After taking on a seriously ambitious challenge a few months ago, young British chef Ollie Clarke, 28, is succeeding deliciously at his restaurant in a remote corner of the 14th arrondissement near the Porte d’Orléans. To wit, after cooking most recently at the popular Fish La Boissonnerie in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and for Rick Stein at the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, at the beginning of his career, Clarke has taken over La Régalade, one of the most legendary bistros in Paris.
To mark the change, he’s transitioning it to a new name, Origins 14 – La Régalade, and is very subtly tacking away from the modern style of bistro cooking known as bistronomie for which this place became famous under the aegis of founding chef Yves Camdeborde and then chef Bruno Doucet; who bought it from Camdeborde after the latter decamped to Saint-Germain-des-Prés to cash in on the fame he’d acquired by opening La Régalade in 1992.
To understand the amplitude of Clarke’s relaunch, however, some background is in order. Twenty-five years after La Régalade first opened, it’s hard to imagine what an impact it had on the Paris culinary scene. Suffice it to say that Camdeborde’s cooking was extolled to the rafters and that, within the space of just a few weeks, it became a challenge to land a table there. And this was even before the restaurant had been lauded by newspapers and magazines around the world or found its way into dozens and dozens of guidebooks to Paris.
What created the excitement was Camdeborde’s new style of French bistro cooking, which shook up this much loved idiom by applying the technicity of haute cuisine to this homey rustic register. Camdeborde had worked at the Hôtel de Crillon when chef Christian Constant was in the kitchen, and his takeaways from that experience included the ideas of using luxury foods like foie gras and truffles as garnishes on bistro dishes, shorter cooking times, a generous use of fresh herbs, and a preference for jus and vinaigrettes in place of Escoffier-style sauces made by deglazing cooking juices with wine and then elongating them with rich dairy products like butter and cream.
Vegetables, long an afterthought aside from being used in stews, were treated with a new respect by this new modern bistro cooking as well, as were homelier cuts of meat, including organ meats and off-cuts, and cheaper varieties of fish (herring, mackerel, etc.). The new movement needed a descriptor, which was supplied by the French food writer Sébastien Demorand when he coined the term La Bistronomie.
A band of other chefs cooking in the same vein also opened restaurants, and they were praised like Camdeborde had been by new guides and publications, including Nova (no longer publishing) and Le Fooding (now partially owned by Michelin). Twenty-five years later, la bistronomie has become so ubiquitous in Paris that it’s now not only much easier to find a modern bistro meal than a traditional one, but the style has become something of a cliché.
Enter Ollie Clarke. While he’s left the dining room at La Régalade pretty much untouched and is perpetuating the wonderful tradition of plonking a big terrine of pâté de campagne on the table as a complimentary hors d’oeuvre once you’ve placed your order, his food is wonderfully brawny and rustic without any of what have been the sillier affectations of la bistronomie.
Dining with friends, we started with an excellent rabbit terrine, an intriguing carpaccio of smoked lamb with toasted pine nuts and baby spinach leaves and marinated bonite with witty garnishes of Granny Smith apple and roasted chestnuts. Next came roasted pork belly with winter vegetables and a garnish of black pudding purée for two of us, and veal breast with honey-glazed parsley root for the third. These dishes came off as good, sincere, old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen cooking, or the type of food that makes you feel happy and well-fed without needing to show off. This is Clarke’s signature and, as traditional as it sounds, it has an appealing modernity for being so straightforward.
We finished up with beautifully made Grand Marnier soufflé, chocolate mousse and an impeccable baba au rhum, and left Clarke’s new restaurant with every intention of going again soon.
49 avenue Jean-Moulin, Paris 14th. Tel.+33 (0)1 45 45 68 58. Prix-fixe menu €37. www.origins14.com
From France Today magazine