When my husband tells me that he has only one dining request in Paris, my heart sinks just a little. I know he wants to visit a kosher restaurant. It’s not an unfair request, as he only eats fish or vegetarian cuisine in non-kosher restaurants. But we only have four nights in Paris, and I am reluctant to give one up for a meal I am predisposed to believe will not live up to my expectations. I am controlling when it comes to dining out, but I cannot begrudge him this one wish on our ten day vacation… Can I?
Why the reluctance? Hebrew National’s longtime advertising campaign convinced millions of Americans that their kosher hot dogs are best because “we answer to a higher authority.” It makes for a great campaign slogan. But I am not sure that the “higher authority” is all that interested in food, judging from some of the dishes I’ve eaten in kosher restaurants. All too often I find myself saying “not bad, considering its kosher.”
I set out to find a restaurant that will appease my desire for creative French cuisine, and my husband’s for a kosher meal. I am intrigued by the menu at Yayin which seems to fit the bill. According to their website: Yayin offers a very modern approach to kosher cuisine. What makes Yayin a unique place is the pairing of wine and food, from hors d’œuvres to dessert, with systematic wine suggestions for every item on the menu.
Yayin, which means wine in Hebrew, is in a quiet residential neighborhood. Dining here necessitates a thirty minute subway ride from where we are staying in the St. Germain area. We arrive at 7:45 pm. This is early for dining in Paris, but perfect for our travel-weary selves. The restaurant is completely empty, save for a lone employee who is mopping the floor. Uh oh.
There is no record of our reservation, which clearly doesn’t matter. I’m wondering if it really is too early for other patrons, or have I made a terrible mistake. An empty restaurant is not a good sign.
Once I get past the disappointment of dining without an accompanying buzz, I can soak in the cozy decor. It’s nothing fancy, but has appeal as a neighborhood bistro. Our young waiter recommends wine while we peruse the menu. I immediately fixate on foie gras, not for myself but for my husband, who is foie gras deprived. Kosher foie gras is not something you see every day.
The thickly cut foie is enhanced by a small “dish” of diced fruit served in a hollowed-out pomegranate. We are served a basket of bread, which is on par with the other excellent loaves we’ve devoured throughout the city.
I am sorry to hear that they are out of the appetizer that piqued my interest initially- gefilte fish is poached in coconut milk and lemongrass and wrapped in a banana leaf. I skip the appetizer and go right to a Moroccan tagine featuring chicken thighs in a soupy broth. The dish is mild for my palate, but well prepared. I am not wowed but I’m satisfied, despite the fact that I have to sift through far too many unexpected – and unwelcome- slivered almonds.
My husband follows the foie gras appetizer with duck encrusted in charoset. He enjoys the flavor, but the meat is a bit too chewy. Still, he’s appreciative of the opportunity to be eating meat. I’m happy that he’s happy.
I am concerned that for at least forty-five minutes, we are lone diners. Finally, a party of four arrives and I am relieved. I have a thing about kosher restaurants and survival. Even if they aren’t that great, I take comfort in their existence. When I ask our server if they usually draw a crowd, he assures us it’s an abnormally slow night.
It’s difficult to make a real assessment of Yayin, as the experience feels incomplete with so few people in the restaurant. But I admire the concept, and the menu is an enticing marriage of French, Asian, and Jewish cuisine. It is an excellent option for someone seeking a creative kosher meal accompanied by a nice glass of wine. If dining at Yayin didn’t require a commute to France, I could see myself returning.
Yayin — 33, rue Cardinet 75017 Paris
*For more about my views on kosher dining, read “It’s Difficult To Be a Foodie When You Can Eat Only at Kosher Restaurants” published by Tablet