La tête dans les olives – and a word on sincerity

Preambule:

I am aware that the “food blogging” movement has changed the restaurateur’s business reality. In fact, I don’t think it’s a reach to say that the emergence of blogs, Trip Advisor reviews, Facebook, Twitter and other such crowdsourcing, community-based websites has affected and changed the service industry as a whole.

I feel lucky to live in a time like ours and to have such tools at my disposal. Be it for community or consumer purposes, we now have a medium through which we can express and share opinions with an ever-growing base. I also feel, however, that this power to “publish” opinions in a few clicks shouldn’t forgo all human compassion.  As Marcus Samuelsson rightfully shares in his most recent book Yes Chef,  “[some bloggers] take the pulse of a restaurant every thirty seconds and sound a death knell if they don’t like the feel of a napkin”. He describes his ethos on critique as one needing “sincerity” – and on that I agree. One should speak and act truly about his or her own feelings, thoughts, and desires when it comes to critiquing, and not critique for critique’s sake.

I do not consider myself a critic, as I feel that the main purpose of my blog is to share positive findings and discoveries. I don’t share everything I do on my blog, nor do I share every restaurant that I try for simple lack of time, though I certainly would love to.

That being said, I’ve recently had two disappointing experiences in reputable Paris dining establishments, and I’ve long debated and reflected on whether or not I should share these experiences on my blog. These were not “positive findings and discoveries”. To me, they are anti-discoveries: something I thought existed, or hoped existed, does not. I did not discover a great “bang for your buck”, nor did I discover an impressive chef. I did not discover a fresh new food concept or idea, or an inspiring take on a classic meal. I discovered nothing.

Blogging being my hobby for now, I am fortunate to have the luxury of time when it comes to writing – contrary to official food critics who must deal with deadlines and obligations relative to the expression of their point of view. I let my disappointment settle. Had I expected something to be a discovery when I should have expected a standard restaurant experience – which, going back to my point on sincerity, should not be lambasted for that sake alone. In other words, you don’t blast a McDonald’s because it makes an “average” Big Mac.  Still, after several weeks, my disappointment still stung and I felt like I should write something. People wait for months to get reservations at these places. They pay through the roof for the privilege. They are sold a discovery. And I feel like a makeshift “Robin hood of dining” today by “calling-people out” on their pretence of a valuable dining experience.

Review & tale of my experience:

So it begins. I had tried to get a reservation à la Tête dans les olives for the past three years. I had read about this place on numerous occasions from many official and non-official sources, and heard great stories of perfect experiences from close friends.

This year, my 6 months abroad and 4 months living in Paris were enough to land me a reservation. With much persistence, I finally got a place for 4 people on a Monday evening in November.

La tête dans les olives is a grocery store in the 10e arrondissement, which specializes in imported Italian products – specifically olives and olive oil. The passionate owners sample their products and share quality ingredients in a tapas/plancha, no frills formula once the store is closed for the night. The experience has a fixed cost of 150 euros, which can be divided by a group of up to 5 people. This charming and exclusive concept gained much attention and was praised for just about everything: the freshness of the products; the enthusiasm of the owners and their passion for food; the dim candle-lit dinner in a store setting. The only supposed “let down”, of which was said “we forgive them for it”, was the bring your own wine policy.

After many years of successfully booking the place non-stop, they are now able to accommodate a second table by using a neighbouring space about 30 feet away, for which there is a maximum of 8 people. This other room is a 30 x 15 foot space that, I imagine, the grocery uses as a preparation kitchen for its home made items as well as for storage.

This is where I was able to make a reservation for our experience.

We arrived more than 30 minutes late, which didn’t start things off in the best of ways.  Nonetheless, we were thrilled to finally be there, seated in an exclusive setting that felt like a pop up store.  It was chilly and there weren’t any candles, but this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. We quickly warmed the place up and poured a glass of Champagne to our host to make amends for our tardiness.

The fact that it didn’t smell like food (at all) surprised me upon our arrival. I shrugged and figured that most of our dinner must have been prepared in advance in the neighbouring establishment.

Our table was set with bread and two different kinds of olive oils to dip from. Two little “ramequins” of olives, another one filled with a few rehydrated chickpeas, one with sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil and a final with capers. All in all, things looked like they were off to a good start and I was more than excited about finally getting to live this experience – with good friends on top of it. Our host provided us with a brief description of what was on the table, naming the content of every dish.

La tête dans les olives, Paris

Then came the plates of shared entrées, all of which were Sicilian inspired. This was great (the Sicilian theme), since my travel experiences so far have only brought me to discover Italy’s northern cuisine – Rome being the farthest south that I’ve been to date. While the dishes were original, most of them were extremely salty, making it particularly hard to appreciate the rehydrated aubergines and the mushroom tops filled with capers. I didn’t understand why the eggplant was rehydrated, since it is easy to get your hands on fresh ones at low cost in Paris. I also would have loved if the mushroom tops, which were simple “champignons de Paris”, had been filled with more than just capers, which seemed a little odd. I read after the fact (involuntarily adding to my disappointment) that stuffed mushroom tops are a usual staple of dinners at La tête dans les olives, though usually filled with a tasty tapenade. In any case, this was a somewhat odd combination that was missing an element of preparation; perhaps a sauce to tie things together.

Rehydrated eggplant

Another appetizer dish was a bowl of diced squash with the same herb mix that was sprinkled on the eggplant – this was good, but not at all worthy of any special mention. Again, there seemed to be a lack of imagination here, seeing as this could also have been our host’s leftover from lunch, seeing as there was about ¼ of a squash’s worth in the bowl. Don’t get me wrong: left overs are good, and squash is lovely, but lets say that this interpretation wasn’t quite what I expect while dining out. Even if the idea is to appreciate the taste of the ingredient in its natural form.  Even in a grocery store.

IMG_1384

On a more positive note, I took great pleasure in the plate of sliced orange dressed with olive oil, fennel seeds, green olives and anchovies – this was truly new to me, simple, fresh and very delicious.

La tête dans les olives, orange and anchovy

Then came a pasta dish.  Our host poured the bag of pasta into the water while we were enjoying the appetizers, so we knew that this was the same pasta that was on the shelves before us. It was dressed with olive oil, a bit of orange zest and tuna. The fish felt like it was canned, though a canning of good quality. And the dish would have been perhaps more appreciated if there had been a subsequent course of meat or even a piece of fish, or two seared scallops, which requires little preparation. To my dread, this was the main course, and nothing else was to come other than a small amaretti cookie as desert.

La tête dans les olives, Paris IMG_1386

This is where all of the little things that I have noted so far, all of which could have been overturned by a display of effort, resulted in utter disappointment. Here I was, with friends, having built up anticipation for this dinner – which cost us over 40 euros per person, excluding wine – and I was embarrassed.

I get that we’re dining in a store; I get the idea of sampling the store’s products (ie. Eating simply), yet I couldn’t believe that “this was it”. A pasta dish and a few cold entrées, which had left me feeling, well, like a girl stooped by a selfish lover.

All would have been dandy if I had been served perhaps a simple panna cotta for desert, even if it had been brought in specifically for the evening dinner by the corner patisserie, rather than home made by our hosts. Instead, we were served a simple cookie, equivalent to an amaretti, which was delicious, but that can be bought in most grocery stores, including Costco. Again, the cookie was good, and doubtless a quality product imported with love from Italy. Nonetheless, I would have expected it to be offered with our coffee or tea as a compliment after desert rather than it “be” desert.

I also know, from my readings, that people usually have the option to pay extra for a “sea platter”, but this wasn’t offered. We did get the “extra” cheese platter, which consisted of only two types of cheese. If a platter implies selection, then this was as minimal as it gets.

The experience as a whole was fine – nothing more. Although there is certainly effort put into the research and import of quality products for the store, this effort didn’t come through to me in our dining experience. What’s more, we actually spent more time thinking of what we could have bought and made at home for that amount of money – what a feast, and it includes a shopping trip to the Grande Épicerie de Paris! – than we did talking about the food in front of us.

Maybe it’s because we were late; maybe it’s because it was Monday; maybe it’s because we didn’t witness the said “contagious enthusiasm!” of the owner. Whatever it was, our bill, excluding the BYO wine, left me feeling like I had just participated in a tourist scam. We had “a private restaurant in Paris” for a night and our own waitress, so perhaps, in that sense this isn’t an outrageously priced experience. Perhaps the problem then isn’t so much the price, as what we were “sold” by the press surrounding it.

So if you were to ask for my opinion (and I’m assuming that if you’re this far in reading my article, it’s because you want it), I would prefer to pay for a 36 euro formule elsewhere –see Paul Bert – or spend half that with a huge selection of amazing hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of wine at l’Avant-Comptoir.

Unfortunately, my experience at La tête dans les olives left me envious of those I had longed for in my readings. Perhaps a victim of my own anticipation, I hope that your experience, wherever it is, is as wonderful as you’d expect.

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Categories: Travel

Author:aalavoie

Aspiring food writer, serious traveler, media enthusiast and communications specialist from Montréal, Canada. www.facebook.com/LavoiealaBouche Follow me on twitter @aalavoie

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