THE GLOBAL GOURMET The bot­tom line

Rosa Jack­son takes a hard-won seat at the most elu­sive restau­rant in Paris

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

LGERIAN-BORN en­tre­pre­neur Mourad Ma­zouz is not one to do things by halves. The owner of the long-fash­ion­able restau­rants 404 in Paris and Momo in Lon­don in­vested mil­lion a few years ago in the glitzy Lon­don restau­rant Sketch. His lat­est Paris ven­ture is more dis­creet, lead­ing French news­pa­pers and fash­ion mag­a­zines to call it the most exclusive (should that be elu­sive?) restau­rant in Paris. Ru­mour has it that this apart­ment-restau­rant is ac­ces­si­ble by in­vi­ta­tion only, un­less your name just hap­pens to be Gwyneth Pal­trow.

Der­riere is hid­den at the back of a cob­bled court­yard in the north­ern Marais, where build­ings are among the old­est in Paris. The seem­ingly ob­scure lo­ca­tion is less of a se­cret to those who fre­quent Andy Wahloo, a bo­hemian bar also run by Ma­zouz that spilled out a cou­ple of years ago into this court­yard; 404 is next door. Slen­der sil­hou­ettes be­hind the win­dow tell you some­thing un­usual is go­ing on in what oth­er­wise looks like a res­i­den­tial apart­ment. But how hard is it to gain en­try?

I call a few weeks af­ter Der­riere opens and even­tu­ally — no point in try­ing be­fore 4pm — get a friendly-sound­ing voice on the line. ‘‘ It’s too soon,’’ he says when I try to book two weeks ahead. ‘‘ Call back in a week.’’

Afraid to miss my chance, I ring six days later: still too early. Ex­actly a week be­fore the date of my meal, I am able to make the reser­va­tion without a prob­lem; no name-drop­ping or celebrity cre­den­tials needed. On the day of the din­ner, I do have a slightly dis­con­cert­ing phone call from the restau­rant that we are ex­pected to free our ta­ble by 10.45pm (we have re­served for 8.30pm), which is pre­sum­ably not some­thing they would ask of Madonna.

We push open the large door at the back of the court­yard on a Thurs­day night to find a big, dimly lit room dom­i­nated by a ping-pong ta­ble. Imag­ine a loft apart­ment owned by a hip young de­signer who in­her­ited it from her aris­to­cratic par­ents and you’ll get the idea of Der­riere. A mish­mash of styles meets in this space, from 1950s and Moroc­can to farm­house and beat-up bour­geois, and the re­sult is a kind of comfortable clut­ter that feels al­most like a real home, al­beit the home of some­one very pop­u­lar.

Not as ac­ci­den­tal as it may look, the in­te­rior is by French dec­o­ra­tor Bambi Sloan, whose work is also in de­mand in Lon­don.

A wait­ress with no hint of the at­ti­tude you may ex­pect in such a fash­ion­able spot leads us to an ad­join­ing room, where we sit at a ban­quette fac­ing a low Moroc­can-style ta­ble. Eat­ing a meal with knives and forks here re­quires some flex­i­bil­ity, but not as much as that dis­played by the cir­cus per­form­ers whose ac­ro­bat­ics are be­ing pro­jected on the wall in a si­lent film.

Soon we re­alise there is some­thing un­usual about th­ese artists: they are in var­i­ous states of un­dress. Given our ta­ble’s po­si­tion fac­ing the wall, it is hard not to be dis­tracted as we eat.

Luck­ily, the food is good enough to com­mand our at­ten­tion. This is the first time Ma­zouz has turned his for­mi­da­ble busi­ness acu­men to French com­fort food: 404 and Momo are Moroc­can, and Sketch draws on the tal­ents of Paris-based culi­nary wizard Pierre Gag­naire, who is in­ca­pable of turn­ing out any­thing or­di­nary. Pre­sented like a lit­tle book, the menu at Der­riere is sur­pris­ingly ex­ten­sive, show­ing that food is not an af­ter­thought here. The young chef toils with one eye on the din­ing room in a red-and-turquoise open kitchen with mul­ti­coloured mo­saics, lit by whisk-like Cage lamps by La Cor­beille.

In typ­i­cal tongue-in-cheek Ma­zouz style, each menu de­scrip­tion in­cludes a dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion of the main in­gre­di­ent be­fore list­ing the ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Thus we learn that soupe is not just a name given to broth or bouil­lon but also to melt­ing snow that is too soft for ski­ing. From the nine veg­etable starters, we choose up­dated ver­sions of French clas­sics: my en­dive salad with mus­tard sauce is a thinly shred­ded ver­sion tossed with cel­ery root, strips of ham and Granny Smith ap­ple, while leeks vinai­grette, as well as the usual small steamed leeks in dress­ing, in­volves shal­lot mousse and a smooth puree the chef proudly tells us is made of the leek greens.

You can’t get more homely than roast chicken with mashed pota­toes and a dish of mac­a­roni and cheese, so we choose th­ese two from the many pos­si­bil­i­ties, which also in­clude beef cheeks cooked bour­guignon-style, spit-roasted ham with wild mush­rooms, and an odd­sound­ing sal­mon gravlax ‘‘ cooked on its skin’’. Both come in white porce­lain dishes, like any French per­son may have at home, for us to help our­selves, and serv­ings are gen­er­ous. The roast chicken is much as I would have made it: chunks of what seems to be a free-range bird with a sim­ple jus and more but­tery mashed pota­toes than I can eat. Slightly less sat­is­fy­ing is the mac­a­roni gratin, stud­ded with chunks of hardto-iden­tify veg­eta­bles and flavoured with sal­mon tarama that doesn’t seem to add much to a clas­sic dish.

As the din­ing room fills, we no­tice most of the din­ers have one thing in com­mon be­sides good looks. ‘‘ Is every­one here ex­tremely young?’’ asks my friend. ‘‘ Or are we get­ting old?’’ No one, be­sides our­selves, looks older than about 30, show­ing that in th­ese times of fi­nan­cial cri­sis the young still have money to eat in the most fash­ion­able places. Not that Der­riere is par­tic­u­larly ex­pen­sive, at less than ($18) for a starter and to for most main cour­ses.

To make room for dessert I go for a walk up­stairs. At the top of the creaky wooden stair­case I find my­self in a long hall­way with an­cient floor tiles. Timidly I push open a door, to find a bed­room. With­draw­ing quickly, I open the door to the bath­room, where an old bath­tub serves as the sink, with an­tique mir­rors for preen­ing. Most in­trigu­ing, though, is the cup­board door at the end of the hall. I poke my head in and find a smok­ing den — al­most un­heard-of in th­ese days of strict leg­is­la­tion — scat­tered with tatty yet invit­ing arm­chairs, low ta­bles and hap­pily puff­ing Parisians.

Chocolate mousse seems a fit­ting end­ing to this retro-themed meal and this one served in ter­rine proves as dense and rich as I’ve tasted any­where in Paris, even if the chocolate does have a lit­tle lin­ger­ing bit­ter­ness. Ser­vice is swift (though not an­noy­ingly so) through­out our meal, per­haps to en­sure that our ta­ble will be free for the next round of din­ers; by now we are tir­ing of the cir­cus video so we leave without re­gret. Looking at the crowd of chat­ter­ing youths, there seems no ques­tion that Ma­zouz, whose judg­ment has proved in­fal­li­ble since he opened 404 in 1990, has again struck gold. Der­riere, 69 rue des Grav­il­liers, 3rd , Paris. +33 1 44 61 91 95.

Your place or mine: Art­fully placed ob­jects at Der­riere, Paris’s fash­ion­able apart­men­trestau­rant

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