29 May 2012

shooting them in a barrel: fish la boissonerie, 75006

Whenever conversation turns to the subject of hospitality in Paris - which is to say, very, very often - I try to remind myself and others that its general absence is something for which we ought to be thankful. It's what makes Paris, perversely, a land of opportunity: almost any business model presently existent in the city can be very simply improved, to the point of crushing all competition, by the addition of what the natives routinely neglect, namely smiles and goodwill. One doesn't even have to be good at something - one can just be nice.

Here any Paris business-owner will scoff, mentally shaking this writer by his lapels, crying, 'Don't you think we've tried?' It's more than one establishment can hope to achieve, to change an entire nation's outlook towards service.

Well, there's a trick. You just don't hire many French people.* 6ème arrondissement bistrot / expat hub Fish La Boissonerie sort of pioneered this strategy, and if, thirteen years on, the restaurant's cuisine and its wine list both show their age, great hospitality, thankfully, remains timeless.

Fish La Boissonerie was opened in 1999 by New-Zealander Drew Harre and the American owner of nearby cave La Dernière Goute, Juan Sanchez. Together the pair also own a gourmet fast-food sandwich place across the street called Cosi,* and the recently opened restaurant Semilla, also across the street.

Before I get guillotined for suggesting they don't hire French people ever, I should mention that they do presumably have a few on board. But French staff are outnumbered by expats who have service experience in cultures that expect service. Et voilà: a set of positive internal norms that makes Fish in particular stand out in Paris, land of abandoned tables, audible pouting, and water that never arrives.

When poor planning and the need to dine near the Native Companion's workplace on a recent Saturday night conspired to place my friends and me in the tourist-thronged theme park of the 6ème arrondissement, Fish seemed the only possible option, but still an unlikely one. They take reservations for their first service only and after that its a free-for-all. Yet we were to discover that the difference between a French free-for-all and one run by service-minded expats is that only the former kind takes the concept literally.

The kind bartender at Fish went to heroic lengths, amid the usual distracting service maelstrom, to get our no-res party of five comfortably installed across the street at Cosi, where we awaited our table at Fish with a bottle of wine from the latter restaurant's list and some bread and sliced cucumbers to snack on.

So what if we still waited forty minutes beside a sandwich line and a buzzing fridge? We knew we were being taken care of. (My only regret from the totally average meal that followed was that I couldn't find the incredible bartender at the end, to thank him again.)

Sitting at Cosi we had the night's most interesting wine (to me), a 2009 Menu Pineau-dominant Cheverny "Les Racines" by Domaine l'Epicourchois, a 9.2ha organic estate founded by vigneron Luc Percher in 2005.

Photo jacked from emilie-wine.blogspot.com.

I hadn't heard of the estate at the time, but was drawn to the wine by its price - 35€, low for Fish's overpriced list - and because I reasoned that only an astoundingly good Menu Pineau would find home at Fish. It is typically a brutally austere grape, service-unfriendly, one that makes a lemon-sucker like Aligoté seem cuddly by comparison. (The most memorable examples I've tasted have been late-harvested and macerated on the skins - in this way the grape is coaxed towards a mesmerizing complexity, as in the wines of Julien Courtois in Sologne.)

"Les Racines" was not quite so out-there - nor could it be, for the price - but warmer 2009 vintage had been kind to the grapes, and amid its diamond-hard mineral the wine had a sort of strict white-floral component, like flowers in a military service.

Throughout our meal we kept to the Loire, where the Fish wine list's relative bargains are to be found.

My friend J and I could only shake our heads in admiration and frustration at this list: the great bottles are there, the result of Sanchez's long experience in the industry, but they are mainly ones familiar to Americans via Kermit Lynch and his generation of importers, and they are offered at prices that would make anyone but a vacationer wince.

The thing is, no one is wincing, because Fish is reliably full of vacationers. Tables to either side of us were overheard enthusing, "What a cute little place!" The restaurant's name is a punning reference to the fish stand or poissonerie it used to be, but it might as well be because Sanchez and Harre are shooting them in barrels. (To be fair, everyone is, in this neighborhood; Sanchez and Harre are just savvier marksmen.)

In any case, Fish's name has decidedly nothing to do with any specialisation in seafood. Fish's menu has about as much seafood on the menu as any natural wine bistro, only at Fish the natural-slash-organic wine focus is not accompanied by any scruples about serving the classic unsustainable staples, i.e. salmon and tuna. That was a sea-change in consciousness that occurred in France after the nineties.

The magrets de canard J and I both ordered came with completely superfluous strawberries in their salads, one of these headsmackingly embarrassing chef-tweaks we all remember from trying to cook for girls as an undergrad. J ate them first, plucking them out one by one, to get them out of his sight.

Having already waited ages, my friends and I had skipped apps, a fortuitous decision, because none were very interesting, and because a plat alone turned out to cost just 21,50€. (We only discovered at the end of the meal.) Fish diners who order an app or dessert are kind of getting soaked for 10€, given the ingredient cost and complexity of the apps and desserts on offer.

Speaking of soaking, no one present for this meal could believe Fish were asking a +20€ menu upcharge for a risotto with morilles. We assumed it was a typo. None of us were so credulous as to ever order risotto in France - here it is almost exclusively made as a wan, babyfoodish gesture to appease vegetarians - but we asked anyway, and were told that these morilles were very expensive, and in fact there was just one order of this risotto left that evening. It occurred to me then that I had in my possession some very rare magic beans I could sell - but I couldn't decide whether to offer them to the chef, the owners, or their clientele.

* Whose name and brand they sold to an American company for development into the ubiquitous café chain. I'm told they got $50,000 out of the deal, which must have seemed like a lot at the time. 

Fish La Boissonerie
69, rue de Seine
75006 PARIS
Métro: Mabillon
Tel: 01 43 54 34 69

Related Links:

Albion, the 10ème restaurant recently opened by former Fish staff

A good 2012 summary of the Fish La Boissonerie owners' mini-empire @ GillesPudlowski
An underwhelmed 2011 review of Fish La Boissonerie @ JohnTalbott
Some 2010 mentions of Fish La Boissonerie and Juan Sanchez by Jay MacInerney @ WSJ
An underwhelmed 2010 review of Fish La Boissonerie @ HungryForParis
A brief positive 2010 post on Fish La Boissonerie @ TheParisKitchen
A 2010 piece on Fish @ ParisVoice
A brief note on Domaine l'Epicourchois @ Emilie-Wine


  1. When you say "don't hire many French people" to improve the customer service, I think you are confusing Parisians with the French people where I live. Everybody here (well, there's always an exception) is cheerful and helpful. Paris is "also" France, they used to say...

  2. you make a good point, and i agree, to an extent. but even in the cutest most heartwarming small-town bistros, one encounteres skeleton crew staffing and service norms that strike other westerners as bizarre. labor law is a national thing.