PARIS -- It’s the modern Parisian restaurant : a clean, contemporary look, cozy chairs, and a menu that might be called many things: fusion, unstructured, Franco/Japanese/Italian. Gone is the French insistence on a traditional first course, main course, cheese and/or dessert. What freedom! Go ahead, break the rules, order two first course, and nothing else! Or just go for two pastas, or, gosh why not just cheese and dessert?
Anything can happen at these places. And while Americans have pretty much been ordering this way for a very long time, this is true innovation for the French. And after a few visits to some of these modern eateries, it is clear that while the French are ready for it, they do sit at the table, often totally bewildered.
Fortunately, at two of the best of the lot --- both Left Bank newly solid spots, Ze Kitchen Gallerie and Caffé – the waiters are patient and informed, and ready to help out any baffled diners.
At one of my favorite new spots, Ze Kitchen Gallerie, chef William Ledeuil has done it again. He has his finger (and palate) on the pulse of the modern diner. Despite the kitschy name, Ze Kitchen Galerie is a delight. The menu is divided between soups, pastas, raw and marinated fish, and main courses, all cooked à la plancha, or directly over a very hot, flat griddle. I have loved just about everything I have tasted over a series of visits. Ledeuil (also chef at Les Bookinistes right next door) wisely hires young chefs from various nationalites so the food has an authentic flavor.
His combinations and creations are always inventive, never wacky. Mussels are teamed up with coconut milk and mushrooms in a creamy, warming soup. Lentils and mushrooms are turned into a wintry soup enlivened with gingerbread, or pain d’epices. I love most, though, the pastas, such as the roborative macaroni with pesto, pine nuts and grilled chorizo. Best of the selection of raw fish and shellfish is his yummy preparation of oysters and scallops in a spicy horseradish cream.
Desserts are simply fun. Try the roasted pineapple served with a tiny vanilla milk shake and a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream; or the cinnamon caramel ice cream with a chestnut milk milkshake.
There is a small but always inviting wine list: Try the always dependable Faugères from the Languedoc, here the intense, well-structured red Château Anglade from Marie Rigaud-Anglade, a fine blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre grapes. The décor here is modern and a touch cold, but that’s the style today.
Caffé, open since the first week of January, is a delight. I adore the décor: Solid brick walls and arches make for a warming setting, and bare wooden tables make for a nice, open room. The menu offers simple, solid, contemporary fare. And rather than the traditional menu separated into first course, main course, cheese and dessert the selections include à la vapeur (steamed); marinés et cru (marinated and raw); plancha (grilled on a flat hotplate); pates et riz (pastas and rice); les canailles (and those favorites of childhood).
Do try the unusual steamed oysters – the tiny boudeuses from the Brittany village of Prat ar Coum -- served in elegant white bowls with a series of sauces. The oysters are also available oh so simply, on the half shell, served with the traditional bread and salted butter.
On one visit, I feasted on a daily special --- the freshest of rouget, or red mullet fillets, delicately wrapped in feuilles de brick, the light Moroccan pastry, and deep fried. Palates in search of heartier fare will adore the steaming, homey casserole filled with joue de cochon, or pig’s cheeks, served with a bounty of winter carrots.
Other specialties include a simple carpaccio of beef; steamed cod with cabbage and smoked milk; orrechiette pasta with broccoli; and traditional risotto Milanese, laced with bone marrow and saffron.
The wine list is brief: Do try the dense and tannic red Corbières, Castel Maure, well- priced at 28.50 euros.
Ze Kitchen Galerie
4, rue des Grands Augustins
Telephone :01 44 32 00 32.
Fax: 01 44 32 00 33.
Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Credit card: Visa. 30 to 40 euros, including service but not wine.
74, boulevard de Latour Maubourg
Telephone : 01 47 53 80 86.
Closed Sunday and Monday. Credit card: Visa. 30 to 50 euros, including service but not wine.