The restaurant Substance, in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, is well-named: the food is substantial in both quality and quantity.
It is also highly popular in the business world, judging by the number of suits lunching there on a recent Friday, maybe to impress their clients and colleagues, or maybe just to treat themselves to a great lunch.
A designer’s hand is evident in the decoration of Substance, with its textured or mottled walls and panels covered with artfully arranged glass objects that look like medicine capsules cut in half. The blue seating is comfortable and the kitchen is open to view, as most are these days.
The first amuse-bouche we were offered came in a flower pot (shades of Ferran Adrià), with three thin thyme-and- Comté crackers stuck amid the greenery. We promptly pronounced them bland.
That was not at all the case for the next amuse-bouche, however: a bowl of smoked mashed potatoes flavored with Cancoillotte cheese and topped with trout eggs. Smashing! A little flavor bonus was hidden at the bottom: some finely chopped pickled onions.
Moving on to the starters, I had the œuf parfait (perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg, a hot ticket in Paris restaurants these days). This is when we realized that Substance’s chef, Matthias Marc, is a cracker (homemade, of course) freak. They added crunch to almost every dish we had. My egg was laid in a nest made of cracker strips and was accompanied by pickled mushrooms and salsify cooked in Savignan (a white wine grape) juice. Underneath was a purée of salsify. Lovely. One doesn’t expect such attention to detail on a set lunch menu (although this one wasn’t cheap at €39).
We tasted two other starters. One was a beautiful beef tartare, hand cut, comme il faut, and adorned with an egg yolk, topped with little crackers and sitting in a pool of intensely flavored gelée.
One of my friends had another starter as a main course (absolutely no attitude from the waiter about this): encornets (squid) with white asparagus cooked in poultry juice and some early strawberries. The dish was topped with – naturally – crackers, black this time, presumably with squid ink.
My main course was a flavorful flank steak with an amazing potato concoction. I have no idea how it was made but it seems to have consisted of paper-thin slices of potato with green herbs wrapped around in a pinwheel shape so that they were tender in the middle and crispy on the outside. Fantastic!
My other friend had the pork tenderloin with roasted artichoke hearts and gravy loaded with cockles and razor clams, for an unusual surf-and-turf dish. It also featured, of course, some crispy crackers.
We only had one dessert, which came with my set menu, tapioca with coconut, flambéed banana and sorrel ice cream, a sublime creation that was quickly devoured.
Substance and style go hand-in-hand at Substance – nothing lightweight about it.