The Rue du Cherche-Midi is long and historic; towards one end is the handsome Hôtel de Chambon (not a hotel in fact, but an 1805 listed private residence), at the other Marché Raspail, with an eclectic mix of designer boutiques, antique shops and fromageries etc in-between. So when I heard that chef François Gagnaire had opened a restaurant there, I was curious.
I’ve crossed culinary paths with Gagnaire several times at various establishments in Lyon, Saint-Etienne and Paris, but I never made it to Hôtel du Parc, his former Michelin-starred restaurant in the town of Le Puy-en-Velay in France’s Auvergne region. Gagnaire was born in Puy, famed for its lentil production, and his cooking is born of the surrounding Haute-Loire terroir. Even in his new locale in the heart of Saint-Germain, he just has to close his eyes and he can smell the earth, the hills and the alpine fennel-flavoured Foin du Mézenc (hay), which he orders from an Auvergne farmer and uses to make bread, infusions, bouillons, ice cream, tarts – in fact, just about everything that he sends out from his kitchen.
The house signature is Le Caviar du Velay (€16, or €15 for a tin to take away), which is made not from sturgeon eggs but vitamin-packed green Puy lentils set in a fine gelée of crustaceans – and is delicious. “It’s poor man’s caviar, served luxuriously, with house-made blinis,” says Gagnaire, while sommelier Aurélien Vergnolle suggests an accompanying dry fruity white Condrieu de Chapoutier 2015 (€78).
For lunch (menu from €24) there’s also wooden boards of Auvergne charcuterie or cheeses, and I can heartily recommend the aged L’entrecôte Salers – a trencherman’s delight. Dinner (five-course Inspiration Gourmande menu €59, or €94 with wine pairings) is also market driven and seasonal, with snails, poultry, chicken, fish, cheese and, of course, lentils, sourced from Auvergne suppliers (“They’re my friends, we grew up together”) and vegetables, fruits and fresh herbs from small Paris producers. The desserts are another highlight; the Chocolat Grand Cru is a decadent mousse-ice cream mix, and those lentils even make their way into the crème brûlée…