To understand Papilles before walking into the impeccably designed East Village restaurant, one must grasp the concept of “cuisine vagabonde,” or food inspired by traveling the globe. Chef Andréa Calstier, his wife and co-owner Elena Oliver and their masterful friend behind the bar, co-owner Nicolas Thoni have experienced so much across the world. These French expats aim to activate their guests’ senses with such learnings. It’s more than an impressive, unfamiliar taste pulled from a delectable dish and drink. It’s an exploration. With their new L’Assiette Michelin listing (a designation, introduced in 2017, for restaurants where quality food was discovered by the iconic guide’s inspectors) it’s worth shining a light on their distinct concept.
With a background including NYC staple Epistrophy and the much-loved Marché du Sud, Thoni has created a drinks list at Papilles unlike any other. Many of the bottles he pulls from behind the seven-seat bar (which one sees first upon entry) will not be familiar to guests. This is because a lot of the alcohol here Thoni produces in house. “This menu is made from drinks with fermented alcohol only,” he explains to us. “There are no hard liquors. We have amaro from Italy or spiced wine from France and vermouth and sake. I then flavor them with components like agave wine.”
Thoni’s been crafting cocktails for over seven years, and has had a book of his recipes published. His ability to modify classic cocktails with elements like house-made elderflower liqueur and cordials of his own imagining reveal a truly distinct vision. “I am using these secondary alcohols as the base of cocktails, pairing them with fruit and bitter flavors and spice. I recreate the flavors of classics in my head,” he says.
“Each alcohol, it’s mine, it’s tasty and it’s what I need for my drinks. I can cook these products with fruits and create my own profiles. I want all my ingredients to play a role. And then I want people to have a real reaction to the drinks,” he adds. From kiwi and bergamot liqueur to pumpkin tincture and lapsang souchong liqueur to pear froth, it’s an exemplary—and worldly—menu of drinks with low ABV. This means one can comfortably try a few and admire the beautiful presentation of all.
Chef Calstier’s career began in France. He honed his skills at the Upper East Side’s two-Michelin-star staple Daniel. Much has been made of his age, but the 24-year-old chef cooks with an honesty that comes from a place of wisdom. Here, where France greets the world in a tiny sliver of NYC, Calstier focuses on seasonal ingredients, sourced as locally as possible. A standout plate—beets of various textures, with huckleberry coulis, hazelnuts, and an autumn spices vinaigrette—demonstrates his love of freshness and a desire to please the eyes and nose just as much as the palate. A cappuccino-veal jus atop roasted veal tenderloin with kabocha squash and maitake mushrooms expresses his unfettered creativity.
Even the dessert acts as a gastronomic adventure, with options like lychee with star anise cream and an elderflower biscuit. “Papilles” means tastebuds and it’s evident that much attention has been paid to those within the 22-table space. While peering into the open kitchen and sipping the uncanny cocktails, it’s easy to observe that tradition is gone but not forgotten. Each plate pays homage to French cuisine and expresses a desire to see how it interacts with the modern world.
Images courtesy of Papilles