Chefs deserve our pity. Critics dissect their every gesture in a search for novelty that is, through no fault of chefs, mostly futile. Dining is just not a novel pursuit: everyone does and has done it since the dawn of time, and any innovation is limited by our physical ability to digest it. What we refer to as innovation is usually clever curation of underacknowledged ingredients or cuisines that were there the whole time.
But not all chefs are clever curators. As a skill, it bears the same relation to cooking as perfumery does to fashion design. Luckily for such chefs, there is another route to celebration and influence. One can simply be incredibly charming.
Some chefs possess both skills, and manage to curate people and culinary styles with ease. But others, like Yves Camdeborde's longtime sous-chef Dai Shinozuka, who last fall took over Marais wine bar space Les Enfants Rouges, seemingly possess neither. These are the ones truly deserving of pity. Les Enfants Rouges under Shinozuka points no new directions in Paris dining, and at first glance manages to underwhelm despite terrific cuisine and serviceable hospitality. But Shinozuka, evidently no fool, has made all criticism moot by opening on Sundays and Mondays, which instantly renders Les Enfants Rouges one of the most useful addresses in Paris, let alone the quality-starved Marais.
In a quartier saturated with 'concepts' (Empanadas ! Build Your Own Bento ! Shoot Me In The Face !), Les Enfants Rouges is refreshing for being just the unadorned work of a well-trained chef. Before the restaurant opened, one had to walk to Au Passage or Café des Musées for that.
The restaurant space itself could, however, use some adornment. Some abysmal paintings presently do absolutely nothing to absorb the infernal restaurant clatter that echoes off the restaurant's otherwise bare walls. I'm all for underdesigned spaces. But non-design requires thought, arguably even more than design does, and Les Enfants Rouges' interior evinces none whatsoever.
The restaurant's wine list is safely natural-by-numbers, nothing to grouse about but not much to cheer for either. All the names will be familiar to habitués of Le Comptoir du Relais and Avant Comptoir or the declining Régélade empire.
On the night I visited my friends and I shared a bottle of Claude Maréchal's 2011 Chorey-Les-Beaune, which was in fine form. I'd hazard to say that I hadn't ever really appreciated Marechal's natural Burgundies until opening a small winning streak of 2011's over the course of several meals in January and February. (Including a fine Auxey-Duresses at Lazare, and a solid Bourgogne Rouge at La Pointe du Grouin.) I know I'm approaching them at a good time - that early-peak before red burgundy goes into bottle-hibernation for a few years - but I also assume that the domaine had a superb 2011, marked by glowy, wholesome, smiling red fruit.
The restaurant's menu layout is an almost exact homage to Camdeborde's Régélade template, right down to the minefield of upcharges and the predictable squid ink risotto, a component that should by now have long gone the way of sun-dried tomatoes and angel-hair pasta.
Appetisers were nonetheless more impressive than plats the night I visited. They even threatened to contain a culinary signature of little orbs: marinated John Dory was flecked with fascinating green roe, while a broth of civet contained tapioca...
But a friend's supreme de volaille was inarguably overcooked, and my own pork belly, while tasty, lacked an acid or bitterness to balance the meat's overwhelming fat.
These are not showy dishes. I think it's reasonable to expect someone who's been making similar things as long as Shinozuka has to make them better, and more reliably.
But what the hell. So what if the most serious chef in the Marais is seemingly content to leave design sensitivity and conceptual flair to the neighborhood's lunch spots and flowy clothing boutiques ? It just means the neighborhood still has room for more serious chefs.
Les Enfants Rouges
9, rue de Beauce
Métro: Filles du Calvaire or Arts et Métiers
Tel: 01 48 87 80 61
David Lebovitz slips on the kid gloves for his January 2014 post on Les Enfants Rouges
Mr. Lung noted the punishing noise level in his January 2014 post on Les Enfants Rouges
Wendy Lyn of The Paris Kitchen performing some enthusiastic cheerleading in her October 2013 post on Les Enfants Rouges