By Rory Winston
“I had not understood Parisians until crossing the Pont-Neuf’, wrote Benjamin Franklin. Of course, he failed to mention that to really understand Pont-Neuf would demand an understanding of four hundred years of cultural history. As for trying to understand Les Bouquinistes, the little French restaurant draped alongside the Pont Neuf, well, I would say, all that requires is an understanding of its owner, Guy Savoy - a chef who devoted his entire life to absorbing seven to eight hundred years of French culinary tradition before adding his own nuances.
On a symbolic level, Pont Neuf is a perfect setting for Les Bouquinistes. Since its inception in the early 17th Century, the bridge has connected disparate worlds. It was here performers came to sing, painters to paint, poets to recite, and royalty to spread gossip. It was a place for quacks, courtesans, and second hand book sellers; and, most importantly, a place where people from all walks of life were exposed to one another. In a sense, the birth of Pont Neuf was a harbinger of a new era – one that would alter the course of culinary art forever.
While the Seine gave Paris import potential and diversity, the food of the Ancien Régime had primarily remained a smooth linear succession of minor developments that could be traced back to French Medieval Cuisine. Guillaume Tirel had codified a gastronomic tradition where careful preparation and embellished presentation became a science. Along with the growth of the monarchy, the craft expanded to include exotic spices and rarities brought from all corners of the empire. But it was not until a few years after Pont Neuf was completed that Chef La Varenne saw all of cooking in a new light; the paradigm shift being: Haute Cuisine.
Abandoning the popular spices, the emphasis shifted to local herbs and the cooking of newly discovered vegetables. Sauces, stocks and reductions became an integral part of the craft as did the idea of consciously harnessing flavors in an attempt to create an all-encompassing sensory event. Soon Marie-Antoine Carême elaborated this into grande cuisine and, years later, Georges Auguste Escoffier would modernize it. Still, it would take nearly another century before a second paradigm shift, Nouvelle Cuisine, would strip away the complexity, and return the focus on inherent flavors and their – often dissonant - interactions.
One for the Books
Like the Pont-Neuf, the essence of French cuisine is an ongoing dialogue: a dialogue between respect for noble ingredients and irreverent reinvention, craftsmanship and artistry, regional themes and urban motifs, simplicity and embellishment, tradition and personal signature. Comprehending the dynamics between these disparate approaches is a bit like riffling through a history’s worth of antique books while keeping up with new ones. Guy Savoy is a man whose oeuvre is based on having undertaken just such a challenge. As for Les Bouquinistes, his restaurant, it has surpassed its namesake by becoming more than a random collection of insights from the past. It is a living culinary anthology – one that has been collated, interpreted, edited and signed by the mighty culinary pen of Guy Savoy. Watching the many antique booksellers from the restaurant’s window, one immediately comprehends that although the pen has proven mightier than the sword, in France, the spatula is on equal footing with an entire library.
Designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the visionary behind the Mandarin Oriental and the Hotel de Nell, the restaurant’s interior eschews obtrusive statements while, nevertheless, alluding to the bookseller theme. Subtle contemporary wall displays create an atmosphere that visually echoes the historic quays below. Sitting by the window, one feels that the entire venue is no more than a bright reflection on the surface of the river, one that had mistakenly landed upright on a street running parallel. No faux historicity, no overt installations, the minimalist design is a dreamy proscenium for cuisine – a thing which works to great advantage when the one at the helm is Savoy’s protégé, Chef Stéphane Perraud, a culinary wizard who puts absolute value on maximizing fresh seasonal selections.
A Ravenous Read
A soft wave of fine champagne and then: Sheathed in carrot and ginger condiments, tender Scampi bathes in a fulgent basin of Thai stock brushing along a coastline of fresh grilled vegetables. This - along with a Lodized crunchy pastry of eggplants, marinated sardines and granite lemon-seaweeds - makes for a marvelously harmonic starter. Although the renowned Guy Savoy creation of Artichoke cooked in truffle juice is absent, the asparagus with poached egg and condiments reinforces the notion that in the hands of a master, even the most innocuous looking ingredients can turn sublime. This penchant for ‘transmutation’, as Savoy likes to refer to it, is something Perraud has clearly inherited and one that – like the astonishing wine-pairing - carries seamlessly through the main course.
Imagine a heartrending salvo answered by a sultry murmur and you may get the idea of how the Supreme guinea fowl is tamed by an earthy foie gras – its airborne texture colluding with peas and Serrano ham to create a dynamic whole. As for the Brill, its soft ample form is ensconced within a strategic formation of chanterelles while the dissonant sea knives and yuzu envelope it, creating (surprising) a harmony. A few succulent sea snails later, and one is ready for dessert: a perfect medley of meringue, fresh strawberries, rhubarb sorbet and hibiscus cream; or another enticing juxtaposition, Financier raspberries-pistachio and oat milk sorbet.
Looking out the window, one sees a lambent glow writhing across the water like a snake - it is light that flows from the Notre Dame, jumps from the bridge, and drowns with the stars in the Seine. Was this what Ben Franklin had been watching… epochs flowing between the banks, the timeless procession crossing over them, the lights of former glories still dancing between the binders of an unseen book? No matter. I have read the past with my tongue and savored centuries passing through my palate. Here’s some food for thought: Les Bouquinistes is endless pages of tradition understood bite by bite, spoon by spoon.