With Expectations High, Spring Restaurant Reopens in Paris

After my first meal at Spring, back in March 2007, I joined a group of customers hanging around and doing shots with Daniel Rose, the young Illinois-born, French-trained chef behind the restaurant. Rose, known for his use of seasonal, simple ingredients, asked one woman what she thought about the meal. “You don’t just cook,” she said. “You suck the dick of food.”

French critics expressed a similar opinion, albeit in slightly different words. Within four weeks of its opening, the city’s most influential voices in food had lavished praise on Rose. Elvira Masson (Le Fooding) called his cooking “very simple, very well done, full of sincerity and promise.” Emmanuel Rubin (Figaroscope) called Spring “deliciously intimate, more than inspired… surely the best restaurant opening of the season.” Across the ocean, Rose had a six-page spread in Bon Appétit before the end of his first year in business.

These high-profile endorsements created a demand that Rose couldn’t possibly satisfy. With only sixteen seats and one service per day, Spring quickly became the hardest-to-get table in Paris. By the time he closed the restaurant in February 2009, Rose was serving clients who had booked more than five months in advance.

The shuttering of Spring was meant to be temporary, a brief respite while Rose renovated a bigger space in central Paris. But the classified building he chose for the new restaurant, under which multiple crumbling cellars were discovered, became the proverbial money pit. Renovations on it ultimately cost more than €1.3 million, compelling the chef to raise money from unexpected sources. Following in the footsteps of Bill Murray’s character from Lost in Translation, Rose is now helping to sell Suntory whiskey in Japan.

Last week, after almost sixteen months out of the kitchen (not counting his temporary rotisserie restaurant), Rose finally reopened Spring around the corner from the Louvre. He is nervous, and has reason to be. More daunting than the looming investments that must be repaid are the expectations that must be met. Many people — those who never got into Spring or never got Spring, period –- would be delighted to see him fail.

“I’m terrified of being seen like Itinéraires,” says Rose, referring to the disdain that greeted Sylvain Sendra’s new venture after he sold Le Temps au Temps. Some of the things that diners loved about Sendra’s cramped little bistro didn’t seem to work at the new restaurant.

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Rose faces a similar challenge, moving from an undecorated shoebox in a far-out neighborhood to a flashier space in central Paris. Like Sendra, he added staff and raised prices in order to pay for them. These aren’t the only changes, however. Nearly all of the hooks that comprised Rose’s story have changed within the last three years. The underdog who cooked alone and undercharged for every plate has grown into the Hot Chef who manages a team and sometimes speaks in terms of “branding.”

Such changes have done nothing to slow the rush for reservations at the new Spring. The sense of urgency surrounding this second coming is reflected in the jittery title of a discussion thread on Chowhound: “Report on New Spring? Someone? Please?”

Rose wishes it weren’t this way. “A restaurant is just part of the decoration of life,” he said. “It isn’t life itself. I want Spring to be a normal restaurant.”

Whatever the chef may wish, Spring was far from normal on the first Friday of opening week. With the exception of one small family and two neighbors from the building, the restaurant was filled with industry folk. Rival bloggers sat shoulder to shoulder in one corner while Masson and Rubin nuzzled at the bar. Everyone watched the open kitchen as if it were a stage.

The reviews from that night were positive. “This effort feels more mature,” one diner whispered over the back of our shared banquette, “but it’s the same clear point of view as before. It’s still all about the products–the goodness of the ingredients,” they said. “I don’t go to a restaurant with a €64 menu to eat ingredients, I go to see what the chef does with the ingredients,” added food blogger Barbra Austin. She then went on to praise the smoked heirloom tomato and “finger-licking” pigeon. “I loved the buzz and the open kitchen,” said blogger/concerige Adrian Moore. In her Bonne Nouvelle posting for Le Fooding, Masson praised the eggplant dish, cooked four different ways and served with smoked eel.

If Rose has his way, this early rush of reviewers will give way to a more low-key clientele. “I don’t want to cook for people who think a restaurant will change their life,” he said. “We want to create something that’s exceptional but not too precious. If we can provide the material support for somebody’s wonderful time, that would be great. Isn’t it really all about fun?”

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Reservations are taken at Spring Boutique. Currently serving lunch Wednesday to Saturday and dinner Tuesday to Saturday.