This is about Spring in Paris. The restaurant. Not the season. I love Paris in the springtime, but it’s winter and so…I’m cold, but I still love Paris. Anyway, read about this fabulous restaurant. And even if you don’t, eat here.
When I looked up from the little book of maps to see Rue Bailleul on the blue placard that marks all streets in Paris, I almost jumped up and down and cheered. Finalment, I had arrived at Spring, a restaurant I have wanted to visit since reading Joan Nathan’s New York Times write-up about American chef/owner Daniel Rose in 2008. And after a 45-minute power-walk across Paris, map in hand, I made it to lunch only five minutes late.
I rang the bell, as one must do to enter, and looked to the world within, all just a glass wall away. The dining room was full, the waiters fluttered, and the cooks moved their hands in quick, controlled motions. The door opened to a smiling host who did not seem to be concerned in the least that I was a few minutes late because, as I explained, j’etais perdue.
May I take your coat? He asked me. Yes please! I was now desperate to get rid of a few layers. In my nervousness and excitement I must have been hasty to take off my Russian-style hat, because the tie got stuck in my hair. Oh no, I thought, the kind host is waiting to seat me, I am already late, and now my Russian hat is stuck to my head. And what was worse? He was looking at me, waiting. I turned away and walked toward the door. No, not to run out. Just so I could, subtly as possible, yank the hat away from hair without anyone seeing that I was willing to sacrifice a few hairs in order to be seated more quickly, and appear more “together” than I really am.
Our table was right in front of the open kitchen. Every table on the top floor is more or less right in front of the open kitchen. The dining room is small, and the rectangular kitchen protrudes out into it, like a stage. Peeking over my right shoulder at the cooks behind me, I watched a young cook trying to make a quenelle of ice cream, dipping his spoon in a bane of water over and over. The quenelle never emerged. The chef took spoon without a word, ran it under hot water from the faucet, and dried it off. Dry spoon he instructed, while he kept his eyes on the guests in the dining room. He swiftly made a quenelle of ice cream, finished the plating, and brought the dishes over to one of his tables. The liaison between stage and audience, he was a chef and a host in fluid, consecutive moments.
Before I knew it, dessert was on the table, the kitchen was broken down, and the cooks were already preparing for dinner service. The crowd had vanished.
It’s not that we ate fast or felt rushed. That’s not why time flew by. You see, at Spring, after your make your reservation and decide what to drink, there are no other choices to be made. The food comes as you are ready for it, and you flow through conversation from one course to the next. The dishes are announced, softly and quickly. It might feel like a show, but there are no big theatrical gestures. It’s more like watching the backstage rehearsal. In fact, I would have liked a few more moments with the chef and the servers, to learn more about what I was eating.
The Chef himself brought over our first course, composed of several small dishes, and made sure we each had our own bread basket. I topped the bread with a thin piece of cured fish (which looked like salmon but whose name I cannot remember) and dolloped some craime fraiche and pickled veggies on top. I spread the bread with some salted butter and topped it with raw radish and grilled squid. I dipped horse-radish dusted apple pieces into the craime fraiche—spicy, crispy, and cooling. I repeated this cycle over and over, and with different combinations, until it was all eaten up.
Then came the mackerel, two thin pieces, skin-up, like matchsticks connected by a piece of edible tuile (made from what?), creating a foyer for the naked oyster. The tuile was oily. The skin of the fish was crispy and sweet. It must have been flambéed with a flambeur (Is that correct? It is fun to say!) The oyster was salty and juicy, with enough meat that I could cut it and take two bites.
Then came the veal, exposed, with its pink side showing, on a white plate with watercress and chopped kalamata olives. The waiter appeared with a sauce-pan and ladle to spoon the sauce right onto our plate. The meat was subtle in flavor, and tender. The olives with each bite provided the salt I was craving. The watercress looked bright and fresh and beautiful, but also had function: crunch, and slight bitterness.
Dessert ended the meal in the same way it started: On several plates, so as to nibble, and not gobble, the final course. Ice cream with passion fruit sauce and meringue, a bitter chocolate tarte, so light that its top crust seemed like a macaron, mango dusted with pistachio and honey, and—my favorite—pineapple with lime zest/juice and lychees. A scoop of ice-cream, a bite of this, a nibble of that, the desserts invited us to linger over a lunch that sadly had to end. And linger we did.
What was it about Spring that left me thinking about the meal all day long? Not just that the food was tasty. I’ve had plenty of tasty food in my life that doesn’t leave me in a dreamy state, as if I have fallen in love. Thinking back, I realize that everything I experienced from the moment I walked up to the restaurant, was thoughtfully planned to be that way: Waiting for the door to open while peaking inside like a voyeur, knowing that soon your chance to participate will come; Entering to a hallway, blocked from the dining room by a wall, turning the corner and feeling the warmth of the other guests seated and comfortable; having no bread plates, so you must put your bread directly on the table, between bites, a reminder not to take the meal too seriously; The chef serving the food himself, creating an intimate link between himself and you; Many dishes in several courses, making you feel like it’s Christmas (or Hanukkah) and you have lots of gifts to open. For these reasons, Spring was a meal to remember. It was like being a special guest at a performance. The host wants you to be there, and so you feel comfortable, special, and pampered. If only for one meal.