Paris is not exactly Champagne territory. But hear me out. When you go to Rue Saint Bernard, you’ll find Mokonuts: a restaurant by Omar and Moko, who could easily be the twin sister of Au Bon Manger’s Aline Serva.
Not because they look alike, but because they share a passion for natural wine, food and good company.
When we go to France, we usually drive straight to the Champagne region. It’s only logical, as that’s where the champagne is. But in July of 2020, we added an extra stop in Paris, which is nowhere near the route to Reims and Épernay. The woman to blame: Aline Serva, owner of Au Bon Manger in Reims. She had told us about Mokonuts, a small Parisian café in Rue Saint-Bernard. It’s one of her favourite spots in Paris, and as we trust her blindly, we thought it’d be worth the detour. And oh it was. We expected a small restaurant, but what we found was a new piece of heaven on earth, that we’ve now gladly added to our French itinerary.
When Japan and Libanon meet in Paris
The tiny Mokonuts restaurant is run by the Japanese Moko Hirayama and her Libanese husband Omar Koreitem. Years ago, so Aline would tell us later, Moko Hirayama left New York (along with a flourishing career in the legal profession) to discover the culinary scene in France. As she didn’t speak French, no restaurant would hire her, until a Parisian star chef gave her a chance. Moko Hirayama started as a kitchen help and grew to become a renowned pastry chef. She met her now-husband Omar Koreitem and in 2015, they opened their own restaurant. Together, they serve breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea (which here, is a synonym for pie and cookies), before closing the doors to go home and cook for their two daughters. You can make dinner reservations for private dining though, but only with more than eight people.
Ever since our visit, Peter and I have been fantasising about who to invite to this private dinner and for which occasion.
The strawberry explosion
Why? Because Mokonuts in Paris is a dream. From the moment we walked in, we felt the same kind of magic as in Aline’s Au Bon Manger. The restaurant has the size of a small living room, and the kitchen is the smallest I’ve ever seen. In a restaurant, that is- during my stay in Rennes, I shared a gas stove with 30 other students. We walked in, and after some flipping through calendars, Moko Hirayama remembered my e-mail and led us to our table. And then the chaos started. A man walked in, carrying four trays of fresh strawberries. Moko Hirayama clapped her hands with joy and showed me the trays, so I could stick my nose in. Immediately, I was welcomed by an explosion of strawberry scents.
After this little moment of happiness, Moko left to wait on other tables, and she didn’t come back for 20 minutes. We didn’t care- as just sitting there and watching the couple go was an experience on its own.
“Je vais vous laisser goûter du vin, et après, on discute”
Natural wine selection
When Moko Hirayama came back, we ordered our entrees and asked her about the wine. We decided to simply order a glass of white, and Moko’s eyes started to sparkle. “Je vais vous laisser goûter du vin, et aprés, on le discute!” she beamed. A couple of minutes later, she returned with two glasses and a bottle of Barbaste, a natural wine from Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France. It had a deep golden colour, and tasted like an apple cider that had been upgraded to wine because of its excellence. We loved it. As I sipped my wine, I looked around and discovered a fruit cake on the counter. The coffee machine was simmering, people were talking and cookies were ordered. I felt truly happy and didn’t think things could get any better.
Where are the Michelin stars?
But then the food came. We had ordered a bowl of fresh, Libanese labneh and white tuna to share. The labneh was thick yet light, and we were dying over the combination of herbs that Omar had added to his olive oil. The tuna was slightly smoked and extremely soft, and the oseille (sorrel) and sumac (sumac ;-)) added an extra dimension to each bite we took. For the main course, we ordered the chicken and monkfish: the first crisp, the latter creamy and both cooked to perfection. Everything was so d#mn f#cking fresh and refined that we couldn’t believe Mokonuts didn’t have any Michelin stars. Prices were also very low, which confused us even more (and made us tip generously). What was this place? What did they added to the labneh and again: where were the stars?
Going nuts over buckwheat fruitcake
To my relief, the dishes were all quite small, which made me lurk at the mystery cake on the counter. I checked the menu in the corner of the restaurant, and read “Crostata de Nectarine, sarrasin”. Buckwheat fruitcake! We both ordered a piece and a coffee, and continued our food high. The cake had a freshness I had never experienced before, and I felt like I was drowning in nectarines and butter. Omar came over to ask what we thought of the food, and all I could say was “c’était incroyable” while making faint hand gestures as if I was slowly dying in battle. Omar nodded approvingly and got back to work, a towel over his shoulder and a spoon in his hand. He didn’t seem to realise that he had just condemned us to a lifelong addiction to this little restaurant, in a city that’s far away from home and where it’s impossible to find a parking space. Oh the misery.
Back to Au bon Manger
The day after, we found ourselves in Au Bon Manger, where we told Aline about our lunch in Mokonuts. As soon as I said “Mokonuts in Paris” out loud, the word spread through the restaurant like wildfire. Everyone knew exactly what we were talking about, and started reminiscing over the food, the wine and the amazing couple responsible for it all. It was obvious that in Moko, we had found the twin sister of Aline. They both run a tiny restaurant with more passion than many a star chef, constantly exploring new ingredients, wines and places. I considered myself lucky, as I now had not one but two people who could tell me where to go. Then I realised that, maybe, I didn’t need to go elsewhere, as the combination of Au Bon Manger and Mokonuts is probably all I’ll ever need.