French dressing with a twist
Neo-bistros are redefining the culinary landscape in Paris, serving modern dishes in a relaxed setting. And a former lingerie workshop is leading the way with an ever-evolving menu of Asian-inspired creations
Vincent Crépel has strict guidelines for designing in his Paris atelier. He starts with a pencil drawing, chooses the highest quality materials, favors clean lines, a pure color palette and always follows the seasons. The space in which he works, Porte 12 in Rue des Messageries, used to be a fashion house, producing bespoke, haute couture lingerie. Since September 2014, however, this atelier has been repurposed into an elegant and intimate restaurant with chef Vincent Crépel as its chief culinary designer.
Overseeing this project is Taiwanese-born chef-artist André Chiang, of two Michelin-starred Restaurant André in Singapore, recently awarded second place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Chiang spent 15 years cooking in France and wanted to open a restaurant in the country which taught him so much. There was an element of fate to the discovery of Porte 12’s location: Chiang’s friend, who owned the building, was planning to move away and did not want to sell. “She suggested I take a look,” says Chiang “It was such a unique and elegant space. I thought: let’s make a small restaurant here in Paris.”
Like other restaurants in the Restaurant André Group, Chiang is behind the design, marketing concept and pricing of Porte 12. He wanted to reference the building’s former incarnation as a lingerie atelier through the restaurant’s interior, using subtle decorative touches to hint at its history.
The entrance to the restaurant is at the end of a narrow, warmly lit hallway, through a thick black curtain – which feels much like entering a discreet dressing room. Copper lampshades in the form of corset frames encircle the lights that hang from the high ceilings. These design devices stay true to the history of the building, adding to the sense of dining in a high-fashion space and creating a restrained backdrop for the star feature: the cuisine.
After several years at Restaurant André in Singapore, Crépel’s desire to work in his native France coincided with Chiang’s discovery of the Porte 12 building.
“Vincent knows our style and philosophy very well,” says Chiang. “I don’t work like other chefs; I don’t issue recipes for him to follow. We have a strict and clear [culinary] concept, but the chef can apply their own creativity within those guidelines.”
With Porte 12, the cuisine is to be handmade and of high quality. The size of the restaurant (32 seats) means that dishes are made to order and service is personal – indeed, Crépel himself brings some dishes to the table. Porte 12 offers only tasting menus and has no à la carte option – something which may worry the conservative diner –although Crépel is more than happy to accommodate dietary restrictions. However, Porte 12 would probably not be the right choice for someone looking for old-school French cooking.
Crépel’s culinary work evokes haute couture and colorful textiles. The first dish he serves features coils of lightly pickled butternut squash, studded with glistening diamonds of scallop and set among tiny curls of amber-colored mimolette cheese.
“Sometimes I like to use one block of colour for my whole dish,” he says of this bright orange plate. He pours a perfect butternut squash broth into the dish, which melds with the mimolette.
A veal dish brings to mind swatches of rose pink raw silk; a monochrome platter of sliced mushrooms in a coffee-scented sabayon has a geometric quality, like houndstooth tweed. The dishes are spare and delightful, avoiding busy, cluttered plates and overpowering adornments, and the flavors are pure and true.
“My cuisine is simple,” says Crépel. “No more than three elements on the plate.”
As dinner progresses there are noticeable Asian touches to some of the dishes. A lobster ravioli served with fermented kohlrabi resembles an upmarket har gau (shrimp dumpling). One of the two desserts, charmingly fashioned into the form of a fried egg, features tapioca with a Thai tea sorbet, enhanced with cloves and cinnamon. The food is by no means fusion, but it is certainly not from Escoffier’s cookbook.
Crépel is upfront about this: “I spent over seven years in Singapore, where I discovered flavours that are now in my head and tongue.”
“Today in Paris, you can go to any Michelin star restaurant, walk in without booking and get a table, but with a neo-bistro you might have to book one month or two months ahead”
– André Chiang
He claims his style of cooking is instinctive rather than planned: “I don’t control the influences on my menu: if I have a memory of something that I want to express, or a taste in the back of my mind that can suit a dish I will apply it and strive to achieve authenticity without overwhelming the flavors.”
Chiang cites the globalization of cuisine, when questioned about the presence of Asian ingredients in a Parisian restaurant. “Earlier in Europe and France, people were very curious and interested in ‘exotic’ ingredients used in cooking like coriander, ginger and tea. Nowadays more Europeans are familiar with and enjoy these flavors, so we have moved to the second level – these ingredients are no longer considered exotic. You can no longer separate ingredients by country or continent. In any three Michelin restaurant in France today, you might find coriander, soy sauce or dashi, ingredients that used to be unique to Asia. Now that boundary has gone. You don’t need to use only French ingredients to be a Parisian restaurant.”
It appears that international travel has influenced the palates of both chefs and diners.
Porte 12 is sometimes described as a “neo-bistro,” but Crépel is not fond of this term. “For me neo-bistro doesn’t mean anything, it is name-dropping,” he says. “A bistro is a simple place where the food is very classic. Porte 12 is a restaurant.”
Chiang, on the other hand, explains that the terms “neo-bistro” and also “bistronomy” are often used to describe relaxed surroundings serving edgy gastronomy, as opposed to the starched napery of a Michelin-accredited establishment. Porte 12 has no dress code, diners wear anything from business suits to jeans; the wait staff are dressed in neat black uniforms. The tables are uncovered, but service is attentive, informed and polite.
“People are looking for something closer to their lifestyle,” says Chiang, “not focusing on waiters wearing white gloves, silver cutlery or table cloths, rather concentrating on reasonable prices and good produce.”
Another key feature of this informal dining style is value for money. The eight-course tasting menu on a Saturday night at Porte 12 is 80 euros (US$86), half to a third of what you might pay at a three-star Michelin in central Paris. Yet, this menu features high-value ingredients: foie gras, truffle, lobster and bouchot mussels. What is more, these expensive ingredients appear in imaginative incarnations: the foie gras is fashioned into a custard and its surface torched like a savory crème brûlée; a lacy mandarin orange foam frays to reveal sweet-fleshed bouchot mussels in a vibrant green broth. This is reasonably priced fine dining.
Whatever label you choose for this type of relaxed gastronomy, the model appears to be working well. According to Chiang: “Today in Paris, you can go to any Michelin star restaurant, walk in without booking and get a table, but with a neo-bistro you might have to book one month or two months ahead.”
Crépel’s gastronomic designs are clearly on trend.