PARIS — At first glance, Le Médaillon doesn't look like much. This French restaurant, with its menu derived from organic and halal products, sits across the street from a gloomy set of hospital buildings in a not-very-glamorous sector of Villejuif (Val-de-Marne), a suburb south of Paris.
A warm handshake from the boss, Djamel Bouhadda — better known on the airwaves as Chef Voilà — helps put as at ease. But we only really settled in when a waiter arrives, lifting a silver plate cover to reveal a wonder of culinary inventiveness.
There before us is an Aubrac fillet, enhanced with tuna sheets, served with a stuffing of crayfish and shrimp marinated in red pesto. Placed on it, like a headdress, is a purée of Noirmoutier potatoes combined with an Alba white truffle cream. We take in the aroma and then, finally, it's time to taste the elegant, award-winning dish.
Is high-end halal or kosher cuisine possible?
Except Le Médaillon is not listed in any guide. "I received a visit once from a Michelin inspector… but, since then, nothing," Djamel Bouhadda confides. "Someone told me that we are not distinguished because we don't do wine pairings," the proprietor adds. "Obviously, we don't offer alcohol!"
Which raises the question: Is high-end halal or kosher cuisine possible? Gwendal Poullennec, international director for the Michelin guides, dismisses the question altogether. "As long as a restaurant can present quality cuisine, whatever the type, it has a place in our guide," he says.
"The judgment of our inspectors is based on five criteria: the selection of products, the mastery of cooking, the harmony of flavors, the chef's personality portrayed through their dishes and consistency of performance," Poullennec adds. "Any chef who is capable of refining kosher or halal products and who can offer gastronomy of quality will naturally be awarded a star."
Rules and restrictions
And yet, truth be told, it's incredibly difficult to find a starred kosher or halal restaurant in the guide. Without referencing specifically, it's necessary to look page by page until you stumble upon the rare gem. Or not.
Michelin, to this day, does not mention any cuisine of either type in the Île-de-France, the region of France that includes Paris. And it's no better when it comes to Gault & Millaut or Fooding. Jewish and Muslim "foodies" must, therefore, use other resources. For halal cuisine, there's the website PLSB. Kosher connoisseurs can also go online — to 123cacher.
Upscale dining does, of course, exist in both categories, but they don't tend to attract traditional guides. And a big part of the reason why are the dietary restrictions imposed on chefs in these restaurants.
Chef Julien Sebbag — Photo: Alma Hotel and Lounge מלון עלמה/Facebook
"Recently, I even turned down a strictly kosher restaurant venture because I feel like it would have been more about serving a religious cause than doing creative cuisine," he adds. "And it's all too exclusive: 99% of the people eating in kosher restaurants are Jewish."
But it was during the summer months, on the rooftop terrace of the Lafayette Galleries, that this enthusiast for Mediterranean flavors seemed to have really found his niche. There, he decided to offer only vegetarian fare, with dishes based on eggplant, house-made hummus, and strawberry salad with mozzarella.
Laurence Orah Phitoussi, author of the book La Cuisine Du Shabbat En 30 Minutes, reminds us of the basic principles of kosher food: You can only eat animals that are ruminant and have split hooves (forget about pork and rabbit, in other words); the animal must be ritually slaughtered; and its meat is heavily salted to lose as much blood as possible. Also, meat and milk are not mixed during cooking or consumption (farewell creamy cutlets). Only fish with scales and fins are eaten (so no ray or turbot). And wine must also be kosher, which sadly excludes some excellent wines.
On the halal side, meat is also slain ritually and drained of its blood. Many Muslims forbid the consumption of raw or bloody meat (so long carpaccio and tartare). Pork is off limits too. And of course, alcohol is a no-no.
These guidelines heavily impact the menu… and the bill. The starred chef Simone Zanoni estimats that when he ran Rafael, a now-closed gourmet kosher restaurant in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, his prices — because of ingredients and necessary inspections — were 20% to 30% higher than non-kosher restaurants of the same standing.
Tricks of the trade
To get noticed, therefore, high-end kosher and halal chefs must prove themselves to be highly inventive. Such is the case with Les Grands Enfants, an excellent halal place that seats 85 and is just few steps from Paris' famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. In this family restaurant where turbans, scarves, and bare heads mix in gargantuan numbers, the chef, 40-year-old Kamel Djellali, strives to offer a convincing halal version of French specialties, despite the ban on using any type of alcohol.
Marinating liver in armagnac or cognac, for example, is not allowed, even if the alcohol evaporates while cooking. And yet, there on the plate is homemade duck foie gras (14 euros) and something that is very close to a classic liver pâte. It could pass as the real thing: The texture is identical, and if the taste is a little less elevated, the illusion is perfectly maintained when you pair it with its onion and red fruit chutney.
It's good that today practicing Muslims can afford a fancier dining experience too!
"I needed to experiment a lot, and I've had a lot of failures," says the chef. So what's the secret? Djellali keeps that to himself, but does tell us one of the key ingredients — honey, for flavor. "Some people are discovering French dishes for the first time with us, things that they've fantasized about forever," he adds. "We don't want to mess that up!"
The restaurant manager, Nazim Mazari, 33, opened two other places, including one in the chic 6th arrondissement of Paris. "Today there are Muslims who have the means and the desire to taste dishes that were inaccessible to their parents," he says. "Non-Muslims have been enjoying couscous for a longtime. It's good that today practicing Muslims can afford a fancier dining experience too!"
On the kosher side, we find a similar craze for new restaurants and a clientele tired of ordering the same slab of salmon in classic French brasseries. Just look at chef Julien Sebbag's phenomenal success! The 27-year-old, with his edgy style, specializes in pop-up restaurants.
Currently, he's set up shop in the Bus Palladium nightclub, in the 9th arrondissement, where, in a party atmosphere among friends, he electrifies the kosher kitchen. "I use kosher products, but I didn't ask for certification," he explains sprinkling crumbled spices on broccoli (32 euros for two people).
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