La Vitrine & Garnier

Startling Surprises for Visiting Restaurant Critic

July 26, 2011By Richard HesseArchive

After a few months of life in a lively university town on the south coast of England, I was distracted by the siren call of Paris and decided, not entirely unwillingly, to heed it (and the request of my editor to document the food experience). My first stop was to be one of my old-time favorites, Les Côtelettes, so I called ahead to make a booking for the day after Bastille Day. That was the first of my disappointments: they were closed for the long weekend.

Worse was to come: the delightful Laurence, one of the owners, went on to inform me that they were shutting down on July 23. They had sold the restaurant, which would be opening under new management at the end of August. Two of the crew would be removing to the country, and one striking out in a new direction. I felt as if a vital organ had been ripped out. All I can do is wish them well, thank them heartily for some great food and fine wines, and hope that they have a riveting time in their new lives.

But where would we be if nothing ever changed? People have to move on, out of their comfort zone, even if it distresses others.

And then came Spring – well, not quite, but a meal at the tiny venue originally occupied by Spring owner Daniel Rose. After he opened his new place in the first arrondissement last year, the original Spring morphed into La Vitrine, run by Israeli-born, Cordon Bleu-trained Kobi Villot-Malka, who did a couple of years with Ducasse at Benoît.

Villot-Malka told us that it was quite a change shifting to full-on visibility in the open kitchen of his own restaurant after the cloak of invisibility that surrounded him in Benoît’s large brasserie kitchen. On that Saturday at lunchtime, he was more exposed than ever, since my food-writer friend and I were the only customers.

One of the starters was langoustine ravioli with a foamy bisque of tea and tarragon, playing as a good team should, with each ingredient pulling its weight without upstaging the others. We also had a classic and beautifully executed vitello tonnato with an arugula salad on the side, interspersed – a touch of genius, which I will replicate at home – with bitelets of orange and parmesan.

My main course of marinated roast leg of lamb – dark, meaty and good to look at – was flavored with cumin, lemongrass and ginger, not a bad way to, er, beef up the flavor of new season’s lamb.

We drank a Bandol rosé, which I only agreed to drink (but then very willingly) after tasting my friend’s starter glass. I’m not a great fan of rosé, often feeling cheated by its lack of discernible character, but this one somehow captured the Mediterranean zing of the food and felt decidedly grown up. The chef seems to have a nose for a good tipple. The complimentary glass of organic Montbazillac he slipped us with the dessert had an uncharacteristic orange-brown color and a personality all its own. It satisfied my desire for what my girlfriend calls “sticky whites.”

My dessert was a surprise, inducing a condition that was quite scary until I was reliably informed that my brain wasn’t exploding after all. Made from every French child’s favorite toffee, the Carambar, it was topped with trick sugar candy that popped in the mouth, creating the impression that your cranium was being peppered with shot from a scattergun. Apparently, this stuff was a great hit in Israeli school playgrounds a generation ago.

The rest of the three pounds I put on over the weekend came from an outdoor meal at Le Square Trousseau to make up for the Côtelettes debacle, where my companion was very taken with the waitress’s winning ways and the food was most creditable; and a Sunday lunch at Garnier, facing Gare Saint Lazare, a long-established seafood restaurant chosen for the sake of convenience, but which turned out to be very good, if a bit overpriced in my humble opinion (you’re looking at €60 minimum for a three-course meal). Its servers are excellent examples of what all staff should be: professional, discreet and prescient: I was as pleased with them as I was with the food, and it rounded off a very pleasant trip devoted to good food and firm friendships.

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