Monday, May 3, 2010

If it looks like it's cool...

As the dictum goes, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, the chances are...well, it’s unlikely to be a seared rib eye steak, medium rare, isn’t it? Mama Shelter (109 Rue de Bangnolet, Paris 75020, 01 43 48 45 45, Reservations Necessary, felt like this to me...the dictum, not the steak. The restaurant at Mama Shelter, which forms part of a boutique design hotel complex in the 20eme, looks cool and is filled with loudly fashionable people wearing all the ‘right’ clothes, dining in all the ‘right’ urban-warehouse-meets-space-mountain-neon interior design. But you never hear Johnny Depp telling people how cool he is...Mama Shelter tells everyone just how cool it is.

The Island Bar at Mama Shelter where patron banter about
suitably 'cool' topics like how 'cool' they are

On this basis, I was expecting some pretty sexy takes on classic home food for cool people. Alain Senderens has conceived a classic home style menu (assuming one’s home has faux poignant phrases chalked all over the ceiling and a collective of equally faux preppie bankers hanging out in the living room). On first glance, nothing particularly jumps off the page. All the ‘right’ things are there and they are executed well. For starters we picked and shared from everything on the menu: the duck rillettes (slightly waxy, tasty enough, but really, the duck seemed fairly disinterested to be there), the trio de fromage (creamy and salty chevre selection befriended by a tart onion relish), froi gras (if you mess this up you’re an idiot), and they were all good. Good, spoken with a slight shrug of the shoulders and a subtle French indifference.

Alain Senderens's food philosophy 
The main courses felt like they were going through the motions also. Chicken (tick), steak (tick), 7 hour veal (tick...and double tick, this was the only offering which raised any heat rates at the table), fish (tick). But to fault what was served would not be fair. The steak was an exceptional cut, seared perfectly and the accompanying sauce was deeply rich and sported an unpickable sweet finish which we concurred was probably cognac (but one friend still swears was chocolate). But when I dine at a place like this I’m looking for a plate of food which I, or any of my friends, could not make ourselves on a lazy Sunday night. I didn’t find this plate amongst the starters or mains...but then again, perhaps I should have spent more time looking at my food and less time looking at the other patrons who were looking at me to check that I was looking at them. To be seen, to be seen.

It's important to pose at all times, you never know when it
will be more important than performing your job

Passing the baton to the dessert menu was the best thing the other courses have ever done. The moelleux au carambar for dessert was the culinary equivalent of a difibrulator.  Any dish served in a miniature la creuset pot (even though these were the sort of le creuset pots one might purchase at a beach market in asia for an crazily low price) already excels beyond other students, but the moelleux at Mama Shelter is spoon-coating, lip-licking, bowl-scraping good. I cannot handle my chocolate, but every last morsel of this chocolate caramel magma found its way into one of the many mouths on our table. We were not cool about it, fingers may have been involved.

I find it interesting, if I can, to read a restaurants website before or after I eat there to see whether the restaurants ambitions and food philosophy translates or accords with my experience. Of Mama Shelter: “a restaurant with simple family style dishes conceived by Alain Senderens” (sure, it is what is says on the box), the “private terraces where you might run into American poets, Japanese painters, or Latin American writers” (they forgot American tourists, men with up turned collars and eastern bloc husband hunters), “the space is not a prisoner to design” (the restaurant space is all design, they call it a ‘cultural wink’ (undefined), it’s a space which has been incredibly over thought in every detail). The next time I’m in the neighborhood (rarely if ever, the 20eme is a trek), I’ll likely return to Mama Shelter but not for the food. I’ll eat at home. Instead I’ll sit myself at the bar for some cocktails, people watching, social commentary and a double side of carambar moelleux.

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