From the outside the steel framed door and windows of Le Chateaubriand on Avenue De Parmentier in the 11th arondissement looks just like any other bistro. Even after you enter and pull back the curtain encircling the door it still exudes the air of an average French bistro. A smattering of tables and bistro chairs on a wooden floor, an open kitchen at the rear and a bar running from the door halfway down one side of the restaurant.
The fripperies of an expensive fitout and the attendant staff pretentiousness are nowhere to be found. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy in which the room is designed for you to worship the high cuisine and its creator – it revels in its simplicity and chef Inaki Aizpitarte might just be the saviour of French cuisine.
Aizpitarte’s neo-bistro brings boldness and vitality back to French cuisine at a time when it seems to be going through an existential crisis. It’s a crisis that is probably the continuation of a deeper malaise affecting the whole country. Unemployment is high, the manufacturing sector stagnant, property prices are down and the Gallic shrug has become an involuntary spasm. There are solutions but for the moment the nation is content to blame two old favourites – the banks and the rich.
Reason being is the French don’t really trust wealth nor do they care much for extreme displays of it either. Sure they’re home to some of the world’s premier luxury brands but those brands exist for the tacky nouveau-riche consumers of China and Russia or the extended families of Gulf-state royals. They’ve even managed to turn on one of their favourite sons, Gerard Depardieu, who says money means nothing to an artist and at the same time flees as a tax exile.
So unlike Americans, the French don’t blame the poor for not dragging themselves up, they blame the rich for pushing everyone down. Unfortunately this funk has made its way into French cuisine. It’s weighed down by its own history and a lost desire to continue to innovate. Where once you could drive around regional France and easily find a half decent bistro or restaurant now you’ll often find over-prepared food made without passion. And unfortunately, it’s the same in Paris.
Dare I say it, but much of the cuisine of France has lost its joie de vivre. Where once the delectable joys of French cuisine burst into life on the palate they now seem tired. Food has become a chore and even the Michelin-starred chefs are hiding their lack of innovation, artistry and panache behind ever-richer yet duller creations. It would seem they’ve become fearful of produce and its ability to inspire through natural flavour combinations.
Aizpitarte embraces produce and his creations are genuinely exciting. He makes it interesting by reinventing the simple in a stylish manner. There’s also a certain anger in his culinary invention – it’s not quite polished and it’s stylishly raw.
On the night I visit nearly every course melds normally discordant flavours into seamless creations. A scallop, treviso and butternut squash dish fills the mouth with herbaceous fresh ocean flavours while Iberian Pork belly with roman broccoli and grapefruit provides a new twist on comfort food – the fatty crunch of the pork layers the tongue but it’s peeled back by the citrus tang of the grapefruit and freshness of the broccoli.
A dessert of quince and Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream doesn’t sound right but it cleanses the whole mouth beautifully. The subtle natural sugars of the quince work beautifully with the earthiness of the Jerusalem artichoke.
All of this is matched with some quirky but inspired wine choices, including an Assyrtiko from Santorini – an unusually delicate white wine paired with monkfish. An altogether fascinating Sicilian Pantelleria Gabrio Bini is a rose-style, aged in clay amphora. It’s an extraordinary wine but works wonderfully with the pork.
Aizpitarte conjures up food to make you think but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Wonderful natural flavours meld together in innovative, unusual combinations. He embraces a whole of European cuisine and, in a way, his edgy, raw creations provide uneasy comfort to a city and a nation that’s suddenly uneasy and unsure of whom to blame for its travails.
129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris
01 43 57 45 95