Brains, Sweetbreads and Pét-Nat at Clown Bar

I write this article from aisle seat #44 of wagon #6 aboard TGV INOUI 12268 speeding towards Montparnasse, where a trade show awaits me, coincidentally scheduled for the day of my 34th birthday. I’ve been going to Paris more frequently these days and feeling some kinda way about this city, its cozy bistros and boisterous brasseries, its open-air markets and retro-chic eateries. My new Paris wish-list brims with a healthy collection of bonnes adresses, bars like Danico, Divine and Copper Bay, restaurants like Baratin, La Servan and, of course, Septime. The work-trip dinner that started it all, though, was Clown Bar in the 11ème. On the eve of the World Cup semi-final I arrived 15 minutes late to a 9:30pm reservation, pleading with the host to seat me and my friends who’d be arriving just after the game. He, somewhat reluctantly, agreed and I took a seat at the polished zinc bar, ordering a glass of Sébastien Brunet Vouvray Pét-Nat to sip on while taking in the space.

It’s lovely. Creamy lights are reflected in the painted glass ceilings and the glittering Belle Epoque tiles that adorn the walls behind the bar. Colorful paintings of clowns hark back to the turn of the century, when this space served as an after-show watering hole for performers of the nearby Cirque d’Hiver. Hence, Clown Bar. Everything is beautiful here. The mosaic tile floors, the Art Nouveau windows, the quirky silverware drawer giving each smooth wooden table a precious antique vibe. By the time my friends arrived I was totally in love, the stress of a late train and a lack of Ubers melting with each sip of bubbly Chenin.

If you’re a natural wine lover, Clown Bar is a safe space for you. Their well-curated list abounds with skin-contact gems, oxidized jewels, no/low sulfur treasures from cult-favorite producers. Their Savoie and Jura selection is on fleek, and almost everything is VDF. All their wines, even the sparklers, are served in Clown Bar branded bistro glasses. Super cool. We chose a bottle of Jean-Yves Péron “Les Oeillets” skin-contact Jacquère from Savoie in white and a spicy little biodynamic Clos du Tue Boeuf VDF Pineau d’Aunis in red. Both paired exquisitely with the earthy, authentic flavors of our meal.

To start, we shared a couple of their passe-temps, among which these fantastic beef tartar bites. Slick bits of gorgeous red meat were finely chopped and mixed up with pine nuts and – I think – anchovies or something slightly briny. This juicy mixture was scooped onto bite-sized, crispy cups of – I think – seaweed puffed rice or something similar. The cool beef felt nice against my tongue, its smooth texture perfectly contrasted by the crunch of the base. Delicious and especially great paired with our tannic Savoie orange wine.

We got a round of brains for the table. Calf’s brain in chilled dashi broth is Clown Bar’s most infamous signature dish, first added to the menu in 2014 by the restaurant’s former Japanese chef Sota Atsumi and kept on the menu after Atsumi moved on to start his Maison. It’s the one item on Clown’s constantly changing menu that stays the same and probably always will. And it’s the dish that sparked a bizarre little pattern in my own life: every time I’m in Paris I end up ordering cervelle de veau. I order it not (only) because it looks cool on Instgram, but because I genuinely love the stuff. I grew up eating my mom’s rántott agyvelő (breaded and fried pork brains), which my neuroscientist father would always pick at and analyze much to her hilarious chagrin. At Balaton Lake during the summertime I ate velős pirítós, pork brains prepared with a paprika-infused pörkölt base and then spread over toast and thrown in the broiler until the stuff kind of melted on. Most recently, I indulged in poached lamb’s brain sprinkled with toasted cumin at a stand in the Jemaa el-Fnaa night market of Marrakech. I understand that some people have an issue with brain’s texture and I understand that. I feel the same about fish eyes, for example. But in the case of brain, I love it, particularly for its texture. It’s velvety smooth, dense and jiggly, the perfect creamy canvas for any sauce or seasoning.

At Clown Bar, it’s calf’s brain, which is much more delicate in flavor than its pork or lamb counterparts. The lobes are served whole in a broth, which makes for a strikingly honest presentation. Nothing crunchy to offer textural contrast in sight, nowhere for the brain to hide. You just kind of scoop at it with your spoon as if it were silken tofu or chawanmushi, and fully experience its very mushy mouthfeel. The broth at the base of the bowl is chilled dashi, which is seasoned with soy, ginger and yuzu, the purest, cleanest, freshest pairing which elevates the lowly brain into something beautiful. The brain is also topped with finely chopped raw ginger and scallions, whose polished, pristine floral freshness seeps into it, balancing out its natural umami. Inspired.

Deciding to keep with the veal offal theme, I ordered the veal sweetbreads, which were spectacular. The gargantuan glands were deveined and cooked perfectly. They sported a golden brown crust and a delightfully smooth, creamy interior, and were sprinkled with sea salt to bring their delicate flavor to the forefront. The parsnip purée had a wonderfully wholesome, earthy, nutty and almost spicy taste, which went beautifully with the very deeply flavored, almost black-brown, savory veal juice on the plate. Under the sweetbreads was a little mound of some kind of wilted leafy green sautéed with slippery smooth black trumpet mushrooms, packed with smoky umami flavors. An immensely satisfying and very generous ris de veau dish, perfect with our peppery Pineau d’Aunis.

The hours flew by during this meal at Clown Bar, bastion of bistronomie in hip AF 11ème. We were the last to leave, stumbling out of there and into the cool December night to say our goodbyes as we awaited our various Ubers and Bolts, our cheeks aglow from organ meats and Vins de France. For me, personally, this would be the beginning of something too: a newfound love affair with eating in Paris.

One thought on “Brains, Sweetbreads and Pét-Nat at Clown Bar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s