Bertrand Grébaut is one of those notable French chefs; someone whose precocious talents earned that prized Michelin star when he was still in his twenties. However, when he left the scene of his gastronomic triumph –the lauded Agapé- it was not to open a similarly demure dining room of haute cuisine, but to open Septime. Together with partner-in-gastronomy Théo Pourriat – who runs front-of-house operations and fulfills the important role of sommelier- Septime was born.
Located in the up-and-coming but still gritty 11th arrondissement, Septime saw Bertrand reviving the tradition of the true French bistro; not a place of pompous food and uptight attitudes, but a relaxed environment offering the best of wholesome French cooking done well. In many ways it’s like the French equivalent of the back-to-basics approach that has won accolades for various British chefs and their revival of traditional English staples. What is notably different about this place, however, is how affordable it is. One of Bertrand’s aims was to avoid the stagnation of overpriced French cuisine. He hasn’t only done this but also pulled off something of a miracle for Paris: it’s three times as good as many places that cost twice as much.
The picturesque interior enmeshes perfectly with the approach to cooking that emphasises locally-sourced organic ingredients and traditional cooking skill over elaborate trickery. The sedate dining room has been left with a –or given an appropriately convincing- patina of age. Recycled wooden furniture with a modernist pedigree makes it feels simultaneously contemporary and a little rustic. It’s uncluttered without being austere or minimalist. This, together with the approach to cooking, makes it the perfect antidote for anyone who is either intimidated or bored by the overly snotty and formal tone that many praiseworthy Parisian restaurants can have. More importantly for Monsieur Grébaut it has proven a hit with local foodies. So, expect everyone from trendily scruffy boho types to businessmen with a taste for fine food.
The menu – precisely because of its emphasis on fresh seasonal produce- is constantly changing. Don’t expect it to be the same on any two visits. On the whole, it is fairly small as is often the case in good restaurants. The lunch menu offers excellent value for money while the dinner à la carte offers a little more choice. Alternatively you can opt for the fixed price multi-course tasting menu, something that has become the norm in many restaurants that take food seriously.
Hearty main courses such as roast duckling with peas and nettle or caramelised pork belly served with carrot purée and choux pointu (a less common variety of cabbage) are the kinds of dishes informed by tradition delivered with a new subtle flair at the heart of the changing menu. Starters – or the early courses of the tasting menu- often have a light fresh appeal to them; line-caught tuna atop fresh raspberries and a ‘tomato water’ with cucumber or poached egg in a corn purée topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan slivers. Or, they can really foreground the freshness of it all, such as in the refreshing soup of green beans served with white peach mouse and chunks of fresh peach.
Desserts tend to a similar emphasis on fresh, almost homely ingredients but have no fear of a good dab of indulgent richness: chocolate ganache, blackberry purée and mint-rosemary sorbet or a delicious vanilla rice pudding served with caramel sauce and a perfect passion fruit sorbet.
Given the whole ethos behind the venture, the one thing that is certain is that by the time you get there the specifics of the menu will have changed. What will not, however, is its excellence. If you are one of the thousands of people that plan to visit Paris this year, and always wondered why all those foreigners raved about the place in the distant past, Septime is a good place to start; a reminder of genuine French charm. Better book early though.