19 June 2018

as var as I know: 25 years of the côteaux varois en provence AOC

My first move, upon being freed from my recent restaurant work somewhat sooner than anticipated, was to belatedly accept a lot of press junket invitations. This is how at the end of May I found myself spending two days shuttling around the Var with a gaggle of other journalists and bloggers, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC

The Côteaux Varois en Provence, a predominantly red wine appellation at its ascension to AOC in 1993, now devotes a whopping 91% of its production to rosé. I had mentally prepared myself for two days of industry doublespeak intended to pass off the effects of highly invasive vinification as the result of unique terroir and know-how. Perversely, this the reason rosé production holds such fascination for me: in no other wine category is there such a vast, irreconcilable gulf between what the mass wine market wants and what can feasibly be produced via natural vinification methods.

Natural rosé is one thing. The Provençal rosé currently soaring in popularity - salmon-coloured, dewdrop-clear, fruit-basket-flavored - is a different product entirely. In a surprisingly double-edged speech he gave at the AOC’s anniversary party in Saint-Julien, Gilles Masson, director of the Center of Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, called the “Provençal rosé idéotype” - a wine that is “transparent, fruity, round” - “almost an invention.” He went further than his prepared slides, saying it was “a type of wine that never existed in history.”

24 April 2018

a divorce with la vieille

Well, that was quick. As of earlier this month, I've left the manager and wine director position I held for the past eight months at the 1èr arrondissement restaurant Chez La Vieille.

In writing about the restaurant, before and after beginning to work there, I used to emphasise the involvement of American chef Daniel Rose, to differentiate this iteration of Chez La Vieille from the mediocre ones that preceded it at the historic Les Halles bistrot site. Alas, not even the involvement of Rose, who I've been tempted to consider a friend at times, was enough to save my job from his Parisian business partners. Many restaurants have investors who display zero familiarity with restaurant culture or the quotidian rhythms of a food service establishment, people whose actual involvement extends no further than dining as VIP clients from time to time and volunteering hilariously uninformed commentary on the cuisine and wine. Investors of this sort are no more than a benign nuisance when a more informed stakeholder is working on-site. At Chez La Vieille, I realised soon enough, the only informed stakeholder lives in New York.

As it happened, the task Rose had hired me to perform at Chez La Vieille - to turn the restaurant into a fun, raucous natural wine destination - ran counter to the wishes of his Parisian partners, who, like many of their generation and socioeconomic bracket, remain mystified by natural wine and find informal service slightly unsettling. The end result is, I'm back on the job market. Chez La Vieille will chug along, just with less natural wine, and bereft of the talents of the ace chef de cuisine Oleg Olexin, who left shortly after I did (for different reasons). I am poorer than when I began, having made less money working maniac 90-hour weeks than I used to make from stray gigs and writing assignments. Am I richer for the experience of having managed a restaurant on this side of the Atlantic? It has certainly left me cagier about the prospect of ever opening one of my own. Perhaps that is a form of wisdom.

29 November 2017

at home chez la vieille

Early the other evening a client came into the restaurant and ordered a glass of Beaujolais primeur. There were few other clients at the bar at that hour and I decided to fill the air by delivering a short aria about Guy Breton's quixotic dedication to creating the greatest vin de primeur each year - his painstaking quest to perfect a wine type that almost nobody is willing to respect, let alone pay real money for. To create a perfect primeur is like solving a Rubix cube blind-folded in under 90 seconds, only less profitable.

To my surprise, the client was actually listening, and asked follow-up questions. When I mentioned that I wrote a wine blog, and its name, he was astonished, because he had been reading it for the last seven years. Before he left, he quite reasonably suggested I write something to inform readers what it is I am doing these days.

So here we are. Since end-August I have been managing a restaurant in the 1st arrondissement of Paris called Chez La Vieille. It's owned by the American chef Daniel Rose, who I first met years ago, back when my friend Josh Adler of Paris Wine Company worked for him at Restaurant Spring. The short version of how I returned to the hospitality industry is I found myself at loose ends last summer, having utterly failed to make sufficient money writing about food and wine for the previous year. When in mid-summer Daniel sent a message asking if I knew anyone who'd be a good fit to manage Chez La Vieille, I volunteered. Of course, I knew it would mean I'd have to cease penning fanged critiques of other Paris restaurants. That came as a relief at this point. I have spent so long explaining what goes wrong with restaurants and wine lists. Now my job is to demonstrate what can go right, or, more precisely, to draw clients' attention to the few aspects that do go right, to distract them from the train-wrecks, wild-fires, and five-car pile-ups that are part of the nightly routine at even the most successful restaurants.

17 August 2017

n.d.p. in marseille: les buvards, 13002

For a number of reasons, only one of which was my lack of money, the Native Companion and I wound up in Marseille for a micro-vacation earlier this month.

My ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was to visit a few winemakers in Bandol, a 40 minute drive east. Her ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was it would permit her to bring her small dog. We spent one day in Bandol visiting winemakers in the company of a small dog. The rest of the time was spent failing to turn up good restaurants in sweltering late-summer Marseille.*

The one outstanding exception was Les Buvards, a ramshackle natural cave-à-manger two blocks north of Le Vieux Port. When I asked how long they've been open, raven-haired co-proprietor Laetitia Pantalacci replied, "It'll be a decade come Beaujolais Nouveau," which is about the best answer I could hope to receive. As we sat down on one of the street-facing tables, the NC remarked that she'd never heard anyone mark time in terms of Beaujolais Nouveau before. I assured her it wasn't that unusual, for a pioneering natural wine establishment.

09 August 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: sebastien congretel, régnié-durette

The Beaujolais is barren for good restaurants, and the village of Régnié-Durette is no exception. Any business in Régnié-Durette has the added disadvantage of being secluded: the village proper, unlike nearby towns of Cercié and Villié-Morgon, is set back from the departmental roads. To explore Régnié-Durette usually means going out of one's way.

On drive from his newly restored home in the village to the cuvage he borrows from his father-in-law in Lantignié, I ask newly-installed vigneron Sebastien Congretel how the local Régnié restaurant is. He laughs. "They serve food," he says, in the manner of one awarding the highest possible praise.

Clean-cut, bespectacled, lightly jock-ish, Congretel wouldn't be picked out of a line-up as a vigneron. He formerly lived in the 11ème arrondissement of Paris, and had begun a career working on oil rigs before deciding, in 2015, to become a vigneron in the Beaujolais, where his wife Charlotte's family maintain a handsome estate in Lantignié. Her father lent him the use of a cuvage and equipment, and he was able to acquired parcels in Morgon and Régnié. In another stroke of luck, he fell in with two more senior Beaujolais immigrants, the brothers Julien and Antoine Sunier, who make formidable natural wine in Avenas and Régnié, respectively. This year sees the release of what Congretel considers his proper debut vintage - and the Morgon, in particular, implies he's a very quick study.

12 July 2017

a farewell to meat: super, 75011

UPDATE Aug. 2nd, 2017: David Loyola tells me he has named, or renamed, his primeur "SUPER," whereas until now everyone had referred to it as Aux Deux Amis Primeur. I've updated the text below to account for the name change. 

When I first heard that 11ème wine bar Aux Deux Amis proprietor David Loyola had taken on the lease for a large adjacent space on rue Oberkampf, I shook my head in awe of what I assumed would become an extension of his popular existing wine bar. Aux Deux Amis is by all appearances a massive cash cow, turning tables from lunchtime to past midnight, the only Parisian natural wine bar of its generation to truly embrace a fun, unruly bar atmosphere. Surely on a busy thoroughfare like rue Oberkampf, I thought, bigger would mean better for Aux Deux Amis.

Instead Loyola opened a primeur, or greengrocer. It's a slightly puzzling move, given how many excellent primeurs have opened up within 5 minutes' walk within the past six months. (Le Zingam's second address on rue de la Fontaine au Roi, and Terroirs d'Avenir's new location on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud.) Loyola's greengrocer venture is probably explicable by that fact that his friend Cyril Bordarier of Le Verre Volé has already locked up natural wine retail and gourmet foodstuffs on that particular corner of rue Oberkampf, with Le Verre Volé Cave and L'Epicerie du Verre Volé, respectively. For Loyola, the options were probably primeur or nail salon.

Even so, there is already a solid primeur 100 meters up the street, and a terrible one perhaps 10 meters away. SUPER is distinguished by an impressively locavore focus - the majority of its vegetables derive from the Île de France - along with ambitious prices. It offers a small, almost stealth selection of wine and beer, as well as lunch service. At noon Loyola lords over the roomy kitchen area, improvising a daily sandwich and bento from exclusively vegetarian components. "We wanted to do no meat, and no fish, just to stay truly on theme," he explains.

06 July 2017

the île de porquerolles: domaine de l'île, domaine perzinksy & domaine de la courtade

I sometimes worry I come across as too principled. I so rarely get invited on press junkets. I suspect many PR people imagine me to be a saber-rattling natural wine radical who, if cornered on a cliff's edge by LVMH regional sales managers, would sooner jump than appear in their selfies.

In fact, I quite like playing the shill now and then. I have no trouble appearing gracious and amused when plied with free things. So it was that I recently enjoyed a splendid trip to the Île de Porquerolles the other day, organised by the Côtes de Provence AOC in conjunction with a Lyonnais press agency called Claire de Lune.

The Île de Porquerolles is an island south of the Provençal town of Toulon. Formerly a private island belonging to the industrialist François Joseph Fournier, who purchased it in 1912, Porquerolles was bequeathed to the French state in 1985, and today is home to three wineries: Domaine La Courtade, Domaine Perzinsky, and Domaine de l'Île. "There are three domaines on the Île," explains Domaine Perzinksy oenologist Richard Auther, "And we have three completely different styles."

19 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: le troisième fleuve, 69009

A few Saturdays ago my friend N and I found ourselves staggering north in Lyon after a lunch at Café Comptoir Abel,* where the greatest wine available had been half-pints of Leffe. Desperate for a worthwhile drink before our train north, I thought to pay a visit to Vincent Dechelette, a former employee of acclaimed old-city wine retailer Antic Wine who last December opened his own boutique, entitled Le Troisième Fleuve, a respectable trek upriver from his old workplace.

The new shop's name will be familiar to anyone who has ever read any piece of wine writing on the Beaujolais: it derives from the heavily-worn Léon Daudet line, in which the 19th-century French journalist dubbed the wine of the Beaujolais the "third river" of Lyon, after the Rhône and the Saône. Delechette, like myself, is a massive believer in the gamay, granite, and goblet-training.

His young cave - a short corridor comprised of a stone wall facing a tall mass of shelving - boasts a mostly-natural Beaujolais selection to rival any more established wine retailers in the city. The region's wines comprise perhaps 30-40% of Le Troisième Fleuve, with the remainder deriving from up-and-coming domaines from the rest of France. Dechelette also demonstrates an easy fluency with Beaujolais hospitality: he kindly allowed us to crack open a few bottles on-site, when we arrived out of breath in mid-afternoon, slightly damp with rain and dying of thirst.

13 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: brasserie georges, 69002

To recommend a restaurant on the basis of anything other than food, service, or wine has always seemed very foolish, like recommending a tailor because he plays excellent piano. I still recall my revulsion when upon arriving in France in 2009, an acquaintance took me to Derrière, a Paris restaurant famous for containing, in a rear space accessed through a Narnia-like wardrobe door, a sort of playroom, replete with ping-pong. What are we, I thought, children at a birthday party?

Yet I will profess that, during visits to Lyon over the past two years, among my most moving dining experiences has been at Brasserie Georges, a vast, ancient institution where the charm is mostly historical. The food - a solid impression of traditional dishes of Lyon and Alsace - and the wine - a safe selection of mostly reputable conventional estates - are both remarkable only for a restaurant of Brasserie Georges' immense size. It measures 667m2; seven hundred guests can be served per service.

Restaurants on this titanic scale tend to make one feel like a cog in a large machine. The nostalgic triumph of Brasserie Georges is to hark back to an early-modern era when large machines, and even sensations of anonymity, were novel and inspiring. The restaurant was founded in 1836 - the time of Baudelaire - but there is a distinctly Futurist zing in the air. Seated in the reverberating bustle of Brasserie Georges, one feels suffused with a strange hope, resembling the exhilaration of a Hollywood villain expositing over the loud, steady construction of his doomsday device.

08 June 2017

deck & donohue la terrasse at bob's bake shop, 75018

As of early May, Montreuil micro-brewery Deck & Donohue has teamed up with 18ème-arrondissement vegetarian canteen Bob's Bake Shop to liven up the latter's enormous terrace all summer.

Spearheading the project is Daniela Lavadenz, Thomas Deck's superhumanly energetic fiancée, who previously honed her skills in the kitchen at Au Passage and the dining room of Le Six Paul Bert. At Deck & Donohue La Terrasse, she offers a small menu of well-plated snack foods faithful to both the project's ambitions - a casual beer-garden sans garden - and its host, a vegetarian restaurant. The fried-food-and-frankfurter tendencies of the standard beer-garden concept are therefore replaced with hummous, marinated peppers, a slurpably brilliant salmorejo, and roast potatoes with chimichurri sauce, a nod to Lavadenz's Bolivian heritage. Supplementing the terrace's four taps of joltingly fresh Deck & Donohue beers are a bevy of natural rosés by the glass, from the likes of Julien Merle, Château Bas, and Frederic Rivaton.

To anyone like myself, reluctant, during summertime, to plunk down beaucoup euros for lengthy meals at fine Paris restaurants that invariably lack air-conditioning or even basic ventilation, Deck & Donohue La Terrasse offers a form of salvation. But the project's appeal will be tested by its location north of métro Lachapelle, a heavily immigrant neighborhood whose female residents have recently drawn significant media attention to routine harassment its streets. Salvation, in this case, comes with a healthy dose of social consciousness.

27 May 2017

pork universe: l'avant comptoir du marché, 75006

I stand in awe of the sheer cheek of Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir wine bars. Camdeborde had the insight to reproduce San Sebastian pintxos bars in Paris, a city where dining standing up is considered an abnormal act, like sleeping suspended from a ceiling.

The success of L'Avant Comptoir and later L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer has validated Camdeborde's approach. No one has replicated it; very few have tried. The L'Avant Comptoir concept has become like the ancient megafauna of island nations, which, lacking any serious competition or natural predators, grew to outlandish proportions.

L'Avant Comptoir du Marché, a relative juggernaut compared to the other two, opened in early fall of 2016 in the marché du Saint-Germain. The bar's entrance consists of car-wash-like mud-flaps bearing images of grinning pigs. A lurid red pig sculpture hangs like a martyr above the dining floor. It looks like something purchased from a Russian home décor emporium. One glance at such garish design indulgence normally sends me scampering like a refugee back to the skeletal bistros of the 11ème. If I nevertheless enjoy the occasional visit to L'Avant Comptoir du Marché, it's because there's a heroic irony how Camdeborde employs all the shlock arsenal of industrialised mass restaurateurism in the service of selling artisanal products: excellent pork and natural wine.

02 May 2017

c'est extra: le bel ordinaire, 75010

The latter-day service-industry explosion of Paris' 10ème arrondissement is remarkable for its enthusiastically globalized aesthetics. You have Asian fusion bistrots, craft beer pizza joints, fish-n-chips, Parisian burgers, bentos galore, and Syrian take-out: a full-on Soho occurring between rue du Faubourg Montmartre and the boulevard de Strasbourg.

What the 10ème lacks, since Pierre Jancou flipped Vivant and Kevin Blackwell closed his beloved bistrot Autour d'Un Verre, is that most Parisian of commodities : a convincing wine destination.

On bustling rue Paradis, culinary journalist Sebastien Demorand's gleaming new épicerie-bar-à-vin Le Bel Ordinaire, with its airy dimensions, its tall shelves modeled on scaffolding, its pristine rear kitchen, rather resembles another new-fangled London-scaled endeavor. Indeed, it is one. But its charm, for now, lays in how well it fills the neighborhood wine bar void, providing a calm and tasteful apéro spot for the quartier's hurried young professionals.

27 April 2017

out in the street: vignes, 75019

Vignes' opening party, before the terrace seating was installed.

The great legacy of the cave-à-manger neologism has been to turn most new Paris wine shops into functional bars. You'd have to be either insane or misanthropic to open a wine shop that merely sold wine in Paris these days. The same license permits wine retail and restaurant activities and the line between what constitutes a restaurant and what constitutes a bar (which designation requires a more expensive and regulated Licence IV) is in effect extremely blurry. As often as not, lack of a License IV redounds to a proprietor's benefit, because he or she retains the bulletproof excuse that the kitchen is closed whenever it becomes necessary to decline to serve the visibly drunk or deranged. Inspections are rare, so proprietors are under no obligation to apply the same standards to normal happy drinking humans. Wine shop becomes ostensible restaurant, actual bar, albeit one that tends to close by midnight.

The latest to gainfully skate this line is the former manager of Thierry Bruneau's popular 12ème arrondissement wine bar Le Siffleur de Ballons, Frédéric Malpart, who opened his caviste - bar-à-vin Vignes in Belleville back in March. Like Malpart's former workplace, Vignes boasts a clean, blonde wooden décor, airy white lighting, kind staff bearing simple meat and cheese plates, and an open-minded selection of organic, biodynamic wines.

Unlike Le Siffleur de Ballons, Vignes has a handful of spacious terrace tables, and gives out on the broad boulevard de la Villette. It is instantly the only terraced bar serving a natural wine selection in Belleville*, and a valuable addition to the neighborhood renaissance presently underway.

25 April 2017

don't change: osteria ferrara, 75011

The similarities with between the restaurant Sicilian chef Fabrizio Ferrara opened last fall - Osteria Ferrara - and his former restaurant, the beloved Caffe dei Cioppi, are easy to recognize. At the new restaurant, an understated and tasteful redesign of the former bistrot occupant, Au Vieux Chène, one encounters the same unshowy preparations, the same loose risotto, the same divine sbrisolona, the same just-edgy-enough wine list.

It's a more interesting exercise to note what has changed. Paris, for one thing.

In the years since Caffe dei Cioppi closed, Ferrara's contemporaries Giovanni Passerini and Simone Tondo have raised the bar for Parisian Italian cuisine with their own, more expensive namesake restaurants in the same immediate neighborhood. Burrata has become as unavoidable as saucisson sec. The frighteningly-named Big Mamma Group has conquered middlebrow east Paris with a fleet of packed restaurants serving a simplistic, wincingly commercial take on pan-Italian cuisine.

In 2017, Osteria Ferrara impresses most by its quiet sense of maturity. There is ample space between the tables. From the stereo, nary a boom-bap nor a distorted chord. In the culinary hotbed of east Paris - where small-plates of offal are as common as mezcal and wine labels resemble the undersides of skateboards - sophisticated, product-driven dining can sometimes feel like the province of youth alone. Stepping into the calm predictability of Osteria Ferrara feels, in the best way, like dining at the grown-ups' table.

30 March 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: gilles paris, chiroubles

I harvested a few days with Chiroubles-based natural winemaker Gilles Paris back in 2015. It was a disorienting experience. It was the hottest weekend of a heat-wave year, which did no favors for the ambience inside Paris' windowless white transport vans. I also could rarely discern whose vines we were in. In each new parcel I'd ask, "Are these your vines?" and Paris, shaking his head, would inform me they were those of a neighbor who sold to the cave cooperative, or that they belonged instead to his brother Jérôme, who was absent. Paris, it seemed, led a team he rented out to other growers before harvesting his own parcels. In the end I had to depart before setting foot in Paris' vines.

Over dinner during harvest, and throughout innumerable apéro-hours after, I pestered Paris for a tasting at his cuvage. He kept demurring, citing his workload as then-President of the Beaujolais Interprofession. The fact that he and I continually ran into each other while out drinking proved this to be a rather thin excuse. We grew friendly, even as I withheld forming an opinion on his wines, for simple lack of information on them.

It was only over two years later, touring Paris' new winery in Fleurie this past February, that I finally confirmed where he'd been vinifying, and where Jérome Paris had been all this time. That the details of Paris' unfiltered, low-sulfur cru Beaujolais wines had become mysterious was, of course, entirely inadvertent. In Paris' mind, he's just being a normal Beaujolais débrouillard, an effective operator, keeping his head down till the work is done.

23 March 2017

small stakes: le desnoyez, 75020

A few years ago during the Loire tasting salons I had a brief but memorable conversation with a friend who was then in the initial stages of preparing to open a natural wine bar in New York. I had confessed I wasn't very excited by many new Paris restaurants: everything seemed pokey, limited, a little predictable. He replied that, on the contrary, he adored the Paris restaurant scene, precisely because it was so modest, small-scale, and restrained. "You never eat like that in New York," he said. Everything there was comparatively over-the-top.

It's true that there isn't the same pressure in Paris, as there is in New York or London, to achieve a high check average, massive turnover, or both. In Paris the combination of affordable commercial rents, low cost-of-living (compared to other capitals), and abundant small restaurant spaces allows for a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared in other major cities.

Restaurant Le Desnoyez, opened on a shoestring budget by former food blogger Jean-Marc Sinceux in Belleville in autumn of last year, offers a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared even in Paris. The place seats about fourteen. In another capital, such a Lilliputian restaurant might need to enforce a twelve-course tasting menu. Here in Paris, Sinceux proposes an inexpensive bistrot offering, albeit one enlivened by a slim selection of offbeat natural wines and by his surprisingly painterly way with plating.