The Clown Bar, located next to the Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus) in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, was my local for five years when I lived around the corner, and I returned often over the years to enjoy the unique decor of clown-decorated tiles around the zinc bar, the good food and the bonhomie of owner Joë Vitte. When my sister was visiting recently, we made a pilgrimage there for lunch and were dismayed to find it closed for renovation. After some 25 years, Vitte had sold up.
I was anxious to discover what would become of this institution and made a reservation soon after it reopened. It was disconcerting to see it without the antique circus memorabilia collected by Vitte, but the famous tiles, bar and handsome Art Nouveau windows dating from the 1920s in what had been the original bar area had not been touched – they can’t be, since Vitte had had them listed as historical monuments.
The other walls looked like they had been primed for a paint job, but the new co-owner told me they were finished. “Do you like it?” he asked, obviously proud of the paint job. I demurred, saying it was a shock to see such a dramatic change. In fact, I think it looks unfinished and amateurish. It would take the talents of a professional decorator to come up with an interior that complements the ceramic tiles.
It’s too bad, but more important was what we would be eating, and in that department, there were absolutely no disappointments – au contraire! – only delights.
Three of us were lunching, so we got to try a number of different dishes from the menu, with its three sets of five mix-and-match small plates. I loved my dish of deep-fried bulots (sea
snails) with a smoky-flavored mayonnaise. One of my companions had the Guilvinec langoustines with a lemony mayonnaise given a little kick by Espelette pepper – simple, fresh,
minimally cooked, perfect – and the other had the delicious, bright-tasting salade de poulpe (octopus) with samphire, smoked eel and croutons. The salad was strangely arranged
around one side of the plate, making it look like a rather stingy serving, but that didn’t affect the flavor.
I think I had the winning hand with both my starter and my main course, which was a pithiviers de canard de Challans. Normally, pithiviers is a cake with an almond-paste
filling, but in this case, the delicate outer pastry crust was filled with succulent pieces of duck. It came with an interesting paste-like purée of dates flavored with yuzu, the perfect complement to the rich duck.
One of my friends had the luscious veal brains with cockles and tiny melt-in-the-mouth
potatoes with a smoky flavor. The other had the Atlantic pollack with white asparagus. The
fish was fabulous, but the foam on the side was bland, and the rhubarb listed on the menu was missing.
With it all we drank the lovely Cuvée Aqui Lou 2011, a natural “vin de France,” from Alain Allier’s Domaine Mouressipe in the Rhône Valley.
For dessert, we shared a plate of cheese – fine examples of Cantal, Saint Nectaire, Brie and
Roquefort – followed by a tart with vanilla cream filling and a buckwheat-flour crust,
topped with caramelized pine nuts and sprinkled with elderberry flowers. Spectacular.
We had fallen into conversation with the gentleman sitting next to us, who looked familiar, and he inquired about the tart. He ordered one for himself, plus a lemon tart to share with us, since I had wondered aloud about it.
The Sicilian-lemon tart was perfectly balanced and also had a divine (white flour) crust, and the gentleman turned out to be Christophe Philippe, chef/owner of Christophe, a fine restaurant in the fifth arrondissement. Sadly, he told us that he was going to close soon, apparently because business is slow. I recommend having a meal there before he does.
As for the new owners of the Clown Bar, they come with impeccable credentials. The man sur place is Xavier Lacaud, whose partners are Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne of the excellent Saturne. The chef is Sota Atsumi. I congratulate all of them for turning an old favorite into a new favorite with dazzling food.Favorite