Paris Restaurant Review: Matière à…, A Harmonious Chef’s Table in the Canal Quarter

Matière à…, a delightful restaurant in the canal quarter of Paris’s 10th arrondissement, where owner-chef Anthony Courteille plays host to a 14-seat chef’s table.

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There’s something about being a native English speaker that makes us want to connect with people sitting next to us in a foreign restaurant.

– Is that as good as it looks?
– Did I hear you say Boston?
– I just want to say that I love your bag!

That can be tricky business in places where we might not understand the code for “I know we’re nearly rubbing thighs but could you kindly just mind your own business?”

Not to worry, there are few codes, nor much in the way of a menu, at Matière à…, a delightful new restaurant in the canal quarter of Paris’s 10th arrondissement, where owner-chef Anthony Courteille plays host from behind the counter in his open kitchen to 14 guests at a single table (+ a 2-head in the corner).

The chef’s table and glimpse into the kitchen at Matière à... ©Camille Millerand
The chef’s table and glimpse into the kitchen at Matière à… ©Camille Millerand

I first met Mr. Courteille in 2011 when he was the executive chef at the Atelier Guy Martin, the cooking school of Guy Martin, chef at the venerable Le Grand Véfour and the force behind other culinary enterprises. He appeared in a France Revisited video when I took one of his classes. So there was no pretending that I could test this, his first restaurant adventure, anonymously. Instead I invited 13 friends and readers to join me.

Among the guests at the table that evening was Virginia-born, longtime Paris resident Allison Zinder, who teaches the culinary arts in schools, as well as privately. She held what I think of as the critic’s or student’s seat, the one closest to the kitchen, overlooking the chef’s shoulder. I asked her afterwards to send her opinion on the restaurant in less than 50 words: “Despite that open (tiny!) kitchen,” she wrote, “I found the atmosphere to be calm and luxurious and the food sublime: surprising yet harmonious flavors, home-made bread (so rare in Paris), and smooth, lovely wines chosen just for the meal. Bravo au chef!”

The trade-off for this bravo is a lack of choice on the menu. Those troubled by the thought of being limited to a fish dish and a poultry or meat dish for the main course or to the cheese plate or single dessert to end the meal would be better off seeking out longer menus. Also, if there are certain types of fish, poultry or meat that you refuse to eat then this might not be the place for you. Our group took the 4-course tasting menu, thereby eliminating the choice between main courses from the start since we got both.

The chef may be willing to accommodate with certain ingredients, as he did by transforming the announced crabmeat appetizer on our menu into a fresh salad for one in our party, but it’s best to come open to the possibilities. Of course, you can always come by to have a look at the menu to decide whether or not to enter on a given day (it changes daily), but with 16 seats (17 in a pinch), Matière à… may fill up with reservations before you pass by to case out the day’s menu.

Anthony Courteille, owner-chef of Matière à… ©Camille Millerand
Anthony Courteille, owner-chef of Matière à… ©Camille Millerand

Mr. Courteille’s cuisine is nevertheless quite recognizable, its ingredients spelled out on the menu, and there are no great risks to the willing appetite. Nothing is intended to shock or challenge your sense of what constitutes food. Our evening menu included a crabmeat (chair de torteau) appetizer, a spotted dogfish (roussette) fish course, a beef flank (hampe de boeuf) meat course, followed by cheese or strawberries, lemon cream and meringue for dessert. In our menu and in daily menus surveilled throughout the week, I found no search for novelty or an attempt to cook on the cusp of the latest food trends. Mr. Courteille’s dishes are graceful, polished and—take this as you will—French. It was as though we’d all been invited to a delicious meal in an elegant yet unpretentious home for dinner and each discreetly left 60€ (42€ for the tasting menu + wine) as a thank you.

I surveyed the group afterwards. One in our group lamented a less than exciting selection of cheese and another found the beef flank too flimsy but even they gave overall applause to the meal, the room and the atmosphere, as did we all. Our 14-guest restaurant review team therefore gives thumbs up all around.

In Paris it’s the rare new restaurant of late whose name isn’t readily understandable an international clientele, meaning by English speakers (e.g. a burger-heavy café at the next corner called American Kitchen). So hats off to Chef Anthony for calling his restaurant / chef’s table the untranslatable Matière à….

The ellipsis itself is used far more in French than in English to signal a continuation of thought in ways that the reader understands or that invite him to open his mind to the possibilities. With three little dots a timid “maybe we could get together tomorrow evening…” becomes an invitation for hanky-panky – unless of course you misunderstood…

Matière à generally means “grounds or matter or fodder for” and so is the lead-in to expressions such as matière à discuter = something to be discussed (matter for discussion), matière à rire = laughing matter; matière à réflexion = food for thought. For the purposes of this restaurant, the most appropriate translation may well be “Makes you want to…”

At a time when many new urban restaurants serve food for thought, for trend or for gullible hipsters or tourists rather than for enjoyment, it’s a rare pleasure to discover a restaurant that plays to a simple, un-convoluted sense of freshness, culinary skill and conviviality, leaving it to us and our tablemates—friends, perhaps strangers—to find common ground for discussion and for laughter.

Makes you want to… reserve.

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Matière à…, Anthony Courteille’s chef’s table, 15 rue Marie et Louise, 10th arr. Tel. 09 83 07 37 85. Metro République or Jacques Bonsergent or Goncourt. Open weekdays 12-2:30pm and 7pm-1am. Saturday and Sunday 7pm-1am.

About 23 euros for three courses at lunch. A tasting menu of about 42-euro, served only in the evening, is comprised of 4 dishes: appetizer, fish/seafood, meat/fowl, cheese or dessert. A 3-course meal à la carte can be had at the same price, slightly larger portions, with a choice between the two main dishes. One can also select one or two courses. The wines selection, generally 25-40 euros, or by the glass, is easy-going and effective.

© 2014, Gary Lee Kraut

Readers who would like to participate in upcoming Paris Revisited / France Revisited tastings, testings and other events can send a message to gary [at] francerevisited.com to get on the priority mailing list.

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