Text and Images: Omid Tavallai
“You’ve got five minutes,” she says, constantly looking past the counter and into the kitchen door, anticipating the prep work for the upcoming dinner shift.
Her co-conspirator Alice Quillet is across from me, going over the evening’s menu, marking up typos and picking out spacing inconsistencies with a sharp eye like a schoolteacher.
Their attention to detail belies their youthful enthusiasm. But just as Le Bal – as a museum – is a minimalist, almost stark exhibition space designed to highlight the work on display, its attached restaurant casts the spotlight on what’s being served. And when there are no distractions and no frills, the work has to stand on its own.
“We change our menu with every shift,” Alice says. “Lunch. Dinner. Even brunch is always different, as well.”
One factor that doesn’t vary is the distinctive English signature. Which begs the question: Why is a French museum, in Paris, funded by some very notable French organizations… offering up English food at its restaurant?
“Because we’re both English!” Anna exclaims. “Well, Alice is half French. But it’s our cooking background, it’s what we love to do, and it’s what we want to show Parisians – that English food can be amazing.”
Alice explains, “They (Le Bal organization) approached us because they were looking for young people. The architects are young up-and-comers. Sebastian of the book shop next door, it’s his first store project. We’re a group of people who are very motivated, first timers. And with us, they know from the start it would be English food.”
Despite all stereotypes to the contrary, all of us at the table professed our love for English food. I dared suggest that the food scene in London is more interesting than in Paris and met little resistance to the idea. I mused about Fergus Henderson’s St. John (and its offshoot St. John Bread & Wine, where Anna had worked).
“We wanted to do the whole nose-to-tail thing like at St. John,” Alice says. “Paris used to be the offal capital, and now it’s kind of disappeared. It’s a shame, as there’s no waste. Offal is great!” (Laughter and groaning ensue over several awful puns.)
Anna continues, “We did rabbit yesterday, and we used every part of it. Abats de lapin: liver, kidneys, heart, and a tiny sweetbread on toast.”
“It’s amazing. Such a good dish,” Alice adds (having had it several weeks after this particular visit, I have to agree.) “My French grandmother would know how to cook all sorts of off-cuts, and maybe there will be a generation who’ll learn to go back to it, perhaps through the slow food movement. After all, a lot of those parts require a lot of slow cooking.”
She’s full of these little jokes that provoke not guffaws, but smiles.
To serve these more unusual dishes – especially in a minimalist environment that accentuates everything, warts and all, requires excellent product.
“We’ve got a really good butcher. And Anna learned butchery in London, so we’re doing our own butchery, too. But sometimes it frightens children.” The story becomes intriguing. “One was looking into kitchen… while she was deboning a pig face!” More smiles.
“We have a really good vegetable producer who’s amazing,” Alice continues. “We’ve bought parsnips from Rungis (Paris’ primary commercial market) and from her, and the difference is really unbelievable. She does great carrots, various beet roots, herbs… and she’s a forager!”
Enthused by the subject matter, Anna comes back to interject, “We have some wood sorrel that came in for tonight. We get really excited when the vegetables come in!”
We again shoot off on various tangents about produce, how to procure them in Paris, and our love of kale. “It’s difficult trying to get the kinds of ingredients we need. Simple things like trying to source kale. Anna has seen it in Belleville, but we’re having trouble finding a regular supplier. Dealing with suppliers is a bit trying, you know? You have to be tough.”
“Everything we do is homemade apart from the bread from Poujauran and the cheesecake by Rachel’s Cakes,” Alice tells me.
“That’s a friend of ours who started her own company, and she does an amazing cheesecake, which we have everyday. Because it’s so good!” adds Anna.
Alice: “It sells like hotcakes!”
I ask Anselme Blayney, who’s in charge of wines and front of house, if the wine is approached the same way. “I try to find wines made as naturally as possible, but I’m not a vin naturel Nazi. If it’s good, that’s what matters. I’m trying to go with wines that are tasting good now – a lot of Rhône, a lot of Languedoc, Burgandy. Not so much Bordeaux, as I find the wines to be more unapproachable at a young age. So it’s just a mix and match of producers I know and like.”
Beer is held to the same standards, with Anglo-French microbrew Mobsy’s Ale from Normandy on offer. “I spent a week looking, and we could’ve made a lot of money selling the big name brands, but I refused so we could sell real beer instead. I ended up choosing Mobsby’s to go with the British theme, and also because working with small producers is a lot more interesting than selling Kro or Heineken or Bud. Anna’s husband knew of a small shop on rue Quincampoix, Cave à Bulles, and we were then introduced to Steve (the brewer), had a sampling, and we loved his story. And we also wanted some of the stuff for – you know –ourselves, after hours!”
Alice jumps in, “Which brings us to our coffee, which is from a young Australian/French duo, Café Lomi.”
I smell a bag of the beans and don’t want to part with it.
“We grind our coffee to order, we have a nice machine handmade in Florence, and we have trained baristas to make the coffee, as well,” she proudly tells me.
In fact, the monthly Frog Fight competition’s November showdown was held at Le Bal Café. It’s a friendly event for Paris’ most enthusiastic – and picky – baristas and coffee connoisseurs. I joke that they’ve dodged the Cafés Richard bullet the same way they’ve ducked Heineken and Kronenbourg on the beer side. But maybe it’s not so much of a joke.
“So again, it’s part of how we want to work with people who make really good products and put the most into what they produce,” Alice concludes. “I was at (Paris’ now well-known) Rose Bakery seven years ago – in fact, when I finished university, I was their first employee, the first chef they ever had. They taught us to have really good ingredients and not compromise on quality.”
Three visits later and I find myself in agreement.
While off-cuts and long lost British standards may not be everybody’s cup of tea (which, like any self-respecting English place, they also serve) the sheer variety of the menu means that even the least adventurous eater would find something to like. The gentle prices on smaller dishes make it easy for newcomers to try English-inspired cuisine, and better yet, easy to share amongst a group and really get a sampling. For the price of a dodgy kebab elsewhere, you can try your first bath chaps (pig head, essentially – don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!) or ox heart salad, made by people who love to make it.
This being Paris, of course, le brunch is ze meal to have at any restaurant anglo-saxon. Le Bal Café serves up an impressive variety of brunch foods from 11:00 to 4:00 on the weekend, but “come early or late,” Alice warns. “Between 1:00 and 2:30 it’s packed.”
Le Bal Café
6 Impasse de la Défense, 75018
Metro: Place de Clichy or La Fourche
Dishes typically from €5 – €13.
Reservations not necessary, but recommended for dinner.
01 44 70 75 51