To celebrate Valentine’s Day four years ago, I dined at Le Grand Colbert, the restaurant made famous by Diane Keaton and her roast chicken in the film Something’s Gotta Give. For me, it will forever be famous for far different reasons. Over clangorous dining room voices and crumb-laden plates, my husband proposed to me.
The American couple seated next to us gushed as I beamed with joy and threw my arms around my new fiancé. The fullness of the moment was heightened by the Belle Epoque backdrop and the tuxedoed waiters who dashed back and forth with alacrity between the kitchen and the dining room, forging the surreal sensation of being the stars on a Hollywood film set. Unbearably prosaic but perfectly appropriate for the moment.
Since then, we’ve maintained the tradition of dining out on Valentine’s Day. Some of our choices have been memorable, some not even worth mentioning. We flirted with the idea of returning to Le Grand Colbert last month to relive our engagement but given the caliber of restaurants that have opened over the last four years, we couldn’t be bothered with average food and contrived theatrics, no matter how emotionally significant.
Instead, we headed toward Gare de l’Est, an area of the 10th arrondissement we seldom find ourselves exploring, to try a restaurant that has been on my go-eat-there-now list for ages. Playtime, run by Franco-Swedish couple Viveka Sandklef and Jean-Michel Rassinoux, sits inconspicuously on rue des Petits Hôtels in between kebab take-away joints and just a hop away from the covered St. Quentin market.
We were one of the first parties to arrive, right at 8pm for the start of the dinner service. The space was inviting with candlelight and a quick glance around the room had us feeling like we’d walked onto the set of Mad Men. Each table was thoughtfully dressed with a flower to mark the occasion but that’s where the Valentine’s Day trappings ended. We were already sipping our wine as fellow diners started pouring in – families, double dates and a few couples out for an inventive twist to V-Day dining.
The interior was designed by Viveka herself and is decidedly retro – colored Eames chairs, antique furnishings, and an attractive blend of tiling and hard-wood floors. Funky, 60’s accessories pepper the airy dining room for a playful vintage vibe that pays tribute to Jacques Tati’s film Playtime.
The cuisine is manned by Rassinoux who spent five years in the States sharpening his skills in the kitchens of the Ritz Carlton. He incorporates eastern flavors with creative finesse, right down to the desserts (we opted for the crunchy nems filled with dates, cinnamon and apples with a side of orange blossom ice cream) for a style that can only be considered contemporary French if not Franco-Asian fusion. The only traditional traces of ‘French’ to be found, however, were in the wine list and bread basket which was brimming with rye and pain de campagne. An impressive departure from the stodgy French dishes that lay before us at Le Grand Colbert four years prior.
What I particularly liked about Playtime, aside from the fun décor, was the way Rassinoux included touches of exotic lightness to each dish. The Lapsang infusion poured on top of my pollock added distinctive flavor that both warmed and surprised. Ingredients on the menu were seasonal and market fresh and the presentation was meticulous but without the pretension that often characterizes contemporary bistro fare.
Our only complaint was the lengthy wait between dishes (but then again, nothing is prepared in advance so that’s hardly a legitimate point of contention) and our aloof waiter who excelled at impersonal smiling but fell short on diligence. The playful ambiance and flavorful plates more than compensated for these flaws and I’m eager to go back for lunch.
As we headed back out into the Paris chill after a fantastic dinner, my husband and I realized that all of the meals that have impressed us of late haven’t been by the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées or the Palais-Royal, which is home to Le Grand Colbert, but rather on the outskirts, in the bohemian and imperfect neighborhoods where locals play. Visitors to Paris have a tendency to conflate worthwhile dining spots with the city’s epicenter but some of the most startling and inventive cuisine is found slightly on the tourist fringe. The 10th and 11th arrondissements, for instance, are just starting to pique the interest of travelers. And while there’s no denying the ways a 19th century brasserie can enchant, Playtime dishes up the kind of experience worthy of a trek outside the box.
5, Rue des Petits Hôtels, 75010
Métro: Gare de L’est, Gare du Nord, Poissonniere
Open: Tue-Fri, open for lunch on Mon
- Paris Bobo reviews Le Chateaubriand, an exciting neo-bistro in the hip and happening 11th
- The 10th is full of great little hidden gems. HiP Paris loves Vivant restaurant
- For another great bistro in Paris, check out Aux Deux Amis