15 April 2014

return to sender: blue valentine, 75011

At the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles, we had an amusing problem. One of the owners was friends with R.E.M., and accordingly that band featured heavily on the mandated nightly playlist. But the members of R.E.M. came into the restaurant relatively often. Whenever we got wind of their arrival, we had to be absolutely sure to switch to a non-R.E.M. playlist, to avoid the cosmic embarrassment that would ensue if the band walked in while their own songs were playing. In such a circumstance (for it did indeed occur once or twice) the entire restaurant comes off looking like the guy wearing the band's t-shirt to the concert.

So, what if you've named your restaurant after a classic Tom Waits song, and then you play Tom Waits all the time in your restaurant? This is lame before Tom Waits even sets foot in the door.

Luckily for the owners of newish Republique restaurant Blue Valentine, that problem is easily fixed. Unfortunately, it's representative of the restaurant's entire concept, which is almost unsalvageable. Blue Valentine is a clumsy attempt to ride contemporary restaurant trends without understanding any of them. Cocktail service, a magnum-only, mostly natural wine list, rock music, and a market menu helmed by a Japanese chef. Woau! But it's like the owners were told about these elements cohering successfully in other restaurants, and then the owners gamely tried to replicate the blend themselves, without first examining any other restaurants.* The result is a pitifully inauthentic experience, one of the most embarrassing meals I've had in years. I felt like the intended target of seduction by a college freshman.

11 April 2014

worlds collide: les trois 8, 75020

One day I'm going to walk into Le Meurice and stand for an hour on one foot. Then I'll bow and the press will take photos and I'll go down in history, because that is how easy it is, in a restaurant in Paris, to do something no one has ever done before.

Take, for example, the recently revamped Menilmontant hideaway Les Trois 8. It's primary innovation - which, all irony aside, deserves huge applause - is to offer, alongside its focus on excellent craft beers on draft, a modest list of solid natural wines.

So what if covering both these bases in de rigeur for every dive bar from Green Point to Red Hook ? In Paris, worlds are colliding. At Les Trois 8, the gnomish subculture of French micro-brewing is emerging into the light of a versatile night out, and encountering such strange, fantastical creatures as celiacs, women, and wine geeks.

07 April 2014

from the ground up: yard, 75011

A few weeks ago I organised a hilarious and, thankfully, thereafter utterly unrepresentative meal for a visiting friend at Père Lachaise bistrot Yard. I hadn't been to the restaurant, but had heard about it for years and thought why not. Unfortunately for my friend, who idolizes the strenuous "modernist" cuisine of the likes of Inaki Aizpitarte, Yard was between chefs. We later learned that owner Jane Drotter had been in the kitchen that night, winging it.

All at the table agreed that it was like not even eating at a restaurant. It was like dining in the countryside at the house of a French friend's mother who had never been to restaurants. We fled to Clamato for a second dinner to remind ourselves what food with flavor tasted like, and my friends learned never again to trust me for a restaurant recommendation.

As usual, I was just ahead of my time. Not a week later, I learned that Shaun Kelly, ex-chef of Au Passage, and Eleni Sapera, ex-cook at Bones, were taking over kitchen duties at Yard, instantly rendering it a destination. So my friends and I returned on Friday for an entirely different register of meal. It was a testament both to how much Drotter got right with Yard in the first place, and to the transformative power of a certain circle of young foreign chefs in Paris

31 March 2014

managing expectations: les enfants rouges, 75003

Chefs deserve our pity. Critics dissect their every gesture in a search for novelty that is, through no fault of chefs, mostly futile. Dining is just not a novel pursuit: everyone does and has done it since the dawn of time, and any innovation is limited by our physical ability to digest it. What we refer to as innovation is usually clever curation of underacknowledged ingredients or cuisines that were there the whole time.

But not all chefs are clever curators. As a skill, it bears the same relation to cooking as perfumery does to fashion design. Luckily for such chefs, there is another route to celebration and influence. One can simply be incredibly charming.

Some chefs possess both skills, and manage to curate people and culinary styles with ease. But others, like Yves Camdeborde's longtime sous-chef Dai Shinozuka, who last fall took over Marais wine bar space Les Enfants Rouges, seemingly possess neither. These are the ones truly deserving of pity. Les Enfants Rouges under Shinozuka points no new directions in Paris dining, and at first glance manages to underwhelm despite terrific cuisine and serviceable hospitality. But Shinozuka, evidently no fool, has made all criticism moot by opening on Sundays and Mondays, which instantly renders Les Enfants Rouges one of the most useful addresses in Paris, let alone the quality-starved Marais.

27 March 2014

bonne chance: lucien la chance, 75017

A familiar quandary arises when discussing places like charming new 17ème arrondissement wine bar Lucien La Chance. I want to encourage them, because Paris needs more casual, no-reservation places that care about food and wine. But I also want many such places to be better than they presently are.

Preventing improvement is a kind of pervasive municipal campanilismo. (Italian for the local loyalty that extends as far as one's local church steeple or campanile is visible.) Most Paris real estate is tiny, and most Paris businesses are tiny, and if a tiny business is popular with its immediate neighbors, why should the owner care how said business compares to businesses on other side of town, let alone ones in New York or London? The hyperactive Paris-media apparatus to which I contribute doesn't help the situation, and the combined effect is to promote complacency in popular places.

So seems best to call it like it is. Lucien La Chance, which opened last month, is pokey and amateurish, and the scatterbrained natural wine list is laughably imbalanced. Yet I quite like the place and will probably return. What the bar presently lacks in sophistication is more than compensated for by its contemporary, youthful format: like Septime Cave, Touller Outillage, La Buvette, and La Pointe du Grouin before it, Lucien La Chance is a great chill place for an unstructured apéro with an unconfirmed number of flaky friends. Owner Guillaume Blanchot has the right general ideas about wine and product, and an amusing fondness for disco.

24 March 2014

heaven is a place...: café trama, 75006

In the course of an otherwise friendly conversation the other day, a chef-restaurateur I know asked me in exasperation whether Paris contained any establishments I actually like.

I protested that, on the contrary, my tastes are quite easily discerned. I like boring restaurants best. One gets so sick of interesting restaurants.

My favorite meals in recent memory are those that would interest most dedicated gastronomic adventurers the least. The first was Bistro Bellet, Nico Lacaze's spiffing bistrot re-boot on the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. More recently, I fell out of my chair for Café Trama, an impeccably tasteful rue du Cherche Midi restaurant whose reputation as a bourgeois canteen short-sells the enormity of its achievement. With a mild, unshowy menu by chef Bruno Schaeffer, a brilliant wine list by Le Rouge et Le Blanc editor Paul Hayat, and a welcoming, well-appointed dining room run by owner Marion Trama, Café Trama is like a beacon showing the way home to wayward novelty concepts citywide. All it does is positively ace the basics of restaurateurism, something everyone else has seemingly forgotten to do.

19 March 2014

a higher pursuit: chez aline, 75011

Chez Aline,* the thimble-sized lunch spot run out of a converted horse butchery by well-traveled chef Delphine Zampetti, has been open for almost two years now, no doubt providing daily delight to roughly sixty to eighty tasteful people who live or work right nearby.

For the rest of us - for me at least - the address is semi-mythical for how difficult it is to find an occasion to dine there. Chez Aline is open only at lunch, there are just four two-tops outside, and roughly the same number of bar-stools on the interior. So even when one wishes to cross town for lunch Chez Aline, a seat is far from guaranteed. By 3:30pm she has often run out of most of the menu.

To hell with it, though: it's usually worth the trip. Zampetti has created something like a jewelbox diorama of the low-key chef's ideal restaurant: a soulful space to cook for mainly friends and neighbors, with low overhead, zero design, and nights off to permit family life. If a chef were to renounce worldly pursuits and devote herself to a zen regimen of simple healthful toil, this is the restaurant that would result.

17 March 2014

somm needed? : restaurant roca, 75017

The friends I brought to Roca during Fashion Week probably thought I was taking them to Beauvais Airport. The restaurant, a charming if somewhat faceless contemporary effort by Julien Ross, a cousin of the owner of 10ème arrondissement middleweights L'Office and Le Richer, is not situated in the pleasant, blithely unworldly Batignolles segment of the 17eme arrondissement. It's situated in the armpit thereof, just a stones throw from the peripherique.

In any other quartier, Roca would be raking it in. Chef Alexandre Giesbert, formerly of Le Richer, cooks precisely what Parisians wish to eat these days: sweetly accessible variations on menu staples, finessed to a sheen and enlivened with the odd exotic ingredient (seaweed tapenade, kumquat). Prices are extremely reasonable.

But Giesbert's cuisine is hobbled by the restaurant's far-flung location, and an almost punitively boring wine list. I nonetheless quite enjoyed our meal at Roca. Where ordinarily I'd loudly proclaim that the restaurant needs a sommelier, I find myself torn. Because our server that evening at Roca did something no sommelier in Paris has, to my knowledge, ever done: he promptly agreed that my first bottle of Marsannay was corked, and fetched another bottle without debate.

13 March 2014

here's your future: frenchie to go, 75002

In the not-too-distant future, when Paris drops the pretense of being French, Le Fooding will organise several multinational corporations to erect a statue in honor of Frenchie founder Gregory Marchand.

Smaller versions of the same statue made of Claudio Corallo chocolate will be sold in Frenchie To Go, which by then will be a fixture in frequent-flyer lounges throughout the western hemisphere. As now, the original Frenchie To Go location on the rue du Nil will be frequented principally by foreigners for whom the experience of eating a pulled pork sandwich in the City of Light is unforgettably tickling. "Can you believe it?" they'll beam at one another between bites. "We're in Paris!"

The attraction-packed rue du Nil, of course, will be unremarkable by then. For it will have become an urban planning template for much of the city. (Already, some well-intentioned financeers have plans to create another foodie wonderland by Arts et Metiers.) Actual Parisians will have long decamped outside la Peripherique, where a fugitive culture of sitting around consuming nothing in well-preserved cafés will persist. For city real estate - even of the momentary kind, like a seat at a restaurant - will be priced beyond the means of all but visiting princelings. The latter will flock to Paris from all over the world in order to taste, at Frenchie To Go and its many imitators, the absolutely definitive versions of the cuisine they remember from turn-of-the-century food blogs.

10 March 2014

you've goust to be kidding: goust, 75002

A magazine I write for sometimes called Punch recently published two interesting pieces about what it means to be a sommelier. The comment threads beneath these articles quickly devolved to something approaching trench warfare, with lines clearly drawn between those who consider "sommelier" a role, like an emcee, and those who consider the term to be more like a title or accreditation, like "PhD" or "Licensed Beautician."

Personally, I would very much like to have already internalized and recited the industry catechism required for certification by any of the big sommelier accreditation bodies. Then my opposition to them could be taken seriously. As it is, any criticism I might offer would rightly have the ring of sour grapes.

I'll stay mum for that reason. I will however say that for a sommelier to emblazon his restaurant's menus with his name and the epithet "Best Sommelier in the World," as title-winner Enrico Bernardo does at his recently Michelin-annointed restaurant Goust, is a laughable act of hubris, one that inadvertently seems to trivialize the responsibilities of a sommelier. It's like calling a certain chair the Best Chair in the World. Ultimately, it's a place where you sit, not terribly dissimilar to the second or even the third-best chair in the world.  A restaurant is a place where you eat and a sommelier is the fellow who helps you navigate the wine list. To truly require the utmost services of the Best Chair in the World or the Best Sommelier in the World, one would in both cases have to be a very demanding ass.

The rest of us who enter Goust planning merely to eat food and drink wine are unfortunately in for a minor letdown, since for all its rigor the sommelier competition Bernardo won had no section on good taste in restaurateurism.

18 February 2014

pioneers: le tagine, 75011

I started frequenting my friend Marie-Jo Mimoun's adorable Morroccan restaurant Le Tagine about two years ago. Mimoun has a superb little Rhône-focused wine list, featuring, among others, such legends as Domaine Gramenon, Dard et Ribo, and Jean Foillard. Yet on every visit I'm surprised by how little wine is consumed in the place. The haute-Marais clientele, largely white and French (i.e. non-Muslim), seem to stick to beer.

I can only assume it's because Le Tagine doesn't look like a wine place. It looks like a chill spot for some ethnic food with the family on a weeknight. And I get the impression that Paris diners - native and tourist - are more reluctant to purchase serious wine from people who don't look classically French.

Justin E. H. Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at Université Paris Diderot, recently touched on this bias in a terrific NYTimes Opinion piece, where he astutely cited the link between European nativism and "the celebration of terroir and 'Slow Food'." It's a discomfiting alliance based on resistance to globalism and its effects. At worst, as in the case of Friulian winemaker / hatemonger Fulvio Bressan, the resistance is manifested as outright racism. In France, we see certain slippery creeps organising anti-Muslim protests under the guise of "sausage and wine" parties beside mosques. On a far more innocuous level, you have the fact that quality terroir-driven wines in France - let alone natural wines - are consumed almost exclusively in identifiably French restaurants.

In the case of Le Tagine, an overlooked gem of a restaurant that boasts stupendous service and solid soulful Morroccan cuisine alongside its well-priced wine list, it's a crying shame. On the plus side, there's almost always a six-top free when I need one.

11 February 2014

parisian pizza: il brigante, 75018

As a foreigner in Paris of a certain profusely fertile age group, I often wonder what it would be like to raise a child here. These reveries fill me with dread. One day I would wake up surrounded by an ideologically French family. It's cute when French toddlers obediently proffer their cheeks to relative strangers for goodnight kisses before toddling off to bed. It's less cute when French employees explain they took a fourth cigarette break because they needed a little pause.

And it's frankly pathetic that over half the country agrees that François Holland's right to philander with spectacularly clumsiness shouldn't be questioned by journalists. The President's recent press conference reminded me of the climactic scene from the Wizard of Oz: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." (To which the obvious response is, if you want us to do that, you should begin by keeping it behind the curtain.)

But sometimes I wonder if I'm becoming indoctrinated, too. I already demand room-temp cheese and fresh bread wherever I go, which means I can't live anywhere else in the world. And a real red flag went up the other day, when at the devilishly charming Montmartre restaurant Il Brigante I genuinely enjoyed a locally popular foodstuff I've heretofore foresworn entirely: Parisian pizza.

07 February 2014

loire salons 2014: la dive bouteille, les penitantes, la renaissance des appellations, les vins anonymes

If ever you wish to experience an almost out-of-body sense of superfluousness, visit the January Loire salons and tell the natural winemakers you meet that you are a journalist. Of hundreds of winemakers present, only a vanishingly small percentage are subject to the conditions that would warrant paying you any attention whatsoever, i.e. they use the Internet, have wine to sell, and are aware of the commercial value of positive press. I've illustrated the scarcity of this demographic in a handy bubble graphic after the jump.

I never take it personally. Since at present I have the luxury (or misfortune, depending on when you ask me) of not buying and selling wine for a living, I kind of just moon around the various tastings and do my best to make the sort of fleeting interpersonal connections that become useful at later dates, such as when I'm trying to secure interviews, or volunteer for harvest work, or plan bike trips around tasting appointments. "I'm the guy who stared at you and waved from across the restaurant in Angers! Who said hello with from behind the restaurateur accompanying your Canadian importer!" etc. (These are fictitious examples, but not far from reality.)

I leave it to readers to judge whether this constitutes a useful perspective on the Loire salons. This year I accompanied my friend J to La Renaissance des Appellations, Salon Les Penitantes, Les Vins Anonymes, and La Dive Bouteille. What follows are some scattered takeaways.

04 February 2014

beyond izakaya: restaurant 6036, 75011

Last fall I helped my friends from 11ème arrondissement German bar Udo put together a small wine list for their new project, a gallery space and Japanese small-plates restaurant called Düo that opened in October.

If I haven't yet written about Düo, it's because I want to give the team there time to work out the service kinks before I start cheerleading about the place. I figured the concept was original enough - inexpensive Japanese small plates and solid natural wines - that buzz would build of its own accord.

I realised I may have waited too long when the other day, just a few blocks away from Düo, my friend E and I stumbled upon the newly-opened 6036, a SIM-card-sized restaurant serving - what else? - inexpensive Japanese small plates and solid natural wines. I guess it's a full-blown trend already. 6036 bills itself as izakaya, or Japanese bar food, but this is a ruse: it's actually a modest and sincere gastronomic experience, helmed by chef Haruka Casters, formerly sous-chef at 10ème arrondissement tasting-menu destination Abri.

29 January 2014

why we dine out: come a casa, 75011

I still read Pitchfork. But since it now takes less time to download albums than it does to parse reviews, I usually just peek at the point score and make the call myself. I find it's a good way to avoid the publication's increasingly boosterish take on certain handpicked darling bands, a trend that began with Deerhunter and has reached self-parodical peaks with coverage of Savages and Perfect Pussy.*

This past December, Pitchfork cited Perfect Pussy's slight 4-song demo as among the Honorable Mentions for Albums of the Year. When I played it for my friend C, a young gallerist from New Zealand, she wrinkled her nose. "Yeah Bikini Kill blah blah blah, we've heard this before." We agreed that Pitchfork was having an NME moment, a paroxysm of hyperbolic hype about something totally unproven, deriving from the writerly impulse to say things messianically.

Editors are supposed to throw cold water on that sort of thing. The task is arguably more important in food and wine journalism, since readers can't (yet) choose to simply download a meal. It always costs money and time. Quite a few Paris food writers recently had their own NME moments over a shoe-sized Tuscan restaurant by Voltaire called Come a Casa. I duly dined there and came away slightly disappointed - not by the meal, which was basically as advertised, but by Paris food writing.

27 January 2014

feed the captives: freddie's deli, 75011

One of my pet causes is holding writers accountable for use of the words 'hipster' and 'bobo.' Both words are blanket terms that absolve a writer from the responsibility of considering individual subcultures, or whatever it is that unites them at a given address. 'Bobo,' the portmanteau of 'bourgeois' and 'bohemian' that has attained an alarming currency in modern French usage, is all the more egregious for having been coined by NYTimes columnist and malign pseudo-sociological waffler David Brooks.

I mean this as preamble to a discussion of Freddie's Deli, the sandwich joint (not deli) opened last summer on a ripely disused Oberkampf side street by Kristin Frederick, the inspired marketeer behind Paris' first burger truck, Le Camion Qui Fume.

I could blame Paris' "hipsters" and "bobos" for the quasi-ironic glorification of street food that pervades culinary discussion and rewards concepts like Freddie's and Le Camion Qui Fume, which by objective standards produce pretty mediocre product. But what I'd really mean is "young people and Americans and Australians and Brits," and what these demographics share is a dearth of culinary heritage. So rather than dwelling on Frederick's slapdash appropriation of regional US sandwich themes, it seems more worthwhile to note that our attraction to them identifies us as captive victims of agro-industrialism. Sentimentality for cheesesteaks and burgers - recipe-memes that thrive under mass production systems - is our collective Stockholm Syndrome.