The stark interior of Septime, in Paris’s 11th arrondissement.
Pros: Original ideas; delightful flavor pairings; fresh, high-quality ingredients
Cons: Can be noisy
I went to Septime knowing nothing at all about it, taken there by a friend whose friend’s daughter is the girlfriend of the owner, or some such complicated story. Having no idea what to expect – a hole-in-the-wall bistro or a three-star palace – I was reassured and pleasantly surprised by the look of the place as soon as I walked in. The minimalist, pseudo-industrial decor – with handsome rough-wood tables and bar, metal fittings and a row of oversized green-glass bottles in the window serving as the only decorative elements – somehow convinced me that we were in for a good meal. The impression was reinforced when I saw the business card of Saturne, an excellent restaurant with a similar decor, next to Septime’s on the counter; I was told that there was no connection between the two restaurants except that the owners were friends. Friendship evidently counts at Septime.
In keeping with the trends of the day, the chef – Bertrand Grébaut, who has worked for Joël Robuchon and Alain Passard and was the chef at Agapé – and his four assistants toiled away quietly in an open kitchen in full view of diners. I sat facing them and was surprised by their calm seriousness – no hysterical, screaming chef here – a result of good preparation, I suppose.
The charming waiter explained that the lunch menu included two courses for €22 or three for €26, including a glass of wine or a bottle of mineral water. Since there were three choices for starters and two for mains and desserts, we managed to order everything on the menu between the four of us – all foodies who wanted to taste everything.
The Banka trout starter was a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds, with the bright-
orange raw trout and fish roe, deep-red cabbage, fresh herbs and dots of cucumber sauce. The red cabbage came in the surprising form of a flavorful granita. Together, they created a concerto of complementary flavors.
I had a deeply satisfying dish: a poached egg in a bouillon de foin (hay-infused broth) with
leeks, spelt and pourpier (purslane, a newly popular salad leaf). In an example of the attention paid to detail here, some grains of spelt had been toasted and sprinkled on top of the perfectly formed oval of the egg, adding crunch and flavor. The overall effect was lyrical.
One of my friends had the raw beef, which came not as a traditional tartare or carpaccio but as a sort of patty of richly flavored, slightly smoky, roughly chopped meat topped by what
looked like a Chinese steamed bun but turned out to be an espuma of mashed potatoes, served in a presentation as minimalist as the restaurant’s decor, with a only a few leaves of fresh tarragon for color. Stunningly good, we all agreed, even those at the table who usually wouldn’t order raw meat.
Those were just the first courses. The main dishes, which in many restaurants are less interesting, were almost as satisfying and creative. The meaty line-caught merlu (hake) came in a sauce of excellent olive oil and basil,
with redcurrants and blackcurrants adding just the right touch of acidity. The zucchini purée on the side was the perfect complement.
I had the tendron de veau (veal brisket), served with rounds of perfectly cooked fried eggplant, neither of which exhibited the slightest touch of the greasiness that might be expected in
either of these dishes. The gristle-free veal had a slightly acidic zing to it (deglazed in vinegar, perhaps?) that countered the fattiness of the cut. It was topped with raw mushrooms that had been grated (something anyone could do at home), bringing out their flavor and making an unusual garnish.
Onward to dessert: I opted for the cheese as an excuse to order another glass of the lovely mountain Malbec from Argentina and was rewarded with two different Tommes of different ages and a Reblochon, all delicious and served at room temperature, as they should be. My friends ordered the an excellent acidic peach and raspberry dessert, lightly sprinkled with a sweet, buttery, crunchy crumble topping (no reheated sogginess here) and served with a “P’tit Suisse” (really fromage blanc with vanilla). Sheer perfection.
Chef Grébaut knows how to balance flavors and takes the time to ensure that each dish is perfectly prepared. The menu changes every day. All four of us are dying to go back to Septime (named after a restaurant owner played by Louis de Funès in the 1966 film Le Grand Restaurant) for dinner, but you can rest assured that if you go for lunch – and you should, as soon as possible – you will not be settling for second best.
By the way, the restaurant can apparently be noisy in the evening, but at lunchtime we found the noise levels, though high, to be tolerable. Take a peek through the back windows at the lovely courtyard garden, which is unfortunately not part of the restaurant but at least adds a glimpse of greenery to the stark interior.
Septime: 80, rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris. Métro: Charonne. Tel.: 01 43 67 38 29. Fixed-price lunch menu, including a glass of wine: €22 (two courses), €26 (three courses). Fixed-price dinner menu: €55. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Reader Harriet Welty Rochefort writes: “Your review on Septime was spot on. I was invited there for dinner only a week ago and told our hosts afterwards that it was one of the very few bistro outings I’ve had in a long time that got a grade of ‘A.” = I was there at night, and it’s true that the noise level can mount. But all the rest, the food, the wine, the friendly but not obsequious service, the green of the courtyard garden (we got the table next to it, which was nice — unless you mind being right next to the toilets, which is less so). And thank you for telling us the origin of the curious name, Septime!”
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