I have always been a fan of the food at Chez Michel, located near the Gare du Nord and pretty much a Paris institution now, but I have never been a fan of the gloomy atmosphere and indifferent servers, who always seemed depressed. When Richard Hesse reviewed the restaurant for Paris Update several years ago, he reported an unpleasant experience, which prompted several readers to write in about their own disagreeable meals there. My theory was that unhappy workers are only reflecting the way they are treated by the boss, which made me wonder about owner/chef Thierry Breton.
All this is a prelude to a visit to his new restaurant, La Pointe du Groin, located on the same street as Chez Michel and Breton’s other restaurant, Chez Casimir.
The name, by the way, has nothing to do with the nether parts of the human body, but refers to La Pointe du Grouin in Brittany, Breton’s birthplace – “groin” means “pig’s snout” in French, and “grouin” is an alternate spelling.
The restaurant itself is almost aggressively Breton. Not only does the menu feature specialties from Brittany, but customers are forced to convert their euros into “groins” (one groin equals one euro), the only currency accepted, by converting them in a special machine. This silly, time-wasting gimmick is inconvenient and may cost you, since you can only buy groins in batches of 10, and your change is given in groins, which, as far as I know, are not accepted as currency anywhere else in the world. Most of the customers at lunchtime the other day, however, seemed to be regulars who were used to the routine.
The counter guy – from Brittany, of course – who was taking customer’s orders was a good-natured charmer. He patiently guided customers through this rigmarole, taking their groins and putting together their orders. Things would have gone a lot faster, however, if he had had a helper.
And now for the food: wonderful! There are plenty of choices, all of them small dishes at low prices (most of them between €2 and €6), so you can try lots of different things, which is what my friend Cathy and I did. We ate the hot mussels first. They were fresh and plump, in a delicious white-wine sauce with just a hint of cream, which we sopped up with the excellent brown bread.
The goat cheese and bell pepper tourte, which we thought would be the most uninteresting of our choices, was light and addictively good. The caviar d’aubergines came with funny little shell-shaped salt-free crackers with an odd melt-in-the mouth texture, like baby crackers. They seemed strange at first but I quickly took a liking to them; they were just right with the garlicky eggplant spread. The small sandwich on a tasty bun, called a bara bihan, contained herring and tapenade, an unusual but surprisingly good combination. The herring was some of the best I’ve tasted, firm, fresh and flavorful.
Desserts: the far Breton, basically flan with prunes, was very tasty, but the divine clafoutis, in theory very similar, was amazingly light and packed with cherries.
The cider (pretty much obligatory in a Breton restaurant) was one of the best of the genre, not too sweet and not too sharp.
So that we wouldn’t have to take home any groins, we used the two left over from the 30 purchased for two cups of coffee. That’s right: all of that cost only €15 per person. A steal for food this good.
In the end, all was forgiven: the annoying groins and the previous bad experiences at Chez Michel, although we did get a glimpse of the possible origins of the gloominess at the latter as we watched a grumpy-looking Thierry Breton ferrying boxes in and out of the restaurant. Judging by comments found on the Web, this new place also inspires love/hate reactions. After my first experience, I’m still on the love side. It was worth every groin.
By the way, the restaurant, which seems more like a lunch place, with counter service only, is open from 8am to midnight. It has no telephone, so you’ll just have to show up and take your chances.Favorite