Bordier. Bierce. Yuzu. Crab. Carrot. Egg. Verbana. Squash. Grapefruit. Tomato. Sorrel. Licorice. Avocado. Zucchini. Nasturtium. Dried Shrimp. Squash. French Beans. Salmon. Ginger. Purslane. Squid. Speck. Red Mullet. Monkfish. Farro. Chocolate. Porcini. Shitake. Hazelnut. Foie Gras. Apple. Beef. Rye. Pigeon. Corn. Parsnip. Purple Basil. Quince. Carte Blanche.1
As free association, l’Agape Substance’s menu reads of a French Fall—of harvest, abundance, gardens and countrysides. But the food is sleek and modern – a cool breeze on the Left Bank. You can read the menu as ingredients – or flavors. They sing, bright and clear, in contrast to the muted chorus of butter across the city. And the vegetables – is this really Paris?
Chef David Toutain has worked at Marc Veyrat, l’Arpege, and Mugaritz – all inspirational and integral to the new fine dining of herbs, vegetables, and terroir. You can trace aspects of his cooking to each – the wild herbs and esoterica of Veyrat and Mugaritz coupled with a l’Arpege vegetable obsession.2 But his cooking is his own. And it is worth noting he is friendly with the folks at In de Wulf and La Grenouillere – a nice triangle of modern cooking in France and Belgium.
This reservation was made before I had a chance to say no. I insist, your reservation is complete, and oh, you are sitting at the chef’s table.3 The restaurant had only been open a few months. Tucked behind the pass, Chef Toutain would literally turn around and place each dish on the cramped table. l’Agape Substance is more Tokyo than Paris – there is no space. Outside of one or two dishes, this meal looked similar to what most ate that night (we could see it all.) But this is very much an in-the-moment restaurant, where the preparation might change mid-service – there is energy here – bustling and contagious.4
Berce/Hogweed, Yuzu jelly, Rice cracker
The first three dishes touched upon many of Toutain’s characteristics, and they would be repeated across the meal.
Crab with Carrot/Grapefruit consomme had a lingering smokiness, almost a perfume, a backdrop for a thrilling tug between sweet crab and carrot and points bitterness in the broth. Clear and light – a poetic dish that reinforced the ephemeral nature of dining.
The textural mix of poached egg and squash puree provided more substance, a rich blend of the slightly sweet. Tiny stabs of salt brought the dish to life – sometimes it is the simple things – and the verbana foam rounded the edges with a herbaceous note.
And then to wake up the palate! Almost electric, the cold acidic tomato soup spiked with clarity, using sorrel snow to intensify more. Snow dishes often cross the extreme, nullifying taste, but leaves here would have been lost. Hello, welcome to l’Agape Substance.
Texture, technique, seasoning, and flavor – and what a progression.
Crab with Carrot/Grapefruit consomme
Poached egg, Verbana, Squash
Tomato, Sorrel Snow, White licorice
Avocado 3 ways – Sorrel, Yuzu, & Fish eggs
Umami played an integral role in the cooking as well. Toutain used dried shrimp, smoked salmon, and other elements to add depth to the vegetables, to complement and add savoriness. Its flavor was used to fill out the background – dimension that is sometimes missing from a string of vegetable-centric dishes in other menus.5
The first bite of zucchini and squash puree was sweet with the peppery nasturtium essence floating around; but it was the dried whole shrimp that gave the dish shape and form. The smoked salmon in the French beans tasted much like a ham might – simple but effective. Caramelized, with browned spices, the carrots were intense with deep earthy flavors. A simple purslane leaf sat atop, tangy counterpoint with ginger foam. You’ve read it before – carrots are the new caviar.
Zucchini, Nasturtium foam, Squash, Dried Shrimp
French beans, Miso, Smoked salmon
Carrot, Ginger, Carrot top puree, Purslane, Browned spices
Squid and pork have been paired before – there are many complements between these two seemingly disparate products. A thinly sliced cuttlefish has the texture of lardo. Here, Toutain had an especially thoughtful rendition where he used the natural chew to his advantage. With each bite, and it took a few, the smoky fragrance of the speck filled the mouth.
Every Part of the Duck looked, and sounded, like overkill this deep into the menu. Who knows what lie under the cover of a thick foie gras sauce – rich on rich. But the apples had a poignant acidity, biting, that played equal to the luscious foie gras sauce. Mouthfeel, balance, and offal.
Red mullet, Flowers, Sauce roasted with fish bones
Monkfish, Farro, Chocolate sauce
Porcini, Shitake, Hazelnut crisp, possibly Oyster mushroom sauce
“Every Part of the Duck”
Beef with Rye Marinade
15-day Pigeon, Corn, White miso
And vegetables found their way into dessert – it makes sense. It is clear that the typical patisserie fare would not fit in the menu. Tone down the sweetness and bring in different ingredients to allow the desserts to flow more seamlessly, more naturally into the arc of the meal.
The first dessert was particularly interesting – a sour rye ice cream, bitter apple, and the natural sweetness of parsnip, all combined to create a complex taste that straddled sweet and savory. Striking green across the plate, the purple basil sorbet and strawberries struck some of the night’s purist flavors – zing! Its refreshment was appreciated before the next heavier chocolate course. The quince granita was a nice, light touch for the end – why don’t more restaurants do this?
Rye ice cream, Parsnip, Burnt apple
Purple basil sorbet, Strawberries, Parsley puree
l’Agape Substance excels at clear and bright flavors. Textures are more international, with perhaps a puree too many, but it is a nice respite from the leafy vegetable-centric menus. Toutain manipulates the vegetable but still celebrates it by capturing their essence – their substance. While most dishes were strong, one does wonder how much better they might be if Toutain worked to refine the dishes; but there is energy and excitement in his in the moment cooking. And that is quite refreshing for Paris.6
1 – Yes, this is the new, trendy menu found around the world. As farm to table is integrated into a restaurant’s core, ingredients are presented in lieu of dishes. It can be a variation on omakase – trust the chef; bespoke – how would you like that prepared?; or, most likely, supply management – this is what we have today.
Reading a menu, however, is enjoyable and it is here that I probably find myself slipping into conservatism. You pick it up, heavier is better, chew through descriptions, think of possibilities and combinations, and get a feel for the food and context. This is largely a European experience. It is also interesting that ingredient arrays are replacing long-form menus when there is research that suggests customers will pay more for longer dish names (note: pdf file.)
And, yes, farm to table is getting old as a marketing slogan. And the elder statesmen are saying “where else did food come from all these years” in defiance. But I think that misses the point. It is only recently that menus were products of the gardens, and all of the whims of nature. Of course ingredients came from farms but the dishes were much more static. Now, in many places, dishes are more fluid, more framework, and their composition might hinge on the sun, rain, moon, and stars.
These are interesting arcs. With freshness, have we lost some permanence and refinement? There is excitement in rapid iteration and in the moment; but, arguably, refined dishes, over time, are the pillars of reputation.
2 – Naturalism, New Naturals, New Naturalism – everyone is trying to claim the title. Instead, read Essential Cuisine Michel Bras – that’s the blueprint.
Marc Veyrat is, sadly, one of those restaurants I never made it to. Sometimes I wonder if people get hung up on calling cooking art because of its ephemeral nature. But all material culture, sooner or later, becomes art. Paintings, music, literature – they have physical legacies that persist throughout time. We can know them, re-contextualize them, and keep them relevant. Cookbooks are the only tenuous artifact in cooking. Cuisines are largely lost – how can we know them? Language is abstraction, ingredients change, and seeds are lost. Cooking Escoffier recipes today resemble nothing of what they did in 1900 – the ingredients are not the same.
And let’s not speak of Cancale.
3 – Thank you once again Gastros on Tour. I am sometimes equally insistent. Right now, you’d spend two nights in Charleston (Husk and McCrady’s), fly to Tokyo (Sawada, Ryugin), stop in Belgium (In de Wulf), and end your worldwide trip in San Francisco (Saison.) These are my current culinary obsessions.
If you’re a billionaire, and you need a concierge, email me.
4 – There is a new wave of restaurants in Paris that are more casual, food serious, and vegetable-centric. Spring, Septime, and Saturne to name a few. In fact, Luxeat said she’d pick l’Agape Substance over any Parisian three-star right now.
5 – I also like that Ideas in Food, in their Idea Box post, break out umami into its own category as things to consider when developing a recipe.
At home, when I’ve decided the Bay Area’s bounty should be celebrated and/or more clothes should fit, I eat salad and vegetables all day. But it never works. I break down at the end with a splurge of cheese, jerky, meat, or dark chocolate. For meat eaters to accept a vegetable-centric cuisine, working glutamate into the dishes might be key. And Toutain does this in very measured ways.
6 – I call it The New York Syndrome. There are great restaurants, plenty of options, but it’s difficult to get excited about them. L’Ambrosie treats foreigners like crap. Pierre Gagnaire is culinary Russian roulette. l’Arpege often requires initiation into a secret society for a truly great meal. Ledoyen requires the appetite of ten men, all preferably Russian oligarchs. Ducasse is slightly more exciting than staring at a white wall. I will never understand the fascination with L’Astrance, glorified fusion. Yes, I’m jaded; but I still think Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world – I would love to live and eat there for an extended period of time.