I learned relatively recently that a restaurant I often passed in the 10ème arrondissement - a miserably named,* anonymous-looking establishment called L'Office - had been garnering great reviews under the direction of a newly-installed American chef.
Then the other day - after having met said chef, Kevin O'Donnell, through mutual friends, and after having dined once at his restaurant - I learned that O'Donnell is already slated to return back to the states. In Paris one gets used to people passing through; acquaintances often last for the duration of their summer courses or fellowships or internships. This still seems like quick turnover, particularly for a place that appears to have some momentum.
Maybe I have just been in France too long - I've forgotten how fast American careers can move. In any event, I thought I might as well share my impressions of L'Office, before they lose all relevancy. They can be summed up by saying that O'Donnell could perhaps benefit from more time in Paris restaurants, but I totally understand why he might want to escape France pronto. To phrase this less enigmatically: the cuisine at L'Office was a little under-sketched, which is something that can be improved, and one of the servers completely sucked at his job, which is something that, in France, cannot easily be improved.
For those not acquainted with French employment law: it is almost impossible to fire employees here without paying huge, business-busting sums of money. This has the benefit of making France, for those already established inside its systems and coincidentally born without ambition, a place of marvelous social stability. It is also why most restaurant servers act as if they own the establishments they work in. They virtually do ! Sometimes I feel like I write, or I should write, a version of this same paragraph in every discussion of hospitality in France. Hospitality in France is to a large extent handicapped by the French employment system, which ensures that the employees of any establishment are free to prioritise their personal convenience over the comfort or enjoyment or basic needs of anyone patronising said establishment.
On the other hand, it allows bank tellers, ticket sellers, and bartenders to finish their lengthy conversations about the weather or football with the next person in line before attending to you. So the system has its benefits, at the expense of meritocracy as we know it.
The fellow at the L'Office wasn't malicious at all. He was just bad at his job - the kind of server who would be railroaded right out the door at a professional restaurant in a major city not located in France. His opening salvo to the table, while my out-of-town friends were still hanging their bags from their chair-backs: 'You will all have to order very quickly because there is a table of six and a table of eight also ordering very soon and otherwise you will have to wait a very long time for your food.'
I appreciate the honesty. But at this table was just one French speaker (me). Two visiting Greeks, two visiting Americans, and an Italian who lived in Tokyo. The cultural-linguistic clusterfuck meant the order was simply not coming in quickly, and our table was not late enough (about ten minutes?) for us to feel guilty about this. Instead of reading the situation and adjusting his plan accordingly, the server launched into a rapid-fire description of the preparations of each dish. In the middle of this I rose to briefly greet the restaurant's other server, with whom I'm acquainted, and this earned me an actual rebuke from our server when I sat back down.
'You're not listening? You won't know what is in each dish !' he warned me.
To which I had to reply that I already know what burrata is. I didn't particularly care for the shpiel, since I'm not picky about ingredients and will happily eat whatever is placed in front of me, and moreover my exit from the table had done nothing to prevent the server's urgent descriptions reaching the audience that actually needed them, my guests. The dude was simply doing a bit of insufferable waiter-preening, distracting everyone. Especially the rest of the table, who were as appalled as I was.
|At L'Office, checks are presented lodged like bookmarks in books from the small library of conscious-eating literature scattered around the bar. I found it cute, in a small-town sort of way.|
What made all this even more painful and unnecessary was that the fact that this server who I am describing at such tragic length was the probably only staff member in the restaurant at that time with whom I was not acquainted on a friendly basis. (Here's hoping the basis remains friendly with the rest of them.)
Our order, when we finally gave it, came out fairly promptly. There was no undue wait and all that hustle was for nothing.
In the meantime I'd had a chance to dig into the wine list, which was quality-oriented, if not exceptionally natural or organic. I appreciated the gestures at globalism - Domenico Clerico and Elio Grasso from Piedmont, Barranco Oscuro from Granada - even as the simplicity and high prices of these bottles sort of depressed me. (Non-French wines will remain overpriced curiosities on French wine lists until the French become interested in, and willing to spend money on, wines from other nations. There is not a great deal of incentive, however.)
What I found less easily explicable was the wide range of Burgundies from Jean-Marc Bouley. I hadn't planned to mention it on the blog, but my friend J and I visited this estate in Volnay during our road trip last October, and it was the one tasting from which we walked away shaking our heads in utter incomprehension of why anyone ever recommended we go there. The wines are inky, graceless bruisers, and their presence on the list at L'Office indicated that the other producers on same list - Bruno Clair, Jean-Louis Trapet - were selected more on the basis of their consistency than their quality (both, incidentally, much better than Bouley).
It was murderously muggy the night of our dinner, so we kept to white wines and rosés. A disappointingly innocuous 2009 Aligoté from Domaine Marquis d'Angerville, a reliable, delicious 2011 Sancerre Rosé from Domaine Vacheron...
What wound up suiting what we ordered best was a steely and marvelously balanced 2007 Mâcon-Lugny "Les Crays vers Vaux" by Jean Rijckaert,* former partner of Jean-Marie Guffens of Domaine Verget. Since he and Guffens ended their collaboration in the late nineties, Rijckaert has been producing his own acclaimed squeaky-clean whites from vineyards in the Mâcon and Jura.
Ordinarily they hold no great appeal for me, being squeaky-clean, but on this occasion there was nothing more interesting in the price point, and I'd been curious to see what a quality operation would do with the undistinguished Mâcon-Lugny appellation. (The last time I had a Mâcon-Lugny was with Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionney over lunch as refreshment before we began drinking real wine.) Rijckaert's 2007 Mâcon-Lugny was a pleasant surprise, showing an athletic sort of lime-mineral profile with enough dewy fruit to match the mussels that accompanied my swordfish.
(The mussels were another surprise, not having been listed on the blackboard as part of the dish. Shellfish are usually an important thing to mention. I'm not allergic or kosher or anything, but still I entertained the idea of faking a death scene in which my final words to our waiter were, "I should have listened to your desciption... Argh!")
My swordfish was scrumptious, sort of an Italo-bouillabaisse, and I was happy to note that the fish wasn't cut weirdly thin like one often sees it at the street markets here. (I'm not kidding, some French fishmongers seem to dole it out like prosciutto or something.)
Unfortunately pretty much every other savory dish struck us as a little confused. O'Donnell previously worked for my former employers, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, at their restaurant Del Posto in NYC, and I've read that his stated intention at L'Office has been to offer Parisians a slightly Italian take on bistrot cuisine.
In our starters and mains, this amounted to a deranged, soupy burrata dish in which there was no perceptible textural contrast between the burrata and its accompaniments, and some pancetta in my swordfish broth.
Other dishes, like a slightly too-acidic appetizer of beets with hazelnuts and goat cheese, felt completely autopiloted, like the sort of thing a reasonably sophisticated garde-manger cook would come up with in his or her sleep.
My friend D's duck, while fine meat, was totally lost and abandoned on a bed of dry sauceless rice and Chinese cabbage, as though it had taken the wrong connecting flight and wound up in a Chinese restaurant in Montpellier.
The meal's high point, strangely, came in my friend E's dessert: accompanying her tarte aux fraises was a basil ice cream of such powdery, understated sweetness that I was tempted to order a bowl of it for myself.
The kicker, which I've neglected to mention until now, is L'Office's menu pricing, which at 33€ for three courses is tremendously generous - it's the price of a steak at many worse restaurants in Paris. There are, however, quite a few restaurants here that seemingly do the Franco-Italian marriage more convincingly: Vivant, Rino, and La Gazzetta, to name just a few.
I nevertheless have enough trusted friends who adore L'Office to wonder whether I arrived on an off night for the kitchen. I hope to have the chance to get back there sometime before O'Donnell departs, ideally when that one server isn't working.
* In every city I've ever lived in, there's been a bar or restaurant called some variant of 'The Office.' Who finds this amusing? To be cheekily reminded of that from which one has presumably just escaped?
** I've always admired his last name for how it looks like someone fell elbow-first on a keyboard.
3, rue Richer
Tel: 01 47 70 67 31
Kevin O'Donnell gives his Paris recommendations to my friend Wendy Lyn @ ParisKitchen
A 2012 rave about L'Office @ JohnTalbott
A 2011 rave about L'Office @ HungryForParis