There are many great restaurants in Paris, the cradle of the modern restaurant, from the long running more traditional George V, Grand Bouillon Camille Chartier and Le Train Bleu, to the newer delights of Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire. But, held back by traditional French attitudes to food and restaurants, Paris has been a latecomer to changing dining trends – even if the bistros weren’t when it came to buying in pre-prepared food to serve as ‘homemade’ for the lunch time prix fixe that office workers have in their hour lunch break.
Over the last decade this has been changing, with the likes of Il Vino, and the Parisian foodie set becoming more adventurous. But the best trend came about early in this process with ‘hole in the wall restaurants’. These were, or rather are, little restaurants, consisting often of only a small room with perhaps twenty covers or less, and the owner/head chef plus one or two others serving and helping to cook in an even smaller room; sometimes the kitchens were even in the dining room. Often they cooked set menus that changed daily according to what was available and good in the market that morning. This gave the food a flare of creative spontaneity that certainly can be said to be lacking in more formal restaurants.
Those that might not normally be successful in Paris were suddenly able to make it, including the likes of British chef Chris Wright with his place Le Timbre. Others, like the American chef Daniel Rose, quickly outgrew their space. His original Spring had only six tables with sixteen seats and, after three weeks, was the hottest restaurant of 2010. By the time I got to it in 2011 it had already moved location with a larger restaurant on the ground floor, with at most thirty covers, serving the same food as in the original, and in the basement a bistro serving a cheaper a la carte.
For me, though, the cream of the crop was and still is yamT’cha. Just around the corner from Spring and the Louvre, it’s original site had just twenty covers. The kitchen was in the corner by the door while, in the opposite corner, was a small bar and a loo that you had to stand on to be able to shut the door to use it. The restaurant had a six-week waiting list even before the Michelin star came along in 2010. This site is now yamT’cha’s tea and Asian bun boutique and the restaurant has moved to a slightly larger space 50 meters around the corner.
Run by Adeline Grattard and her Hong Kong Chinese husband, Chi Wa Chan, yamT’cha marries French and Asian cuisine. Grattard met her husband when she was in Hong Kong training in the kitchens there and, while it might seem an odd fusion – French and Asian cuisine – don’t forget that they have been successfully coupled for a long time, thanks to the French Empire in South East Asia.
What they created and have now expanded on, is hands down my favourite place to dine in Paris and one of the most interesting and creative restaurants I’ve been to. The dishes that Grattard produces with the aid of her one sous chef are exquisitely fine with light, refined and intricate flavour profiles. A light broth with cabbage, shredded duck and large cubes of foie gras is a perfect example of how the fusion cooking works and the lightness to it. Chicken with horn of plenty mushrooms, and tuna with baby cucumbers are both dishes I’ve experienced there and found beauty in.
While they offer wine pairings to enhance the flavours, resist. It’s here that Grattard’s husband comes to the fore. He is a tea expert and puts together a tea-pairing menu – and you must have it (for wine just order a bottle or two to have along with it). Until you try the tea pairing you have not tried tea. It’s astonishing how the flavours of the tea develop and highlight the food. I once had a tea that brought out the irony flavour of the tuna and, in doing so, it opened my eyes to the pairing. Each new tea comes in a small, traditional, beautifully made clay teapot (one is even pumpkin shaped with vines over it), with small Chinese cups, all presented on a tray and with a nod to the Chinese tea ceremony.
When you’re offered the cheese course say yes. When I was last there it was the first time I had had it. Asking what cheese constituted the course, I naturally assumed it would be a selection of eminent French cheeses. But the reply was ‘stilton’, that venerable English cheese. Surprised, I still said yes to the course. What came was as far from what you’d expect as possible. It was a Chinese bun. When bitten into there emerged molten stilton and an apricot chutney. Glorious.
While Paris has many a restaurant with a siren’s call, yamT’cha is one of those places that won’t disappoint. If you can’t get in, then head for one of the other hole in the wall restaurants. The experience is very modern Parisian and the food superb.
The Restaurant – 121 rue St. Honoré, 75001 Paris
The Tea and Bun Boutique – 4 rue Sauval, 75001 Paris