Paris – Each season a new restaurant sneaks up on us and seemingly overnight becomes the latest rage. The restaurant of the moment is Hiramatsu, a miniscule 18-seat restaurant set along the banks of the Seine on the Ile Saint Louis.
Since its opening last October, the restaurant has had its share of fans and foes. The achievement of a Michelin star on March 1st only helped fuel the flames of controversy. There are critics who wonder how chef-owner Hiroyuki Hiramatsu – who seems to have come out of nowhere – managed to land such a beautiful site, managed to become the rage, managed to garner a coveted Michelin star in such a brief time.
And then there are those (like me) who say, who cares where he came from, it’s what’s on the plate that matters. And in my estimation, this Japanese businessman/chef has brought an always welcome breath of fresh air to the Paris dining scene.
The crisply elegant restaurant is a tiny jewel box. With black and white tile floors, comfortable beige leather arm chairs, crisp white linens, and lots of ultra-modern Bernardaud china, Hiramatsu is ultimately pleasing.
The menu is as diminutive as the site, with five selections of starters, fish, meat, and dessert. And Hiramatsu’s food has a surprising, dramatic, gee-whiz quality about it, the kind of fare that can get even the most jaded palates excited about the freshness of ingredients and their juxtaposition on the plate.
Like most good modern chefs today, Hiramatsu is obsessed with the quality of ingredients and several meals here attest to his attention to those details. Currently, diners begin the meal with a small plate of paper-thin slices of Spanish ham drizzled with great olive oil and sprinkled with pepper. Utterly simple and utterly divine. The palate teaser is an equally excellent royale, an alabaster-white pudding topped with a fragrant, intense, truffle bouillon laced with matchstick slices of black truffles.
Perhaps the prettiest dish on the menu is the first course serving of duck breast, cabbage, and foie gras. Strips of raw duck breast are mounded teepee- style atop the cabbage and foie gras. At table, the waiter pours boiling vegetable consommé over the duck, allowing it to cook every so slightly.
On the soothing side, Hiramatsu offers a marvelous modern ravioli --- a giant sheet of pasta enveloping huge chunks of firm, white Saint Pierre (or John Dory), teamed up with miniscule cubes of eggplant and zucchini. An almost lactic, acidic sauce served to bind them all together.
But I guess my favorite dish here is the turbot, pan-fried on the bone, and presented at table before whisking it back to the kitchen for the final touches. The turbot is seared with a mixture of very finely chopped dried orange rind and juniper berries, making for a fragrant, pungent coating, and is served with an elegant, equally pungent green mustard sauce.
A close second favorite would be his first course salade de fruits de mer, a mixture of lobster, scallops, bar, salmon, turbot, sliced mushrooms and strips of celery root all set atop a porcelain grill. Beneath the grill lie some 13 spices, all smoking away, giving the dish a mysterious, delicately smoky quality.
Desserts include the obligatory molten chocolate cake, which here runs like a veritable live volcano: I loved the warm, oozing, river of bitter chocolate. Equally pleasing is the millefeuille of orange confits, served with a superb bitter chocolate sorbet.
Service is fine, often chatty. The wine list – created by wine steward Hideya Ishizuka, formerly at the Michelin two-star restaurant Chateau Cordeillan-Bages in Bordeaux -- is excellent, with great variety and a wide choice of half bottles, rarely seen and much in demand.
So who is this mystery man? Hiramatsu has an empire of elegant French and Italian restaurants in Japan, and as he tells the story, he has had a long time dream of having a tiny restaurant in Paris to use as a sort of laboratory for testing and selecting ingredients to export to Japan, as well as training kitchen and dining room staff. He was walking along the Ile Saint Louis one day, found that his current space was available, and grabbed it. The chef spends half his time in Paris and half in Japan, and plans to change the entire menu and all the china four times each year. As he says “Food does not change. Seasons do.”
Restaurant Hiramatsu Saint-Louis en l’Ile
7 Quai de Bourbon
Telephone 01 56 81 08 80.
Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. 45 Euro lunch menu, 92 euro tasting menu. A la carte, 90 to 140 euros per person, including service but not wine.