Monday, August 27, 2012 at 12:50
On the eve of la rentree (fall season) in Paris, they're several new restaurants in the wings that are deadringers for major media shout-outs. La Cocotte, Philippe Stark's new high-concept bistro at the Porte de Clignacourt flea-market, is a perfect definition of media catnip, while Aussie chef James Henry's new on-his-own table and terrific restaurateur Pierre Jancou's Vivant Table, a reboot of his beautiful Vivant bistrot a vins, will be tasty fodder for seriously food-loving bloggers and websites. Then there are places like Guy Martin Italia, Guy Martin's expensive, high-production-values new Italian restaurant. With a serious PR budget being deployed by a very well-known chef--Martin is chef at Le Grand Vefour, you can be sure you'll see this place everywhere, and that it will be the recipient of polite and rather sheepishly toothless reviews in most major French gastronomic publications and magazines and newspapers with food and/or restaurant columns.
With an exception or two--I love the Caffe dei Cioppi, for example, I've long since given up on eating Italian food in Paris, because it's always under-seasoned, over-sophisticated and much too expensive for what it is. Still, hope springs eternal when you love it as much as I do, and so looking for a nice place for a reunion dinner with our friends Laurent and Carole on a Sunday night, I stumbled across Guy Martin Italia, studied the menu on the website, and decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that I'd never liked Le Sensing, the rather forced high-concept contemporary French place it replaces.
Arriving, there was an alarming fastness in the dining room, which set off alarm bells right away, but Laurent and Carole were already seated, so we stepped inside to meet our fate. This semi-hushed very formal service style from a young serving team who took themselves seriously immediately drained off a lot of joy, however, and it also served notice that we were not meant to relax and enjoy this meal, but rather try to live up to it. That said, the bread, served warm, was good, and the short tight bouquet of summer flowers on the attractively dressed table were real.
Though stiffly priced, the menu was appealing enough on paper, too, and I was somewhat heartened to know that there was an Italian born chef in the kitchen, the amiable Fabrizio La Mantia from Mantua. So each of us ordered a different anti-pasto, with me settling on the the beef carpaccio "Cipriani" (the reference to the famous Venetian hotel should have warned me off) for 12 Euros; Carole, a mixed antipasti assortment at 18 Euros; Laurent, some Italian charcuterie for 18 Euros; and Bruno, a plate of prosciutto and burrata at 16 Euros.
Bruno did best, since he generously received two soft white little purses of delicious Puglian curds and whey and a nosegay of San Daniele ham. Carole was basically robbed, since the stingy portion of dried tomatoes, olives, capers and braesola that came her way was just plain dull, while Laurent liked his charcuterie, but complained that he'd be so ungenerously served for what he was paying.
And me? I suddenly found myself eating business-class on Alitalia, with a flaccid flannel of flesh under a clumsy grid of yellow squirt-bottle mayonnaise, a few shards of waxy cheese and a scattering of arugula leaves that gave this dish its only flavor. So now at least I knew where I was--to wit, Martin is gunning for the same Gauche Caviar crowd (establishment power types on expense accounts) who frequent Le Dome and La Rotonde nearby and also rulers-of-the-universe foreigners who dine at Le Grand Vefour, his home crib, but prefer to bed down on the Left Bank.
Will it work? On the basis of our main courses, I don't think so. Spaghetti alle vongole is an Italian comfort-food classic with an international reputation, but based on the cool-operator service and airport-lounge decor of this place, some questions were in order. But what can really ask under these circumstances? Is it good? The waiter swooned, "Oh, yes! It's wonderful!" So Bruno and Laurent went for the spaghetti with baby clams, I fell for the gnochetti, which were actually one of my favorite Italian pastas, malloreddus, or little ribbed durum wheat shells from Sardinia. It was inaccurately translated on the menu--the Italian description mentioned squid, while the French referred only to capers and olives. Neither mentioned the tasteless cubes of cottony hot-house tomato that finally gave this dish its primary flavor. Oh, and poor Carole ended up with some spongy cubes of swordfish with a rather anonymous garnish of aubergines.
The real high-speed Neapolitan car-wreck here, however, was that the spaghetti alle vongole came with shelled clams! Madonna! Shelled clams! No Italian I know would ever have accepted this dish, since the shells are a warrant of freshness and contain the salty juices that make it so good. So I inquired. "Oh, er, yes, our customers always tell us that they're very happy not to have to deal with the shells," the waiter who recommended the dish said rather briskly. So the worst of effete Parisianisme struck again.
And then there was my dish, with more of those suspiciously micro-fine food-service parsley flecks, tasteless olives, the offending tomatoes, and catch-of-the-week calamari rings. The pasta was cooked correctly, however, and the sauce was nicely emulsified, the problem was that it delivered no flavor. And Carole's kitchen-sponge swordfish warrants neither comment nor photo.
So we arrived at dessert, which Bruno, Laurent and I scrubbed, while Carole succumbed to the mango and vanilla panna cotta. I didn't taste it, but I did observe its firm gelatinous flanks and fussy decor.
In the meantime, however, the po-faced waitress had assiduously poured us through two bottles of shreikingly overpriced Vermentino di San Gimignano (you can find it in supermarkets in Italy for about 4 Euros, here at 32 Euros, or some such) and two bottles of Chateldon. Clearly, up-sell is a major part of staff training at Guy Martin italia, which is one of the most calculating restaurants I've been to in a longtime.
In fact, this place could serve as a Harvard Business School case history to illustrate why it's not always a good idea for a chef to expand beyond the kitchen where he actually works. I doubt it will still be open in a year's time, or at least not in the same format--maybe Martin will try his hand at a Texan style barbecue restaurant next time round? In the meantime, it'll be oddly fascinating to watch the inevitably cautious and very polite reviews roll in.
19 rue de Bréa, 6th, Tél. 01-43-27-08-80, Metro: Vavin or Montparnasse. Open daily. Lunch menu 50 Euros, Dinner menus 75 Euros, 95 Euros, Average a la carte 70 Euros.