September 9, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

Simon Says: Don’t Miss It

The decor is minimal, the food memorable.

Japanese food remains largely terra incognita for me, and I have more than a sneaking suspicion that like other “ethnic” cuisines, Japanese food is dumbed down here for the mostly unadventurous French palate. In my neighborhood, the sushi bars overflow into the street at lunchtime, but I suspect it is because small portions of raw fish are deemed acceptable by the diet-conscious.

One has to expand one’s knowledge, however, and Paris über-critic François Simon’s exhortation to pull our socks up and high-tail it to Hotaru had me instantly reaching for the phone.

Not knowing anything much about the cuisine, my companion and I went for the easy option of the €45 tasting menu, which kicked off with a generous plate of assorted nibbles, ably presented by the young chef, Isao Ashibe, himself. Most memorable were morsels of monkfish liver (known here as foie gras de la mer) and a piece of sushi wrapped in a leaf of pickled mustard greens. Both were sublime.

Those appetizers were followed by a plate of sashimi (gilthead bream, red tuna and mackerel), accompanied by a heady wasabi for added kick. I approached the mackerel with some trepidation, as I have issues with this particular fish, but it was delightfully succulent and flavorful.

Some time later, we were brought a rather large cylinder of gently roasted (I think) eggplant whose skin seemed to have been lacquered to keep it from collapsing. It was served with a dollop of a thick, sweetish brown sauce. The unique taste of the eggplant, with its melting texture, was a complete contrast to what had gone before. A very pleasant surprise.

A main course, although hardly the most exciting part of the meal, was salmon cooked two ways. This came with rice, a bowl of richly flavorful miso soup made with fish stock, and some makizushi, again containing tuna. Dessert was an attractively presented fresh fruit salad, a perfect palate cleanser.

We drank a rice wine whose name began with “j” and was about ten syllables long, but – once again, not being experts on the subject – we were underwhelmed and were clamoring for a glass of Chardonnay before the end.

The delicacy of the presentation and the service were admirable, putting me in mind of my first, youthful, third-hand experience of Japanese high culture – James Clavell’s Shogun (I tried to read it again much later, but its overt didacticism was cloying after about five pages). Clavell’s descriptions left me with an abiding sense of the rough-hewn nature of much of our own Western culture – an illusion, I know, but I can’t help comparing the unforced politeness of our servers at Hotaru with the attitude of those in many French eating houses.

Hotaru is serious, high-quality food, made by a chef who clearly takes great pride in delighting and surprising his customers. Do as Simon says – don’t miss it.

Hotaru: 18, rue Rodier, 75009 Paris. Tel.: 01 48 78 33 74. Métro: Notre Dame de Lorette, Anvers or Cadet (a bit of a hike from all three). Nearest Vélib’ stations: 24, rue de Choron; 4, rue de la Tour d’Auvergne. Closed Sunday and Monday. Fixed-price lunch menus: €23 and up. Fixed-price dinner menu: €45 and up. A la Carte, about €50.

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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