Makoto Aoki: Deceptively classy French bistro, hai!

Makoto Aoki, photo courtesy of Paris Bistro Editions

When I told my mom that I went to Aoki for dinner over the weekend, she was not impressed. In fact, her exact words were, “French food cooked by a Japanese guy? I think I’ll skip that one the next time I come to visit.”

Little does she know that Japanese chefs are all the rage in Paris. To anyone who has lived here long enough, the France-Japan lovefest will not seem that surprising (Monet and Kenzo, to name but two culture-crossers), but on the surface there is little resemblance. In one corner you have highly emotive and decadent, in the other you have extreme restraint and minimalism. Perhaps this is a case of opposites attract. Or maybe it is that they both tend to be exigeant. Seriously exigeant. An appreciation for perfection and detail that pulls together the two poles.

But let’s turn back to Aoki. From the outside looking in, it doesn’t look like much. In fact, understatement might be the theme of the restaurant. When we arrived at 8pm on a Saturday, there were only four couples seated. The menu selection looked good, but not amazing (côte de porc, confit de pommes de terre, risotto with John Dory and mushrooms). I’ll admit it, I was a bit skeptical at first. But all it took was the the entrée (chilled vegetables marinated in a subtle vinaigrette), and I was a believer. When I say “chilled vegetables,” you say?

Risotto with John Dory

Well, that’s how good these vegetables were. Cold onion, sexy, tantalizing. Japanese waiter with imperfect French serving Sancerre. There is some serious paradigm bending going on here. Not everyone likes their paradigms bent (mom?), I understand that, but pleasant surprises are often what make a meal memorable. Even if the risotto with John Dory hadn’t been one of the creamiest, most delicious risottos I’ve ever had, Aoki would still come recommended.

Why Go? Aoki is an intimate neighborhood bistro located off the Champs Elysées. In an arrondissement known for super chefs who are often elsewhere, grandiose dining rooms, and €8 coffees, this place is a real find.

Who Goes? This is a local favorite that gets going late (reserve before 9pm to ensure a table). It may look empty at first, but it fills up fast.

Cons: The language barrier could be a problem. The menu is simple so it’s not insurmountable, but it certainly would help to know either some French or Japanese.

Price: lunch menu €21.50, dinner menus €40/€61

Address: 19 Rue Jean Mermoz, 8th; metro Franklin D. Roosevelt (map)

Closed: Saturday lunch, Sunday

Similar: The competition, who also gets rave reviews, would have to be Le Hide (10 Rue du Général Lanrezac, 17th, map), near the Arc de Triomphe.

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