“We don’t do what we do for Michelin approval,” says Etheliya Hananova, sommelier and co-owner, with her husband, chef Noam Gedalof, of Comice, a postage-stamp-size fine-dining restaurant in a quiet corner of the 16th Arrondissement. All the same, Le Guide Michelin, the little red book that rules French dining with the same iron fist that Mao’s Little Red Book ruled China, approves. Since 1900, the guide has set restaurant-dining standards in France, and even in today’s expertise-trashing climate, it still holds enormous sway. In September of 2017, on the eighth day of Comice’s opening, as the launch team of seven was practically vacuuming up the last of the construction dust, Michael Ellis, then Le Guide Michelin’s global director, strolled in for lunch. “I hadn’t had weeks and weeks to test recipes at that point,” Gedalof recalls. “I had a sous-chef I liked working with, and we just got going. We didn’t know it was Ellis when he came in, but we were so new, there wouldn’t have been anything extra special we could have done for him anyway.”
Even if Michelin is very secretive about the guide, everyone knows that they begin sending out inspectors in the fall. Still, it was surprising they’d send one eight days after an opening. But Comice is about 15 minutes away by cab from Le Guide Michelin’s corporate offices in Boulogne-Billancourt, and maybe they just wanted to check out this buzzy little place from the Canadian couple who escaped Le Sergent Recruteur. (Michelin will never tell.) Four months later, Ellis contacted Hananova and Gedalof with the news that they were getting a star.
Groovy, Ambitious, and Disastrous Beginnings
Hananova insists they weren’t at Le Sergent Recruteur, a farm-to-table restaurant on the Île Saint-Louis, long enough to have earned any of their own plaudits, but anyone who innocently walked into the most epic shit show in recent Parisian-restaurant memory and survived is worth at least a follow. Le Sergent Recruteur was groovy and ambitious. Antonin Bonnet, its founding chef, deservedly made a big splash when it opened, in 2012. (Jaime Hayon, the interior designer, also won Wallpaper’s Best Fixer Upper design prize.) The restaurant’s owner, Cédric Naudon, a shady finance type, used the hype and Bonnet’s exceptional supplier network to pitch a private three-block development in the Haut Marais. It would be a bobo eco-food paradise called La Jeune Rue. Design stars like Paola Navone and Michele De Lucchi signed on to do 36 (yes, 36) different bakeries and butcher shops and cool new restaurants, and Bonnet made preparations to step down from the day-to-day in Le Sergeant Recruteur’s kitchens to help develop it.
Gedalof, whose very respectable résumé was topped with three years at the French Laundry, and Hananova, with Montreal’s Le Club Chasse et Pêche on hers, got their work visas and went to take over as head chef and sommelier just as Naudon announced La Jeune Rue’s groundbreaking in January of 2014. A little more than a year later, eight banks had filed suit for fraud and Naudon’s offices were raided by the tax police. Finances crumbling, Le Sergent Recruteur went into liquidation, La Jeune Rue’s designers and food suppliers got royally screwed, and the French media, already suspicious of Naudon, lit the whole thing on fire. (Naudon has a date with the judge in April, 2020.)
Gedalof and Hananova, who weren’t running things solo for long, left before Le Sergent Recruteur’s official closing. “It was a catalyst for us to open our own place sooner than we would have,” says Hananova. “It was a challenge as recently arrived foreigners to claim our space on the Parisian fine-dining scene with such limited time in the local market.”
Another challenge came from Comice’s unexpected early success. They were always upscale, but saw themselves as a luxurious neighborhood restaurant, “produce-driven, personal, sensitive, and not corporate,” says Hananova. But with the star, “expectations were instantly raised. It was like you just had a baby, so let’s put her on an international stage for all the world to see while you’re healing from the scars of childbirth!” A year ago, they took on their first outside investment to help them expand staff and solidify their offer. Now, as Comice enters its third year, Gedalof and Hananova face the same question as all one-star Michelin restaurateurs: Will they go for a second star?
“It was like you just had a baby, so let’s put her on an international stage for all the world to see while you’re healing from the scars of childbirth!”
“To get that second star, often you have to really stiffen up,” says Alexander Lobrano, a Paris-based food writer whose popular Hungry for Paris guide is especially influential with visiting Anglos. (Hananova credits Lobrano’s glowing January 2018 review on alexanderlobrano.com for their early success with tourists.) “You consider valet parking. The reservations service gets more groomed.” (Hananova works the phone almost all by herself.) “For that reason I don’t actually like a lot of two-star [restaurants],” Lobrano continues. “They’re not funky. You’re trying to sublimate produce and transcend its limitations,” but too often the service becomes hidebound and pretentious and the joy gets sucked right out.
That’s the last thing Comice needs. There have been purse stands and caviar since day one, but the rustic flowers by the Ninth Arrondissement florist Debeaulieu and an antique sideboard clustered with digestifs say relax, as does the service, which is breezy and jokey, even as it is solicitous. (There are three prescriptions of reading glasses on hand in case you forgot yours, and portable mobile-phone batteries for the suddenly juiceless.) The wine list focuses on small European producers, some downright quirky. And the menu is flexibly buildable—you can come in for a plate of delicate shellfish pasta or stay for five courses with options for oysters, truffles, and cheese.
The Knives Come Out
Gedalof’s cooking seems simple, but it’s layered and precise and unctuous, with deep flavor and impeccable technique. When he calls it “basic meat and two veg” in composition, he’s being very Canadian. His Corsican veal filet is bacon-wrapped and cooked sous vide, accompanied by crispy sweetbreads, marrow pudding, sweet-potato ravioli, chard, and spiced carrots. Simple baby potatoes are flash-fried, brined in herbs, and confited in duck fat. The amuse-bouche on the night I visited—a tiny shot of pumpkin velouté—was tweezed with microgreens and drizzled with four oils, including hazelnut and plum seed, each a tiny capsule of arresting, contrasting flavor. There’s a lot of thinking there, and if Comice does have a stated ambition, it’s to geek out even more. Throw another layer of preparation into vegetables, add one more high-concept satellite to the main protein for a more vertical approach. “And I want to go deeper with suppliers,” Gedalof says, like designing his own chicken textures and tastes according to what the birds themselves are fed, not just how long they’re aged or how they’re seasoned once they’re in his possession.
When he calls it “basic meat and two veg” in composition, he’s being very Canadian.
Comice keeps everything small, which makes a meal there very precious. But a personalized experience, like going to an out-of-the-way tailor instead of a big flagship store, makes economies of scale difficult to achieve for young independents. Comice is at maximum capacity at 32 covers, and only does one seating a night. Gedalof now has two sous-chefs and a revolving group of stagières in the kitchen, but he still touches almost everything himself. The night I trailed him in his impeccable kitchen—French Laundry–style, every ingredient is pre-dosed and labeled with a date and the initials of the chef who prepared it—he punched and shaped rising bread; zipped through the first filleting of a sea bream that would become a cut-to-order carpaccio with cucumbers, pickled fennel, and buttermilk vinaigrette; beat the egg whites in a massive copper bowl for chocolate soufflés. (“We had to make a rule that kitchen staff couldn’t lick the bowl,” he says as I sweep up a stray drop from the stainless counter.) With the exception of some pre-steaming to get lobster out of its shells so it can be poached sous vide in butter, proteins are cooked entirely à la minute, including whole chickens that Gedalof pan roasts. So are baby root vegetables, which seems insanely inefficient. The end result is more satisfying, though, so what can you do?
“Of course we want to go further, be that much better, more finessed, more extraordinary,” says Hananova. And if Michelin acknowledges it, that’s great. “We hope to achieve a level of excellence that would be recognized as the two-star level,” she adds, politically astutely. “It’s just that if that comes to be, we want it to be a recognition of the quality and integrity of our work, and not a reward for efforts to cater to what we think would attract their attention. We want to remain true to who we are.” So, for the time being, please plan on parking your own car.
Alexandra Marshall is a writer based in Paris