Chef Christophe Saintagne’s lively new bistro in a very bourgeois neighbourhood of the 17th arrondissement signals the on-going ascendency of western Paris in terms of good eating. For almost 20 years, the drill for young chefs has been to seek a cheap shop-front space in affordable, formerly working-class, eastern Paris when they wanted to set up on their own. Now, the tough economics of making a go of it with a restaurant in a country with labour laws as onerous as France is starting to favour western Paris again, for the simple reason that these districts provide the well-heeled lunch crowd that nourishes the bottom line.
Saintagne was the chef at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Hôtel Le Meurice, but after some chicanery – Ducasse learned this table would be demoted from three stars to two in the 2016 France Michelin Guide – it was decided that he would move on, a decision that may have been mutual. In any event, the name references the 1973 film in which Steve McQueen plays a convict who escapes the Devil’s Island penitentiary off French Guiana…
Saintagne’s new place brings some refreshing modernity to a stuffy neighbourhood with its suspender-wearing young waiters and Nordic looking dining room with parquet floors and suspension lamps. His evolving menu is market-driven and rather modish, with winks at many of the world’s most important food trends right now, including locavorism, sustainable dining – grains, pulses, vegetables and non-endangered seafood, and a guiding minimalism.
Most of it is very good, too, but not everything works. Dining here as part of a quartet, the others enjoyed their starter of cracked wheat with seasonal vegetables in a light vinaigrette, while I was let down by an odd preparation of tiny, lukewarm oysters buried under dull croutons. Happily, my main course put the meal on the rails again – a succulent shoulder of lamb smoked in hay and then roasted, so that it had a beautiful pastoral perfume that was released when its crusted exterior was sliced. Other good main courses included grilled Bigorre pork belly with a garnish of Utah Beach oysters (Saintagne’s puckish nod at his Norman origins) and whiting on toast with black-olive tapenade, with a sauté of baby spinach. Don’t miss the cheese course here either, and bravo for a wine list with so many good vins naturels (unsulfured wines).
Papillon, 8 rue Meissonier, Paris 17th, +33 01 56 79 81 88. Lunch menus: €28, €36. Average price à la carte dinner €65.
From France Today magazine