A meal at Michel Rostang was on, then off, then on again and off again – but such are the vagaries of life. Although it was already late on Friday evening, I decided that I did not want to waste an opportunity. As it was such short notice, I decided to call on a local friend, who secured me a table. Thus, with Julot’s recommendation and help, I made my way to rue Rennequin.
Michel Rostang hails both from Isère near the French Alps and from a long line of chefs, starting with his great-great-grandpère and succeeding down the family tree. ‘I never asked what I would do,’ he admits, ‘I am the fifth generation of chefs. My grandfather had a two-star Michelin restaurant. My father had a restaurant near Grenoble. When you are involved in the restaurant since you are a child, it is natural to follow this way.’ After apprenticing under his father, Jo, the young Michel went on to hospitality school in Nice. The subsequent sixties saw him spend his first spell in Paris as a commis chef at Lasserre and La Marée, before moving to Laporte, Biarritz. He returned to Paris before long, joining Lucas-Carton. At 25, however, he went back home to work in the family restaurant in Sassenagne, just outside Grenoble, which allowed his father to open La Bonne Auberge in Antibes. Back at his ‘old restaurant in the Alps’, he continued to miss Paris and after five years, he was just unable to resist her any longer. In 1978, he and his wife, Marie Claude, moved back to the capital, buying the tiny Chez Denis on the rue Gustave Flaubert (17th). Within one year he had one Michelin star. Within two years, he had two (this same year his father was awarded three). Soon he was able to relocate to bigger premises on the rue Rennequin, only around the corner and where he continues to cook today.
In the late eighties, Rostang launched three bouchons Lyonnais – Bistrot d’à Côté Flaubert, Villiers and la Boutard. His first, opened in 1987 next door (à côté) to the main restaurant, was followed (within weeks) by more casual ventures from the likes of fellow Isérois Guy Savoy and later Jacques Cagna, Gérard Boyer and Marc Meneau. It can be thus argued that Rostang began the ‘bistro moderne’ movement that has been generally credited to Camdeborde et Cie. In the mid-nineties and then naughties, Michel unveiled three more neighbourhood restaurants, l’Absinthe (1995), Dessirier (1996) and Jarrasse (2005). Today, he has help running these from his wife as well as two daughters, Caroline and Sophie, both of whom are very much a part of the family business.
Another passion that the Rostangs share is for collecting and visiting markets. This is a hobby that Michel has fostered since his days as a young chef at Lasserre, when he would go each Sunday to Paris’ flea markets, searching for eighteenth century cookery books. ‘I am a chineur,’ he confesses. Nowadays, this old distraction is discernible in the dining rooms of restaurant Michel Rostang, of which there are four fitting up to seventy guests. Two of these are private spaces: the ‘Art Nouveau’ room with stained glass ceiling and enamelled sculptures; and the ‘Lalique’ room that seats fourteen and features original glasswork and an Aubusson tapestry. The establishment’s main area is the ‘Contemporary Arts’ one, showing off Arman and Niki de Saint Phalle artwork and a compressed car by César, ‘purchased long ago, when possible and they were my friends’. Finally, the ‘Robj’ room, wherein I sat, which borders the kitchen, into which a picture-window offers an entertaining view. In here, pearwood bookcases bear over two hundred Robj figurines. Walls are Venetian red; chairs, upholstered ecru or scarlet; and tablecloths, pastel cream. Dim lighting is from recessed bulbs and spotlights; there is one window against the back wall, but it has been blocked out. Tables are laid with Bernaudaud crockery, Voglux Ortevre cutlery, Baccarat crystal-ware and a small dug-out orange candle. It feels very much as though one is eating in the home of an eclectic, eccentric and cute elderly couple.
Rostang has a reputation for his truffles, therefore opting for Le Menu « Truffes » seemed obligatory – with a couple of amendments…
Amuse Bouche 1: Cromesquis des sardines. Two little ladles, each bearing a small batter-encrusted sardine sphere sitting atop some tartar sauce, started dinner off. These were surprisingly pleasing – their dry coats crunchily ceding creamy, warm filling. The fish flavour was clear and rich without being in any way overpowering. Perky, herby sauce tartar was its excellent and customary counterpoint.
Les Pains: Baguette et pain bis. Bread was of two sorts – baguette and brown – though there was no choice as to which to have when. I was allowed to try the baguette first; this was rather hard and dry, though not inedibly so. Later, brown was brought, which was decent. Fortunately, butter was Pascal Beillevaire. From Machecoul in the Loire, it boasts excellent little crystals of Noirmoutier fleur de sel and has a smooth, superb savour.
Amuse Bouche 2: Les deux petites bouchées; ‘Goût de Truffes’. A porcelain platter presented a ‘taste of truffles’ in two mouthfuls – a shot of Jerusalem artichoke purée layered with black truffles then topped with egg yolk and embedded with a fried bread frazzle; and a beetroot jelly square packed with a scallop-and-truffle farce and garnished with green apple slice and julienne of more truffle. The former egg-and-soldier arrangement had velvety yolk over earthy, silky artichoke; there was also a nice, subtle nuttiness from both the topimbour and truffes. The beet box was soft, delicate and had a hint of sweetness; the scallop supplied a new firmness; the apple, crunch; and, within, diced beetroot bits promoted further the play on textures. Regrettably though, the truffles failed to have any influence here.
Entrée 1: Le terrine de foie gras ‘poireaux-truffes’; poireaux vinaigrette. Three rectangles of thick foie gras sandwiching two layers of sautéed leek were capped with truffle consommé and thin truffle chips; a whole baby leek lay on one side of the this terrine, a long sweep of truffle vinaigrette on the other. The buttery foie had strong, clean flavour, but the lukewarm leeks, with their delicate mellowness, worked to enhance the foie’s inherent sweeter aspect and thus lighten its livery heaviness; these greens also had a pleasant springiness to them. Truffle jelly atop added subtle acidity that cut through any remaining richness. Demolishing this savoury millefeuille and smearing it upon a separately served crunchy slice of toasted pain de campagne was quite enjoyable.
Entrée 2: Le millefeuille de coquilles Saint-Jacques crues et lamellas de truffe en salade. Overlapping laminae of alternating raw scallop and black truffle were overlaid with a mound of mesclun, sprinkled with tiny crouton cuts and finished with truffle vinaigrette. Sourced from Erquy on brittany’s Côtes-d’Armor – France’s coquille Saint-Jacques capital – these were fine examples of this shellfish indeed. Firm yet creamy, sea fresh and sweet, they were complemented by crisp, mustardy rocket and frisée leaves and pungent peppercorns. The dish was elevated by its especially good seasoning.
Entrée 3: Les pâtes ‘taglierini’ aux truffes. Taglierini, tossed with fresh-truffle-infused sauce à la crème carrying more truffle diced, was sprinkled with even more truffle twigs. It was an obscene amount of pasta – but I am not one to make a scene. My eyes appeased, my sense of smell was struck second – the truffes, for really the first time during dinner, pronounced their presence in olfactory fashion. The pasta was cooked nicely until a touch softer than al dente. The sauce – blatantly buttery so sinfully satisfying – was rich, but not at all cloying or sickly. It had been absorbed well by the flat pasta from Piemonte that also formed an indigenous duet with the black truffle. This Tuber, employed three ways – ground, brunoise and julienne – offered grainy, bitty and brittle textures.
Plat Principal 1: Le ‘sandwich’ tiède a la truffe fraîche; au pain de compagne grillé et beurre salé. Michel Rostang’s creation comprised toasted pain au levain buttered with Beillevaure’s beurre cru baratté à l’ancienne and spread with peelings of thick truffle – so basically bread, butter and truffle – the two slices sealed together and left overnight in the refrigerator, were then broiled barely (just enough to melt the butter) on both sides in a salamander. The result was a crusty-edged, moist-middled sandwich with salty, earthy-mushroom filling. The truffle flavour had suffused through the bread, which oozed a warm, welcoming odour. This was possibly the best ‘sandwich‘ I have ever eaten. It was teamed with a token salad of rocket dressed with sherry vinegar, olive oil and truffle.
Plat Principal 2: Le feuilleté chaud de truffe noire; epinards frais au foie gras de canard. A golden pastry pillar packed full of foie gras cuts, sweetbread bits, truffle cubes and spinach écrasé, was served with jus gras poured over it at the table and a mesclun side salad. An inviting savoury smell impelled the piercing of the pâte feuilletée; the crumbly case was thinner and softer than suspected. Within, creamy ris de veau, earthy truffles and smooth foie formed a meaty, substantial stuffing. The surrounding bourgeois jus gras – chicken jus rôti, chicken and veal stock – was not as sinister as its name suggested. Absorbed by the base of the feuilleté, it provided flavour and moisture; the salad supplied some vert refreshment.
Dessert 1: La poire caramélisée et crémeaux de ‘chocolat lait’; dacquoise à la fève au Tonka, gelée de chartreuse et croustillant glacé. Chocolate mousse, strewn with moist Williams pear pieces and covered with a wafer-like biscuit, came encased within sponge, sitting upon a milk chocolate tray and with pear crisp inserted into one side; atop this construction, pear and Chartreuse cream was rolled in cigarette tuile whilst a dollop of Chartreuse jelly was doled out at the table. The dacquoise – creamy, crunchy, moist and soft – had mild yet long-lasting Jivara chocolate with strong notes of vanilla. The cylindrical cracker was crammed with light, sweet and zingy crème; whilst the grainy gelée alongside was slightly spicy and very interesting.
Dessert 2: Le soufflé chaud au caramel beurre salé; sorbet aux poires Wililam, poivre de Tasmanie; brioche de Saint-Genix. A small sterling saucepan, spilling over with rusty-coloured soufflé, arrived with a quenelle of Williams pear, Tasmanian pepper and St Genix brioche in a similarly-silver spoon. Once tabled, the treat was slit and liquid salted caramel siphoned in. In return for its substantial size, an even, flat surface had been sacrificed. A sticky skin concealed piping hot, fluffy centre. This middle, mixed with caramelised hazelnuts, was light, yet dense with flavour. Caramel butter was well-judged, neither too salty nor too sweet. However, the star of this course was the sorbet: complex, sweet, spicy, grainy, peppery and wholemeal – it was delicious. Tasmanian (or mountain) pepper is an Australian condiment noted for its short but intensive piquancy, whilst the brioche de Saint-Genix, a Norman butter bread baked with red-sugared almonds.
Migniardises: Grand collection des sucreries. Dinner ended with a tray moulded like a young mademoiselle wearing a long dress, the hem of which was laden with a plethora of French pastries. These included a canelé; macaron au pomme au four; financier des agrumes; caramel au beurre salé from Henri Roux; baba au rhum; pâte à la cannelle avec confiture aux fruits rouges; moelleux à la noix de coco; praliné feuilletine; religieuse à la vanille avec boule coquelicot; and boule au chocolat blanc. The canelé was crisp without, mushy within; fruity, moist financier made with gooseberries and kumquats, was sweet and sharp; the baba had delicate crème de Chantilly and a whopping big hit of alcohol; and the praliné feuilletine was good and crunchy.
Arriving at the restaurant, I was greeted first by Sophie Rostang, then by Monsieur Michel Braillard, one of the two maîtres d’hôtel (the other one being Monsieur Bruno Grimault, who was not in that night). Both were very welcoming and friendly. Throughout the meal, Monsieur Michel was excellent – charming, hospitable and with a playful sense of humour. The other serveurs I encountered proved informed, inquisitive and attentive; and the chef de patisserie even took the time to come out tell me about the mignardises, which I thought a nice touch. The staff certainly seemed a tight-knit team and involved me in some of the pleasant banter that passed between them. In spite of all this, service was nearly spoilt by one serveuse. I almost hate to mention it – and nearly feel guilty doing it – because the others there were so genial, but she really was the very image of misery. Sour-faced and stingy with her smiles, parsimonious with her answers and simply standoffish, she made the first half of the night more challenging than it ought to have been. However, midway through the meal, there was a violent revolution in her manner – for the better. Suddenly, she had time to talk, a willingness to be nice and seemed to have discovered that to grin was easier than to frown.
With respect to the food, there is one issue to address before I go through the dishes and it concerns the effectiveness of the truffles. I do not doubt their quality – after all, Rostang uses the same supplier, Monsieur Pebeyre, as Pacaud does – but their strength was suspect nonetheless. In the chef’s defence though, this seemed a characteristic common to most of the Tubers I had been served recently in Paris, leading me to assume that it was simply too soon in the season to actually enjoy them. As disappointing as the situation was, I did not hold it explicitly against this restaurant.
Across the courses, I found myself constantly surprised – this was mainly from the little, unexpected nuances that littered them. With the terrine de foie gras ‘poireaux-truffes’, I thought I would find strong, deep flavours, but instead it was pleasingly light and subtle. Maybe this was evidence of a softer, feminine touch – there did seem to be an unpredictably high proportion of women in the kitchen. For all its simplicity, I was actually startled by how good the second entrée was; evidence that good products speak for themselves. The third was just as basic, but tasty and certainly filling. The ‘sandwich’ – shamefully, the real reason how Rostang’s name worked itself onto my dining card – did not disappoint. It was a delightful indulgence. And how often does one get the chance to eat haute cuisine with their hands? Although I came for the sandwich, I stayed for the feuilleté. This dish may have stolen the show; it was today’s hearty, gratifying cuisine classique at its best. The desserts met the measure set by the savouries. The poire caramelisé was intricate yet delicious whilst the soufflé, a good finish. Actually, the accompanying pear-pepper-brioche sorbet was one of the yummiest things I had eaten in some time.
The cooking is, of course, very traditional. Classical combinations, slow cooking and rich sauces are all standard. Maybe most symbolic of Rostang’s style was the feuilleté’s ‘jus gras’ – heavy, unmitigated and full-on in the face of nouvelle cuisine. The chef embraces quality ingredients (like coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy), incorporating these into refined, family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. This is home-cooking in the very best sense. The chief concern is satisfying the diner: challenging them, testing their intelligence, keeping up with current culinary trends – such things are eschewed in favour of fulfilling food and fond flavours.
Dishes are solid, substantial and generous (regardez les tagliarini), but at the same time, the kitchen showed it could be just as gentle and subtle as it was bold and blunt: the coquilles Saint-Jacques was straightforward yet tasty; the terrine de foie gras, mellow and delicate. There is a cheeky side to the cuisine too and this comes through clearly with the truffle sandwich, which takes confidence and humour to serve. One of the most impressive items on the night – that sorbet – also showed that Rostang is not afraid and unable to be creative when it works.
The restaurant’s curse if you are cynical / challenge if optimistic (delete as appropriate) is that the cooking here seems to be of a nature that contravenes Michelin three-star criteria. From my experience, food at the highest level has a prissiness if you are cynical / daintiness if optimistic (delete as appropriate) that is the exception at Rostang, not the rule. This cuisine is robust, hearty, satisfying and gratifying – it is also technically adept – but this, again judging on my own observations, is not the sort that is awarded les trois étoiles.
Rostang stood out as an especially good meal. It may have helped that my dinner here was, effectively, a departure from the norm – nouvelle cuisine – and thus more interesting for that reason, but this seems an excuse for my enjoyment. The intimate, more informal atmosphere was appreciated on the cold night I ate there; the hospitably offered was warmly received too. Able to view the kitchen from my table, it seemed this easiness in attitude was present there too – both those in the FOH and the chefs really did seem to enjoy their work and to me, the customer, this came through in the fruits of their labour. One thing I liked about Rostang was that the food left me feeling nourished; another is the generosity – the importance of which I have mentioned many times, but is always worth repeating. This can take many guises and here was apparent in (almost all) the staff, the simple spirit of the restaurant and, of course, the portion sizes…
To quote a friend, Michel Rostang offers something ‘serious’.
20, rue Rennequin, Paris 75017
tel: 0033 1 47 63 40 77
nearest metro: Ternes