Chez Michel

March 25, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

Mind Your Manners, Michel

chez michel, paris
Petit salé aux gésiers de canard et foie gras.
Chez Michel is a cult place raved about by all for chef Thierry Breton’s inventive, Brittany-inspired cuisine and legendary Granny’s rice pudding, said by one blogger to be better than any rice pudding any grandmother could make. Breton is one of the Yves Camdeborde gang, who have done so much to make the Paris restaurant scene such a great place for midfield diners.

It had been on my list for months, and I phoned to book with a frisson of delights to come. It seemed such a failsafe bet that I even talked my girlfriend Katherine into coming along, despite her dislike of adventuring into the gastronomic unknown. Surely, that many people can’t be wrong? Wrong.

During the 40-minute wait for the young lady maître d’ to come and attend to us and finally serve us an excellent and very reasonably priced (€6) glass of Drappier’s non-dosé pinot noir champagne, we had time to admire the miles of packing tape stuck along the gaps in the restaurant front, and to try and understand the workings of the place. Not easy, given the sheer number of staff rushing around and squeezing themselves between the tightly packed tables. This even included the kitchen staff, whose job it was to bring out the main courses. The three or four people working the relatively small room seemed to be confined to bringing starters and bussing tables.

Behind Katherine was a table of three who, after waiting even longer than we did to order, were asked to move – there was a problem, apparently, because the chef had overbooked, and they needed the table, so would they please move? No reward for the inconvenience or anything like that, you understand. The table rightly pointed out that they didn’t have a problem, the staff did, and politely refused to budge. The other people with a problem were the disgruntled diners who had booked for a certain hour and were left standing (also without a drink) in the very cramped space between tables, hovering over people still eating – not recommended for one’s digestion. For me this is not only bad business, it is the height of bad manners.

The starters, when they finally came, were a squab pâté en croute with pickled grapes, and a sort of lentil pâté with confit gizzards and foie gras, all of which had very shortly before been in an extremely cold place. Katherine actually yelped when she picked up the pickle jar.

For the main dish, she had pan-fried scallops with fennel cooked in orange juice with an overpowering orange sauce and shavings of Parmesan. This came with a massive €12 supplement to the €30 three-course menu (the veal sweetbreads, had I taken them, would have set me back an additional €20). Another very black mark for Chez Michel. My loin of lieu jaune (pollack) was properly cooked but had cooled considerably by the time it was brought to the table by the sous-chef. It was served on a bed of eggplant caviar – not exactly a trophy dish.

I was left wondering where the food that so many people had raved about was. I could cook and present food at that mediocre level myself – and I’m pretty challenged in that department. Katherine, an imaginative and very self-willed cook when it comes to following recipes, could knock spots off them.

We were ordered to order desserts at the beginning of the meal, another play I don’t much like, particularly here, where everything had been prepared in advance anyway. Katherine had a selection of pretty tasteless sorbets, and I, a rice pudding freak, made the obvious choice.

The dessert comes with a flourish, because you are given a triple serving in one bowl, and then another big bowl on the side to spoon it into.
My first reaction was that there was gelatin in it, triggering a memory of slimy Tunisian yogurts in another life. I’m sure there wasn’t, but the rice had been boiled down to an otherwise textureless pap. Ye gods.

Still, we finished off a pleasant and, again, very reasonable bottle of Sancerre (€25) and ordered a couple of digestifs, made by the estimable Alsatian house of Binner. We had the usual problem in getting the check, although by now the place was emptying out. It came to €161, €30 euros of which was for two pigeons that had been no doubt inadvertently added on and were removed as soon as the error had been pointed out, with the maître d’ not exactly falling over herself in confusion.

Perhaps it was a bad night, but I don’t think so. There was no air of panic, and it seemed normal practice for the sous-chefs to sashay around bringing food to the table. And if they cram so many tables into such a small space, they must feel they are able to serve them. I am sure that this was just a normal weekday evening for them, conscious as they are that their reputation is made. I might, in the interests of fairness and research, go back some other day, but I’ll be going without Katherine.

Richard Hesse

Chez Michel: 10, rue de Belzunce, 75010 Paris. Tel: 01 44 53 06 20. Métro: Gare du Nord. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 24, rue de Dunquerque; 15 rue Saint Vincent de Paul. Closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday lunchtime. Fixed-price menu: €30* (plus pricey supplements).

*three courses, not including wine.

Reader Judy Knestis writes: “You are so right on about Chez Michel. We were subjected to one of the worst lunches and equally bad service on our last visit there. It was a rainy day in January, and we were looking for a warm atmosphere, as well as a warming lunch. Neither to be found here. We were afraid we would be late for our reserved time, but we needn’t have concerned ourselves, with only six other gloomy patrons in the restaurant. The waiter was really pushing the day’s special, turbot, and when we both opted for another choice, his demeanor grew as chilly as the weather. Unfortunately, we perhaps should have followed his lead, because my sweetbreads were as bland as atmosphere, having been steamed in some sort of tomato sauce, and my husband’s cervelles au beurre noir tasted like it was sauced with canned brown gravy. We decided Michel is skating on his reputation, and there are plenty of excellent (and mostly unknown) places to eat in our own little neighborhood, (on the Bastille edge of the Marais).”

Reader Suzanne Litner writes: “Right-on review of Chez Michel. We took well-traveled guests from the States there on our first, and last, visit and were sorely disappointed.”

Reader Perry Leopard writes: “I went to Chez Michel in January. It was cramped, and the service, while friendly, was not terribly efficient, but the food was very good. I don’t remember how much our check was, but it couldn’t have been terribly expensive: I would remember that! All of our group of four really enjoyed it and thought it good value for money.

© 2008 Paris Update

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