I would have some real thinking to do, if in the future I am ever given the choice between dining at a Japanese restaurant in Paris and committing seppuku. Which, I shall have ask myself, will be more painful? Or is the latter sort of inevitable, as a method of saving face after the shame of the former?
My experiences with Japanese food in the City of Light have run the gamut from grotesque - the gnarly bentos for sale on rue Saint Anne, with their unidentified fried objects atop shoe-sized rice wads - to dispiriting, as in the rapacious and tasteless stylings of the Issé group, who specialise in marking up much the same Far East paraphernalia as everyone else, only much further.
Until recently I held out quite a bit of hope, thinking that perhaps all the Japanese restaurants I'd tried in Paris had, despite their most ambitious efforts, simply not been expensive enough. But this past women's fashion week brought with it the occasion to visit Guilo Guilo, a somewhat pricey spot in the 18ème renowned for its tough reservations and the seasonal innovations of its chef, Eiichi Edakuni, who somehow simultaneously maintains a successful restaurant in Kyoto. I say "somehow" because I left Guilo Guilo with the impression that Edakuni's chief innovation there is not his food, which is unmysterious and delicious, but rather his aggressive rudeness and bald unprofessionalism, traits which I can't help thinking would only be tolerated by a French audience who, wowed by Japophilia, have been too quick handing out the Genius Card That Excuses Everything. (Polanski has one, too.)
To be fair, I should explain that our friends were already on their third course, when my friend E and I arrived 30min late to our second service reservation. The chef wanted to speak with me, because he had insisted since the meal began, and was still insisting, that someone in the party had called ahead to change the table size from five to six people. Ordinarily, one would not expect this to be a point of murderous conflict, but in fact Edakuni had until then been attempting to bring out the imaginary sixth person's food, being fearfully waved away each time by my friends.
He attempted it twice more even after I arrived and explained very firmly to him that the call had never occurred, that there was some kind of misunderstanding. When he said it was a woman who had changed the reservation, I pointed out to him that there were no French-speaking women at our table, but even this did not seem to convince him. This was a man who had seen the opportunity to foist another 45€ menu on us, and was hell-bent on seizing it, beyond the limits of all reason and basic hospitality. It was almost funny, because usually when star chefs reach this point of God-like dementia, they have long since delivering plates to tables themselves. In Paris, waitstaff are very expensive.
This seems a good time to mention my second memorable interaction with Edakuni, later in the meal, after he'd finally given up trying to serve us extra food, when on my way to the toilet I encountered him in the restaurant's small corridor, giving one of his young female Japanese servers a vigorous and fairly appalling noogie. Considerations of propriety aside, anyone who has ever been an older brother and given a noogie will know that it involves a great deal of hand / scalp contact, which is discouraged in eastern and western cultures alike when it comes to chefs who handle raw food.
How was the food in question, after all this? I can attest it was very good, and that the chef's use of fall mushrooms for many dishes was admirable, if in some cases slightly overstretched.
It doesn't seem worth complaining that for 45€ one leaves hungry, as that is the case in many fine Japanese restaurants. I might more legitimately criticize the restaurant's décor, which harks back to a time when sushi was so novel as to be instinctively associated with shiny nightclub furnishings. Or the wine list, which is tiny, and very clearly designed to pair with the restaurant's price point, rather than its cuisine. We had a clean, balanced, but somewhat faceless Saint-Romain by Beaune-based négociant-viticulteur Maison Albert Ponnelle. It seemed to me the sort of wine that could come as good news to someone desperately not hoping to choose something genuinely bad on an expensive list.
The restaurant also has a reasonably long list of saké, a subject in which I have no expertise and so must decline to comment upon, save to say that while sparkling saké may sound interesting in theory, the kind that I tried that evening was like a bad kir royale with mini-bar rhum poured in.
The question remains why sheer mediocrity in wine and brutish behavior and poor décor, which would all doom a Japanese restaurant on this level in San Francisco or New York, are in Paris no obstacle to success. It is too facile to observe merely that Paris is a small town whose inhabitants, possessed of a magnificent culinary tradition of their own, are less curious about foreign ones. The Japophilia America experienced in eighties and nineties is still going strong here, and part of me thinks there is some valid identification going on between the two cultures, both justifiably proud of historical aesthetic achievements and both simultaneously burdened by the latter half of the twentieth century and waning global relevance. I find this seems to manifest itself in a sort of timid insularity, a sense among the two populations that their countrymen are the only audience worth even trying for, since others will never understand. But perhaps that too is too facile an observation for me to make, as someone who is unquestionably an outsider to both.
In any case, we have Guilo Guilo as evidence that weird misunderstandings are not in themselves an obstacle to success, whether or not it is deserved.
8, rue Garreau
Tel: 01 42 54 23 92
Tel: 01 42 54 23 92