With its stripped walls, exposed pipes and long white-tiled bar, Coutume Café on rue de Babylone doesn't feel like an ordinary Paris bistro. But this isn't surprising when you discover the owners are an Australian, Tom Clark, and a Frenchman, Antoine Netien, who spent four years cutting his coffee-roasting teeth in Melbourne. Clark and Netien belong to a small but influential group of Antipodean restaurateurs heightening the Paris food scene.
And what could possibly be wrong with Paris's cafés? "The coffee," Clark and Netien chime in unison. It's no secret that France is dragging its heels when it comes to coffee, with most cafés still favouring the petit noir: a bitter shot of espresso, often made with a large percentage of robusta, that is almost undrinkable without sugar. For travellers accustomed to ordering a morning cappuccino, it makes a bitter start to the day.
But Netien and Clark are not afraid to challenge accepted French ideas about coffee. At Coutume Café they have "17 tables and only eight sugar shakers," says Clark. "That way people are more likely to taste the coffee before the instinct to add sugar takes hold."
The duo source beans directly from the plantations - recently Ethiopia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, to name a few - and roast them directly on their café premises. And it's a measure of their attention to detail that they spent three months searching for the right milk for their cappuccino.
It was during a trip to Melbourne, to work on a film, that Netien discovered coffee. "I tried several different espressos and discovered that they could have fruity or spicy notes, just like wine," he says. "It was a revelation."
Netien trained with master roaster Paul Caligiore of Gigante Coffee and won a gold medal at Australia's 2007 Golden Bean Roaster Competition, and when he returned to France he found himself unable to drink the coffee on offer and began roasting his own beans at home.
Meanwhile, Australian-born Clark had moved to Paris and fallen in love with every aspect of France except the quality of the coffee. Clark developed a business plan for a mobile coffee truck, but found himself defeated by French bureaucracy. Instead, he began to sell high-quality beans roasted in Prague to the local market. When Clark and Netien met, they quickly recognised the compatibility of their skills, and Coutume Café took shape. Today they draw a coffee-drinking crowd appreciative not only of their espresso but also of their siphon coffee and iced coffee made with a 24-hour drip machine.
Also determined to improve Parisians' daily shot is Café Lomi, a company working behind the scenes to make Paris cafés more proud of the coffee they serve. Again, a French-Australian duo is behind it: Paul Arnephy worked at cafés in Melbourne before moving to Paris and becoming a barista at Alto Café, a franchise co-founded by Aleaume Paturle. Paturle soon moved away from the franchise, and together with Arnephy, he now buys, roasts and sells the finest coffee beans and trains baristas in how to treat the beans with respect.
Drip by drip they are making a difference to the quality of coffee in Paris, with small restaurants such as Bistro Volnay, the Sugarplum Cake Shop and KB Café Shop (formerly known as Kooka Boora) making Lomi coffee one of their selling points. "There are better ways to make good money," Paturle admits, "but we both love coffee."
Coffee is not the only focus of Antipodeans making their name on the Paris food scene. The longest-established figure may be New Zealander Drew Harré, who founded the Italian-inspired Così sandwich shop in St-Germain in 1989, followed in 1999 by popular bistro Fish La Boissonnerie, which he co-owns with American Juan Sanchez, owner of wine shop La Dernière Goutte. Well known for its warm atmosphere and updated bistro food, Fish has become an institution among French locals, expats and tourists. And the good times are sure to continue at Semilla, the duo's new establishment recently opened in the same building as Cosi.
Restaurant Au Passage has also been creating a buzz recently, with young Australian chef James Henry at the helm. A Paris resident for the past 18 months, Henry spent eight months in the kitchen of bistro Spring before moving into this revamped vintage café, which originally opened in 1910 as a bar. He credits much of what he knows about cooking to the year he spent working at Andrew McConnell's Cumulus Inc. in Melbourne.
At first glance, Au Passage looks like many other modern bistros in Paris with its mismatched bistro chairs, wooden and formica tables and minimalist hand-written menu of "anchovies", "burrata" and "cured sausage". The difference is that Henry stays away from the classic starter-main-dessert format, and encourages evening diners to share small plates; these might include an outstanding dish of duck livers and hearts with a vivid tarragon sauce, or sea bream carpaccio, or squid cooked with its own ink. Occasionally he draws on flavours from Australia, or from Sumatra where he lived for two years. "I do a lot of raw, pickled and cured fish, and I cure my own bottarga," he says.
At lunch he offers a bargain market-driven menu that changes every day. The dishes sound simple (perhaps a choice of line-caught tuna or flank steak with carrots and almond purée), but the difference lies in the quality of the ingredients and the respect with which they are treated. "We focus on the availability of seasonal produce and try to work with farmers who supply excellent products," Henry says. "I use very fresh ingredients and don't do much to them, but I try to be very precise with the cooking."
With most small plates priced at less than $13, and the lunch menu just $21 for three courses or $25 for four, Au Passage proves that you don't have to spend a fortune to eat well in Paris. The same goes for the Australian-inspired coffee bars, which have made an effort to keep their prices competitive despite the higher cost of their beans and equipment. Judging from the enthusiasm of their loyal customers, who now know the meaning of the terms "long black" and "flat white", it seems that Antipodeans are here to stay.