I visited L’Agrume back in February 2010, just a week after this bistro had opened in the bottom of the 5th. My first thought: God, this place is ugly. With silver sponge-painted walls, pumpkin curtains, and art that was meant to resemble a bar code, it looked like something I might have created back in 1986 if you had asked me to do “sleek” with only $50 worth of materials from Hobby Lobby. I didn’t take a picture of this interior, and nobody else seems to have either. It’s as if we were averting our eyes, the way one does when confronted with an unfortunate mole.
Having said this, I don’t usually care about décor. An ugly room can be a testament to the chef’s single-mindedness if the food turns out to be fantastic. The food, however, turned out to be just fine. A mozzarella dish with truffle and black asparagus resembled the room – showy but mismatched, trying but failing to feel expensive. A well-cooked merlu (hake) was overwhelmed by orange sauce. A chocolate truffle floating in clear mint gel left a light Listerine taste in my mouth. Despite the room, and the fact that each dish was just a few degrees off from where chef Franck Marchesi-Grandi seemed to have been aiming, I still found L’Agrume to be an honest neighborhood option.
Two months later, Christine Muhlke wrote about it for the New York Times, and L’Agrume landed on thousands of “must-try” lists. I read her review with a sense of bewilderment, not understanding the comparison with Yam’Tcha, Frenchie and Le Chateaubriand. But other writers loved it, too. A quick scan of the opinion on Paris by Mouth shows rave reviews from Alexander Lobrano, François Simon, Emmanuel Rubin, Caroline Mignot, John Talbott and Phyllis Flick. In the face of all this, I assumed that I must have gone on an off-night, gone too early, or gotten it wrong.
I returned this week with a well-informed friend who is visiting Paris for two weeks. He came here to eat, and has been making his way around Rino, Hidden Kitchen, Frenchie and other good tables. I wasn’t surprised when he told me L’Agrume was on his list. This happens a lot, and will continue to happen for years thanks to that single NYT piece. I was excited to try it again, to better understand what I had missed the first time around.
It was exactly the same. The provincial dining room, the sweet and bubbly hostess, the uninteresting wine list, the goofy tableware… nothing had changed. Except the fact that we were now surrounded by English speakers. The prix-fixe proceeded much as it had before, with a series of small plates that tasted good but ever-so-slightly amateur. Yes, I know that the chef worked for Ducasse (who hasn’t?) and that he’s making something (not the most) of seasonal produce. But a dish of smoked mozzarella with Roma tomatoes and basil oil is not something that people cross the ocean to eat. The same goes for white asparagus in Parmesan broth, and a dessert of whipped cream on peaches.
I don’t mean to sound overly harsh. But I now feel comfortable in saying, after a second visit fifteen months later, that L’Agrume is a well-intentioned and often delicious neighborhood restaurant where you can eat five courses for €37. The service is kind, and the interior is entirely without pretension. It should not be a destination for food-minded visitors to Paris. There is nothing particularly French, nor (successfully) innovative about the place. I’m glad that the restaurant exists, but I can’t same the same about that NYT review that will continue to send travelers to L’Agrume for years to come.