Small Wonder

ARCHITECTS
Rem Koolhaas and Clément Blanchet

PROJECT
Le Dauphin
131 Avenue Parmentier
011-33-1-4806-5841

Paris

Le Dauphin is the closest thing possible to an urban architectural folly. It’s small, eye-catching, more than a little quirky. Like most follies, it resembles a miniature temple. This one is dedicated not to libertine pleasures, however, but to the joys of bistronomie—bistro-priced gastronomy.

Carved out of the shiny, off-white marble that covers its walls, floor, and ceiling, the restaurant is laid out like a typical Greek temple, with a majestic central bar acting as a naos—an innermost sanctum. Four posts, one at each corner of the U-shaped bar, reinforce the centrality of this holy of holies. Despite its small foot-print (the dining room itself is less than 650 square feet), the place feels uncluttered, whether you perch on a high stool to eat at the counter or settle down at one of the small bistro tables.

The layout has one more detail that’s oddly reminiscent of Hellenistic sanctuaries. In front, there is a pronaos, a glassed-in portico that acts as a transitional space between the profane and the sacred—or, in this case, between the gummy Parisian sidewalk and the deliciously sleek marble floor of the restaurant. Protruding from the facade, this veranda is not so much a traditional terrace as a see-through portal that frames the interior view. Open on the street yet protected from it, Le Dauphin is a whimsical presence on the monotonous Avenue Parmentier.

The restaurant is the brainchild of the Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte, the latest star of the city’s exuberant Le Fooding movement, who runs another bistro, Le Chateaubriand, a few doors down. Aizpitarte and his partner, Fred Peneau, contacted Rem Koolhaas on impulse, simply “ringing the bell one day,” says Clément Blanchet, who for the last seven years has masterminded OMA’s French ventures. Koolhaas took an instant liking to the unusual pair (Aizpitarte is an exotic-looking local celebrity, while Peneau is a discreet businessman) and decided to handle their project independently of his firm, with Blanchet as his sole partner.

The idea of creating a marble sanctum came to them early on. “Rem and I had always been fascinated by marble, because it’s both eternal and organic—cold yet warm,” Blanchet says. They looked at the way marble was used at Charles de Gaulle Airport, “and we kept thinking that so much more could be done with it,” he says. They decided to turn a material usually associated with sterile lobbies and deluxe bathrooms into an abstract veneer reflecting subtle hedonistic experiences.

Working on such a small scale was a novel experience for the architects. “Rem and I tried hard not to do a spectacular decor,” Blanchet says. Underplaying Koolhaas’s larger-than-life reputation proved more difficult. In the end, what they hoped would be a quiet experimental venture became the focus of much media attention. (The restaurant received the Fooding 2010 award for best interior design before it had even opened.) Today, Le Dauphin is the setup for a folie à deux—a delusional theater where Aizpitarte and Peneau can present dishes whose miraculous ingredients (confit of duck’s heart with miniature pumpkin; anchovies with watercress ice cream) are a feast for the eye, the palate, and the spirit. Gustatory delights now have their temple.

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