This article was also published in the Financial Times.
There is a belief among many that French cooking is not as exciting as it once was and that today the restaurants of Paris are not the equivalent of those in London or New York.
But a recent trip to the City of Light left me in in no doubt that these claims are exaggerated, particularly when the most promising practitioner I encountered was an unassuming 26-year-old chef with an exciting future.
What leads me to make this claim is directly related to Paris’s past. Because this is where restaurants first emerged, Paris is home to more long-established kitchens than anywhere else in the world. And every so often these kitchens require a changing of the guard.
It is this phenomenon that links Penati al Baretto, a refined Italian restaurant in the posh 8th arrondissement, the takeover by the next generation of Juveniles, the well-known cave à vins and casual restaurant in the 1st, and the renaissance of a restaurant within the Gare St-Lazare.
The Penati at Baretto is none other than Alberico Penati, long behind the stoves of London’s Harry’s Bar, who a month ago took over the kitchens of what has been an Italian restaurant adjoining the Hôtel de Vigny since the 1980s.
The room here immediately conveys the impression of eating in Italy. The highly polished wooden interior resonates with the calm of a well- established ristorante, a feeling accentuated by the influence of the expansive window at the front and the large skylight at the rear. These combine to ensure that sunshine, the other essential ingredient of life in Italy, can flood the restaurant.
Penati’s menu is quintessentially Italian, too, the particularly well chosen ingredients being notably colourful.
Paccheri, small pasta tubes stuffed with diced scorpion and a spider crab sauce, were deep orange; a Genoese fish stew with olive oil combined pink prawns, green mussels and gleaming white squid; the diced mango, strawberries, melon and raspberries in a fruit salad topped with vanilla ice cream were deliciously refreshing; while a clementine sorbet, enlivened by a small stick of liquorice, combined the brightness and freshness of this fruit.
But what most impressed my guest, a long-serving war correspondent, was Penati’s treatment of the humble lentil, which he described as ‘the best I have ever eaten’ alongside a fillet of cod. Penati, in a purple chef’s jacket, gave away the recipe: take Castelluccio lentils, blanch twice, then cook gently with olive oil, a couple of whole cloves of garlic, bay leaves, rosemary and, his final magic ingredient, juniper berries.
The welcome and wines at Juveniles (pictured above by Emily Labouérie) have been under the care of Scot Tim Johnston for the past 27 years but he has now passed on responsibility for the care of his customers in this narrow dining room to Margaux, his 25-year-old daughter.
I have rarely seen someone so happy in this role. She obviously loves the family business and she is also now in love with 26-year-old chef Romain Roudeau, whom she met while they were part of the team at La Régalade, the renowned bistro in the 14th.
Roudeau has now made the tiny kitchen behind the bar his own and although he has kept certain dishes from the previous menu, notably the MacSween’s haggis and a couple of English cheeses, he has composed an intriguing, great-value menu.
While our first courses, green asparagus soup and a duck consommé with burnt onions (pictured by Emily Labouérie), gave an inclination of the excitement to follow, it was the manner in which our main courses were served that was so impressive. Far too many French chefs consider vegetables to be a second-class ingredient but not Roudeau. Here came, leeks and rocket with the poached chicken breast; peas and broad beans with the duck breast; and carrots and turnips with the tenderly cooked beef cheeks. His desserts are just as good and the 28.50-euro three-course fixed dinner menu is a steal.
So, too, are the prices on offer at Lazare, a bistro on the ground floor at the centre of the Gare St-Lazare, which is now under the aegis of Eric Frechon, the renowned executive chef at the Hôtel Bristol. Chef Thierry Colas has day-to-day control.
By Paris standards, the interior is funky with exposed pipe work on the ceiling; a couple of raised communal tables; blackboards on the walls that show the destination and anticipated departure times of the trains; as well as a recipe for anyone keen to make the cake Paris-Deauville, a rich eggy concoction with a caramel sauce. Pouring the six house wines by the glass from magnum and serving a piece of baguette to each customer in a paper bag branded LAZARE are particularly appealing touches, as is the fact that Lazare is, unusually for this city, open for lunch and dinner every day.
Colas’s food is very good, particularly a whole mackerel en gelée, and Tuesday’s special, a fricassée of chicken with vin jaune. Only frosty receptionists, particularly over the phone, let down another young, enthusiastic and talented team.
Penati Al Baretto 9 rue Balzac, Paris 75008; tel +33 (0)1 42 99 80 00. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.
Juveniles 47 rue de Richelieu, Paris 75001; tel +33 (0)1 42 97 46 49. Closed Sunday and Monday lunch.
Lazare Parvis de la Gare St-Lazare, Rue Intérieure, Paris 75008; tel +33 (0)1 44 90 80 80.