What are the ingredients that go into making an esthete? I think Bruno Verjus, chef and owner of Table restaurant in Paris, probably has the answer to that, because he is one.
His restaurant is achingly contemporary yet intensely warm and personal, much like the home of someone who loves to live there. Everywhere you look are tableaux that merit an intake of breath, a quick fumble for the camera. Here is a cheeseboard with the rattiest, dustiest, most tempting rounds of cheese you can’t wait to sample.
There are translucent greens roasting slowly on a stainless steel grill; here a whole pineapple, languidly rotating on a spit just where you’d expect to see a fowl, which has been there but is now sitting, goldenly, on the grill where it will stay for a long while before being served. Finally, you’re seated in a tall, graceful swivel stool that is draped with cozy lambskin, furry and yummy.
And speaking of yummy – and beautiful – there is the food. First, Mr. Verjus hand chooses his cheeses, fish, meats and poultry from artisan producers on l’Ile d’Yeu, off the coast of the Vendee. He works with old-fashioned varieties and species like the celadon green luobo radish, an ancient Chinese variety, or the deep burgundy and yellow carrots he slips onto plates. “Everything comes from the small producers whose hands raised the food,” he says. Yes, Yes. What chef today doesn’t bring out this trope? But when Mr. Verjus says it, it sounds brand new, unique, poetic.
Self taught, Mr. Verjus works with the finest tools and a delicate touch. He takes a loin of monkfish and neatly shears off a piece then carefully places it in a pan where fresh bay leaves are smoking in olive oil. He shakes the pan and flames shoot up, charring the outside of the fish as the leaves curl and burn, emitting the sweetest smoke. He continues to shake the pan until the fish is deep golden all over, takes it from the heat, sets a metal “cloche” over the pan and forgets it.
He turns to a filet of merlan (whiting) that is frying in a lake of clarified butter. He touches it, leaves it, then moves along to place a pile of paper-thin slices of the green radish, and asparagus, artfully atop a scoop of smoked buratta, drizzles it with a citrus reduction, then decorates it with a warmed sea scallop, bee pollen and wild primroses. He delivers this to a diner who looks at it, then him, with stars in her eyes. “Can I eat the flowers?” she asks. “Of course you can, they taste like yellow honey,” he replies.
He returns to the monkfish. “It will taste like it has grilled over the coals,” he said as he set it on a plate with a carrots, radish, turnip, and those grilled leaves. “You can do this with anything.”
Mr. Verjus wasn’t born a chef; he was born an immensely brainy and sensitive businessman. As a child, he roamed the small roads of the French countryside, chasing rabbits, picking wild herbs, catching river fish, all of which were transformed by his parents into dishes he still thinks about. But it took him awhile to think about them as he was busy at medical school, then as a trader in places like California and China, before returning to France. One imagines he did well, which allowed him a five-year break during which he read, wrote, and learned to cook with friends like Pierre Hermé. Fast forward to Table, his addictingly quirky spot in the artistically artisan neighborhood behind rue Daumesnil. There, he practices a type of cuisine based on grilling that is uniquely his own. “Grilling is, after all, the basis of cuisine,” he says.” There is the relationship to heat, the sensuality, the vivaciousness of it.”
With delicate tongs he shifts the fowl – an heirloom variety of guinea hen – then turns to the fillet of merlan, which he transfers to a plate and garnishes with an herb infusion and various types of flowering broccoli, slowly grilled, for a sublime combination.
If Mr. Verjus had a mantra, it would include the word “slowly” so don’t be in a hurry when you go to Table, as Mr. Verjus is cooking just for you. Stress would ruin it, so there isn’t any. Or if there is, it’s well-hidden in the danciful flicks of the wrist, tender pokes, reverential placement of every single thing, on every single plate, at Table.
Table, 3 rue de Prague, 75012. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; open for dinner on Saturday. 29€ menu at lunch. 33 (0)1 4343 1226