It’s an undisputed fact of life that Paris is always a good idea… But as it turned out, my recent visit to the City of Lights was the best idea I’ve had this year yet, as by coincidence or by fate, I arrived just in time for a special friends and family evening at Balagan.
Roughly translating to “hullabaloo” in Hebrew slang, the new restaurant is a crackling breath of fresh air in one of Paris’ oldest Arrondissements, helmed by none other than ace Israeli chefs Assaf Granit and Uri Navon of the famed MachneYuda in Jerusalem and The Palomar/ The Barbary in London – two of my all-time favourite eateries (a fact with which you might be all-too-familiar already, seeing as I never lose an opportunity to wax poetic about either or both)….
Unassumingly situated on a quiet corner where Rue de Mont-Thabor meets Rue d’Alger (inside the Renaissance Vendome hotel), Balagan is just minutes away from some of the city’s most chi chi restaurants. Yet its intensely atmospheric setting couldn’t be further removed from these neighbouring establishments, reflecting a refreshing warmth which could only have carried over straight from Jerusalem.
As is the case with many trendy openings in the city, Balagan also bears the stamp of the Experimental Group (these are the guys who essentially created a cocktail culture in Paris). There’s a separate bar area to show for it, holding all the promise of languid evenings and boisterous nights…
As for the dining area, seating is mainly divided across cosy corners and larger (but still surprisingly intimate) booths. A few stools are propped by the open kitchen, which forms the centre of the electrifying energy permeating through the restaurant. This is where my foodie compatriot AB and I sat – transfixed by the deft smoothness with which the dishes were manifested, each demonstrating the exuberantly-inspiriting quality I’ve come to associate with Chef Assaf and Chef Uri’s restaurants.
In fact, chatting with the endearingly-humble Chef Assaf and his team as we watched them (in awe) at work, was as much a highlight of the evening as the stand-out pleasures presented by the meal itself…
Dinner was off to a gratifying start with a carb-heavy situation loaded with tahini.
If one is drawn back to The Palomar for the Kubaneh (Yemeni pot-baked bread) or Barbary for the sesame-studded Jerusalem Bagel, then the brioche-like Cubana here will instantly compel you to revisit too – its unapologetic butteriness foiled by the bold and herby zhoug glistening on the bountiful heap of tahini. Pain Frenavon was also rather revelatory – the unexpected lovechild of Moroccan-style bread mated with Focaccia!
A smattering of simple and soothingly-spiced sides completed the picture (think Iraqi-style lentils, cured cabbage and chimchurri-cauliflower), while “a plate for a brave” braced with chillies sent a kick of heat from the nose right down to the belly.
Sadly this vegetarian can’t speak with much authority on the Seafoods Shakshuka or Sea Bream Majadra we saw being repeatedly plated… but I can sing in favour of the tender heffalump of eggplant we had as part of our mains.
Cooked overnight in a Josper, the thrill of the dish lay in its sheer simplicity, featuring just a few key ingredients – tomatoes and creamy yogurt, punctuated by a much tarter dry yogurt from Jerusalem which lent a sharp, umami-rich note. Mixed with the rice served on the side (also cooked overnight with onions), it sent a heartwarming rush of comfort crashing through us, reinforced by the Balagan Polenta.
We took great pleasure in scooping the latter out from the jar, after having first cut through the poached egg on top until the blood-orange yolk had mixed right through the thick and creamy texture of the polenta, soaking all the other elements too (asparagus, mushroom and parmesan shavings)!.
A beetroot salad added a touch of lightness to the evening, festooned with fresh greens and mangetout peas. Generous blocks of feta championed the flavours of the Mediterranean here, working in perfect harmony with a sparkling glass of Rosé Brut I’d aptly chosen on that summer’s evening.
The uplifting effects of the kitchen’s sorcery continued with dessert, the highlight of which was undoubtedly Chef Uri’s mother’s famous Barbosa cake. A sweetened semolina sponge cake of sorts, this was the stuff of unpretentious soul food, served with a nutty (almost ganache-like) tahini ice cream on the side.
A pot of fresh Bavarian cream coated with toffee caramel and almonds was as unabashedly blissful as it sounds too, while a flour-free chocolate mousse surprisingly stood its own ground despite the more… exotic appeal of the other desserts.
Golden, deep-fried kadaif noodles coated with sugar and honey added a notch more naughtiness to the proceedings. I have to admit, working our way across the board was quite a job in itself!
I have plenty of scrummy stories from our sojourn still left to share (#WatchThisSpace), but this buoyant evening at Balagan was undoubtedly the most memorable on several counts… It wasn’t just the comforting warmth or gregarious generosity implicitly delivered in the dishes, but also the vivacious tone of the restaurant and the endearing passion of the kitchen, which emerged the high-level draws here.
Whether you have the luxury of living in Paris, or are just breezing by on a visit, this is definitely an experience you don’t want to miss!
Balagan Paris, 9, rue d’Alger 75001 Paris