Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Restaurant Review: Chapeau Melon, Paris

I'm not used to eating late, and tend to stick to a generally North American schedule for my meals, with coffee first thing while doing a bit of work/blogging/playing Lexulous, a midmorning breakfast brunch that often consists of the previous night's leftovers and is generally savory rather than sweet, light lunch around noonish, and main evening meal no later than 7pm or so. This is in direct contrast to how most people eat in France: coffee and juice and a slice of bread with jam or Nutella at 8am or earlier, large long lunch from 1pm-3pm, larger longer dinner starting any time after 8pm. By the time most people have been served with their main course, I'm in my pyjamas ready to go to bed. But when I'm a guest in someone's home (merci comme toujours à Armelle et Henri pour tous les repas délicieux!) or meeting friends for a meal, I adjust, even if I'm yawning over dessert. So when I learned that the Belleville restaurant Chapeau Melon that Laure proposed for our dinner date didn't start their one nightly seating until 8:30pm on Wednesday, I was prepared.

I wasn't in "journalist" mode when I arrived at 7pm, but rather in "footsore tired tourist" mode, and so I didn't get the background information on the restaurant, or the chef/owner, or really any information other than that the waiter was originally from Manchester, and that there was a lot of butter used in the kitchen. From my internet research I find that Olivier Camus has long been respected for his knowledge of organic wines - the place is a wine shop, in fact, and only more recently a table d'hôte. Camus was apparently also behind the opening of the older restaurant Le Baratin just across the street. Reviews have been mixed over the past few years on the price, service, and quality of the food, but overall I thought it was quite good.
Price: at 34 euros for a three-course meal, with dessert and wine extra, it's on the high end; Laure agreed, and we both thought dessert should be included at that price. The per-glass prices for the wine are reasonable (for Paris) and the corkage fee not bad, according to Laure.

Service: Mr. Manchester appeared to be the only person on service that night, and while the place is small, when all the half-dozen or so tables are full, that's a lot to handle alone. The pacing of the service also depends on the kitchen, because they serve everyone their courses at the same time, so we didn't mark down for that. But towards the end of the evening he seemed to get more distracted and frazzled (understandable) and we had to repeat requests several times.

Quality: Excellent. And full of butter, as promised. In order to take best advantage of the wines available and the knowledge of the server(s) on food pairings, it's probably better to be here with a group of friends, so you can get wines by the bottle and not the glass, as they only have a few per-glass offerings. That being said, the waiter was perfectly happy to suggest a wine and open a bottle to pour me a glass of it when they'd run out of the muscadet I started with.

Butter and butter and butter, but no wheat or gluten, at least not that evening. I'd stopped by the restaurant in the early afternoon, wanting to locate it so I wasn't wandering around and arriving late to meet Laure, and that's when I asked about the food, explaining my allergies/intolerances. When there's only a limited menu, that can be difficult. They hadn't nailed down the menu for that evening, but it seemed reasonably safe and deliciously attractive, so I made a reservation. Important note: Reservations almost certainly required. As I said, there are only a few tables, and since (at least on Wednesdays) everyone gets served at the same time, there's no turnover on the tables. If you're not there at 8:30pm, you're not getting dinner that night.

Another review of this restaurant mentioned a different setup between Thursdays and Saturdays with more of a selection, and perhaps less of the orchestrated timing of service, but I can't verify that. On the other hand, I plan to go back to this restaurant, or at least to e-mail them, to ask about the possibility of making some plans for May, when Mom and John are here. There's often not a lot of flexibility in the kitchen at French restaurants, though I have had people accommodate the no-dairy-no-gluten request before. However, that sometimes means really boring meals. It would be lovely to have Camus' culinary creativity put to work with a short list of "please no ..." ingredients. I'm thinking that if I can find enough Paris people (John, Anne, Mhairi, are you interested? Galina et Laure, vous parlez Anglais aussi ...) to meet us that night, tipping the total percentage of the restaurant towards our party, the chef might be willing to adapt his menu that night for the majority. Le Baratin also has a smallish menu and seems somewhat flexible, so I'll check that place out as well.

No butter at all in the first course, a perfectly fresh mackerel en escabeche, with enough acid (it seemed slightly sweet, so perhaps a rice wine or white balsamic vinegar?) to cut through the strong fatty flavors of the fish but not to clash with the wine. Laure had the beef cheek terrine, which I'd considered having, but since terrines often have breadcrumbs in them to bind them, I went with the mackerel. However, it looked like this terrine was aspic-based rather than cream-and-crumb based.

We both had the razor clams (couteaux, or "knives") for the second course, rather than the sautéed foie gras (which had a 3,50 euro extra charge). I mentioned to Laure that I was used to bigger clams; the Pacific razor clam (Siliqua patula) is broader and flatter, and my memories of eating them on the coast involved a lot of chewing. The European version (Ensis directus) is narrower and rounder and not as long, though Laure did mention that the ones we were eating were on the large size, for razor clams here. These were still a little chewy but easily cut, sweet and fresh-tasting under their (buttery!) blanket of chopped herbs - parsley, but I think there was a bit of tarragon in there as well, which was quite nice.

It was well after 10pm by the time the main course arrived. There was no choice this time, and everyone was served the roast lamb with root vegetables three ways: celery root purée, sautéed héliantis (something like Jerusalem artichokes), and roasted salsify. I assumed there was cream in the purée so only tasted that, but I probably could have eaten all of it, because the herby flavor of the celery root was so strong (in a good way) that it didn't seem to be cut with too much dairy. The héliantis were tender and earthy, and the roasted salsify was so good I wished I'd gotten three helpings of that on the plate instead. It's not a vegetable I'm familiar with, but I'm going to look for it in the market this week. There was a hint of curry in the sauce beneath the lamb, which was juicy and perfectly cooked, though Laure and I both had to leave a largish wedge of inedible fatty gristle on our plates.

By the time we'd finished the lamb, it was well after 11pm, and neither of us wanted dessert or the cheese plate, or any more wine. Laure had bought a bottle of red to drink with her lamb, while I stayed with two glasses of white wine; I'd started out with a Crémant de Loire while waiting for Laure to arrive, but it wasn't very sparkly and gave me the impression that the bottle had been opened a few days earlier. I only sipped a bit of that, and when Laure arrived and asked me about what I was drinking, I said I wasn't all that fond of it. The waiter took the glass away and replaced it with one of the white wines that evening, the muscadet (I didn't pay attention to any labels, but Laure, who knows more about wine that I do, got into several long conversations over the course of the evening about what to drink). I wasn't charged for the first glass of wine.

As we were eating the good food, Laure gave me recommendations on other places to eat, two in Paris and one in the south of France. And we talked about France vs. the United States (a conversation I frequently have here), and apartment prices, and travel, and career plans, and Japan (her father is Japanese). It was a little hard to have a conversation sometimes because the place when packed can get very noisy, and we were at a small table right up against the wall of wines, so at least ten times someone (the waiter or a customer) reached over or between or around us to get a bottle off the shelves. That's another argument for coming with a larger party and sitting at the larger table on the other side of the room. But overall the atmosphere was convivial, and the food was top-notch, and I will go back, especially if I can negotiate some dairy-free flexibility in the menu. Join me on May 25th? Let's fill up the place and have a party!


  1. If we go, do I have to wear a hat decorated with artificial fruit? And butter is almost as bad as beets for me...it will be hard.

  2. "Chapeau melon" means "bowler hat" but if you want to wear fruit that would be fine. And part of the menu adjustment would, of course, be the substitution of olive oil for butter. Don't worry - I've got you covered!