Chef Tomy Gousset’s friendly new restaurant Hugo & Co is exactly the the type of place the Latin Quarter in Paris has been wanting for a longtime, because it’s such a delicious reflection of the neighborhood itself. To wit, this lively little place serves up a cosmopolitan menu of affordably priced small-plates comfort food that are made for sharing, service is young and good-natured, and there’s a great wine list. So it was no surprise then that it was packed with a mixture of academics, creative professionals, students and travelers when I went for dinner the other night. “We already have lots of clients who come several times a week,” our smart and outgoing waiter told us once we’d settled in at one of the tables that faces the caramel-colored leather banquette which lines one wall of the room and ordered a glass of wine.
It had been a while since I’d come to this part of town, the 5th Arrondissement, for a meal, too, since as the neighborhood has gentrified, it’s become too expensive for most students. Today, the 11th and 10th Arrondissements have become the youngest and liveliest districts of the city. The reason for this is their more affordable rents, both for apartments and commercial spaces, which explains why these arrondissements are also now where most young chefs going out on their own set up shop.
My first apartment in Paris was on the rue de la Sorbonne in the 5th Arrondissement, and back in those days several decades ago, the neighborhood brimmed with great inexpensive foreign tables like Au Coin des Gourmets, a reliable Vietnamese place in the rue Dante; a couple of good bistros– the late lamented Moissonier and Au Moulin a Vent, for example; and, for meals with visiting friends from out of town, the Brasserie Balzar, which had decent food, great people watching and a charming atmosphere created by its natty tweedy professorial clientele, long-serving waiters, cantilevered mirrors that encouraged flirting, and the wonderfully ugly art-nouveau vase of flowers on the bar (N.B. I stopped going to the Balzar ages ago, since the food has declined and the atmosphere had been dented during a period of corporate, penny-pinching ownership; now, though, it has a new owner, so I’m hoping for a renaissance at this long-running Left Bank address, a place for which I once had so much affection).
With the exception of the Balzar, though, which inexplicably became popular with fashion people in the eighties and early nineties, the 5th Arrondissement was, with the exception of La Tour d’Argent, never a destination arrondissement for seriously gastronomic eating.
Looking at the menu at Hugo & Co, however, my first thought was that this might change, since what’s on offer is so alluring while avoiding the dulling cliches of la bistronomie, or modern French cooking. We decided to share three starters–a savoury pancake with guanciale, Pecorino and arugula; marinated salmon with passionfruit sauce, hashed beets and toasted rice; and some strachiatella with ramps, gomasio, and black olives. If all of them were excellent, the pancake was the real stand out, since it was exactly the kind of dish you known you’ll end up permanently craving, a nicely crusted pancake topped with crispy curls of guanciale, grated Pecorino and a scattering of arugula leaves. The strachiatella was delicious scooped up with the good bread served here, and though quieter and less original, the salmon was pleasant, too. What we really liked in all three of these dishes was the way they skated across a variety of different cultures and palates to create something original that had a flawlessly appetising logic.
Over dinner, I told Bruno about my first apartment, a one-bedroom that had padded coral-fabric covered walls, a ratty little kitchen with a double hot plate, and a bathroom with bubble-gum pink fixtures. Suffice it to say that it was the best I could come up with during a one-day hunt with a lupine real-estate agent. I rented it furnished, and it only became just slightly habitable after I’d put all of the lady dermatologist owner’s china figurines and dusty plastic flowers in a coat closet and hung a couple of paper globe lamps that I bought for a few francs from a Chinese notions store nearby. But it was right across the street from La Sorbonne, and it used to fascinate me to peer into the class rooms across the street and see the professors lecturing to orderly rows of students sitting upright at their desks. And even in a bower afflicted by such dubious taste, it was thrilling to slowly but surely hatch a new life for myself in Paris. Little did I know at the time that the roots of this fledgling attachment to my new city would grow so deep that I would end up living here for over half of my life. I’m very lucky.
Next, I tucked into a Tonkatsu style breaded pork cutlet topped with a fried egg in a pool of hoisin sauce with a garnish of pickled red cabbage and black rice, and Bruno enjoyed braised beef cheeks with grilled asparagus and panisses (fried chickpea-flour bars). While we were eating, chef Tomy Gousset did a round in the dining room, stopping to chat amiably at almost every table.
I’ve known the Cambodian born Gousset’s superb cooking every since he returned to France after a stint cooking at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant Restaurant Daniel in New York City and took over the kitchen at Pirouette in Les Halles. I’ve also admired his food at his eponymous table Tomy, which he opened in the 7th Arrondissement when he left Pirouette, but I didn’t know that he’d gone to the Ecole Ferrandi and then cooked with Alain Solivérès at Taillevent and Yannick Alleno at the Hotel Meurice.
“New York was so important for me. I really loved it, the kitchens of so many different countries intersecting, the whole idea of the laid-back no-limits urban bistro. I learned so much there,” Gousset told us, adding, “Hugo & Co is all about having a good time.” That’s a pretty perfect way of summing this place up, too.
We finished off our excellent bottle of white Dao while sharing an order of warm madeleines with lemon zest and a light lemon custard dipping sauce, a charming dessert, and stepped out into a rainy Spring night knowing we’d come back here again soon, too.
48 Rue Monge, 5th Arrondissement, Paris, Tel. (33) 09-53-92-62-77, Metro: Cardinal Le Moine or Place Monge. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Average 35 Euros. www.tomygousset.com
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