07 January 2014

native success story: pierre sang in oberkampf, 75011

The social media trajectory of Newsweek journalist Janine di Giovanni's recent France-bashing has been far more interesting than the article itself, which was basically a list of right-wing talking points disguised in a beret. Many otherwise liberal friends shared the piece on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps before reading it all the way though. A day later the French press reacted with predictably pedantic and humorless outrage. (Le Monde went so far as to explain the French etymology of the word "entrepreneur," having completely missed the gist of the cliché di Giovanni quoted.) Now the same friends who shared the article in the first place are sharing its rebuttals, having belatedly recognized the article's utter vacuity.

There are two jokes embedded in the kerfuffle surrounding di Giovanni's article. The first is that no one ever reads Newsweek. The second is that French people and expats living in France are utterly irrelevant to the agenda behind the piece, which would appear to be deregulation and further demonization of social security in the USA.

If we nonetheless get roped into the discussion, it's because, by golly, there does seem to be something fundamentally unworldly about contemporary French culture. A journalist like Janine di Giovanni can airily declare that France is prone to navel-gazing, and most expats here - myself included - will instinctively think, "Right on!," only later remembering to scan for rational argumentation, factual accuracy, journalistic scruples, etc. Partly this is what every foreigner living in a foreign land feels, because in traveling to said foreign land one has necessarily become a bit more worldly than its natives who stayed put. But partly this is the fault of self-congratulatory cultural institutions, among them the news outlets that laud restaurants like 11ème arrondissement quasi-gastro outpost Pierre Sang In Oberkampf.

Pierre Sang Boyer was a finalist on the second season of Top Chef France. He was eliminated on the 4th of April, 2011, but not before he'd learned the greatest chef skill of all, which is to stand beside food and mug for cameras. Whole careers have been built atop this technique, ungarnished by actual cred - Jamie Oliver, Rachel Khoo, etc. - and judging by his eponymous restaurant and literally all of its press material, Boyer has similar aims.

(It puts me off, sure. But I'm outnumbered by the masses of cookbook buyers and cook-show viewers who feel reassured in their eating habits by the visual of a nice healthy smile. "Would this man steer me wrong?" they think. "Look at that smile!")

Boyer's phoneless, no-reservations restaurant opened in summer 2012, a time when no-reservations, no-telephones policies were still routinely touted as macho credentials, rather than being recognized for what they are, a wimpy abdication of hospitality. The restaurant is composed of open-kitchen bar seating on the ground floor, and conventional tables in the charmless basement, which is advertised and employed as wine cellar despite being several degrees too warm for that to be advisable.

The wine list itself is a charmer. It takes a nice unfussy middle road between safe natural selections like Agnes et Rene Mosse's Savennieres and conventional masterpieces like Vincent Dauvissat's Chablis.

Then out of nowhere you have a riotously fun bottle like Movia's 2003 Puro, a Slovenian Chardonnay-Ribolla sparkler I first became acquainted with back at my old workplace in LA. (We served the Pinot Noir based Puro Rosé, and winemaker Aleš Kristančič came in frequently and partied like an animal.)

The Native Companion actually told me to hush when I asked our young server if he knew how the winemaker recommended serving the wine, and I should have listened to her. To the server's credit, he was curious. But after I explained what bath disgorgement was, he disappeared, and I realised to my horror that he was discussing with the sommelier how they might perform said service à la minute.

"Don't worry about it! Ce n'est pas grave! Ne vous inquietez pas!" I cried, since any attempt to bath-disgorge a bottle of Puro that hadn't spent days upside down in a fridge and then 10-20 minutes upside down in ice would probably have resulted in pointless waterworks and a lot of angry bystanders.

I was still delighted to re-encounter the wine, which was as fulsome, rooty and brisk as ever. But I wondered how on earth the Puro got on the wine list without someone in the house knowing how it ought to be served. It's not a trade secret or anything. In fact, it's at least partially a savvy marketing ploy. There are YouTube videos:

Anyway. The cuisine on the night the NC and I visited was an unfortunate wash-out. I felt a deep disorientation, as the dishes arrived, because I couldn't help thinking how far removed the plating was from any photos I'd seen. Boyer's dishes that night didn't look, as they do online, like those of Daniel Rose. They looked like mud. Nor did it help that after each course, our server trotted over to ask us whether we'd guessed the ingredients.

"Yes, you nitwit. These are black trumpet mushrooms. Having not, myself, lived under a rock for decades, I've encountered them before."

Black trumpet mushrooms in fact appeared in two of the four savoury courses, in very similar roles.

Fluttery bits of glorified potato chip appeared in two of the four savoury courses, in precisely the same role. (Dandruff, much like the parmesany bits that topped two courses.)

Mussels and mackerel had nothing to say to each other in an appetiser. A piece of romanesque broccoli poking from some breakfasty pulled pork looked like a stowaway. It was impossible to shake the feeling that what was passing for innovation was just someone cleaning out a fridge.

I was surprised such rudimentary show-off cuisine had ever received critical encouragement. It was culinary school food that would have been laughed out of town, had it been served anywhere other than Paris, or by anyone other than a reassuringly exotic native success story. (Boyer, who is ethnically Korean, was adopted by a French family at age 7. Unlike L'Express critic François-Régis Gaudry, I detected zero Korean influence on the meal I had at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. But then, nor was I looking for any.)

By the end of the meal I wondered whether the NC and I had made a grave error in accepting a table in the "wine cellar." Perhaps meals at the bar are of a different caliber? But the meal at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf nonetheless raised more interesting questions:

Is self-consciously "inventive" cuisine to be lauded merely for occurring in Paris, where such impulses are usually quashed? Or must it make sense?

Are non-French wines interesting in Paris merely because they're not French, or must they be correctly served ?

Is an ooh-la-la mass-gastronomic concept welcome on rue Oberkampf merely because it's not yet another shitty student bar?

I don't know the answer to these questions. In fact, being a foreigner in France, I ought to recuse myself.

Pierre Sang in Oberkampf
55, rue Oberkampf
75011 PARIS
Métro: Parmentier
Tel: none

Related Links:

François Régis-Gaudry's April 2013 L'Express Styles piece on Pierre Sang in Oberkampf.
Emmanuel Rubin on Pierre Sang Boyer in Le Figaro.
I'll note here that both critics expressed reservations - about the changeable menu and the no-bookings policy, restaurant trends they associate with young people.

John Talbott loved his experience there in Sept. 2012.
Wendy Lyn of The Paris Kitchen on Restaurant Pierre Sang Boyer.
Alexander Lobrano also adored Pierre Sang in Oberkampf.
To be fair, they all seem to have eaten nicer meals than I did, judging by the photos.

Janine di Giovanni's hack France-bashing in Newsweek
Le Monde's humourless rebuttal


  1. You suggest "the agenda behind the piece . . . would appear to be deregulation and further demonization of social security in the USA."

    Really? That's a quantum jump––a Brit expat writing about France
    in the guise of American Conservative rhetoric. Why would she? Where do you see it?

    The story of America is of course exactly the opposite––racism/fascism is the guise of Conservatism à la Ted Cruz and so many others of that ilk. How they do hate their country, in particular the black dude who is president. No doubt there are lots of Janine-like hacks kicking around the states who would like to write that story. They don't dare.

  2. i'm not sure it's such a quantum jump... regardless of di giovannni's nationality, newsweek remains an american publication, primarily (though of course not exclusively) aimed at american audiences. the slant of a given article isn't determined solely by its author; there's a whole editorial apparatus operating behind the byline.