02 March 2011

i feel you: philou, 75010

I'm increasingly convinced that, for Parisian restaurateurs, the greatest challenge is not to find the best location or to source the best ingredients or to stock the best wines, but simply to inspire a cheery staff. Even a reliably polite staff is an achievement in this city. There's a very simple in-built societal reason for this, having to do with the disproportionately enormous costs of hiring and firing people in France. When French service staff, enduring the punishing stress that typifies restaurant work, behave as though they own the place, it's because, in effect, they do. Getting rid of a bad egg involves painful negotiations that can end with the employer paying two years' worth of the ex-employee's salary, a cost few restaurants can afford.

Philou, a winningly sharp, modern bistro tucked just off the Canal Saint Martin in the 10ème, has been garnering beaming reviews from all corners since it opened this past August, and while all the other criteria for success are certainly in place - well-priced natural wines, a solid market menu, the nearby canal - it was the engaged, reactive service that was the runaway highlight of a recent meal there.

To wit: a party of foppy Anglophones strides in, takes an eternity to order, and Linda, the superinformed and apparently telepathic server, intuits correctly that the delay is not that of bumbling tourists, but rather that of someone who worked in restauration who is simply jazzed to be there and geeking about the wine list to his friends.

It's actually a very economical list, both in the sense that it's short, and it is very invitingly priced. Half litre carafes of very adequate Saumur Blanc run 10€ - we sipped on one while nibbling on niçoise olives at the bar as our table was prepared.* Here I will offer the gentle criticism that their list of whites by the bottle, at just four selections long, was a wee bit

But it's not a big restaurant, and anyway I expect the white list will expand as the summer rolls along. For now there are good names, at least: Binner, Domaine Valette, etc. (Linda also tells me there will be expanded outdoor seating when the warmer weather arrives. Sure to be thronged.)

When we did get around to ordering, after much negotiations over who's-getting-what-so-we-all-taste-everything, the plats demanded a versatile red, so I went for a known favorite, Christophe Pacalet's 2009 Fleurie. My friend R, who incomprehensibly is in the habit of declining all reds, expressed genuine delight at how refreshing and drinkable it was. (Pacalet is the nephew of recently deceased legendary Beaujolais vigneron Marcel Lapierre. The wines are inexpensive and reliably excellent, and furthermore this one was served perfectly chilled.)

The menu at Philou, by chef / restaurateur Philippe Damas, formerly of 12ème institution Le Square Trousseau, is market-based and changes nightly. But to our minor chagrin there was evidently not a lot at the market the Friday we went. Having perused, via other blogs, various other iterations of the Philou menu, I can attest that ordinarily there are more interesting appetizer options that those on offer during our visit. We wound up with a conservatively spiced creamed lentil soup, anchovy-sized marinated sardines, and a terrine de campagne.

The jaded critic in me kind of wishes that terrines de campagne, ubiquitous and only rarely rising above the flavor impact of genial pink meatiness, could be removed from every restaurant's menu, diced, and offered instead of olives, costs be damned. (They often do this at Le Dirigeable in the 15ème, among other places.) The sardines, while disappointingly small, were nevertheless inventively dressed in matchsticked Granny Smith, horseradish cream, and a delicately flavored apple gelatin.

Plats were more memorable the night we went - I had a spiffing filet de maigre served above a rich potato cake thing involving pig's feet.

R's dish was unfortunately memorable for being the Joue du Boeuf That Wasn't There. It arrived in broth with carrots, courgette, etc., having apparently been seasoned with nothing more than water and a dash of air. I won't even bother picturing it. I theorize that the dish - which had originally been a joue de porc, until a run on it that evening necessitated a substitution - required more in terms of advance-prep materials than could be compensated for by a quick meat switch-up, in which case it might have been a better idea to just erase it from the ardoise rather than let hasty flavorless desperation-dishes get to tables. In any event it's an understandable error, and one that probably shouldn't reflect on the kitchen as a whole. (People who have spent time working in good restaurants are also identifiable by their saintly unwillingness to send anything back, ever.)

Anyway, T, R, and I were in a celebratory mood, and erased all recollections of the joue de boeuf (what joue de boeuf?) with numerous glasses of Christian Binner's eaux de vie and spot of Armagnac afterwards. Like the wine list, the digestifs at Philou are strictly but intelligently edited - a quality that I think is fairly representative of the restaurant's style as a whole. Nothing is sprawling here, and details all feel perceptibly considered and efficient. This might read as cold, were it not for the aforementioned service warmth.

Linda ended the meal by totally humiliating me on two blind tests, for one of which, a very oxidative Philippe Bornard Côtes de Jura from 2007, I have only the excuse of the eaux de vie for not pegging immediately. (R miraculously got it straightaway, despite having only ever had one other Jura wine in her life, earlier that evening down the road at Le Dauphin in the 11ème. Some people are naturals.) I feel less bad about failing the other wine, because it was a one-in-a-million unguessable changeling wine: Domaine La Paonnerie's 2009 Coteaux d'Ancenis Gamay.

Loire Gamay is usually not such a shapeshifter, but even Linda agreed with me that this humble little unsulfured VDQS (not even AOC!) had one of the fruitiest, Rhone-iest, most concentrated violety noses we'd encountered in recent memory. I should've sipped before guessing.

La Paonnerie farm 23ha of Muscadet, Cabernet Franc (under the Anjou appellation), and Gamay; it's currently run by Agnès and Jacques Carroget, who, prior to taking over the estate, studied winemaking in Hungary, among other places. I'd never heard of them before tasting this wine, but on its crisp, unreasonably luxuriant evidence, these winemakers, like Philou, have an ardent new fan.

* I don't like niçoise olives, or anything in a restaurant that necessitates using toothpicks as silverware, admittedly. Mais bon. I appreciate the gesture from a service perspective: they are something to present to guests that have just been directed to wait at the bar for their table. The gesture says very simply and gracefully: we know you're here. Which is a zillion times nicer than the usual blustery 'go fend for yourselves' vibes you receive when arriving early to most Paris reservations. 

12, rue Richerand
75010 PARIS
Metro: Goncourt or Jacques Bonsargeant
Tel: 01 42 38 00 13

Related Links:

Nighthawks at the Diner: Le Verre Volé, 75010

A positive review of Philou @ HungryForParis
A positive review of Philou @ BarbraAustin
A positive review of Philou @ JohnTalbott

These and many more positive reviews of Philou can be found nicely aggregated @ ParisByMouth
(I try only to link reviews that strike me as particularly noteworthy, whether because they are helpful, or because I disagree with the author, or have some disparaging bon mot to hurl at the author. But reviews of Philou - my own included - are remarkable for all being evenly charmed.)

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