Chef Sylvain Sendra has traced quite an itinerary through Paris. He started out in a pocket-sized bistro, Le Temps au Temps, on the Rue Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement. “Discovered” by Parisian foodies, it soon outgrew its small space, and he moved on to the fifth arrondissement, where he opened the much larger and more expensive Itinéraires, which eventually earned a Michelin star. That, too, closed down in time, and Sendra has now popped up in the even fancier Fleur du Pavé in the second arrondissement.
Stylishly done up with black walls and tables, complemented by caned and yellow-upholstered chairs, Fleur du Pavé is generously staffed with pleasant young men and a sommelière.
When we enquired about the “vegetal” tasting menu for €45. (four courses, lunchtime only), we were told that it did contain some meat (!) and that all the vegetables served were provided by Asafumi Yamashita, a farmer so exclusive that he decides which chefs are worthy of his vegetables and sells them only to those select few. Okay!
The meal kicked off with the obligatory (in this kind of aspirational restaurant) amuse-bouches. One was a tiny tart with a Parmesan-flavored crust filled with tzatziki, pickles and mint. The other was a tiny sandwich of puffed black rice with eggplant purée, labnè (Lebanese cheese) and a slice of daikon (Japanese radish), sprinkled with mushroom powder. Both were delicate and lovely. They were accompanied by a pretty house-made brioche and a dish of Rossi olive oil from the South of France for dipping.
When the first course came, my lunch companion expressed a desire to share with me her main “gripe” about fine French food. I never would have guessed what it was: “It’s made for people with no teeth.” In other words, mushy. This turned out to apply not only to the first course – a delicate cauliflower cream with razor-thin slices of raw cauliflower (not much chewing needed there) and a brilliant touch of Madagascar vanilla – but to the entire meal. I’ll be on the lookout for this phenomenon from now on.
The next course was really mushy: kabocha squash flavored with cumin and curry with an egg and Mimolette cheese. I was unimpressed at first, but it grew on me.
Then came marvelous potato gnocchi with puréed potatoes, lovely house-smoked sliced duck breast (some chewing required). Mr. Yamashita’s delicious basil leaves provided a perfect counterpoint.
Dessert was a very creamy rice pudding with a motherlode of salted caramel sauce hidden at the bottom and caramelized pistachios on top.
As my friend pointed out, this was not really a meal you could get your teeth into, but it was delicious and original nonetheless.
I wondered if there aren’t historical roots to the mushiness issue. Perhaps mushy equaled refined – no vulgar chewing required – in the mind of 19th-century French chefs like Carême and Escoffier, who set the standards for haute cuisine. Any thoughts from learned readers?