July 22, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

Feast on Friday

Even the tableware is well-sourced at Agapé.

Agapé. Now there’s a name to conjure with. It refers to the meal, or “love feast,” early Christians ate together after their gatherings. Not far from sherry with the vicar after Sunday service, when you think about it.

Agapé is also the hubristic name of a new eatery in an upscale bit of the 17th arrondissement, where you really get a glimpse of those wide, straight avenues that Baron Haussmann intended. It was immediately rapped for its hubris by François Simon, the acknowledged doyen of French food critics, who damned it with the faintest of praise while paradoxically awarding it a very honorable 7.5/10.

The dining room is not large, with plenty of space between the tables, which seat around 30 all told. The decor is that inoffensive grayish caramel so popular with decorators at the moment. A couple of dozen lampshades hang from the ceiling, one of them angled to light the only flash of assertive color in the room: an Aborigine-inspired dot painting hanging in a corner. The tables are cleverly arranged so that customers are not troubled by the business end of food preparation or clearing away.

Most of the lunch diners the other day were business types who were clearly enjoying their food and especially their wine, drinking serious quantities for lunchtime, although it was Friday, when a lot of people finish at midday due to the 35-hour week. The sommelier, who was very pleased to see so much expensive wine going into his Riedel glassware, is justly proud of his 500-bin (and counting) cellar. He decants all his wines and tastes the wine himself before letting the buyer try it. An excellent initiative that should be put in the statute book.

It actually took us quite a while to get the wine list out of any of the four staff working the tables, and when it did come, it came with a maître d’ in tow, who proceeded to insistently attract my attention to the higher-priced wines on the list. He had already done the same with the menus and was given a gentle brush-off to give us time to scan the cellar’s riches. We chose a €40 “bio-dynamic” 2006 Morgon by Marcel Lapierre, certainly one of the cheapest options on the list, but which repaid its decanting handsomely, charming us throughout the meal.

We ordered the €39 lunch menu, which offers a single starter, a choice of fish or meat, and cheese or dessert, and comes with the mandatory amuse bouche (a shot-glass of frothy gazpacho) and chocolate goodies with the coffee.

The starter was a creamy fennel soup with a sizeable dollop of orange-flavored chantilly cream flating in it. Perfect. I then chose the lamb option: three honorable portions of spring lamb, which was just starting to acquire some of the stronger taste of older lamb. It melted beneath the handsome knives (“9.4.7” was marked on the blade – anyone know where can I buy them?) and also melted in the mouth. In the center of the plate was a little bouquet of the most delicious, most beautifully cooked string beans it has ever been my privilege to taste. Simple, but again, perfection epitomized. Add in a few roasted Noirmoutier new potatoes. This is when you start thinking: Why isn’t everyone cooking at this level? It’s not rocket science.

The fish option was a piece of John Dory on a bed of baby fava beans mixed with various acidulated ingredients, including blackcurrants and daidai, a Japanese citrus fruit. This last was something of an epiphany, because I finally understood what makes people want to squeeze lemon juice onto fish – a practice I generally recoil from. In this case, the acidity perfectly concentrated and enhanced the fine taste and texture of the fish.

I had spied the cheese board from across the room shortly after I was seated by the waiter and decided to order cheese rather than dessert. Room temperature: good. I was served an excellent Stilton, some very fine goat’s milk cheese and a rather tasty snippet of Reblochon. After sharing this, we divided an uncomplicated but highly toothsome dessert of berry fruits (more blackcurrants) and sorbets.

For this level of quality, €39 euros, while not exactly in luncheon-voucher territory, is anything but daylight robbery. For 10 euros less, there are plenty of places in Paris that will serve you food that, charitably, one could only rank as unexceptional.

To return to my Christian theme, let me raise this question: which servant would Agapé chef Bertrand Grébault, formerly of L’Arpège (ranked 46th in the 2008 San Pellegrino World’s Best 50 Restaurants) have been in the New Testament parable of the talents? My guess is that a lot of his critics would plump for the one who hid his master’s riches and brought them back unchanged after the master’s absence. “Unadventurous” was François Simon’s damning judgment.

But look at it another way. Here’s a chef who seems to be steadfastly bucking the trend for fancy presentation and incomprehensible names. This is all about transparency and perfect attention to well-sourced products (the butter comes from Bordier, for example, and the meat from Hugo Désnoyers). I say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

We are meant to draw simple lessons from parables. The lesson here is for Grébault’s colleagues elsewhere: why not try upping your game to similar effect, without charging the steep prices of Agapé?

Agapé: 51, rue Jouffroy d’Abbans, 75017 Paris. Tel: 01 42 27 20 18. Métro: Wagram, Pereire or Malesherbes. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 49, rue Jouffroy d’Abbans; 64 rue de Tocqueville. Fixed-price menus: €39 (lunch only), €77 and €110.

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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