On whom can we blame the undying, slightly questionable fad for Brit nostalgia ? Pete Doherty? The Kinks? More recently, perhaps my friends at Le Bal Café?
The fleet of establishments launched this past decade plus that nominally hark back to some hazy olde England ideal is staggering, and perhaps it is a sign the trend is nearly dead in the water that even the French - historically somewhat resistant to Brit nostalgia - are leaping aboard. Albion (another one!) is a genteel cave-à-manger opened near Métro Poissonière last year by two longtime Paris expats, Haydon Clout and Matt Ong, who'd previously tended bar and cheffed, respectively, at 6ème natural wine standby Fish. Albion, which serves mediteranean food alongside French wines, has been more or less thronged since opening, and not just by expats.
The irony, of course, is that for better or for worse the only remotely British elements of the restaurant are the ownership (just Ong), the warm(er) service, and the relative spaciousness of the place. Sticklers will point to the odd Elizabethan dessert recipe, and the presence of a British cheese on the cheese plate. But I suspect the success of the Albion the restaurant is due much less to effective branding (it's not) than to how Clout and Ong are cleverly offering 6ème restaurateurism - with its conservatism, and its relative professionalism - to a heretofore underserved market of 10ème gentrification.
It's a smart move, smartly executed. The dining room is delightfully un-London, which is to say it is tasteful and under-designed and does not smack of having required the overpaid skills of a team of interior decorators.
Thought has instead gone into the menu, which is simple, well-plated, and several notches more refined than anything else currently on offer in the quartier. I might still quibble with Ong's free hand with crowd-pleaser components like burrata, salmon, and chorizo - they feel like faceless internationalist indulgence, holdovers from his previous arrondissement, where the key constituencies of moneyed French and clueless tourists are united in their lack of taste.
But to the chef's credit, I encountered at Albion a wonderfully redemptive use of chorizo on the lamb I ordered: the pork was in a paste, and ruffled on the end of a sliver of singed cardoon (or was it parsnip?), adding a perfect saline counterpoint to the sweetness of the lamb.
Less successful were an overcooked filet de saint pierre, and helplessly bland risotto starter.
I can't help but take the presence of the latter dish - vegetarian ! gluten-free ! - on such a slim menu as an example of overly-accommodating restaurateurism.
A cheese plate highlighting some Shropshire blue and chutney was revelatory, reminding me forcefully how much I miss British cheese.
The excellent Paris food writer Alexander Lobrano recently brought up the absurdity of French restaurants importing British beef, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree; but the same logic, I think, need not apply to foreign cheeses, which, like wine, offer a distinct spectrum of flavor that can coexist with minimal overlap with the justifiably esteemed native product.
I ought to mention that the menu pricing at Albion is very 10ème. It's downright inexpensive, for what it is. Portion sizes, however, are a little skimpy, and while the ladies among us were satisfied, my friend B and I both professed to have left a little peckish.
Not to mention sober. The wine mark-ups at Albion, while not criminal by any means, are kind of high for a neighborhood that is basically spoilt by more generous cave-à-manger concepts like Autour d'Un Verre or Le Verre Volé or Le Vin Au Vert. Those three restaurants charge a 7€ droit de bouchon for bottles consumed on premises, whereas Albion imposes something approaching the usual x 2.5 restaurant mark-up.
It would be easier to stomach if the wine on offer were a little more interesting... Clout evidently knows his subject, and it was a pleasure chatting with him about the wines at Albion. But the selection on offer is pretty much unanimously the risk-free, retail-friendly side of natural-ish wine. It's a great place to bring one's parents, but if one is after wines with whiplash acid and funk and sediment and palpable inspiration, Albion is presently kind of thrill-free.
My friends and I shared a bottle of
All my ambivalence aside, I do find myself rooting for the Albion team. If at time of writing the place is by turns charming and underwhelming, and if the name is a little nonsensical, Clout and Ong have nevertheless succeeded in creating a place that feels defined, finally, by nothing other than their professionalism and good intentions. Which is to say they already offer more than much of the competition, and the future remains wide open.
80 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière
Tel: 01 42 46 02 44
A wholeheartedly positive Dec. 2011 piece on Albion @ TheParisKitchen
A more tepid reaction to Albion just days later @ JohnTalbott
An encouraging review of Albion @ HungryForParis
A Feb. 2012 review of Albion @ GillesPudlowski, in which the helplessly fogeyish foodwriter lapses into English to dub the restaurant "the place to be" and in doing so sort of confirms what I've said about the place's conservatism and general timidity