L’Agrume, in Paris’s fifth arrondissement, lives up to the highest culinary standards.
Pros: fresh, quality food; an elegant, price-delivering menu
Cons: expensive à la carte, slightly off-the-beaten track
Paris’s fifth arrondissement doesn’t offer many thrilling eateries unless one ventures slightly off the beaten track. Case in point: L’Agrume, a neo-bistro that caters to foodie locals and opened a year-and-a-half ago on a narrow street deep in the Gobelins neighborhood. The young chef, Franck Marchesi-Grandi, has an excellent track record, having previously worked with the likes of Eric Briffard, Jacques Cagna, Eric Ripert (at Les Bernadins in New York) and Michel Rostang.
We were fearing a fussy meal and, after booking by phone, a fussy staff – we were told that we could only have a table from 7:30pm to 9:30pm. Instead, the lovely blond hostess – the chef’s wife, Karine Perrin —greeted us warmly, was enthusiastic about speaking to us in English and served us in a relaxed, accommodating style, starting with an aperitif and a bowl of marinated, pitted black olives.
The decor was, at first blush, nothing fancy – a tiny, minimalist, marbleized grid of black and gray Mondrian lines – but it grew more appealing at second glance. The restaurant offered two approaches to dining: “Cuisine Comptoir” for solo eaters at the bar, and a sophisticated, sociable atmosphere in the main dining room, both with a clear view of the artisan at work in the open kitchen “like a potter giving form to clay,” my companion remarked. Waiting for our mutual friend, we opted for a bottle of Les Chiens-Chiens Chinon, Domaine de la Noblaie 2008, at low-to-mid-range €35.
As the wine lingered on the palate – dense, mature, acidic, with cherry and tobacco notes – the set menu cast its imaginative spell. Five courses for €37 – can’t beat that, right? – and it even included an English translation. The food, the food! is what this place seemed all about, even before it arrived.
First came simply delectable sea bass tartare with spider crab in preserved-lemon vinaigrette, which demonstrated the wonders that can be achieved by using fresh ingredients and handling them correctly. Next came razor clams, green asparagus and red pepper spritzed with blood-orange vinaigrette (hmm, hints of garlic, ginger and chives?) – a subtle balance of sweet and bitter and the only dish with “agrume.” (“My God,” our friend said, seeing the name, “I thought they were going to give us grapefruit with everything!”) The next course, poached fillet of John Dory, came astride creamy, melt-in-the-mouth green onions. On the count of three, all three of us were convinced of the chef’s expertise.
What might have been considered the second main course, a succulent rare bavette of beef, was accompanied by sharp, pickled but not overly bitter cabbage. For fish lovers like myself, the chef substituted a surprise without demur: grilled sea bass, alongside that delectable cabbage. Here, as his wife told us, “the chef decides.” Dessert – seasonal but refreshing for an unseasonably warm spring evening – was a compote of rhubarb and the first crop of gariguette strawberries, topped with vanilla whipped cream and an airy round cloud of puff pastry.
When our second choice of wine arrived – a Visan Nature Côtes de Rhône – the waitress failed to refresh our glasses, though it is churlish to linger on such a slight oversight. More of a quibble: while the set menu was a great value and well worth returning for, eating à la carte could quickly bump up la– the “painful one,” as the French jokingly dub the bill. These points aside, L’Agrume is as zesty as its name, while living up to the best culinary benchmarks.
L’Agrume: 15, rue des Fossés St-Marcel, 75005. Métro: Censier Daubenton or Saint Marcel. Tel: 01 43 41 86 48. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Fixed-price menus: €16 (lunch) and €37 (five courses, dinner).
Reader Susan Gish writes: We dined there last week (May 12, 2011) and had a great time. There were three of us, we had the degustation. Sat by the kitchen door and watched a very intense, très serious chef work hard. The prices are indeed steep if you don’t order the prix fixe. Chef is very talented and creative – the best meal we’ve had in a long time!
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