Rice and Fish: A Restaurant Shaped by a Personality

It’s easy to walk by Rice and Fish, a California-style sushi joint, without noticing it.  The small restaurant is on a tiny side street in the 2nd arrondissement, a few minutes walk from the famous Chatelet metro stop.  It’s prime real estate in the middle of the world’s most visited city, but hidden enough that it still feels as if you are discovering a gem.  Behind the glass front are little origami balloons covering strands of Christmas lights.   They are a gay, colorful affair, highlighted by naked lights from the fallen ones nobody had bothered to replace.

There are only six tables inside the cramped restaurant, and a low bar following the sushi counter to the right.   Each table is pushed so close together that, if you can get one, it has to be pulled out for you to slide to the other side.  When the restauraunt is full, the waiter brushes against your back, shuffling sideways between the feasting customers to serve new delights.   The whole place feels as if it were decorated as an afterthought.  It’s filled with a homey, low-key vibe that seems a world away from the haughty Parisian brasseries.   Even the restaurant’s sole working waiter, of which I was one, wears t-shirts and jeans to work and fist bumps the regulars.

Then the food comes, you understand why the restaurant is packed.   The rolls are beautiful and savory affairs, presented in geometric patterns and topped with fresh herbs or fried batter crumbs for decoration and texture.   One of my favorites is the spider,  a lightly fried soft shell crab rolled up in its entirety with some cucumber and avocado, topped off with flying fish eggs.   Of the other inventive rolls, there’s the Venice Beach, a construction of scallops and crispy bacon on squares of crispy rice that is finished with apple chutney.

The magician behind the counter is Andy G, a man who grew up floating around the west coast from Arizona to Hawaii. One of the constants of his adulthood was a real love for sushi.  In his mid twenties, he decided to completely reinvent himself and pursue that passion.  “It used to be that if you wanted to be a good sushi chef, you had to go to Japan.  It’s a year before they even let you wash the rice, and years before they ever let you touch a piece of fish,” recounts Andy, who didn’t have that long to wait.  He enrolled at one of the world’s first sushi schools in LA, under Chef Andy Matsuda.  He came to Paris for fun, and stayed for his French girlfriend.  Now he stays for his daughter, and for his businesses.

Rice and Fish has built a name for itself in the community.  It has what amounts to a small tribe of regulars, some of whom keep a tab and use the restaurant like a cafeteria.  On Wednesday night, the restaurant’s slowest, I normally could have listed three quarters of the people there by name.  That’s a loyalty that is rare in the competitive world of the Parisian service industry.  Some of the regulars even grab their own beers out of the fridge, and get their takeout on borrowed dishes.  They come because Andy has baptized the space with his own laid back personality, a California brand of zen, his dedication to the food, and the relatively light bill—about twenty dollars a person for a full stomach.

The group grows almost weekly, as more and more good press comes out about the restaurant. (google “Rice and Fish Paris”).  The secret lies behind the curtain, however, in Andy’s approach to his restaurant.

The R&F team is comprised of at most four people on any given day, including Andy.   By his side is Shiva, a Sri-Lankan native that has worked all around Europe over the last 7 years.   He’s been working with Andy for more than three years, and joins him at the sushi bar.  Sandha, another Sri Lankan but with much less English and no French, works the kitchen and cranks out the famous beef bowls and bento boxes. The floor is worked by a single waiter.   It’s a tiny team to handle the restaurant’s peak demand.

Andy keeps it all together with the same calm attitude that guides his restaurants.  It’s as if his dedication to his task effused a kind of wordless inspiration throughout the space, one that prompted everyone to work harder and pay attention to more detail.  When things go wrong, Andy rarely even says a word.  He sometimes stops making sushi and fixes the problem himself, serving a platter or going to fix a bento box.  We all shake our heads and say thank you Andy, avoiding the terse look on his face.  It’s communication enough.    You never want Andy coming in and filling the hole you made in the service.  It’s embarrassing, and you feel like you let him down.

It works because of Andy’s drive.  “You just got to build the thing first, and they’ll come,” he said.  “Then you perfect it.”   He constantly looks at the thousands of little details that make or restaurant, correcting things, streamlining them.  He’ll buy better hot sake from Japan, for instance, even while sighing “I don’t know why I buy this stuff.  Once you heat it up, they won’t ever be able to tell the difference.  It just feel bad serving the other stuff.”

All of his restaurants were started with loans to his name and savings.  He throws his sweat into them as well, working 70 hour weeks.  Every day, Andy hand selects fresh fish and produce from the market.  He then preps, makes, and closes up the lunch service, which goes form 11-4.   The process starts over at dinner, which is only served four days a week.  Lunch is served six, and Andy gets to avoid fish on Sundays, though he’s often still working on the restaurant.

Perhaps the best way to look at sushi chef’s entrepreneurial streak is to see his past record.   He closed the original and wildly successful Rice and Fish a year ago to open Rice and Beans with a partner, a new (and wildly successful) Mexican restaurant, for which he also designed the menu.  Rice and Fish stayed closed for six months while he looked for the new space, which is now less than a block away from the original.   The plans haven’t stopped.  “You get a success behind you, you feel invicible,” he says.  He’s planning to clean out the basement of Rice and Fish to bootstrap Paris’ first Japanese beer brewery.

He is not, however, a greedy businessman.  I doubt the thought of a Rice and Fish franchise has ever crossed his mind.  He likes the physicality of the work, the social aspect, the community he can build and feel in his tiny restaurant.  The space is shaped by his character, and it would not work half as well if he were not physically there, day in and day out.

In the end, Andy’s greatest strength maybe the fact that he still feels like a foreigner, even after living in Paris for years.  He takes ideas he knows has worked elsewhere and opens up new markets.  All sorts of other sushi places have opened in Paris, but I have found none with the character of Andy’s, or the quality for those in the same price range.   I hope, for Paris’ sake and my own, that Andy keeps opening amazing restaurants.

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One Response to Rice and Fish: A Restaurant Shaped by a Personality

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