and creativity in its dishes that I was so lucky to have experienced during my visit. If it can, La Bigarrade is going to get a lot more popular.