THE EUROPE ISSUE
Where Paris Chefs, Not Prices, Rise
By CHRISTINE MUHLKE
Published: April 18, 2010
THIS is not how I envisioned my first meal in Paris, I thought as I stood in front of L’Agrume. I did not take a three-chapter-long Métro ride to a boring part of the Fifth Arrondissement to eat at a place with a banner in the window advertising a 14-euro lunch menu.
Inside, the chalky lavender walls were the same color as the hostess’s angora dress, summoning my inner design snob. But the welcome was so genuinely warm, I immediately got over myself and remembered why I had come all this way: since he opened L’Agrume in December, the 37-year-old chef Franck Marchesi-Grandi had been getting raves for his five-course 35-euro dinner, making him a prime candidate for my Parisian quest to find bargain menus from rising French chefs.
The first course — halved fingerling potatoes tossed in a foamy vinaigrette cushioned with cubes of foie gras — embodied the new style of cooking that I would experience throughout the week: good ingredients, nonchalantly presented and paired with sauces rooted in classic French technique. With that first bite at L’Agrume, the deft play on texture and temperature — not to mention the cheeky twist on meat and potatoes — made the trip worthwhile.
It might take a good street map and sufficient reading material for some long Métro rides, but the journeys will be worth it. With the opening of fantastic low-key spots in off-piste neighborhoods, Paris has entered a new generation of casual fine dining.
The bistronomy movement of the last decade was about reanimating bistro classics with a well-trained and respectful young hand; the new clutch of chefs under 40 are more interested in defining their own cuisine. Straying from Paris’s chic neighborhoods in search of affordable spaces, they’re often willing to forgo atmosphere, on the plate and in the room, for the sake of creative cooking at a price most can afford.
My search for under-40 chefs with under-45-euro menus began at L’Agrume, which popped up on my radar via an update from Le Fooding, the cheeky anti-Michelin group, boasting of a chef who had worked at Plaza Athénée, a Parisian grande dame hotel.
Because he cooks alone in the open kitchen, Mr. Marchesi-Grandi can’t be bothered with elaborate plating or public meltdowns. And so the food he sends out looks like what he’d make at home for friends. A fat langoustine raviolo was presented as is, zipped along by a bright, comme il faut lemon butter that prompted much bread-mopping once the satisfyingly rich pasta and its garnish of julienned spinach and spinach shoots had disappeared.
After 9 p.m., the snug room fills with a pleasant mix of food followers and locals, which means that by 9:30, Mr. Marchesi-Grandi’s one-man band is in thrash mode. I was glad that I arrived at the uncouth hour of 8:30, allowing me his undivided attention for at least three courses.
The dessert duo was a strong and simple combo of premade components jazzed up à la minute. A ball of classic milk chocolate ganache was rolled in bitter cocoa powder and floated in mint broth, while a basic vanilla panna cotta got a why-haven’t-I-thought-of-this transformation with a squeeze of lime juice and a hit of zest on top, making for an unexpected sweet-tart experience — the culinary equivalent of adding a brilliant brooch to the black dress you wore to the office.
Like the rest of the dishes, the presentation only goes halfway. But given the quality and bang for the buck, the diner is pleased to meet Mr. Marchesi-Grandi there. You can have many fancier meals in Paris, but perhaps none with as much gracious humility.
L’Agrume, 15, rue des Fossés St.-Marcel; (33-1) 43-31-86-48. Lunch, 14 to 16 euros, $18.50 to $21 at $1.32 to the euro; dinner, 35 euros. (All prices are for prix-fixe menus, without beverages or tip.)
When it opened among the wholesale clothiers of the Sentier district in the Second Arrondissement last April, Frenchie was welcomed for its affordable menu and casually correct food. The young chef Grégory Marchand has spent most of his career abroad, working at Jamie Oliver’s 15 in London (where his kitchen nickname was, yes, Frenchie) for three of his eight years there, and at Gramercy Tavern in New York for a year and a half before returning to Paris. As a result, his food speaks several languages fluently — slang included.
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CHRISTINE MUHLKE is the food editor of The New York Times Magazine.