Oysters à la japonaise.
Le Chapeau Melon
92, rue Rébeval, in the 19th Arrondissement.
Wed–Sun, dinner only. Reservations a must.
01 42 02 68 60.
Some of the best food in Paris can be found outside the city center. There’s Jadis, in the far reaches of the 15th; La Régalade, at the end of line 4; and La Bigarrade, on the edge of the sprawling 17th, just to name a few. To that list you can add Le Chapeau Melon, in Belleville.
A wine shop during the day, owned by Le Baratin cofounder Olivier Camus, Le Chapeau Melon becomes a table d’hôte at night, serving a four-course, no-choice menu for the astoundingly low price of 31.50 euros. The wines, all natural or biodynamic, are a reasonable retail, plus a corkage fee of 8.50 euros.
Enter the backroom bar and you may feel as though you’re in someone’s home. A small counter with a few seats is attached to a kitchen reminiscent of the one in my first Manhattan apartment, not only because it is minuscule, but because you have to walk through it to get to the WC, emphasis on the “C.”
The front room is set for 15 covers. You can tell them what time you want to come in, but there is essentially one seating. As far as I can tell, the courses are cooked in sequence, and if you reserved for the early end you won’t get your second course until the last party to arrive has been served their first. There is one friendly waitress for everyone.
In other words, your patience will be appreciated.
And rewarded: oysters à la japonaise, gently cooked and topped with a gingery relish, were bright and briny. Champagne—a bottle of Lassaigne Le Cotet—was just the ticket. A sweet langoustine carpaccio, seasoned with sesame and topped with paper-thin cucumber slices, was fantastic. Delicate poached sea bass was piled high with a mound of salty caviar. A traditional enough slice of foie gras was accompanied by a decidedly nontraditional mango relish, and a silky potiron soup tasted more like pumpkin than pumpkin itself.
At this point, an important question arises: what kind of food does Le Chapeau Melon serve? Though my recent meals there started with Japanese flavors, one ended with an utterly French braised beef and winter vegetables, and another with roast lamb with herbs and a piquillo pepper—a Basque touch.
This mix of influences would normally turn me off; I like to feel like I have a sense of a cook’s philosophy or vision when I read a menu. Without focus, efforts at creativity can run amok, with muddled results. But the food at Le Chapeau Melon is anything but muddled. The flavors are bold and clear and unexpectedly refined, particularly considering the setting.
Braised beef with winter vegetables.
And in this case, the setting matters. Honestly, I’m not sure that Le Chapeau Melon could exist in any part of Paris besides Belleville. It’s funky, affordable, surprising and eclectic, like the neighborhood itself.
Price check: The four-course menu is 31.50 euros. Wines are on offer at every price point (plus an 8.50 euro corkage fee). A bargain.
In a nutshell: A meal at Le Chapeau Melon feels a little like going to a dinner party in a friend’s home, assuming that friend is an excellent cook with 200 wines on the shelves of her funky Belleville apartment.
If you don’t like having menu decisions made for you but want to get your natural wine fix in Belleville:
3, rue Jouye-Rouve, in the 20th.
01 43 49 39 70.