There are plenty of places to eat in this corner of the 19th arrondissement (the Asian Koko is fun and friendly after seeing a film at one of the two cinemas on the Bassin de la Villette, and Simonetta has good pizza), but until now I had never found one where the food was actually exciting. Mission accomplished. Bertrand Disset, the easygoing former owner of the Bataclan Brasserie, has taken over the neighborhood bistro La Bicyclette and hired a great cheffe, Slavica Marmakovic, formerly of Clamato (Septime’s fish restaurant, an excellent reference).
I really love this place because it’s so unpretentious, laidback and informal, with its funky original decor left unchanged. The restaurant doesn’t even have a website, and the only way to reserve is to call Disset on his cellphone (be persistent; it seems that he doesn’t always listen to his messages). The bicycle theme is taken up in a mural of Aesop’s tortoise and hare racing on old-fashioned big-wheeled bikes rather than on foot.
This is primarily a lunch place (although cheese and charcuterie platters are served on Thursday and Friday evenings) with very reasonable prices (€19 for three courses). To get us started, we were served an amazing vegetable bouillon, so rich in flavor I thought it must have meat in it, but no, just anise, sumac, coriander and a touch of olive oil. I could have drunk a quart of it.
For his first course, my friend had the cockles, a generous helping of plump, super-fresh shellfish accompanied by fresh spinach and another fabulous broth flavored with cédrat (citron).
I didn’t know what to expect from my starter, panzanella, because I had never before tasted this Italian bread-and-tomato salad. I absolutely loved this version. The big chunks of stale bread were soaked in wonderful olive oil and mixed with proper tomatoes (surprising at this time of year, but they were obviously well sourced). Smoked dry ricotta added the crowning touch. This summery salad is something I could conceivably make at home, but would it be as good? Probably not.
With only two choices for the main course, we both ordered the lamb kebab. The other option was fusilli with Swiss chard and Gorgonzola, which I am sure would have been very good, given the Serbian cheffe’s obvious penchant and talent for making Italian dishes. She is also interested in Middle Eastern flavors, however – sumac and zaatar showed up in a few dishes – and she proved it with this deconstructed kebab (no skewer here), with chunks of tender lamb, sumac-flavored yogurt and thin slices of raw turnip. Tasty and satisfying.
The desserts were supreme. One was chunks of roast pineapple served with a fabulous whipped cream and pastry. The other, a crumble with rhubarb and citrus fruits, was also brilliant. The crunchy crumble was not soggy as it usually is in restaurants. Again, it was so good that I could easily have kept eating it even though I was full. I can only imagine (until my next visit) how good the chocolate tart with praliné hazelnuts that we didn’t order must be.
Walk, drive, take the Métro or a bus, or (preferably) hop on a bike, but make sure you get to La Bicyclette soon.