THE GLOBAL GOURMET The bottom line
Rosa Jackson takes a hard-won seat at the most elusive restaurant in Paris
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