Arriving for dinner at Les Jalles with Julie, a delightful English woman who lived in Paris for many years before recently moving to her husband's native Sydney, and my Alabamian pal Judy, I parted the heavy velvet drapes at door of this storefront restaurant in the rue des Capucines and immediately drank in the decorously provocative atmosphere of a pleasantly perfervid dining room with good lighting--maybe even the best lighting I've seen in a new Paris restaurant for many years, engineered to induce a certain sensualist's nostalgia for the twenties Paris of writer Djuna Barnes and Nancy Cunard. The mis-en-scene was so lush, in fact, that I instantly thought of the brilliant photographs of Brassai in his book Paris de Nuit and also of the harmlessly risque Proustian vintage 'art' postcards that once got a rise out of corpulent old gents with pince nez. So this artfully staged space intends to flatter anyone who walks through the door by casting them into a public tableaux that's knowingly freighted with sexual mystery and, surely to a lesser degree, possibility.
Thing is, the three hungry and bedraggled journalists we were didn't add any kindling to this beautifully laid but unignited fire, and most of the other clients didn't either, since they seemed to have come through hotel concierges or because they work for the banks and luxury goods companies in nearby offices and know proprietresses Magalie Marian and Delphine Alcover's other terrific restaurant, the Bistrot Volnay, just around the corner. The Bistrot Volnay often has an attractive and appealingly louche crowd, so perhaps these types will try the new address, if they're not scared off by the desire-wilting prices practiced here.
But wait! What about the food? Oh, right, the food. Well, as none of us work for BNP Parisbas or have the evident wealth of the Middle Eastern gent who was drinking something vivid and green on crushed ice in a snifter with dinner and who kept showing off the emergency navigation locator system on a steel watch as fat as an oyster, we dithered like pensioner librarians, constructing our meals from the tarif backwards, rather than the poetry forward. So Julie demured on a starter, which was a shame, and Judy and I both had the baby fava bean veloute with ravioli stuffed with fresh chevre and sarriette at 15 Euros a serving.
The soup was pleasant enough, but needed salt and more depth. While our plates were being cleared, however, I saw our main courses already coming up through the window pass of the kitchen, and stepped on the brakes. We weren't, I told the waiter, in a hurry, and in fact, as a group of friends who hadn't seen each other for a very longtime, we truly didn't want to be rushed. He shrugged--"But your plates are ready, and the service is like that in France." Or you're a dim-witted foreigner who wouldn't know better. But we did actually know better, and we well and fully stopped the insanity-in-the-making of an hour-long dinner.
When we discussed it, the ladies wondered if they weren't trying too hard to turn tables, but I didn't think that was it. Rather, the newly opened kitchen hasn't found its rhythm yet, and neither has the service--I haven't been in a Paris dining room in years where there were so many staff, racing about and almost bumping into each other at the same time that wine remained unpoured and bread baskets empty. I also think this place has been doped by a few very good early reviews and has gotten a bit ahead of itself.
After our main courses arrived, though, a ripple of private pleasure passed around our table, since the food here is actually quite good. Though the portion was scanty--they were scallops, rather than the usual nice fist-sized organ, my ris de veau were at once crunchy--the breading, and creamy, the veal sweetbreads themselves, something only a very talented chef could pull off, and Judy loved her big thick pearly white chunk of cod with cooked and raw (thin shavings) of asparagus in a well-made jus de viande. Julie was a bit less enthusiastic about her steak, which came with a potato gratin rather parsimoniously garnished with morel mushrooms for 33 Euros.
We liked our Givry, one of the least expensive reds on their list but still in the 40 Euro range, and service was very pleasant for having been tinkered with. Dessert? No, that didn't come to pass, but here's the menu:
As it was, Julie was off to meet friends for a nightcap, and no one really wanted to be hit up for another 14 Euros. "Restaurant prices have gone through the roof this year in Paris," Judy observed, while we waited for her bus, "And apart from the perspicacious Philippe Toinard in A Nous Paris, the food critics don't quite seem to want to understand that anything over 50 Euros is quite a lot of money for most people for a single meal." She was right, of course, which made me a bit melancholy on the walk home. If the food was good, what I really liked at Les Jalles was the atmosphere, which isn't something I'll be able to avail myself of very often.
Les Jalles, 14 rue des Capucines, 2nd, Tel: 01-42-61-66-71. Métro: Opéra or Madeleine. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Average a la carte 65 Euros.