First came the starter, a quail and foie gras salad with grape chutney. This was followed by rolled fillet of sole with spinach and ricotta stuffed conchiglie in a Floc de Gascogne sauce. The wine arrived to accompany the main course, then cheese. We wrapped things up with a Williams pear poached in red wine with pear sorbet and finally coffee.
It is what Anthony Bourdain might describe as an “heroic meal”. Our 5-course lunch had more than lived up to the promise of a Michelin starred experience.
And it only cost €32 a head.
Welcome to the world of hostelry restaurants.
You might have dreamt of dining at one of Paris’ many Michelin starred restaurants. Lunch at Arpège, followed by dinner at Plaza Athénée.
“Look. I think Catherine Deneuve just walked in.”
It sounds like something straight out of the pages of Point de Vue. Until you begin to calculate the cost.
Whichever way you broil it, if you want to eat Michelin star food you have to pay Michelin star prices. Or Not.
A lunch course at La Tour d’Argent is €105 per person excluding drinks. For dinner at Lasserre, a la carte plates start at €75. These prices are on the low end. Once you begin to scale the Michelin mountain, you might find yourself dizzy and struggling for breath once you open the menu. €330 for fresh lobster at Guy Savoy anyone?
But for those in the know, you don’t need to take out a small personal loan to dine at the top table.
Hostelry restaurants offer the seemingly impossible: fabulous food at a reasonable rate.
You will find very little written about them and for good reason. They are one of the best kept secrets of foodies and chowhounds all over the world.
Photo: Alastair Evans
Hostelry restaurants, or to give them their French name les restaurants d’application, are restaurants set up to train the next generation of Joel Robuchons and Gordon Ramseys.
They can be found in many of the cooking schools across France and although you won’t find them listed in any restaurant guides, they are open to the general public.
Hostelry restaurants don’t advertise since their purpose is not to generate profit. They exist as an opportunity for trainee chefs, waiters and barmen to practice what they have learnt in a live environment on actual customers, supervised by their teachers.
This makes for a unique experience. Not only are the fixed price menus considerably cheaper than you would pay at an equivalent “real world” restaurant. You also get the opportunity to peak behind the curtain of the top culinary schools and watch the students learn their craft.
Paris has numerous unique dining opportunities which rarely appear in any guidebooks. I have enjoyed a first class lunch at an art squat in an abandoned fridge factory and sat on communal tables to break bread with the other members of a popular lunch club in the basement of a large church.
But hostelry restaurants offer something quite different. In total, there are six attached to different cooking schools across Paris and I have eaten at them all. The food quality ranges from decent to superb but all of them offer unbeatable value for money.
By far and away the best of them all is Le 28, the restaurant d’application at École Grégoire-Ferrandi.
École Gregoire Ferrandi is one of the leading professional training schools in France. It is located in the district of Montparnasse, Paris’ 16th arrondissement.
~ École Gregoire Ferrandi ~
28 Rue de l’Abbé Grégoire, 75006 Paris, France
Photo: Alastair Evans
Although it doesn’t have the name recognition of Prue Leith or Cordon Bleu, being accepted to their culinary arts program (ESCF – Higher School of French Cuisine at Ferrandi) is like being awarded a place at Harvard or Oxbridge. Only the best and brightest need apply.
Gregoire Ferrandi’s alumni consists of a glittering array of Michelin starred chefs. Jacques Lameloise, George Duran and Matthieu Viannay all cooked their first Coq au Vin at the school’s training restaurants. This is why Le 28 offers something no other hostelry restaurant does – a meal cooked to Michelin star 1 standard for the unbeatable cost of €30 – €45.
A quick search for “Le 28 École Grégoire-Ferrandi reviews” backs this up. You won’t find many people writing about their experience and they are mostly in French but those you do find are overwhelmingly positive.
Along with Le 28, the school also has a second training restaurant called Le Premier. This is run by students in the early stage of their training and focuses on serving more traditional French Cuisine. Le 28 is staffed by chefs, waiters and cocktail shakers in their final year of the culinary arts program and offers a more varied menu. This changes regularly depending on what the students are learning and follows the rhythm of the seasons. There is also a third restaurant, L’Orme Rond which is located in the school’s other campus in the south western suburbs of Paris.
Le 28 is certainly the preferred choice but getting a reservation can be a challenge. Both lunch and dinner are served although tables are booked up weeks in advance by regulars who know they aren’t going to get anywhere near the same value for money elsewhere.
That said, making a booking is far from impossible and the easiest and quickest way is via their website.
Bookings for the next semester open on a specific day (details on the website) and as long as you reserve on or soon after that date and can be somewhat flexible you should be able to get a table.
Since the students need to get back to class, service begins promptly at a set time so you need to make sure you aren’t late (although this wasn’t as strict as I was lead to believe) and the restaurants are closed completely at weekends and during the school holidays.
Photo: Alastair Evans
From the moment we arrived, I could tell we were in for a treat.
It was the end of the school year and today’s lunch was part of the student’s final examination which would determine their grade and ultimately, their future job prospects.
This meal came with stakes.
We were greeted by Antoine, who announced himself as the Maitre d’Hotel, took our coats and ushered us to our table. The decor was smart, nothing like a school, and the room bathed in light. Next to each of the clothed tables stood a team of three waiters, black ties for the final year students and grey ties for their juniors. Their professor hovered close by.
The atmosphere reminded me of a state dinner more than lunch in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. A palpable earnestness hung in the air broken by the laughter and chatter of the other diners who all seemed very much at home. I had forgotten to ask about a dress code but need not have worried. Jeans and trainers flashed beneath the white cloths of the other tables. It was a curious scene. The high formality of the staff offset by the informality of our fellow diners.
Cocktails were served by Roland, our lead waiter followed by an amuse bouche and then a foie gras salad starter.
Photo: Alastair Evans
Today’s lunch was themed around the food from the Landais region of France. I asked Roland in my best bad French what that meant and to my surprise he replied in English:
“Landais cuisine is a traditional family style of cooking. It is simple and focused on using quality ingredients. A lot of very good Fois Gras comes from Landes.”
I thanked him and the starter plates were cleared. One of the professors sidled over to us.
“It is good that we have English speakers today” he remarked. “It gives the students a chance to practice with other guests.”
For the main course my wife and I had gone for the sole while my mother had chosen guinea fowl in gravy with Grape Picker’s potatoes.
Photos: Alastair Evans
“Would you like to have wine?” Roland was back.
At €10 a bottle or €3 a glass it seemed almost criminal not to.
There was only one option: a local vintage from a winery in Landes. I quietly pulled out my phone and found the listing on the Vivino app. A 4.1 rating with 57 reviews. When was the last time you’ve paid €10 for wine in a quality restaurant and found it to be drinkable?!
I wondered if it would be as good as the wine served at the first hostelry restaurant I visited, La Table d’Albert in the school of Albert de Mun. There I had paid just €18 for a 3 course lunch and while the quality was not to the same level as Le 28, it was still excellent value.
To look after me, I had been assigned a lamb of a waiter. Clearly a first year student, he was green as a ripe courgette. I was dining alone, a single man and a quarter of the age of the other patrons. This appeared to throw him off his game. Then he realised I didn’t speak French.
Recovering quickly, he battled through the menu recital and starter but hit a wall when it came to the wine. I had only ordered a glass but a new bottle needed to be opened and protocol dictated this be done at the table. Pulling out his waiter’s friend he dug the screw into the cork, twisting it until it was lodged deep. Then he began to pull. The cork didn’t move. He tried again, his face warped by a desperate grimace as his hands searched for that perfect tension which would release the cork without it breaking. Behind him, his professor stood, piling on the pressure like an industrial digger shoveling dirt. Beads of sweat began to form on his temples and time seemed to take a sabbatical as this poor boy continued to do battle with the cork. With no food, phone or dining partner to distract me I was trapped in my chair, watching on helplessly. With no apparent end in sight, his hands relaxed for a moment and he looked up from the bottle, his doll-like eyes locking on mine as he offered a meek apology.
I waved him away and told him not to worry about it. I wanted to do more. I wanted to stand up and give him a hug. I wanted to tell him it was all going to be OK, that it didn’t matter, that in the continuum, 10,000 years of human history, this moment didn’t mean anything.
He returned to the bottle and once again tugged at the cork which remained stubbornly inert.
He looked back up. “Excuse me”.
The professor took a step closer and I wondered at what point he would release his student from this very public hell.
In that moment, the cork began to move. Like a cat being dragged on a leash it inched reluctantly into view.
The young waiter’s cheeks flushed with wild, hysterical relief. He pulled again heroically, and suddenly the cork sprang from its chamber catching him off guard and causing him to nearly drop the bottle.
“Très bon” said the professor patting his exhausted pupil on the shoulder and gesturing to him to pour my wine.
None of this drama was repeated at Le 28.
Roland had clearly corked enough bottles to know where that perfect tension lay and once opened he offered us a taste.
It was now 1.45pm and with mains cleared, cheese was served and more wine poured followed by desert and coffee.
Photo: Alastair Evans
Notepad in hand, the professor returned to our table and asked us what we thought of the food and the service. He appeared open and eager for our honest feedback. Clearly we were going to have a say in how the students were assessed.
Overall, the meal had been excellent. Well presented, delicately cooked and served with aplomb. Did it meet Michelin star standards? We took a poll. My mother thought it was close but that the guinea fowl had lacked some flavour to tip it over into Michelin territory. My wife who had gone for the sole voted “yes”. I was distracted by the check.
A five course meal for 3 with wine had come to just €106. Nothing could compare in terms of value. I could see why the other diners kept on coming back.
Yes, there are a few Michelin restaurants in Paris which offer set course lunches for something similar (I will be writing about those soon). But this wasn’t just about the cost. It was also about the experience.
Three chefs came out of the kitchen and began to tour the tables, stopping to chat with the guests. The tallest of the three approached us. Gangly and fresh faced he reminded me of a young Vincent Cassel.
“Vous avez bien mangé?” he asked.
Caught in that linguistic limbo between understanding what he had said but lacking the vocabulary to reply I froze, the words dissolving untranslated in my mouth.
“It was great” beamed my wife who had the excuse of being neither a native English nor French speaker.
The chef looked down on us with surprise. “Ah! You are not French. I’m sorry for my poor English. We don’t see many tourists here. How did you find out about our restaurant?”
I could tell him about Andrew my travel researcher who is trained to dig up unique opportunities for exploration & discovery around the world. Or the proprietary software I had developed to analyse online restaurant reviews, sift through all the noise and fakery to pull out the less well known, true gems. Or the secret guidebook series which is one of the few to include a section on hostelry restaurants.
All of these had lead us to this moment, lunch in Le 28.
Before I could reply the professor returned. “I am sorry but the students have to get back to class.”
Roland was hovering with our coats. Time was up.
We made our way back through the corridors of École Gregoire Ferrandi passing lecture halls and classrooms. Outside, It was raining, a light sprinkle and as we walked to the metro the local bistro was rolling out its awning.
We didn’t stop to look at the menu.