This blessed, little restaurant rests on the rue Arsène Houssaye, a small side street off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe itself. For readers who are not Catholic and for those whose Latin is a little rusty, Stella Maris means star of the sea and is a title of the Virgin Mary’s. This though is irrelevant; the name actually refers to the chef, Tateru Yoshino’s, first venture in Odawara near Tokyo and at the foot of Mount Fuji.
One might assume from the chef’s nationality that this is a Japanese restaurant. Normally such reasoning would be right. Here however, it is very wrong – Chef Tateru follows French classical cuisine religiously. Born into a poor farming family in the Kagoshima prefecture, one of Japan’s most southerly points, he was introduced to Western gastronomy by his aunt whilst studying in Tokyo. In 1979, he left his homeland to further this culinary education and to dedicate himself and his life to French cooking. After stages in Paris at Chez Benoît, Bistrot d’Hubert and under Alain Senderens at l’Archestrate (3*), he moved to Troisgros (3*), in whose kitchen he worked alongside Pierre Gagnaire. A return to Paris and Robuchon’s Jamin (3*) came next. After such impressive training, he felt ready to open his own French restaurant, the aforementioned Stella Maris in Odawara. Even though chef-patron there, he was still eager to learn and therefore went and spent eighteen months at Taillevent (3*). Subsequently, in 1997, he launched his second Stella Maris, this time in Paris. Although long a favourite of the critics – including le notoire François Simon, who after a recent visit confessed, ‘after a meal like that, there’s nothing left to do but sleep like a baby’ – Chef Tateru had to wait until 2006 to attain his first Michelin star. When he first heard of it, he showed no emotion instead he waited for one week to pass before sending twenty-five copies of the Guide Michelin to Japan. There it made front page news. The chef currently divides his time between the French capital and the Japanese one where he runs three Restaurant tateru yoshinos in Shiba (1*), Shiodomé (1*) and Ginza.
The Parisian branch is deep in the financial heart of the city and it is a very discreet establishment. Its entrance, a small black door, barely marked by small, capitalised, yellow letters that spell Stella Maris, and buried amidst several other restaurants, is both hard to find and easy to miss. The reception room is a little cramped, but then the building is a small one with a bottom floor seating twenty-eight and smaller mezzanine level for groups of up to fifteen (as well as a little office). There is brightness and deceptive spaciousness throughout the room from cream coloured walls and snug, Italian, leather armchairs; white tablecloths; and large, frosted and Art Deco painted window that allows a lot of natural light to flood in whilst spotlights and bulbs attached to strings that dangle from the ceiling add more illumination. Some contrast is supplied by a dark burgundy curtain that partitions off the foyer from the dining area; a shiny, wooden, black floor; ebony stencilling that traces the staircase tucked up against the back wall; and small prints painted in vibrant hues that line the sides of the space. Tables are topped with monogrammed Bernaudaud crockery, Pierre Meurgey cutlery and cubed glass vases of sedum leaves. The décor is minimalist, modern and elegant, which suits the substantially business-orientated clientele well.
It was Monday lunch and, whilst Julot and I dined, the restaurant was full. Normally, I would not dawdle with the carte and order the menu dégustation or le Grand Menu Stella Maris here – a special selection of dishes chosen by the chef – but as Chef Tateru was not in the kitchen until dinner, we decided to take full advantage of the menu Déjeuner.
Amuse Bouche 1: Parmesan gougères. The first amuse was one tanné-tanned gougère of parmesan cheese each. They did not look lighter-than-air, nor were they; strong parmesan flavour was foiled by a crust of pâte à choux that was much too hard and suggested that these had been reheated.
Les Pains: Pain blanc et pain de campagne. Two choices of bread were served by the slice – white and country brown. These were provided by Poujaurran, arguably Paris’ best, and were very good. The light white had open crumb and pleasant crust whilst the moreish campagne was even crustier, soft and fluffy. The butter that came with it was Échiré from Deux-Sèvres in Poitou-Charentes and carries the AOC appellation.
Amuse Bouche 2: Velouté de topinambour, mousse au lait, piment. A porcelain cup, complete with saucer, was half-filled with warm, blond Jerusalem artichoke broth and chicken stock topped off with ivory milk foam, a touch of olive oil and a chilli and chive garnish. The velouté, its flavour and consistency thickened with the stock, was quite toothsome and light. The milky emulsion added a little creaminess whilst chilli and chives (whose green colour was considerately complemented by the butterflies on the saucer) perked the soup up.
Entrée 1: Risotto d’huîtres, crème de cresson, toast de foie gras de canard. A troika of oysters overlaid on Arborio rice risotto and covered in watercress cream foam and its leaves were accompanied by a sliver of duck foie gras on toast. Primary approval went to presentation: once more, there was a subtle, but deliberate effort made in the arrangement and the accordance of the different elements. The pearliness of the shellfish and almost-glowing green of the watercress were mirrored in the plate – half-white, half-pale moss green – whilst the gold tint of the foie-toast was reflected in the gilded rim that semi-circled the bowl’s opposing half. Secondary satisfaction came from the inviting aroma then finally, but most decidingly, the taste did not disappoint. Gently poached oysters, still fairly firm, were partnered with al dente Arborio that proved an able vehicle for their mild, lingering mineral savour. The sapid emulsion offered a fresh, peppery finish. The ultra-crunchy toast and its strong foie were decent enough, but did not really bring anything essential to the dish.
Entrée 2: Tranché de jambon ibérique Pata Negra. My dining companion enjoyed slices of Ibérico ham.
Plat Principal 1: Saumon Stella Maris, mi cuit sans peau, à l’huile d’olive, marmalade de tomate à la marjolaine. A cross-section of wild, olive oil marinated salmon, bereft of skin, barely cooked and with its roe spilling over chive crème monte atop it, was matched by marjoram-spiked tomato marmalade, girolles, pomme purée implanted with potato gaufrette and a wedge of lemon; it was sparingly surrounded by more watercress emulsion. The rich and meaty fish was of clearly good quality with a clean flavour and very slight sweetness. This was contrasted against the spicy, sour and moist tomato, whose golden juices mingled with the faintly sharp watercress, both of which the nutty, dill-lined girolles had absorbed to become plump. The salmon’s oiliness and complexity of the roe were further countered by the densely whipped cream clustered with chives and cool potato with crunchy lattice. Yet again, the play on primary red and green and their secondary yellow, was simple, harmonious and very pleasing.
Plat Principal 2: Tête de veau en cocotte, crête de coq, oeuf frit, jus en ‘tortue’. Julot had one of Chef Taturo Yoshimo’s most celebrated classics, calf’s head. This entailed a soufflé of tête de veau, the brain and tongue together with a fried quail egg, olives, chicory and cockscomb, all spiced and sauced with a turtle jus.
Dessert 1: Mont-Blanc ‘Maison’, glace à la vanilla de Madagascar. A rum-soaked Genoa sponge, its centre crammed with blackberry jam, sat on pâte sucrée and in whipped cream wrapped with strands of chestnut vermicelli; it was crowned with confit chestnut, sprinkled with icing sugar, set with an upright trio of long meringue twigs and teamed with vanilla ice cream, blackberry jam as well as candied chucks of apricot and fig. The glace was creamy and milky, but wanting for vanilla; confit fruit pieces were ordinary. The Mont-Blanc itself was very nice – not overly sweet but tasty. It had crunchy, thin biscuit base; rummy cake that was strong enough to tickle the taste buds without knocking them out; sweet, rich confiture; and lovely wholesome chestnut. The glazed nut on top had good sweet-starchiness and pasty crumble.
Petit Fours: Macaron caramel au beurre salé; chocolat praliné; et tarte framboise. A threesome of petit fours comprised salty caramel macaroon, icosagonical praline chocolate and raspberry tartlet. The macaroon was crisp with sticky rim and gluey liquid caramel centre. Chocolate composed with pistachio was tasty with excellent crunch and nuttiness. The last treat was just as capable; its soft, fresh raspberry tartness offset by sweet crème and the crackle of its tuile basket.
Service was respectable. The staff seemed to consist of simply the maître d’hôtel, sommelier (formerly of Jamin) and a hostess, but managed the filled-out restaurant ably enough even if they were at times somewhat stretched; the small dining space also did not help, making their movements a little clumsy. Each individual was friendly and informative, always willing to find out information that they did not already know. However, a small but niggling observation we made was that our bottles of water appeared to be used to serve other tables with.
The food was very capable. Poor gougères provided a dispiriting start though the second amuse was adequate. Adept cooking of the risotto d’huîtres showcased excellent, distinct savours and helped mend my opinion. The saumon Stella Maris was admirable with many elements balanced simultaneously to good effect. Dessert proved a tasty finish too and petit fours were good.
Chef Tateru describes his style as ‘pure cuisine française’. Using French raw materials, employing traditional techniques and drawing on classic recipes, he applies his own approach to these. ‘C’est ma formation. Je travaille avec des bases de cuisine classique, c’est mon métier’. Although he would not tolerate any reference to fusion – and justifiably so too – Japanese culinary principles are inherent in his interpretations (also, his kitchen is stocked exclusively with Japanese chefs) and are manifest mainly through the minimalist treatment and presentation of produce; its quality; a subservience to the seasons; and the cleanness and precision of flavours.
The products on show today were excellent and testament to the importance chef Tateru pays them. He is a noted fan of organic foodstuffs, sourcing his vegetables and herbs from two bio farms, Jancar in l’Aube and Yamashita in the Yvelines; fish and shellfish from Brittany and Normandy (urchins from the Île d’Oléron, scallops from Erquy and lobsters from Brittany); and meat and poultry from Paris’ best butchers.
The aesthetic adhered to – clean, focused and subtle – is one I also associate with the Orient. The thorough thought devoted to each dish and its display (spreading to the crockery and even décor of the restaurant) was delightful and appreciated, however it was also derivative to the taste of the cooking, never appearing to be at the cost of this. These principles were repeated in the flavours of the food. Even given the naturally strongly savoured materials, such as salmon and oysters, there was a definite delicacy, lightness and finesse in their finish. In addition, it was also healthier, or at least appeared so.
That being said, my overall, enduring impression of the meal is a muddled one. On the one hand, dishes were well-considered and well-crafted with quality ingredients. Ignoring the initial amuse, execution was also flawless, but given that the head chef splits his time between Paris and Tokyo, the kitchen should be able to manage well in his absence. The chefs showed talent with the risotto that had been cooked just right for that recipe; whilst the salmon was an exercise in how to let good produce speak for itself.
On the other hand however, there was one nagging sentiment I could not ignore. The food was well-cooked, attractive and it was hard to fault – maybe the best description would be ‘nice’ – but in retrospect, I feel almost bothered that this nice food was not more stirring. There is a fine line between subtle and dull, but after just a single, short visit, I cannot certify upon which side, I think, Stella Maris stands. As it was, I consider it a decent meal, but I would have liked a little more vibrancy or life from the food. Dishes did not demand my attention. Cynically (and whilst stereotyping – I know), one may suggest that this had some correlation with the fact the restaurant is full of businessmen, for whom lunch is mainly an excuse to excuse themselves from the office rather than an event in itself. For them the plate need be pretty and pleasant, but not distracting to their discourse. This may be why I found the cuisine especially ‘inoffensive’.
Stella Maris deserves a second visit. If admittedly not mind-blowing, it appealed on some levels. I also think that other dishes I did not try on this occasion could be special: modern versions of such French classics as lièvre à la royale and tourte de gibier, for example, despatched with Japanese discipline and dexterity, could be delicious.
4, rue Arsène Houssaye, Paris 75008
tel: 0033 1 42 89 16 72
nearest metro: Charles de Gaulle-Étoile