Not much has changed at Au Passage over the years except the food.
Pros: happy atmosphere; delicious, inventive food; reasonable prices and sound levels; good service
Cons: better ventilation needed in the kitchen
It is highly unlikely that you would just be passing by Au Passage, tucked away in one of the many passageways in the 11th arrondissment where small workshops used to bang together furniture, so do make a point of seeking it out (after first making a reservation, of course). It will be well worth your trouble.
The large square dining room with 1950s-style fixtures, pretty framed woodcuts on the walls, wooden tables and a small zinc bar on the side still has the feel of a workers’ canteen. You can easily imagine it packed with ravenous, blue-overalled cabinetmakers filling up on hearty stews and a few glasses of pinard in days gone by. Today, however, the crowd is a mix of all ages, with a slight bohemian cast and a sprinkling of tourists, and the fare is far more refined.
Lunchers can choose any combination from the day’s menu, which offers a starter, a choice of two main courses, cheese and dessert. In the interests of tasting it all, we ordered everything from the smiling waitress, who turned out to be a partner in the business and looked familiar because she used to work at Spring (the chef learned his trade at Spring as well). She served the entire dining room efficiently and singlehandedly.
The first course, pretty and colorful, looked almost dismayingly minimalist, but it was so
delicious that it turned out to be extremely satisfying. It consisted of chunks of raw mackerel, blobs of ricotta, pink and red beets, and a scattering of beet greens, a perfect combination of strong and mild flavors.
We had hesitatingly ordered a glass of natural Beaujolais Nouveau from Descombes to go with the meal and were pleasantly surprised to find that it had none of that bubble-gum taste the new wine is famous for. It went down easily and pleasantly.
For her main course, Madeleine had the
magret de canard (subject of a recent debate in these pages). It was delicious and of high quality but a little undercooked for her taste. My tuna (bonito) – a dish I ordered reluctantly because it is so often overcooked and
uninteresting – had been blessed by the sea gods before being barely seared on one side. Melt-in-the-mouth bliss. Both dishes came with a dash of purée and were garnished with watercress and thin-as-blades slices of raw, pink-edged cauliflower (which for once really looked like a flower).
We shared the cheese – two thin slices of tomme de brebis from the Pyrenees, accompanied by hearty, crusty dark bread – and the dessert, a divine (the word is not nearly strong enough) dumpling of creamy chocolate ganache covered with a lacing of caramel sauce containing crystals of gros sel.
To our great delight, in spite of the large, happy crowd filling the restaurant, the noise levels were manageable, allowing us to converse without shouting.
I have only one small complaint about Au Passage: the smell of fish cooking was occasionally overpowering. Better ventilation is in order for the kitchen, which is separated from the dining room by a windowed door.
While the thoroughly modern meal we had might not have satisfied the burly workingmen of yore, it certainly satisfied us. Other pluses: a three-course meal at lunchtime is only €16.50, and the restaurant stays open until 2am Tuesday through Saturday. I am already planning a return visit to this cheerful, cheering spot.
Au Passage: 1 bis, passage Saint-Sébastien, 75011 Paris. Métro: Saint-Sébastien-Froissart. Tel.: 01 43 55 07 52. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch and dinner (until 2am), Monday for lunch only, Saturday for dinner only. Closed Sunday. Fixed-price lunch menu: €16.50. A la carte: around €35. Facebook
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