It’s been tricky to be ‘au courant’ with the Parisian dining scene, what with a certain pandemic and inept government starving us of international travel. But, after a number of ‘setbacks,’ I finally made it back to Paris. Fully jabbed and armed ready with the ‘TousAntiCovid’ app (necessary for anything worth doing in France) it was time to paint the town rouge.
Almost two years since my last visit, the memory can play tricks. One thing that can always bring a sense of place racing back though is smell. Despite being an inveterate Francophile, I don’t smoke. Yet there’s something so evocative, so damn French, about the waft of a cigarette drifting over that first glass of red on a terrasse as motorbikes screech past and locals in scarves argue about philosophy. It somehow enhances the authenticity of the experience. But for all the Wes Anderson romanticism of Paris, it wasn’t long before certain frustrations returned. Getting the Covid app to work was surprisingly easy but asking for the bill or getting a waiter’s attention for a second drink (heaven forbid) remain perennial issues, as does the omnipresence of loud tourists not even trying to speak French.
Indeed, whilst some restos might have done something different with their hair, nothing had really changed. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. One of the attractions of Paris is that you can pop in to an old favourite and the lifers will still be working there. Researchers have found that, post-lockdown, people tended to make a beeline for their old haunts first, perhaps for that simplest of endorphin hits: the tonic of the familiar and, maybe, being remembered (rare in Paris but wonderful when it happens).
On the other hand, it only confirmed my pre-Plague prejudice that Paris is a static city, gastronomically. The places in the affordable middle ground are vanishingly few (ironically some of the best mid-range places are run by Anglophone chefs, e.g. Chez La Vieille and indeed the subject of this review). I don’t completely agree with certain critics who have gone further to say there are better French restaurants in London – a statement so daft, so sweeping, so oblivious to its internal inconsistencies, it could be Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. There are still great places in Paris that won’t break the bank – you just need to know where to look.
Keen as moutarde to try something reasonably priced that doesn’t just do the steak frites staples, a disruptive candidate presented itself: Le Saint-Sebastien, which actually opened in late 2018. Ensconced in edgy Oberkampf, life seemed to be back to normal here despite lockdowns (more restrictive than the British ones) and the horrific attack on the Bataclan a few years ago. Le Saint-Sebastien was full to the brim, which was life-affirming and refreshing to see. But something had gone awry with our reservation. This meant we were relegated to eating at the formica bar on this occasion, which I don’t normally mind so long as there’s a decent recess for your knees and some degree of lumbar support (neither present in this case).
There was also a lot of commotion, it was too hot, and service was a little chaotic at times – nothing fatal but that atmosphere of stress does rub off on you. And for a place professing to be part wine bar with an incline towards the natural and biodynamic, the glass selection seemed surprisingly short – just three whites and three reds, each reasonably priced.
But the main attraction is the food, which I can only praise them for. I had no quibbles about their nibbles: olives and ‘nduja with a glass of fizz set the tone for the meal beautifully.
Chef Christopher Edwards, once sous-chef for previous chef Robert Mendoza who has since moved on, prepared and, in some cases personally served, excellent dish after excellent dish. The ethos is clear and arguably not very French: vegetables are the star of the show with just a walk-on part for meat or fish. Mussels from Locquemeau played second fiddle to sweetcorn and green beans in a delightful starter (13€), whilst an autumnal fig salad with fig pesto, fennel, shavings of manchego (15€) had a playful mix of fruit, aniseed and calcium with just the occasional sardine lurking in the background to surprise you. For a slightly meatier hit, boudin noir with apple, pear and raddichio (13€) was divine.
Onto main dishes, a pork chop (28€) was cooked just south of pink and complemented with pepper, almonds, oyster mushrooms and a slightly sweet and smoky ‘sauce achiote’ deriving from Mexican, Caribbean and Central American cuisine. Meanwhile, a stuffed tomato with freekeh, capers and lentils (25€) may have sounded dull, and expensive, but showed exactly how vegetables can be brought to life.
Desserts, at first, seemed a soft, creamy and over-priced affair (Venezuelan chocolate ice cream yours for 7€) but then came perhaps the best dish of them all: the quince millefeuille with crème diplomate (10€). This was a masterclass in pastry work and the perfect coda for the experience.
Perhaps the experience as a whole would’ve been perfect at a quieter time. But, on the basis of the fabulous cuisine alone, this is a bistro wine bar that gives me hope that the affordable middle ground in Paris is growing and indeed thriving.
42 Rue Saint-Sébastien
by J A Smith