A Japanese chef juggles French wine bar staples to new heights
Claim to fame: Once a hangout for circus artists, this Belle époque café is now an arty eatery serving natural wines.
Reason to go: French pithiviers and Japanese-style shellfish
To look out for: Extremist natural wines
This is pure Paris. An old, rundown joint gets revamped, with historical touches still intact, and an air of modernity where there previously was nothing but nicotine stained melancholy. Clown Bar was built over a century ago and decorated with Belle époque whimsy, it was where clowns and circus artists used fortify themselves before hitting the stage at the adjacent Cirque d’Hiver, hence the original tiles depicting Pierrot and friends. Three years ago the café was saved from oblivion when Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne, the tastemakers behind bistronomy-star Saturne, laid hands on it. They gave it a coat of hipster-hewed paint, left pretty much everything else as it was, and reinvented the place as a wine bar full of creativity, light and respect for details.
Adding an air of exoticism, Chartier and Lemoigne also tossed in an inventive, foreign chef. Japanese dynamo Sota Atsumi (Formerly of Vivant Table, Maison Troisgros and Toyo) plays with classic, almost-forgotten French culinary treasures such as the pithivier. His version of the puff pastry puck is filled with squab, foie gras and cabbage, and served with a date- and yuzu sauce, though it can change according to season and mood. Modernizing this old-school delicacy immediately put Clown Bar on the Paris gastro-map, it also resulted in many facsimiles.
Atsumi’s à la carte divertissement features a dozen medium-sized dishes, all changing weekly. It’s a generous and produce-driven menu, light but striking in flavor. Tempura of langoustines or mussels with a dollop of spicy mayo can grace the smaller plates, as can a breezy seasonal salad with watermelon, haricot vertes and grated cheese. Look out for more luxurious dishes such as the plentiful salad of smoked eel, foie gras, blood orange and apple. Recently the chef’s obsession with iconic french dishes has revolved around perfecting the craft of making crêpes; small ones, filled with sea urchin, watercress and coriander. His trademark is a very careful Japanese update of the french classics, introducing shellfish, for instance, where you would normally expect meat, and vice versa. Flawlessly crisp squab is always on the menu, grilled with claws and all, presented with only a slight touch of sauce.
This is the kind of place you want to visit with a handful of friends, so you can share and try an assortment of dishes, all of which hover around the €20 mark. Natural wines of the more extreme and rare kinds are all the rage here – for better or worse. True vin naturel connoisseurs might shy away from this selection, but the cheaper funky bottles with cool labels sell well to the international hipsters who are just discovering these wines.