07 April 2011
My colleague / good buddy R and I recently found ourselves in the stiff 6ème arrondissement doing some research on retail in that area. And since with the exception of research-related sojourns, or similar morbid sociological forays, we never seem to get to that part of town, we profited from the occasion by stopping by chef Yves Camdeborde's luxe-informal "hors d'oeuvre bar" l'Avant Comptoir for a brisk lunch of small plates and Mauzac.
I profited, I should say. R hated the place with serious vitriol, causing us to spend much of the rest of the afternoon discussing not Hermès, Ralph Lauren, and Dries Van Noten, but rather whether l'Avant Comptoir - which, judging by the press and by general industry admiration, has been successful - is a complete hoax, or not.*
I should say that I actually liked the place well enough.** The deal is it's a quality-conscious, natural-wine, Bordier-butter establishment that nevertheless is standing-room only, with self-service bread and condiments, and no plates. On the whole it reminded me of a slack French attempt at the charm of Bar Jamon, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's dime-sized ham bar near Union Square, where it's possible to drop serious cash on an immense list of fine sherries, cavas, and tapas, all while perching on tiny stools amongst a nest of fellow diners' elbows.
It's not an entirely fair comparison. L'Avant Comptoir, situated beside Camdeborde's more famous and more conventional restaurant Comptoir du Relais, also serves as a killer refreshment stand for the nearby Odéon theatre. The place makes a great waiting room, and it's possible to get crêpes and sandwiches to go. Nevertheless, R's arguments against l'Avant Comptoir constitute, not coincidentally, many of the differences between it and Bar Jamon.
Crucially, the food just wasn't that whizz-bang at l'Avant Comptoir that day. We may have ordered poorly - I particuarly regret not getting any cured meats, of which the place has plenty of fine heritage. Instead we had a plate of excellent anchovies, some deep-fried ham croquettes, and a deep-fried croquette of pig's foot that, surprisingly, tasted as dainty and polite as its plating.
Neither it nor the ham croquettes lived up to their reputation. They tasted like deep fry, and little else.
Much more successful was a tinned gélée de chair de torteau with celery and avocado. Chilled, pure, and harmonious, it was among the fanciest and most delicious chip dips I have ever had, although I regretted having no actual chips to go with it.
We both had glasses of Domaine Plageoles' ebullient sparkling Mauzac, a spritzy, honey-kissed wine I've posted about before. (It was served at our office's Christmas party at Le Bal Café.)
Here I will add only that it makes a fine daytime wine, like just about any dry or slightly off-dry sparkler. They just put a bounce in one's step, unlike a lot of daytime drinking. The rest of the list was solid, well-priced, and exclusively natural - Hervé Villemade, Domaine Arnaud Combier, Catherine et Pierre Breton, and so on.
At 25€ for a lunch for two, I left feeling fine, until R reminded me that one could have a very similar meal - only, a truly informal one, rather than one whose informality is kind of a cheeky put-on - much cheaper at any of a zillion tapas bars in Madrid or Barcelona. Anchovies... Hams.... Deep-fried food.... I had to admit he had a very legitimate point.
But where R felt the informality of l'Avant Comptoir's service had no place in the center of Left Bank Paris, I felt that its situation there was partially what redeemed the concept, which, it's true, would be almost pointless in a city with an established tapas culture.***
This brings us to the conceptual bulwark of l'Avant Comptoir: the stark lack of any kind of service. Bar Jamon is rough, but not this rough. R, who is European but not Parisian, found it vaguely disgusting to have self-service bread and butter this close to the metro. He suspected no one washed their hands, and he is probably right. (I myself didn't really mind. But I didn't wash my hands either.) And he and I agreed that the lack of even basic plateware at l'Avant Comptoir is merely audacious service convenience masking itself as revolutionary dining philosophy. It's just fundamentally unpleasant to eat off of napkins.
It would of course be very feasible to provide service basics at l'Avant Comptoir. The afternoon we ate there, I counted a staff of four, in this bar that stands twelve guests. The staff were doing the standing, while us guests manhandled the bread and shared the mutilated hunk of Bordier butter with the one bent knife available. I guess I share R's objection to the service at l'Avant Comptoir, but with the clarification that I'm not bothered by the concept; rather it's the fact that the spartan, do-nothing service philosophy is itself executed somewhat sloppily. The bent butter knife, the crappy napkins, the filthy sodden cardboard wine case threatening to spill its bottles beneath the lean-to counter. C'mon, les gens.
In comparison, Bar Jamon seats at least twice the standing capacity of l'Avant Comptoir, and with a staff of just a bartender and a busser the former restaurant delivers a wild experience that nevertheless does not devolve into incivility and mess. And for all Camdeborde's bold talk in the press about "ending the tyranny of the table" in Paris, I can't help feeling it would have been even bolder to open l'Avant Comptoir in a place like New York, where, unlike Paris, there is the expectation of service. After all, a place with intentionally bad or non-existent service here is indistinguishable from the majority of restaurants, who provide the same thing without the marketing credo.
(Not all of them have natural wines or responsibly sourced products, however. Certainly not in the 6ème. And that is why I am unable to dislike the place, whether or not I enjoy being there.)
3, Carrefour de l'Odéon
Tel: 01 44 27 07 97
* Actually, we discussed all these things. Then we made solemn promises to henceforth devote more time to discussion of weightier things, like Libya, or nuclear power. Solemnly we stopped for coffee, twice.
** This makes for a change in my usual template of having a sort of Reasonable Straw Man friend who hates an establishment less than I do. (See O Château.) It's not done on purpose: my friends and drinking buddies are indeed a lot more reasonable than I am, on the whole.
*** Admittedly, there are very few tapas bars that present exclusively natural wines in these cities. I really can't overstress the importance of an all natural wine list in making me respect a place. It's almost a critical failure, on my part, since I too often forget that many people just don't like drinking as much as I do. I envy them, because it makes a whole city that much more palatable. Then again, insobriety accomplishes something similar.
Domaine Les Plageoles sparkling Mauzac at Le Bal Café, 75018
An adoring 2009 review of l'Avant Comptoir @ MegZimbeck
Alexander Lobrano's 2009 write-up of l'Avant Comptoir @ NYTimes
A monumentally ditzy 2009 piece on l'Avant Comptoir @ DorieGreenspan
A qualified 2009 rave about l'Avant Comptoir @ JohnTalbott
A profile of Yves Camdeborde by Jane Sigal @ Food&Wine
A profile of Domaine Plageoles @ Jenny&François