Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 04:00
Unfortunately, I was never able to book a place at The Hidden Kitchen, the running series of private dinner parties cooked and hosted by the hugely talented Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian in their Paris apartment, because I travel so often and these meals were so popular you had to commit weeks ahead of time. Many of my favorite dining companions in Paris had raved about both the food and the hospitality at these meals, however, and so it was with intense curiosity that I went to Verjus, the restaurant the couple have just opened in a passage linking the rue de Richelieu and the Palais Royal for dinner the other night.
Arriving, I loved this dining room immediately, since it overlooks the Palais Royal and the Theatre du Palais Royal just across the street through huge picture windows, and mismatched flea-market chairs were stationed at smooth oak tables. Somehow it didn't really feel like a restaurant, though, maybe because the atmosphere was so much more relaxed, and because it quickly became apparent that all of the usual role play incumbent in dining out had been rather refreshingly jettisoned. I was mulling this over, in fact, over a flute of very good Champagne before dinner when Bruno said, "This place doesn't really feel like a restaurant." I asked him why. "They're not doing all of the formality and rites of a restaurant," he said. "Instead it's kind of like being at someone's house."
We decided to order the four-course 55 Euro menu--the other option at this dinner-only address is the 70 Euro six-course meal, and a bottle of Jurancon Sec instead of the 30 or 40 Euro wine-option. Our meal began when Braden arrived tableside with an amuse bouche--two baked baby beets lightly sprinkled with caraway seeds on bamboo skewers in a shallow glass dish filled with froathy buttermilk. What I liked best about this debut was that this trio of flavors--so unexpected in Paris, astutely referenced the cooking of Central Europe--Poland, Lithuania and beyond.
Next, a really brilliant little miniature as our first course--roasted baby leeks with a quail's egg, Israeli couscous, oven-dried radicchio leaves and a scattering of ash I'd guess was made from the trimmed green of the leeks. This was a fascinating composition, at once feral and very comforting, sort of like a detail from a Breughel painting of a winter feast in the Low Countries. Bread was served alongside this course, which put Bruno at ease, too. He'd have been happier if the bread had come with the beets, and since I like buttermilk a lot, so would I. With food this intricate, I also found myself wishing that the menu had been left behind as sort of a program for the meal.
A superb chunk of baked just smoked salmon garnished with flying fish eggs and accompanied by tofu flan with a corsage of salad leaves and fennel bulb shavings followed, and it was such an immensely little satisfying dish I found myself really regretting that I'd never been able to attend one of Braden and Laura's dinner parties. This was, in fact, dinner party food, or the dinner party food of powerfully talented cooks, because it was so much more immediate, fragile and personal than restaurant food. Meanwhile, Bruno was still meditating over the identity of this place. "The waitresses serve like it's a private home. They're very sweet, but they don't survey the table to see if you need anything else (we never did, actually, since Perkins's seasoning is impeccable) and they don't explain what they're serving to you either," he observed. And I found I agreed with him even though I usually dislike the sing-song recitations that occur in restaurants when a dish is served. Here, though, I wanted more detail but ultimately didn't mind some mystery either.
Perkins himself served the final main course, a perfectly roasted chunk of pork belly with carrots cooked in carrot juice. The gentle bitterness of a spray of a frisee sprinkled with crumbled salted ricotta served as the sophisticated foil for the sweetness of the carrot, which elongated the carmelized juices of the meat. This dish was so brilliantly balanced as to be almost algebraic, but remained friendly and sincere rather than cerebral.
After a brilliant cheese sampler for two from Hisada, the cheese salon run by Japanese maître-fromagère Sanae Hisada next door, dessert--chocolate ganache with beet sorbet, drops of citrus coulis and a dose of fennel was, in the context of the way our meal began, a sort of fairy-tale happy ending, since we'd returned safely after several adventures and some magic to the same place where we'd begun. Fascinating though it was to discover the affinity between beets and chocolate, I found the fennel, an echo of the caraway in the amuse bouche, a bit too potent. This was a deeply imagined and magnificently executed meal, though, and if Perkins is doing this well a week after opening and the substantial change, in both logistical and psychological terms, of moving from a small, controlled dinner party format to a much larger public one, this restaurant is going to become hugely popular.
Note, by the way, that Perkins and Adrian also run a sister wine bar--it's also called Verjus, with a small plates tasting menu just below their main table, so you can come here to sample Perkins's cooking if you can get a reservation in the main restaurant, which has a rather complicated reservation system--you can only book at 7pm, 7.30pm or 8pm, very early for Paris, or come for a second seating on a first-come, first-served basis. A communal table is also available.
Verjus, 52 rue Richelieu, 1st, Tel. 01-42-97-54-40. Metro: Palais-Royal Musee du Louvre or Pyramide. Dinner only. Closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Four courses 55 Euros, Six courses 70 Euros.
Verjus Wine Bar, 47 rue Montpensier, 1st, Tel. 01-42-97-54-40. Metro: Palais-Royal Musee du Louvre or Pyramide. Closed Saturday and Sunday.