[UPDATE: As of December 2022, Capitale is now closed.]
The Paris dining scene continues to change and evolve. The pandemic changed where we ate, and how we ate…at least for a while. Restaurants are all open again and packed. But the pause provided a chance to breathe new life into the city. The government offered support, but still, the closings affected restaurants, cafés, and bars hard, which were still reeling from setbacks that included lengthy strikes, unruly protests, attacks, and now, Covid.
As the city comes back to life, there are little gems that sparkle here and there. And Capitale is one of them.
The owner is Margot Lecarpentier, who may be familiar to some of you as I profiled her, and her bar, Combat, in Drinking French. It’s one of my favorite places to have a drink in Paris, perched on a hill in the multicultural Belleville neighborhood, where I do a lot of my food shopping. When writing the book, I asked Margot about the expansive bar she designed for making cocktails on, she said she wanted it to feel like a dining room table, and added, “Because I am from Normandy…and I like to eat!”
Her drinks have a savory quality and she builds a cocktail like a cook creates a dish, using natural and no-waste ingredients like fig leaves and citrus scraps to make syrups and infusions, which she sometimes shares on her Instagram page.
The idea of her new restaurant (which doubles as a coffee shop/café), Capitale, doesn’t stick to one idea, but picks up pointers from everywhere to create an ever-changing menu. The food is very fresh, inviting, and reflects how younger chefs and cooks in Paris are stretching their legs beyond their borders, but keeping the focus on the bounty of local and French ingredients. The café breaks the rules for when you can eat what, which are less strict than they used to be in France. So you can go in at lunch and get an œuf au plat (sunny side up egg) with ricotta and chive oil, or a Croissanwich stacked with ham, avocado, cheese, and mustard-mayo sauce as a late afternoon goûter, or snack.
I first went to Capitale shortly after they opened (I couldn’t wait), which was for brunch, which is popular with the twenty-somethings in Paris. (So yes, my presence brought up the median age in the dining room.) Some places entertain the idea of le brunch, but they don’t always get it right, including the bottomless coffee. (I was a brunch waiter for a while in the U.S. and I think 80% of my time was spent refilling coffee cups.) But here, everything is fresh and cozy, which is the keyword to a successful brunch, at least in my book.
Being from the U.S., I zoomed in on the pastrami on the menu. The dish is a nod from several places, which, like the surrounding Belleville neighborhood, is where several different cultures meet. Closer to Turkish pastirma than its counterparts in New York and Montreal, a chiffonade of sliced meat sits on freshly made pain de maïs (cornbread) along with dollops of sauce ranch, mustard, and a selection of housemade pickles.
As you can see, it’s not the classic pastrami/smoked meat sandwich, but it was a nicely reinvented brunch dish, and there were no complaints about it. It was delicious and decidedly French. (Cornmeal is used in the Basque region for polenta and taloa, a tortilla-like Basque specialty that I’ve tried to make, but not successfully.)
When I went back recently with my friend Forest of 52 Martinis, we both were excited by the Pain grillée, beurre de noisettes et chocolat blanc, confiture – three generous slices of sourdough toast with white chocolate-hazelnut spread, a touch of sea salt, and housemade jam. It didn’t occur to me then, but it was a rather sophisticated peanut butter and jelly. I like when the French make something American better than we do. (The Chocolate Chip Cookies at Kayser bakery are another example of that.)
Neither I, nor Forest, are restaurant reviewers, just two friends catching up over lunch, and it would have been fun to try everything on the menu. But we enjoyed an excellent Ricotta toast with crispy kale, preserved lemon (citron confit), olives, hot chiles, and almonds (shown at the top of the post).
We also tried the Chirashi made with sushi rice, fermented vegetables, a soy sauce-cooked egg, and ginger which isn’t really a dish made for sharing. Japanese food is a different vibe and we both love Japanese food but I think it shines better when you’re not trying to share it, and are avoiding eating off the same plate, a downside of dining with others in this era of Covid. (I also want to enjoy it when I’m not eating it in between mouthfuls of spicy kale and French-style peanut butter and jelly.)
I love how Margot put together such a great drinks menu, with the focus here on those without alcohol, or low ABV. Being France, there’s wine and beer, with intriguing options like a coconut-matcha frappé, mint tea with basil and black pepper syrup, coffee with camomile and maple syrup, a non-alcohol Suze (gentian) tonic, and I just had to try the made-in-Paris fig leaf kombucha, which earned a 20/20 (a French A+) from me.
I also enjoy The Green Opium, a Brunch-friendly sans alcool cocktail made with a base of coffee-infused (non-alcoholic) vermouth, verjus, fig leaves, and orange flower water. It’s the perfect drink any time of the day.
10 rue Pradier (19th)
Current hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 9:30am to 5:30pm, closed Monday and Tuesday. (Subject to change. Check their Instagram page for updates.) No reservations.