Derrière, a hyped up restaurant that lives up to the hype

It opened in October 2008 and refused to give out its telephone number. Except the down-with-the-kids crème de la crème. Of course this was all a scheme to build up the word of mouth and make hype-hungry Parisians froth at the mouth. It worked.

After six months, the hype has calmed down a little and the telephone number is to be found on the web, but after all that gossip, is the place any good? We went down there suspicious and left… happy! Read on…

photos : JasonW

Things did not look promising for out visit to Derrière. The first time we tried to go, we called just a couple of days before and the person answering actually laughed when we asked if there would be a table free. The second time we booked a little earlier, but were asked an odd question – Have you been before? Eventually we realised that this is actually just so you know that there are two services each evening, and anyone eating at 8pm is supposed to leave at 10pm (although the night we were there, nobody did). Also, we explained that we needed to take photos for an article on a blog. “No, it’s house policy not to allow photos”. “What, even of the plates of food?” “Well… Alright, just the plates”. This was not looking good.

Derrière is the third pity of a super-stylish triumvirate in rue Gravilliers in the Marais. In a high-ceilinged stone building, typical of this part of historic, you have (on the left) Le 404 – a Moroccan restaurant, (on the right) a great cocktail bar called Andy Wahloo (their happy hour has lethal cocktails at 5 euros that will make you slur very quickly indeed). Both of these establishments look onto a cobbled courtyard that is now used as a terrace for them both.

Behind this courtyard (and you’ll realise why I’m telling this story in a minute) is a small building that has been closed for years, and this is what has now become Derrière. Not Le Derrière, just Derrière, which means ‘behind’. ‘Cos it’s derrière the other two establishments. It’s a long explanation, but I reckon it was worth it.

The idea of the restaurant is to be like a giant apartment where you’d be inviting your friends and the friends of your friends to come and eat. And pay for it. Throughout, the décor is bric-a-brac and curious objects all mixed together with lots of colour and quite a sense of humour. Downstairs for example has a ping pong table that guests can play on between courses. As the evening draws on, the ping pong balls tend to lend dangerously near other tables… The ground floor also has one smaller room off to one side near the stairs. You really get the feeling of being in someone’s home, with natural light coming from the roof windows, and soft lighting taking over as the evening progresses…

Taking the stairs upstairs leads to a corridor with the toilets and their sweet cement tiles…From here you can also see the crazee roof and some more stairs up that lead to… what? We didn’t dare look. Perhaps someone’s living quarters?

There are also rooms for eating here on the first floor, cosier than the main ground floor room. The décor is in a similar style: brocante chic and retro. Quite obviously we were not paying any attention to the so-called rule about not taking photos, and as no-one was about, it wasn’t very difficult.

At this point, I must mention that part of Derrière’s reputation is its fumoir. Talked about in a hushed whisper by many, this is because a) no restaurant I know of have one since the new anti-smoking law came in a couple of years back, and b) it has a hidden Narnia-like entrance. Go down the corridor past the toilets and you will see a wardrobe with mirrored doors. Open the doors and you’ll enter the fumoir! People lap this stuff up, but it’s a great gimmick and the room itself is a quirky place with a sort of desolate charm that even non-smokers should pop up and see.

I especially liked the lop-sided deer’s head in with the books…

So we’d finally finished our surreptitious tour of the place. Time for food!

The menu itself is rather stylish and made up of sheets of paper printed with vintage images on one side (derrière, if you will), that are folded in half and in half again to show just their printed side. If you open them up you might see this…

or this…

The design is by Ich&Kar. The name may not be familiar to you, but we have written about them before, when their last exhibition was on in Paris (photo gallery here) and they are also responsible for some of the graphic design for Momo in London.

Each name on the menu is followed by its dictionary definition in italics. The overall effect is rather cool, even we have to admit! Although the prices are not the cheapest in town, the choice is large, and the descriptions make you want to try almost everything. We started looking over the starters, including a whole page of just vegetable dishes (and the wine, some of which is pretty reasonably priced). Here’s an idea of what’s on offer (the full menu is obviously a lot longer)…

With the place starting to fill up, our very tall waiter came and took the order, and shortly afterwards we were served.

With four of us dining we had decided to order jst two starters and share. The first was Aubergines cooked with so that they melt in the mouth with citron essence and served in a bowl of gaspacho. It looked out of the ordinary and tasted pretty wonderful.

The second dish was tiny artichokes served slightly crunchy with white onions, a little salad and Espelette pepper jam. The roughly milled salt served on the side helped bring out the taste of the salad, and the variety of tastes and textures was very interesting.

By now the wine was starting to kick in and the starters had done their job of awakening our appetites. After a fairly laid back pause (and a few quick balls of ping pong) the main coures arrived. They looked very enticing…

Our friends went for meat dishes. The first was a gigot d’agneu de lait aux senteurs de Garrigue et gratin de panais, which is a leg of (young) lamb with Mediterranean herbs and a parsnip gratin served seperately. The reaction was not overly enthusiastic: apprently it was OK but not exceptional (whereas at 24€ it should have been).

The second meat dish ordered was the joue de beouf fondante, cuisinée en cocotte comme un bourguignon, meaning a sort of beef bourguignon with ox cheek. This dish can have quite a strong taste, but our guest was fine with that and quite pleased with what he was served. At least one of the two meat dishes was deemed a success…

On to our two dishes (vegetarian). I went for a simple asparagus risotto with parmesan which was creamy and melt-in-the-mouth. A success, but perhaps it’s difficult to make a mess of risotto?

My partner opted for the vegetable rigatoni gratin with confied lemon. The taste of lemon was quite pronounced, unusual and not disagreeable, a taste almost like a dessert! Definitely the surprise of the evening…

The main dishes are quite copious, and even with a shared first course we were very full. Luckily there was a sizeable wait before anyone asked us if we wanted dessert, leaving us the time to digest our food and look around at how the ambiance of the restaurant had changed since our arrival early evening.

The place had become cosiers, with subtle lighting and more hubbub as every table was filled. The ping pong table had been getting more and more attention, and the subtle background music helped reinforce the impression of being at someone’s giant-sized apartment in Paris with your 150 friends!

Finally, dessert was proposed, and by this time we had forgotten that we were supposedly no longer hungry. The terrine de mousse au chocolat was not well received, apparently because it was too sloppy (which I took as a sign of it being fresh and not loaded with gelatine). I suppose that after years of industrial chocolate mousse, we are not used to home made…

The mille-feuille went down much better. Made with a light vanilla filling and drizzled with a caramel sauce, it was light (unlike many stodgy mille-feuilles that you find in boulangeries) and the filling not too heavy. A tour de force !

I decided on a dessert that looked both traditional and complicated: quatre quarts (which is a traditional cake made of equal parts of four ingredients) prepared in the style of pain perdu (which I call eggy bread in English, but is often known as French toast in the ‘States) served with marmelade and a capuccino of vanilla cream (actually a cup with vanilla on top and a creamy chocolate sauce hidden underneath). You can’t really go wrong with all that, and we especially appreciated the tang of the orange with the dish, but light on calories it is not!

A quick coffee after that, and it was time to go! Finally, after having been warned that we would need to free the table before 10pm, nobody had asked us to leave, and it was gone 11pm before we got up. The evening had been exremely relaxing, and the surroundings were very pleasing on the eye.

After being wary about the restaurant’s hyped up status, we were pleasantly surprised by the food – a little dea but certainly not outrageous – and the service – courteous and friendly even. Derrière is somewhere that we would recommend. There are few places like it in the city, and the sense of space and freedom helps you feel… at home!

Derrière is open for dinner only, every day except Sundays and Monday from 8 til late. You’ll find it at 69 rue des Gravilliers (map here) and we recommend that you book at least five days in advance. Tel. +33 (0)1 44 61 91 95

The slideshow of our photo gallery can be seen below, but we suggest you get a much larger and better view here on Flickr.