Iñaki Aizpitarte could be the coolest chef in Paris. Tall and swarthy, wearing three-day-old stubble and pastel yellow socks, he can often be seen behind the bar of Le Chateaubriand entertaining his regular chic clientele that includes actors, artists, media-types and, of course, foodies.
Recently, the chef has received serious praise and been invited to show off his cooking in such cities as Madrid, Copenhagen, Melbourne and nearly New York (he was unable to participate at Omnivore NYC as he had forgotten to renew his passport), but in actuality, he became a chef really by accident and relatively late in life.
The youngest of five children, Aizpitarte was born in Besançon then brought up when a teenager in Hendaye – basically the closest French town to the Basque homeland from which his parents fled to escape General Franco’s regime. After finishing school, he set out on his own only eighteen and penniless. A string of sundry jobs followed: he was a stonemason with Compagnons du Devoir in Angers (‘they were too strict, it lasted two months’); a landscape painter alongside his uncle in Dax (‘I enjoyed the mornings in the gardens’); before arriving in Bordeaux to study oenology (he attended five lectures in five years). In 1999, with only five-hundred Francs to his name, the twenty-six-year-old Iñaki decided to visit Israel. There, he ended up washing dishes at the Rozata restaurant, where he ‘helped when they were in the juice’ – no surprise then that Midnight Cowboy is his favourite film. Impressing the Serbian chef, the Frenchman was soon put behind the stove – ‘he taught me the basics,’ he says, ‘I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do. That was it.’ A subsequent spell touring Latin America preceded his return to France and arrival in Paris.
Cooking school was not an option financially so he taught himself whilst working his way through the city’s kitchens. He began at Café des Délices under Gilles Choukroun, who would later become influential as head of one of the new waves rippling through French gastronomy. In 2003, Aizpitarte moved to la Famille in Montmartre where he first caused controversy and won acclaim for his creative cooking. Two years on and he was at Transversal, Laurent Chareau’s restaurant within the Mac/Val modern arts museum in Vitry-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris. Dishes here were inspired by the exhibits – the chef once served a course comprising just a single, peeled apple pip. Another two years later and he was ready for his own venture. Thus, together with Frédéric Peneau, the former owner of Café Burq whom he first met whilst at la Famille (the pair were practically neighbours), he bought a historic bistro near Belleville in April 2006. it was an instant hit with its immediate success underscored domestically by being declared Le Fooding’s Best Restaurant (2006) and worldwide by the San Pellegrino Breakthrough Prize (2008).
The old bistro, once a grocer, was a serendipitous discovery. Located on a large, sycamore-saddled avenue close to Goncourt, the restaurant’s wide-open façade sitting within its small burgundy frame barely sticks out from the street’s shops. Having kept the same name, Aizpitarte and Peneau also kept the same time-worn, masculine interior. A vintage zinc bar rests upon dark rosewood on one side of the space with espresso machine, heavy-duty slicer, shelved drinks bottles and chalk-scribbled blackboards behind.
Hard chairs and naked tables, snugly set as if in a canteen and fashioned from the same deep, roseate timber, clutter the colour-speckled grey mesh-mosaic floor. Creamy, almost empty walls are skirted by a metre-or-so of burgundy. A third, much larger blackboard bearing the names of the chef’s friends hangs in the room’s centre whilst a wall-to-wall mirror lines the backend of the restaurant near the somewhat exposed kitchen. Lighting is from two chandeliers, three glass globes and a perforated skylight on the high ceiling, but the space still remains rather dim. A service station on which loafs of bread are freshly cut stands near the bar. Tables carry cutlery and simple glassware.
A photocopied piece of paper dictates the day’s menu…
Amuse Bouche 1: macquereau, shiso, pastèque. A neat slab of watermelon, overlaid with a sliver of olive-oil-marinated mackerel, sat in smoked Japanese rice vinegar along with two more morsels of the macquereau; shiso and crushed raspberries, whose bright red juice dribbled into the dull yellow vinegar, were sprinkled sparingly over all. The fruit and mellow vinegar’s light acidity cut the richness of the tasty fish whilst the latter also added some welcome woodiness. The watery, sweet melon balanced the shiso that was at first bitter then peppery and slightly astringent.
Le Pain: pain de levain. Bread was bought in from arguably Paris’ best baker – Poujauran. The sourdough, freshly sliced by the serveurs as needed, was fluffy with tangy, yeasty crust. Butter was not served.
Entrée 1: veau de lait, langoustine, truffe d’été. A heaped pile of cherry pink milk-fed veal chunks, crowned with skinny cross-sections of radish, was semi-submerged in an opaque langoustine jus littered with large shards of summer truffle and blades of red basil; deep green pistou glacé came smeared across the top of the tartare as well as afloat. Supplied by the city’s finest boucher, Hugo Desnoyer, the delicate and tender meat’s quality was immediately clear. However, it was also completely overwhelmed by the strong shellfish jus, itself almost spicy, whilst the truffle proved little more than decoration. The herby pistou provided a slight relief, but not enough.
Plat Principal 1: lotte, jardinière de légumes. Pan-fried slice of monkfish tail, coated with vadouvan, was accompanied by a collection of vibrantly-coloured vegetables drizzled with a dab of olive oil and garnished with toasted fennel fronds. The familiar yet exotic scent of curry came through slowly, but convincingly from the blend of onions and Indian spices that stained the ivory skin of the nicely-seasoned, succulent fish, which, barely cooked, retained its juicy firmness. The fresh greens, simply served whole, halved or quartered, unpeeled and tops intact, arrived in various degrees of rare – from well-charred spring onion to untouched petit pois.
Plat Principal 2: carré d’agneau de Lozère, artichaut, chèvre, olive. Double-cut Lozère lamb rib chop was plated with bisected baby artichokes and a streak of fromage de chèvre Ardéchois that was peppered with olive crumble. Another Desnoyer delivery, the lamb was delicious – the carnation rose meat almost raw with just the fatty outer coat cooked and crisped amber. The classic combination of artichoke, creamy goat’s cheese and black olive at once suggested Provence, although the crumble was actually rather dry and lacking taste.
Dessert 1: fraises, chantilly. A bowl bore deconstructed pavlova aux fruits rouges or even Eton mess. Sweet, plump strawberries were the base upon which brittle, sugary meringue was set, before both were immersed in a cloud of velvety smooth verbena Chantilly cream. Beneath the alabaster blanket were buried chips of sucre pétillant whose surprising effervescence corresponded pleasingly with the herbal verbena.
The staff here, all men and almost all long-haired and bearded, are often labelled as eye-candy – but this description detracts from the fact that they are actually good at what they do. Efficient and helpful, they were also relaxed and friendly; even as the evening wore on and the restaurant filled, they remained patient and eager. Indeed these very fittingly macho, but affable Basque-esque characters only contributed to the charm of the place. In addition, there was an undeniable, sensible buzz about the room from the intimate bobo crowd that pervaded the space and nearly spilled out onto the street through the bistro’s open front.
My thoughts on the menu itself were mixed. Watermelon and mackerel, being an unusual yet intriguing combination, made the amuse bouche exciting to receive but, although decent enough at the time, eventually forgettable. The entrée of veau and langoustine, an interesting take on terre et mer, was effectively bland and all the worse given the excellence of the meat. Dinner only really began with the lotte, jardinière de legumes. This straightforward dish was light, tasty and quite right for summer. The next course was the best of the evening. The mouth-watering carré d’agneau was superb, even if the artichokes were admittedly unmemorable and olive, unsuccessful. The dessert was a refreshing, fun finish.
Simplicity and deconstruction appear to dominate Aizpitarte’s style. The chef has a reputation for taking recipes apart and reforming them, nominally – and this was seen thrice today. First, the veal and langoustine was a luxurious reinvention of the common bistro combo of steak and prawn – surf and turf – that can be found on most menus. Secondly, the plat principal was a traditional concoction straight from the Côte d’Azur that was dismantled into its rudimentary elements then plated as primarily as possible. Lastly, as mentioned, a reworking of classic meringues with red fruit was a light, bright note upon which to end.
Creativity is key to this chef. He is eager to ‘amuse’ and excite the diner ‘with very distinct flavours colliding and eventually marrying’. To achieve this, he is not afraid to stray from the hip locavore label and to include ingredients from around the world, thus underlining his role as a leader amongst the Génération C collective which, started by his former mentor Choukroun, aims to offer an affordable cuisine of modernised classical techniques and foreign flavours. His cooking is not fusion though, but informed by his many travels throughout South America, the Middle East, Asia as well as Southern Europe.
This modern, cosmopolitan theme is in stark contrast to the very restaurant wherein it resides: contemporary cooking in a classic bistro; colourful food within sombre walls; cold ingredients served in a warm setting. The only pattern that pervades both plate and space is an explicit lack of clutter and fuss.
This minimalism was not limited to presentation, but extended to the treatment of ingredients. Cooking was considered an extravagance; heat, an indulgence. Tonight, everything – meat, fish, vegetables – was either raw or barely-heated through. Furthermore, this lack of material modification also meant that products remained, as much as possible, in their original states – for instance, the legumes were often whole or just sliced once, at most twice, and also served with their skins. Saucing too was sparse with nothing thicker than a light (but concentrated) jus employed.
But none of these are criticisms, necessarily.
Aizpitarte reasons for this approach can only be intimated at. He is clearly after clarity in his cuisine: ‘I just hope people can understand what I am trying to accomplish each time and that by having fewer and fewer flavours, the essential becomes more distinct.’ This, coupled with the state of the restaurant’s small kitchen which has changed very little since the chef first took it over, might go some way towards explaining his attempts to deliver ‘something pretty quick’, whilst the lack of cooking may meanwhile be just the consequence of his constant ‘challenge [to him]self to simplify and simplify.’
On the one hand, there could be two negatives construed from this. First, regarding effect, there is the almost inevitable corollary to such methods as these – a new menu each day that depends on the least number of flavours, bound by almost nothing but themselves, merging for maximum effect will sometimes ‘miss’. Sometimes, this relentless deduction of elements will be to the detriment of the dish. Secondly, regarding cause, it might be argued that perhaps the chef is not exerting himself to his fullest and thus not revealing his true potential with each plate. Although I am almost embarrassed to admit it, this thought did niggle at me afterwards.
On the other hand, this haute cuisine at reasonable prices – Aizpitarte’s ‘cuisine de vagabond’ – is a worthy pursuit: ‘I don’t want to only have rich patrons. I want a place where my friends can come from time to time; a place they can afford. So it’s really important for me to have both affordability and creativity’. The aforementioned concessions may be the costs of such an egalitarian ambition.
Whilst in admitting mood, I must also confess that expectations possibly played some part in my muddled enjoyment of this meal. Given the chef’s inclusion in Gelinaz! (a clique of cooks) along with the likes of Fulvio Pierangelini and Davide Scabin, and later, together with the latter, his contribution at Cook it Raw!, working side-by-side with Redzepi, Barbot and Adrià, among others, I basically wanted le Chateaubriand to surprise and impress me.
In reality, it was only pleasing – and maybe this is why my emotions are conflicted between the fact that dinner at Le Chateaubriand is arguably the finest meal one can have in Paris for under fifty Euros and my certainty that a talented chef offering one menu should be offering a great menu – which evidently was not always the case this night.
Nonetheless, there were positives; there was potential; and there is always the attraction inherent in the gamble that an ever-changing carte entails.
The necessary question that remains then is whether I would want to risk another roll of the dice…
Strangely enough, yes. Definitely.
129 avenue Parmentier, Paris 75011
tel: +33 1 43 57 45 95
nearest metro: Goncourt