The only restaurant in Paris where you can play
Pros: Atmosphere, atmosphere
Cons: Noisy cocktail shakers, patchy service
In last Saturday’s Financial Times, the “Power Dressing” feature profiled Mourad Mazouz, an “Algeria-born restaurateur who has eight restaurants worldwide”. He’s 46 and doesn’t like to have “shiny or clean shoes” but likes them to always “look trashy.” I tell you this because until I read the piece, I didn’t know that he (and his brother) owned this week’s pick, Derrière, along with seven other trendy restaurants around the world, including Sketch and Momo in London, and Almaz by Momo in Dubai. So not only is he a power dresser, but he’s also a power restaurateur. And there’s something about the shoe quote that fits nicely with our dining experience.
It was a warm evening, and the courtyard in front of the restaurant was already aheave with the young smoking crowd. Inside, the first thing that meets your eye between the scurrying staff is a full-size ping-pong table – not in use when I arrived, but soon to be worked hard for the duration.
It was like arriving in a grade school at recess, with the indoor restaurant the playground. A lot of energy was being burned off and everyone was having a good time, including the staff. Much of that energy went into noisily shaking cocktails (when, oh, when, will someone invent a silent ice cube?) at an adjacent recycled 1940s sideboard, painted white on the outside, but with its original glossy French polishing intact inside. The provenance of the rest of the well-worn furniture is clearly very mixed, adding a layer of Old Curiosity Shop to the recess atmosphere.
The menu comes as three A5 sheets folded into a booklet held together with a rubber band. The reverse side of the menu pages intriguingly features a photo, taken from above, of four people smoking and playing bridge. Answers on a postcard, please.
To build the menu, the markets of Paris have of course been ransacked for the very best ingredients, but so has the 1991 edition of the Petit Larousse Illlustré, essential dictionary reading for crossword fans and for anyone wishing to pass the required Culture Générale examination to gain lifetime employment in the French public sector. Every dish merits its dictionary definition. It’s clever, quirky, and I’m sure corresponds to the owner’s desire to make sure his patrons keep up their reading skills. But it makes the menu as easy to read as the Sketch Web site.
Amazingly, Derrière (it means “behind,” but the dictionary definition contents itself with its prepositional meaning, and makes no reference whatever to posterior gluteal tissue; the house postcard, however, shows the derrière of a chunky clothes-free man leaving home with a suitcase) was fun. We came away with a true feel-good lift in our step. Our exit was earlier than we had planned, though, because after main dishes were served the waiters gave us plenty time to watch a couple of table tennis matches, so we forewent dessert and asked for the check.
The food was not bad at all, although not cheap. My oeuf cocotte, whose menu entry gave me a chance to brush up on four egg idioms, including a Belgian one, was served with softly boiled Jerusalem artichoke – delicious and easy as pie to make, and tucked away for future reference. Then there was an endive salad with celery, ham and apples, and a dish of grilled red peppers stuffed with ewe’s milk cheese, anchovies and black olive tapenade.
Afterwards I chose the jambon de cochon fermier cuit entière à la broche, champignons, which was basically roast pork with grilled mushrooms and quite unexceptional – a tad dry, fibrous, and shorn of its crispy skin. The fillet of sea bream was much liked, as was the daily special of roast quail with raisins.
The wine ranged from €20 to €90 and was not at all overpriced. Our Beaumes de Venise Terres Jaunes 2007, at €30, didn’t leave many lasting impressions.
Despite a fairly unmemorable dining experience, there is a je ne sais quoi about Derrière that lifts the spirits. Was it the sight of groups of student friends enjoying each other’s company? The people playing ping-pong politely asking for their ball back when it landed by our table? The bouncy young staff? The mish-mash furniture? All of the above? Whatever: Mourad Mazouz seems to have applied his quirky take on shoes to stellar restaurant concepts, and he has the mojo, Momo.
Derrière: 69, rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris. Tel: 01 44 61 91 95. Métro: Arts et Metiers. Nearest Vélib stations: 55, rue de Turbigo; 12 rue Greneta. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. A la carte: €40-50*.
* three courses, not including wine
© 2009 Paris Update
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