We were the first to arrive at 8:00 p.m. and were pleasantly surprised to find a small cozy room with a few black leather banquettes, simple wooden tables with wrought-iron bases and original Thonet Classic bentwood chairs. One side has a mirrored wall with brass racks for coats and on the opposite wall are shelves cheekily filled with oils, vinegars, glass jars and canned goods making it seem like the chef’s pantry. There is also a small counter/bar in the back beside the tiny kitchen. Stairs lead to a 2nd floor which we didn’t have a chance to see.
On the one-way street rue Mazarine near the Odeon, is a nondescript facade that is the restaurant 21. It would be so easy to miss it but it would be a big mistake if you did. At this little place, we had what was our best meal in Paris.
I had read about this restaurant from Food & Wine and wanted to try it as it was relatively new. Opened by chef Paul Minchelli in 2006 after he closed his place on La Tour Maubourg, this cheeky little bistro has an all-fish menu and luckily, chef Minchelli is an expert on all things from the sea.
Soon after we were settled and checking the blackboard menu, several other couples started to arrive – mostly older, well-dressed French couples with British guests. The clientele reminded me of my father-in-law’s long-held belief that “well-dressed older people” are the ones to ask when searching for a restaurant recommendation.
After looking at entirely seafood menu of half a dozen appetizers and half a dozen main courses, we settled on the moules grand-mère to share then a sole meuniere for me and the gambas in honey and spices with farfalle for T along with a very cold bottle of Sancerre recommended by the sommelier/maitre d’. Warm bread and cold butter was served right after and we settled in for a long chat.
Soon after, our first course arrived – a large plateful of steaming mussels was set down in the middle of the table which caused the neighboring clients to crane their necks to have a look at what we were having. We dug in and were very surprised at how something so deceptively simple could taste so unbelievably good. The mussels were fresh and tasted meaty with the surprising addition of rosemary, sage and crushed dried chili. We ate everything and could have had more but just sopped up all the sauce and finished the whole basket of bread. T talked about the last time she had shellfish this good was in Venice years ago in a spaghetti alle vongole. I don’t remember having shellfish that good ever.
We continued to sip our chilled Sancerre and watched as other tables got their appetizers. There was no background music in the restaurant and all we could hear from other diners were “oohs” and “aahs” of satisfaction after their first mouthful. The food was that good.
Main courses were served – my sole was crispy-skinned and fleshy and came with a small portion of pommes dauphinoise. T‘s sautéed gambas were spicy sweet and the Farfalle tasted of reduced seafood stock sweetened with honey – again a novel approach to something that could have just been a simple shrimp and pasta dish. My next-table neighbor had a squid ink risotto that looked and smelled delicious as well.
We were so pleasantly surprised at this restaurant find that we decided to stay for dessert as well. Another good thing about 21 is that there is no first or second seating as is usual in trendy places. We along with the other diners kept our tables all night and never felt rushed to leave for the next wave of clients.
There was a short selection of desserts – baba au rhum, pudding, creme caramel and a chocolate mousse which is what we chose. The mousse was a slab of thick dark chocolate and served with a chilled vanilla crème anglaise.
We finished at 10:30 and decided to return on foot. We walked through the rue de Buci, the boulevard St. Germain and the rue de Rennes until we reached our hotel – sated and happy to be in Paris and have enjoyed a wonderfully simple yet exquisite meal.