"It's the crisis". A succint comment from Mithu, one of the co-owners of the Marmite Bazar restaurant which sits in a quiet street south of Montmartre. He wanted to explain why I was the only customer so far that lunchtime, but he needn't have worried. "It's much busier in the evening" he explained, "sometimes we don't even open at lunchtimes". I reassured him, telling him that I'd been here before on a Saturday evening and had loved the food and simple atmosphere and had decided simply to enjoy the first warm rays of springtime and make a 15 minute pilgrimage on foot from work.
Mithu is originally from Bangladesh. His partner, Caroline Choain looks after the kitchen and is a fantastically talented, imaginative chef. Together they have created a simple restaurant 'de quartier', but one that has warm touches of exotic destinations. Mithu has a little accent, much like me, and we're not sure whether to talk in English or in French. Caroline pops in and out of the kitchen, always wearing a colourful scarf wrapped tightly around her hair. I take a moment to look around the room, ticking off the continents and countries that are featured in the decoration. Rugs from the east, possibly from Bangladesh, hang on one wall. On another wall, African themed paintings and above the bar, a boomerang. In a back room, Moroccan style wall lighting.
Sitting in the dappled sunlight by the window I can quietly enjoy my trip around the world. Looking at the menu, it's clear that this circuit continues in the contours of the dishes. As a starter, I could take Bangladeshi potatoes, whilst other choices have hints of Africa and Italy. Caroline Choain takes classic dishes, then twists them and reworks them, experimenting with herbs, spices and textures until she finds exactly the combinations that she feels work best together. Once prepared she then takes time to make sure that each dish is presented beautifully on the plate.
I choose a main course, a perfectly cooked chunk of tender beef served with roasted new potatoes and a red wine sauce with crispy onions and pepper berries. This 17 Euro lunchtime formula also includes a glass of wine, an interesting red that Mithu chooses for me, and a starter or dessert. I opt for the dessert, knowing that their Panna Cotta is a miracle of flavours and textures, a classic dish that here subtly changes with the season. This time it was infused with vanilla and served with thin, crisp slices of apple and a smooth salted butter caramel sauce.
"Yes, it is the crisis" I tell Mithu as I leave. Whispers of redundancies are getting louder, but until it truly strikes I'll continue to do my bit to support quality, independance and imagination. I work in the largely soulless area around Opera and despite talk of downturns, the chain restaurants serving up reheated preprepared frozen identikit meals are still just as busy. McDonalds are also taking the opportunity in these troubled times to expand whilst low-cost supermarkets are also thriving. People cannot be blamed for cutting back on spending, but who are the victims at the end of the long chain? The true crisis will be when the economy picks up again but we find that such independant, talented free spirits have disappeared from the city.
Le Marmite Bazar
14, rue Bochard de Saron 75009