I love Bill Buford’s Heat, because if you strip back the intrigue and drama – the Kitchen Confidentiality – the long, almost academic passages on the history of the tortellino, the little vignettes on Mario Batali (which are now just creepy), you see that the book is not a food book at all: it’s a love letter to Italy. I love Italy, and so I’m always attuned to expressions of that same love in others.
That sort of love – that deep, foundational, structural kind of love – is what I look for in good food writing. Knowledge is important, and insight perhaps more so; humour, honesty, urgency, are all crucial to writing about any subject. But I place a premium on the sincerity of a writer’s love for their subject, because criticism needs to come from a desire to improve, not a desire to condemn. Buford could have easily written a tell-all romp through the underbelly of the New York dining scene, or something incoherent about how he doesn’t like Per Se and probably have had a wider readership. But he didn’t. He writes excellently, in fluid, elegant prose about a subject which he wants you to love as much as he does. It’s a truly excellent book.
The trouble, of course, is that love can be blinding, and really, deeply wanting something to be good can shift you into a state of denial vis-a-vis that thing, and denial isn’t just a river in Africa. After a teenage love affair with High Violet, I really, really wanted to love Trouble Will Find Me; so much that it took six months of listening until I realised I didn’t. Love letters are first-personal, and so are told from within that rich framework of expectations and prejudices that is the inevitable by-product of being a living breathing human.
Anyway, what is the point to all this? A justification, I guess, and a warning that what follows is not, in any way, objective. What follows is first-personal. What follows is a love letter to Le Servan.
Le Servan is the best restaurant in Paris, probably in France. Le Servan is one of the best restaurants in Europe. I’ve yet to find somewhere that claws at my heart and head as much as Le Servan does: somewhere that reminds me why I love food, why I love wine, why I love hospitality – every time I visit.
Tatiana Levha is one of the most talented chefs of her generation. She does to French cuisine what it so urgently needs – a kick up the arse. Her cooking is rooted in a classical French tradition; she trained at L’Astrance and L’Arpège. It is technically gifted and sauce-forward. Pastry is well executed, subtle, and other good things. Strip back some of the innovation and it reads like a page from the Escoffier playbook.
And while her menus march out some of the greatest hits – I’ve seen mussels, scallops Saint Jacques, steak tartare, poached eggs, and roast chicken on the menu (though separately, of course) in recent months – they’re also inventive, innovative. Most plates have a streak of Asian flavour, reflecting her childhood in Manilla and Hong Kong, as well as Paris. The mussels are served with chilli and Thai basil. Scallops Saint Jacques, carpaccioed, lie next to a soya cream (described by Victor as an ‘umami bomb’), adorned with a bed of nori. The steak tartare is classical, but the egg yolk is confit, or creamed, or something, which drags out slightly more flavour, and highlights slightly more texture. Poached eggs fight for space on the plate with leek, peanuts, chillis, ginger. Poulette, with crispy skin, appears frequently with cauliflower, browned and soaked in sauce, or perhaps offset by pickled lemon.
But the innovation also isn’t really the point. With various groups, and alone, I’ve visited at least ten times, and each time I do the menu has changed, and each time I do the food is executed just as well, and each time I do I feel more welcomed, and more at home. The staff do more than put up with us – and I’m sure, when we’re three bottles in, ‘putting up’ is the right term – they genuinely seem to care for us, and for the food and wine that they’re serving. Egghead is cooked a bespoke vegetable plate each time, one that usually matches one of the main courses. Flavour is judicious and homely and not trying very hard to impress you, which only makes it more impressive.
A few visits ago, I made some not-very-funny joke about how it’d be cool if a glass of wine arrived at our table the moment we sat down. The following week, at our next visit, the glass got to the table before we did. Victor and the front of house team (headed up by Katia, Tatiana’s sister), are thoughtful and fun and helpful and knowledgeable and completely unfussy, which, when set against the backdrop of Paris, is like fresh air after being stuck in a lift with an undiagnosed coeliac.
In short, Le Servan is intimate. It’s an intimate tour through the flavours of an extraordinarily talented chef’s childhood, and an intimate guide to her current view of food. It’s an intimate relationship with a kitchen team who care about every plate they send. It’s an intimate nod from a bar tender, as you sit on a small table in an intimate bistro on the corner in the heart of an intimate arrondissement.
It’s like you’ve known the place for your entire life on your first visit, but yet it keeps surprising you.
It’s love. It’s home.