In the bustling Marché des Enfants Rouges in Paris’s hip ‘n’ happening 3e is Les Enfants du Marché, a modest-looking market restaurant that is vibes vibes vibes on a weekend afternoon. While the setting suggests cheap and humble street food, a closer look at the (quite extensive) chalkboard menu reveals culinary creations worthy of a few extra bucks and a ‘Gram post of its own. Groix Island John Dory fillet topped with a bouillabaisse reduction. Grilled scallops, purple turnips, hazelnut butter and burnt chive oil. Monkfish tail marinated in miso with artichoke hearts, puff pastry, salmon roe cream.
Behind the counter, guys in voluminous puffers move gracefully around each other, perfectly coordinated in a very tight space. There’s the owner Michael – generous and jovial – leading FOH with a smile, while Chef Masahide Ikuta works away with a quiet intensity, barehanded, seemingly unfazed by the sub-zero temperatures of the morning. We are not quite as impervious, gladly accepting the blanket they offer to cover our legs. By the end of the meal we’re borderline hypothermic, though in denial about it. We’re kept there by our excitement for each next dish.
A guy asks if we want wine and pours us something at random: a glass of La Varenne du Poirier VDF Chenin. I don’t complain. I’ll end up following that with a spicy little skin-contact Muscat d’Alexandria from Languedoc-Roussillon called Oxymus. Their wines are all food-friendly vins de plaisir, with some natural treasures like Pignoli by Radikon.
“Quelques huîtres?” Michael asks us and we nod yes. It wasn’t in our plan, but has anyone ever said “no” to a couple of oysters? The assiette arrives with six No 3. Princesse de Kermancy oysters from La Trinité-sur-Mer in Brittany, served with lemon, a bit of mignonette and bread with a ramekin of salted Breton butter. A clean shuck had left the oysters ready to slurp from perfectly intact half shells. The right amount of liquor had been left to hydrate each mouthful. The oysters were nutty, briny, mineral and clean – like receiving a salty kiss on the lips from the choppy, cold Breton sea.
Next, something heartwarming, a soupe à l’oignon. And this was probably one of the best executed versions of a dish that I’ve ordered and made myself so many times. The broth was almost black-brown, with extremely crunchy bits of day-old baguette crouton, which were coated in a gratin of gruyère and floating on the surface. As I dipped my spoon in greedily, the liquid flickered to reveal a glittering layer of onion-scented butter and a thick, violet-brown puree of perfectly caramelized onions underneath. Each spoonful was scalding hot and stayed that way for a while, despite the cold air. The soup was absolutely packed with the sweet, salty, sweaty flavors of its flagship ingredient, beautifully mellowed by wine and brandy or cognac or whatever tasty booze the onions had been cooked down in. The croutons remained perfectly crisp on top, while the bottom half loosened, absorbing the broth like a sponge. The cheese broiled on left only its nutty, salty taste behind, complementing the earthy, sweet onion perfectly.
One of their signature dishes is the pied de cochon (or pig’s trotter), deboned, coated in panko crumb and deep-fried until golden brown. This comes with a fantastically glossy, sticky, unctuous potato purée, a gribiche sauce, some crispy fried kale leaves and a deeply flavored, very reduced meat jus at the base. A few plump broad beans were scattered around as well. When bitten into, the crunchy panko crust shattered to reveal splashes of sizzling hot, aspic-y filling with moist fibers of trotter running through it. The chilled gribiche cooled the tip of the tongue, while its bits of pickle and tart caper added mouthwatering acidity to the mix. Glossy, thick, golden jus brought wave upon wave of flavor. A perfectly balanced, deeply satisfying dish.
But by far the most memorable moment of the meal (and indeed of the whole trip) was the arrival of the calf’s brain fried in a tempura batter that had been dyed with squid ink for a dramatic look. Breaking through the charcoal-like tempura crust revealed milky white globs of smooth, creamy and delicately seasoned brain. This was served alongside a couple of juicy mussels and tender ribbons of cuttlefish bathed in a briny, slightly sweet bisque made with lobster and crayfish. Some small, sweet potatoes provided chew, while the same cool gribiche added tang. I adored the combination of textures and flavors in this dish, which brought together one of my favorite ingredients (and one I pretty much always order in Paris) with the low-tide marine aroma of the sea.
We sat at that counter, shivering, for two full hours. Every once in a while, a plate would cross near enough for us to identify it and whisper “Oooh that must be the encornet & boudin noir” or “There goes the baked Mont d’Or” or “Do you think that’s the ris de veau? It looks crispy. Should we have gotten that as well?” Each dish was more exciting than the next. How such a teeny-tiny kitchen is capable of churning out food of this quality at such a regular pace to a relatively large number of guests (30-ish head?) six out of seven days a week is beyond me. But with great talent they manage and the result is something magical.