A new gourmet restaurant in a former Vietnamese canteen.
For once, I beat the quick-off-the-mark food bloggers to a new Paris restaurant: A Mère. And what a find it is! While it won’t win any awards for decor, it ticks all the other boxes for a favorite restaurant: reasonable prices; high-quality, seasonal ingredients; great creativity; and attention to detail.
About that decor: the illustrations on the walls were left behind by the Vietnamese canteen that used to occupy the space, and perhaps the simple wooden tables and metal-topped stools as well. The light comes from bulbs hanging from cords strung across the ceiling. It’s simple and funky, with help-yourself glasses, cutlery and napkins set out on the tables.
The main partners in this month-old enterprise are two young men: chef Mauricio Zillo, a native of São Paulo who has worked in the kitchens of Yannick Alléno and Paul Bocuse, among others, and, taking care of the front of house, the adorable Mikael Grou.
In keeping with the casual house style, the menus are photocopied and roughly cut by hand, with the wine list pasted to a piece of cardboard. The constantly changing menu lists only three starters, three main courses and three desserts. The descriptions are brief and by no means reveal all that is found in each dish (more on this later). Since there were three of us, we were able to try every single one.
Starters: I really lucked out with the soft-boiled
egg with melted Morbier cheese and poutargue (dried fish roe). A strange combination, but the poutargue melted into the cheese and was not noticeable. The cheese was nicely pungent, and the egg was topped with crunchy grains of buckwheat, but the amazing part was the delicate tempura of sage and other fresh herbs on top, so crispy and light, with just a hint of batter. Grou informed us that the sage had been delivered personally that very morning by his own grandmother, freshly picked from her garden in La Mayenne.
Mary, too, scored big with her starter of spicy
(thanks to Espelette pepper) beef tartare with figs and a sauce made with bone marrow. Terie was less impressed with her starter, described
on the menu as “sériole, lard, brousse” (amberjack, sheep’s cheese and lardo di Colonnata [cured fatback]). It turned out to be gazpacho, which incorporated the cheese and in which the chunks of fish floated, with the ribbons of lardo on top. While all the individual ingredients were fine, the fish and lardo were rather overwhelmed by the gazpacho. When the melt-on-the-tongue lardo was tasted on its own, however, it was a hit.
For her main course, Mary had chicken cooked
two ways: fried and confit, served with green beans and cocos de Paimpol (wonderful tender white beans that are in season now) and perfectly cooked oyster mushrooms. She loved the fried piece of chicken but found the confit part a bit tough. Terie thoroughly enjoyed her
cod with chickpeas (prepared like couscous) and Swiss chard, studded with a few half-cherries.
I was thrilled with my tender beef cheeks, beautifully paired with pieces of red onion. The touch of acidity I tasted turned out to be grapefruit, which had been marinated with the
beef. A great invention, with the tart grapefruit cutting the richness of the meat. A smoky eggplant sauce was the perfect complement.
I had noticed that the chef often paired fishy ingredients with cheesy ones, an unorthodox combination that would be considered blasphemy in Italy, but nothing prepared me for what came next. I had ordered a dessert described as “fennel, blackcurrant, anise.” Sounds austere, but when it arrived it turned out to be a cassis sorbet accompanied by a creamy concoction. I took a bite and put my fork down. “There’s fish in my dessert,” I announced to my companions. They thought I
was imagining it, but I soon discovered that what looked like raisins were really anchovies.
We called over Grou and asked him if the anchovies had accidentally fallen into the dessert. No, he said, it was intentional. The anchovies were there for “a touch of saltiness.” I don’t object to a touch of saltiness, or even to the vegetable elements (fennel and dill) in the dessert, but I certainly objected to the touch of fishiness. Compounding our consternation, he
informed us that the chocolate dessert Mary had ordered contain smoked eel, and that Terie’s “apricots, almond, lavender” dessert was topped with “lamb crumble.” In the
latter two desserts, however, the foreign ingredients were not as obvious as the anchovies were in mine. Otherwise, all the desserts were quite delicious.
While we didn’t like the idea of meat and fish sneaking into our desserts, I have to admit that it was kind of fun being surprised in this way. How often does a meal really amaze us? Zillo and Grou are giving themselves time to play around and experiment before publicizing the restaurant (which explains the missing bloggers), and I can only respect that. They are also willing to take chances instead of just copying dishes all the other trendy bistros are making.
I also respect their efforts to keep prices down. All main courses were under €20, and even the wine was very reasonable, with bottles priced from €19 to €65. We had a lovely 2014 Beaujolais Villages Vigne de Thulon from JM Burgaud for €25.
The delights of this meal made us forget the discomfort of the metal stools and forgive the crazy desserts. This is a place to watch as it evolves. I’m expecting great things.