Fine dining in a casual setting; ingredient-driven cuisine that’s been prepared by kitchen pros and a kick-ass chef but is served on tables unadorned by tablecloths; a wait-staff that is at all times professional but jokes with you at the table. The concept has been around awhile in San Francisco, but apparently in Paris, a city that for years has adhered more to tradition than modernity in its cuisine, this trend is really just emerging. And, no restaurant seems to embody this movement better than the newly-opened “modern bistro” Septime.
At the kitchen’s helm is Bertrand Grébaut, a young chef with some serious culinary chops. Having worked under Alain Passard at l’Arpege before opening his first restaurant at 27, the Michelin-starred Agapé, this man knows his way around some of the finest kitchens in Paris. At Septime, he combines flawless technique with the best, fresh ingredients available to him, creating dishes that sound deceptively simple but that require a true artistry not found in your average neighborhood bistro; a cuisine that has a true sense of place without being overshadowed by pomp and circumstance.
Personally, living in an area that has a myriad of similar restaurants, I was most impressed by the fact that Grébaut had no other influences for this restaurant but himself – he has not traveled to San Francisco and experienced California cuisine, nor has he been trained in kitchens that mirror this style. The menu and atmosphere are derived from his own inspiration and come straight from the heart, a fact that is tasted in every bite.
My first bite began at lunch with Green Asparagus, Oyster, Salmon Roe, and Sauce Gribiche - a dish which has drawn quite a bit of attention to the restaurant, and set the stage for the rest of my meal. Fresh and light (despite featuring dollops of creamy sauce), and approachable; this dish was a simple, yet refined, embodiment of spring. Its artistry lies in the fact that the oyster is actually shaved into the Gribiche, an interesting twist that tasted much like the best tartare sauce you could ever imagine. The dish that followed, Gnochetti with Corn and Flowers, was equally as impressive, albeit more difficult to execute. It was like eating miniature down pillows - they maintained their shape but softly collapsed at each bite. Miniature down pillows covered by a wonderfully airy, sweet corn coating and decorated with pretty, little flowers, each of which brought its own particular flavor to the dish. After traveling around Italy in the two weeks prior to this meal, I was surprised that this sophisticated, Parisian pasta suited my palate far more than anything I ate Rome or Naples.
Next came beautifully cooked Cod, covered in a variety of garden greens and plated alongside a puree of all of these plants. It may not have brought tears to my eyes, but just as should be expected by such a simple dish, it was executed to perfection. Because most Americans equate translucent filets with undercooked fish, it's difficult to find restaurants that serve a properly cooked fish (One Market in San Francisco being one of the sole exceptions). So, each bite of even basic cod was refreshing. Finally, a humble Swiss Vanilla, Lemon Tart was a wonderfully light and simple way to conclude my lengthy lunch.
On top of the food, the service is extraordinary; few restaurants of that technical caliber have ever come across as so genuine, or made me feel so much at home. I left with daydreams of giving the servers a ring and making plans to meet up for an apperitif before dinner. Tranquille. Of course that was just my imagination running wild, so I found another way of seeing the staff again: of all the places I could have eaten to celebrate my last meal in Paris, I chose to go back to Septime for dinner.
In terms of execution, dinner mirrored my lunch experience: everything was perfect. Much like the asparagus, the Raw Shellfish (clams and shrimp) with Leek and Fennel was a familiar, but sophisticated appetizer. However, it was the Egg with Mushroom and Housemade Crouton, served in a Japanese style with (what I believed to be) dashi broth, that really took me by surprise and impressed me with it's hearty aroma and poignant flavors.
While all the main courses that followed were delicious in their own way, it was my order of Pigeon, accompanied by Melted Onion and Rhubarb that made my taste buds perk up. Yeah, pigeon...those nasty, dirty birds surrounding crumbs on the sidewalk...apparently, when cooked right they're absolutely delicious. I wouldn't have thought a pigeon could be so moist or sweet, but much like quail, that bird has some flavor. More importantly, I have a lot of respect for a chef that can put something a bit riskier on the menu, and absolutely nail it. Finally, the dessert that followed, a deconstructed take on strawberry shortcake, was certainly not a risk but it was once again a refreshingly sweet way to end the meal.
Dinner was so good that at two separate moments, the men sitting at the table with me almost started crying; while this style of dining may be somewhat standard for me, they had never experienced anything like it in Paris. And with all the buzz around this restaurant, it doesn't look like they're alone. Septime is one of the leaders of a new movement in Paris that focuses on the ingredients and the soul of the food itself, rather than the price and the grandeur of the meal. With such culinary prowess and an approach to cooking that breathes life into traditional French fare, Chef Grébaut is definitely a chef to watch.
80, rue de Charonne
Tél. 01 43 67 38 29