For many years, the Place Sainte Marthe, one of Paris’s little treasures, has been frequented by an uneasy mix of bohemians (not quite bobos, or bourgeois bohemians) and drug dealers. There have always been a few trendy, inexpensive cafés and restaurants on the charming square with its four trees and village-like atmosphere and on the street of the same name that runs through it, but today all the once-crumbling buildings have been renovated with help from the city of Paris and, although a few dealers still seem to be hanging about, the area is quickly losing its funky feel. Bring on the bobos!
And here they are, frequenting the excellent wine shop La Contre-étiquette and the pricey olive-oil vendor La Tête dans les Olives on the Rue Sainte Marthe and now at Le Galopin, where customers used to sing along with the booming voice of former owner Gilles as they followed the words of chansons françaises on printed sheets while eating traditional bistro food. Gilles left some time ago, and the little restaurant has changed hands a few times but always kept the same name. Now it belongs to youthful chef Romain Tischenko (2010 winner of the televised cooking competition Top Chef) and his brother, the former to be seen slaving over a hot stove through the big window onto the kitchen while the latter serves customers and explains his brother’s concoctions. There is an almost total lack of decor, the only exception being a collage on the front of the bar.
I was a bit dubious when I saw the handwritten, photocopied one-page menu, not because there are no choices – you take what the chef wants to give you that evening, a formula that I appreciate and which is very popular in small gourmet restaurants these days, the legacy, I think of Christian Constant’s now-long-defunct Camelot – but because of the fixed prices for the seven dishes: €44. On the Place Sainte Marthe! I wasn’t surprised that the restaurant was empty for the first sitting, for which we had been requested to arrive at 8pm.
The two appetizers came in minuscule dishes: eel with thin slices of raw beets and Jerusalem artichoke foam followed by a rather bland creamy carrot soup with bits of dashi (kelp) and raw cauliflower. While they showcased the chef’s ambitions and penchant for pairing exotic and commonplace ingredients, they were less than exciting on the palate.
Next up was the far more successful rouget (red mullet) with daikon (a type of radish), bits of crab, capers, breadcrumbs and calamansi (an Asian citrus fruit), a combination that now and then created those little fireworks in the mouth when two contrasting flavors meet. It was followed by another fish course, scallops with a purée of yet another exotic ingredient, héliantis and arugula, another combination that worked, with the bitterness of the wilted arugula contrasting beautifully with the sweetness of the perfectly cooked scallops. I was warming up to the chef’s skills.
Then came the high point of the meal: Challons duck with crosnes (another trendy Asian root vegetable), too-vinegary Brussels sprouts and thin slices of raw turnip. This was certainly the best duck I have ever tasted. One piece was pink and succulent, the other dark and tender. The contrast with the crunchy little crosnes, the two wedded by a brilliant jus, was divine. I ate very slowly because I didn’t want this dish to go away.
When it was finally gone, we opted for a cheese course in the interests of trying everything and were not disappointed: aged mimolette, super-creamy Brillat Savarin and Fourme d’Ambert with that nice little crunch of a well-aged blue cheese, all served at room temperature and all blissfully good.
The two desserts (needless to say, all servings were small) were no letdown: verbena ice cream with a small baked apple and crunchy licorice-flavored bits, followed by a tiny, incredibly light brownie with dark chocolate ice cream and a touch of piquillo pepper powder.
As the pleasures of the meal crescendoed, we forgot about its price and gave ourselves over to its joys. We only wondered how the chef had stayed so skinny while cooking such tempting dishes, full of contrasting flavors and textures.
The only off-note came at the end of the meal when the restaurant filled with the odor of fish cooking, the last thing one wants to smell after such a pleasing meal (the same thing happened recently at the otherwise-wonderful Au Passage; these young chefs really have to invest in improved ventilation systems).
Again, we forgive all and congratulate the siblings on their efforts. Welcome to the Rue Sainte Marthe, bobos and all.Favorite