Exceptional. That’s the only adjective that comes to mind.
Firstly because of the way the Caffè Stern (in Italian) treats a historical landmark, nestled in a passage in Paris that no tour guide ever ignores. In 1834, the printer Stern set up shop at 47 Passage des Panoramas, covered the walls with antique wood paneling and leather from Cordoba, built enormous drawers and custom made furniture, laid down parquet fougère (hard-wood floors with a fern motif), and welcomed the representatives of kings, queens, emperors, Soviet presidents and even presidents of the French republic who wanted to luxuriously print their power and have it appear on their invitations, at a time when they didn’t yet call that PR. Stern also printed the menus of galas for these same clients, but it ended there. And then this grand establishment moved into a different era and onto different tools and expanded to the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, just steps away from the Elysées; some things you just can’t change. It was closed for seven years, until a clever someone peered through the dirty storefront windows and made a phone call that would revolutionize the world of the executives of the Historic Monuments Directorate.
Gianni Frasi, a coffee roaster at the “Laboratorio Torrefazione Giamaica Caffè” in Verona called his friends Massimiliano (Max) and Raffaele (Raf), the Alajmo brothers, who own the three-star restaurant “Le Calandre” in Padua and the “Gran Caffè Quadri” in Venice.
“Guys, this place it right up your alley!” Max and Raf showed up straight away, took a tour, started dreaming, met David Laner, a young Parisian entrepreneur (Racines, Racines 2, vivant) who became one of their partners, and came to the rapid conclusion that this place was for them.
Between a classified print shop and a restaurant, there are a few legal-technical-administrative subtleties that we will spare you; Raf explained by spreading his thumb and his index finger 12 centimeters apart that “the file was this thick!”
And of course, there had to be two exceptional men at the helm of this patrimonial machine: the architect Dominique Averland backstage, and Philippe Stark in the spotlight. The success of such a project doesn’t depend on much. Don’t let any contemporary gestures become apparent and make sure that any sign of modernity is so discrete that you forget about it the moment you discover it and is blended in with the original patrimony. Averland for the restaurant design and Stark for the architecture and design makes for one hell of a cocktail. Another successful performance at the Caffè Stern: Stark managed to bring to light every single square meter of the space without ever becoming redundant, so you can come multiple times and fell like you are in a different setting every time.
The concept itself, which can be summarized by the menu, is also exceptional: 1,50€ for a coffee at the counter of this landmark, 95€ for a tasting menu, and between 8h30 and midnight, you can enjoy every possible combination. Raf explains: “Max and I told ourselves that in Paris you can eat superbly well, and that no one was expecting us to show up here. But on the other hand, there aren’t any cafés like this, with such a diverse menu. First and foremost, we really wanted to create a café.” And serve some “Li per li”, a mini cappuccino served in Trieste, a Marocchino in vetro, an espresso with cocoa powder and milk foam, and a “Senza fretta”, a coffee served in a Neapolitan coffee maker, a 1961 Faema percolator that spins out of control. But why 1961? “Because at that time, electric coffee makers didn’t exist!” Raf responds. “Each gesture necessary to make the best coffee was the product of the one making it, and that is exactly what we want here.”
Only Italian is spoken here of course, because 90% of the wait staff is Italian, lives Italian and thinks Italian, starting with the chef who trained for four years as Max’s sous chef at “Le Calandre”: Sergio Preziosa. And for those of you who tasted Max Alajmo’s wonders in Padua and in Venice (read our article here), you will quickly see that that world is completely respected here. You will find everything you loved about this chef: an Italian flamboyance served with a side of rigor and inventiveness in each composition and a slight step to the side that allows you to (re)discover dishes from a new angle. You will find the classics, including the famous pjzza (the proper spelling) with Alajmo’s signature mark that transforms the dough into something ethereal, and the dill Taglionis with calamari, lobster, bass and pistachio sauce that make you forget that you are in the center of Paris and not the Piazza San Marco. The desserts are definitely up to par, from the irresistible Tiramisu Stern that will most definitely become a model to follow in pastry schools, all the way to the more simple and tasty creations like the Peaches and Prosecco with tarragon and litchi sorbet. On the producer side, have no fear, on the day of our visit, the veal cutlet “Milanese” with its mixed greens and herb and almond mayonnaise came from Hugo Desnoyer.
And so, what could possible be wrong with this project? The wine list? No. Composed and served by Mirko Favalli, an Italian sommelier who knows his subject well, it transports you from the north of Italy to the tip of Sicily with wines that you will never forget. So who wants a coffee?