Birthplace of French icons Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris has been a quartier populaire (working-class district) ever since it was fully urbanised in the middle of the 19th century. I’ve always savoured this lively, friendly, unpretentious part of the city as an antidote to ambience of bourgeois propriety that prevails in central and western Paris, and appreciated its almost antic diversity.
Aside from a long-ago first excursion to Belleville to rather pointlessly gape at the plaque that marks the house Edith Piaf is thought to have been born in, the main reason I have usually found myself here was to eat at Le Baratin, a brilliant hole-in-the-wall bistro where Argentine-born chef Raquel Carena cooks her heart out. Aside from Le Baratin, however, there were few proper tablecloth type restaurants in the area for the simple reason that it was working class.
Now, rather inevitably, Belleville is in the midst of a galloping sociological transformation as it becomes ever more popular with younger Parisians in search of affordable rents. This was the reason that young chefs Kevin d’Andréa and Thibault Sombardier, who met when they were both finalists on Top Chef,a popular French cookery programme, deliberately chose the area as the location of their excellent new bistro, Mensae. Belleville is becoming Bobo (bohemian-bourgeois) land.
D’Andréa and Sombardier’s new place occupies a double shop front on a quiet residential side street, and it’s a handsome restaurant with a service bar of recycled wood, milky-tea-coloured walls, suspension lamps, plank floors, and decorations of copper cookware and jars of preserved fruit and cookbooks on shelves. D’Andréa runs the kitchen, and Sombardier the dining room, which is filled nightly with arty-looking young professional couples and a few people from further afield who’ve heard how good the food is here; D’Andréa, an excellent cook, works exclusively with produce from the best French suppliers, including Annie Bertin and Joël Thiébault for vegetables, Armara for fish, Huguenin and Les Boucheries Nivernaises for meat.
The menu begins with an assortment of dishes that are meant to be shared, either in lieu of a starter or as hors d’oeuvres while having a drink before dinner: frogs’ legs sautéed in garlic and parsley, charcuterie from Sibilia, a famous old-line producer in Lyon, and Basque-style squid. Then there are five starters to choose from, five main courses, and three desserts.
Stand-out dishes from a recent meal included a homemade terrine de gibier (wild game) and an earthy hot pâté of cep mushrooms, both starters. Pan-roasted freerange chicken was crisp-skinned but juicy and came with a vin jaune sauce and a satisfying sauté of winter vegetables, while braised paleron (beef shoulder blade) was tender, richly flavoured and accompanied by white polenta. Desserts are pleasantly simple and homey, including an open baked-apple tart, and service is prompt and friendly. Good value for money, Mensae offers an excellent reason to discover Belleville for anyone who doesn’t already know it.
Mensae, 23 rue Mélingue, Paris 19th. Tel: +33 1 53 19 80 98. lunch menu €20, dinner menu €36, average price à la carte €35.
From France Today magazine