The Japanese chefs who come to make their name in France may now be too many to count, but a visit to Hidé Ishizuka’s restaurant remains essential. chef and sommelier, he partnered with Thierry Marx before taking over Le Petit Verdot 12 years ago. This tiny restaurant in Rue du cherche-Midi is as unpretentious as its owner, respecting French gastronomy
with a wine list filled with wonders.
First opened as Le Châtaignier in 1935, the restaurant gained two Michelin stars in 1958 and, in 1964, was described by Henri Gault and christian Millau as “One of the finest temples of French cuisine”. But then things went downhill, with several changes of ownership before 2005, when Hidé took over. After a start he describes as “very difficult”, this tiny bistro with 20 covers is now always full and booking is essential. “It’s just regulars, well-informed gourmets, friends of friends”.The unmodernised façade is certainly no encouragement to tourists – in fact there’s no indication at all that this is a restaurant. “If passers-by think it’s a gay swingers’ club, I’m happy!” laughs Hidé. He’s not looking for a Michelin star and isn’t afraid to say so. He offers traditional French dishes cooked by his chef Katsu. “My customers complain if I don’t do sweetbreads every day, or breaded pig’s trotters with foie gras.”
The wine list is an homage to the great wine regions of France, with hundreds of wines, 10 of them sold by the glass. Bordeaux include château Pichon Baron 2006, château Haut-Marbuzet 1995 and château cheval Blanc 1985. “Mainly older vintages, that’s what my customers want. When it comes to storage conditions, I put my trust in DUCLOT LA VINICOLE. The same goes for the selection of more accessible wines – I ask Fanny! Contrary to what some sommeliers think, we don’t know everything about wine, and I never introduce myself as a sommelier. I’ve never worn the badge.” Asked about his favourite wines, he gives no names – to mention some would mean leaving others out. “To get my quota from the great Burgundy producers I first had to accept rejection. Every year I went back to knock on their door, hoping one day it would open. I kept on believing because I’d already been all over the region when I first came to France and I’d met some big-hearted people, there and in the Bordelais. They took me round their cellars and let me taste everything, even though I was a Japanese boy who couldn’t speak a word of French. All that heart goes into their wines.”
Just as well, because it was in the hope of meeting these winegrowers that Hideya Ishizuka left Japan in 1991, having graduated from a culinary school and been named the country’s Best Young Sommelier at the age of 20. “I couldn’t imagine myself working in wine without getting to know the people who make it.” In France aged 24, he shortened his name to Hidé and took a job in a two-star restaurant in Brittany, before accepting an extraordinary offer from Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac, to work as a cook in his restaurant at Cordeillan-Bages. “I would have taken any job there,” says Hidé, “I’d have worked as a cleaner!”Having arrived in Pauillac in 1992, he was promoted to chef sommelier two years later. Still touched by the trust placed in him, he says, “It was hard at first. Imagine me in those days, dealing with clients who were all wine professionals! One day five diners walked in – Christophe Salin (Château Mouton Rothschild), Christian Le Sommer (Château Latour), Charles Chevallier (Château Lafite Rothschild), Jean-Bernard Delmas (Château Haut-Brion) and Paul Pontallier (Château Margaux) – each with a bottle of their own wine, and they asked me to choose the order of service! I couldn’t decide. So I gave each of them five glasses and served all the wines simultaneously, and they said, ‘You did the right thing, Hidé!’” With the support of his boss, who paid for his DuAD training*, everything fell into place. In 1995 Thierry Marx took over the kitchen and won stars. The customer profile began to expand beyond the circle of wine professionals. For Hidé the moment to leave Pauillac came in 2001 with a call from Japanese chef Hiroyuki Hiramatsu, who put him in charge of his eponymous Paris restaurant. It was here that Hidé met his current chef Katsu. “We got the first Michelin star in record time. But as I wasn’t interested in spangles, I was already dreaming of opening a place where the cuisine and wine list would be star quality, without all the surrounding hoo-hah – my Petit Verdot!”
Hidé is currently training for a European karate competition in the over 50s category. Though born in 1967 he looks a lot younger, but admits to getting tired. “In ten years time maybe I’ll stop. Until then I’ve still got a lot of wines to discover, thanks to my customers who also bring their own wine to the restaurant. Shall I tell you my corkage fee? A glass from every bottle we open!”