It sounds churlish to complain in a city of 45,000 restaurants, but the affordability and quality sweet spot remains elusive in Paris. Even Michel Roux Jr seemed to agree in the Paris episode of Remarkable Places to Eat with Fred Sirieix this summer. “Gastronomically,” he said as they negotiated the Arc de Triomphe roundabout, “Paris has lost its way.” But I equally realise that’s a sweeping statement and there are pockets of hope. You just need to know where they are.
One exception is Semilla, which opened back in 2012 and has remained a critic’s darling ever since. I finally got round to visiting it on a recent trip to Paris (hopefully not the last without a visa, but who knows what will happen when the Brexit barricades come down). And it’s times like this I’m prepared to raveler mes paroles.
Located in affluent, arty St Germain – an area full to the rafters with tourist traps and Café de Flore clichés – Semilla is a breath of fresh air. Food-wise, there are none of the usual yawn-inducing French bistro tropes. They do what I love: seemingly simple yet very well-executed cuisine in the vein of Noble Rot or Rochelle Canteen (yes, both English comparisons there and indeed two of my yardsticks for ‘less is more’ no-nonsense cookery). No inverted teardrops or Jackson Pollock splatterings, just two or three concepts on the plate, allowing Mother Nature to do the showing off.
But they also get the fundamentals right too, starting with the bread. Bread is very much part of la vie quotidienne in France and no “le fooding” movement will ever shake it off. There are just some traditions you don’t mess with. I remember being impressed by the omnipresence of bread when I stayed with families in Bordeaux and Strasbourg as a student: every meal was accompanied with fresh bread, torn off with gusto (with no side plate of course), reserving some to go with your cheese (always before dessert), and then the dry, stale leftovers would be toasted as tartines for breakfast the following morning. So getting bread right, and indeed not charging for it, is crucial in a French restaurant.
The menu is relatively short and changes daily. A starter of crunchy raw peas in a pea gazpacho with a non-descript cottage cheese, and just the slightest suggestion of mint, was well-balanced, light and at one with nature. The ever-present tiger milk sea bass ceviche and a savoury panna cotta also showed the range of the kitchen’s abilities and a slight departure from French tradition.
Next up, roasted chicken breast with potatoes and apples soaked in cider and a vin jaune sauce was a knock-out dish. It was up there with a very similar dish I had earlier this year at The Sportsman in Whitstable (another English comparison there – slap me). Cod with ceps and a Porto butter jus was equally light and flavoursome.
For dessert, in a nod to the restaurant’s Spanish name, the “gâteau basque” was a simple cake-like dessert accompanied by a delicious mango sorbet, though it got a little dry and samey towards the end. Still, two fellow diners nodded in approval as it arrived, being fans themselves.
Speaking of fans, perhaps better functioning air con would bring Semilla up a notch or two. When the mercury exceeds 30 degrees in Paris, it brings out the very worst in the city: the drains stink, your chic clothes stick to you, and everyone is angrier than usual as they try to escape an oppressive heat that’s like outdoor hot yoga in Dubai. It’s a denial of service attack on your very soul and should be considered a Force Majeure event. The restaurant did what it could with its pitiful air con system but perhaps this – and indeed the city as a whole – is best avoided until a heatwave passes. Despite that, it’s a relaxed space with classic wooden bistro tables, a few seats at the bar for walk-ins and two kitchen table seats (not recommended unless you want to be frazzled to death).
On this visit the service was smooth and friendly. I didn’t even need to chase for the bill which happens so often in France, and the bill itself was a reasonable £60 for 3 courses, a glass of Cotes du Jura and an espresso.
It’s also open all week. This, if you’ve ever spent time in France and found yourself at a loss as to what to do on a Sunday, is a huge plus – especially when the food is actually good. I’m hooked like a trout and I’d happily return.
54 Rue de Seine
by J A Smith