27 August 2014
When the Native Companion and I first visited Champagne winemaker Emmanuel Lassaigne in Aug. 2012, the maestro of Montgueux had tantalised us with the impressive shaggy-dog story of his forthcoming "Clos Sainte Sophie" cuvée. Lassaigne, who by his own admission makes at least one one-off cuvée per year, is no stranger to experimentation. But the "Clos Sainte Sophie" seemed a kind of perfect storm of narrative-sell.
The Clos Sainte Sophie is the only one of the Champagne region's 13 clos situated in the Aube. It's owned by the family behind French undergarment brand Le Petit Bateau. Cuttings from the vineyard were used to plant the first wine grapes in Japan in 1877. Lassaigne reached an agreement with the elderly owner to purchase the grapes starting in 2010. Lassaigne's plan for them? To age the wine in barrels previously used for Cognac, Mâcon-Solutré, and Vin Jaune, the latter sourced from Jura heavyweight Jean-François Ganevat.
I remember finding this strange, since the whole purpose of the venture - to showcase the Clos Sainte Sophie - would arguably be obscured by the exotic barrel-aging. But during a visit to his cellars with my friend Nick Gorevic of Jenny & François Imports last week, Lassaigne offered some clarification: he'd blended the various wines from the respective barrel types, thereby removing some of a taster's more trivial guesswork. Then he clarified again: actually, he'd kept the Vin Jaune barrels apart, since the wine aged therein had, oddly, not seemed to evolve much. Most illuminatingly, however, he went ahead and opened a bottle of the 2010 for us.
20 August 2014
A chef friend whose opinions I value highly once raised a sceptical eyebrow when I praised La Retrobottega proprietor Pietro Russano's cooking. At the time Russano, a former sommelier at the late restaurant Rino, had just opened his low-key 11ème Italian cave-à-manger and, as is often still the case today, he was manically performing all roles: sommelier, server, host, and cook. My chef friend argued his cuisine was too untutored.
I had no rebuttal, because it's true Russano is mostly self-taught. If the dishes I've received since at La Retrobottega rarely reach the heights of the magnificent pickled squash salad Russano served on my first visit, they're nonetheless reliably soulful, curious preparations: roast aubergine atop couscous, or burrata served with mango, white mushroom and chive. Russano is an improvisation artist, if not in the high-jazz register of the greatest chefs, then in the blustery, street-level manner of a freestyle MC.
This is the best lens through which to understand his new project, a junkyardy wine shop and épicerie on rue de la Roquette that he has rather pungently entitled Squatt Wine Shop. (Two t's intentional.) Russano explains the name is a reference to squatter culture in places like Berlin. I'm unable to resist observing that 'squat' is also what dogs do in the street in places like Paris, or that it's what one finds in one's bank account after too many wine expenditures... No, the word has no good connotations in English. Perhaps Russano's wine shop will be the first, for Squatt is overstuffed with unusual French and Italian selections, not to mention sincere personality, making it the antithesis of Paris' ubiquitous Nicolas chain, one location of which is, amusingly, located directly next door.
18 August 2014
In trying to descry the origins of the hazy aura known as restaurant hype, we often overlook its simplest element, which is thrift.
Patronising restaurants is not a thrifty habit in the first place, which is all the more reason for diners to flock to restaurants that are good value for money. Surprisingly few Paris business owners seem to understand this dynamic - that increased turnover, despite the hassle, is sounder business footing than high prices. The result is a surfeit of demand at good-value establishments, or, in a word, hype. But what becomes of the capable restaurants that are just not quite good enough a deal ?
One such haunt is La Boulangerie, a Ménilmontant bistrot I seem to have avoided for the past five years on account of its hypelessness and its faceless, rather confusing name. Imagine my surprise to discover, when I finally ducked in for an impromptu dinner with a visiting friend, that it's in fact a mature, quality-oriented establishment that seems to exist just slightly out of its era. It's pricing is pre-Euro crisis, let's say, and its plating is mid-Chirac. The pleasant hospitality, broad wine list, and the staggering armagnac selection, on the other hand, are all timeless.
08 August 2014
I recently lauded fledgling 11ème wine bar Aux Deux Cygnes for bringing a bit of professionalism and style to its gentrification-frontier quartier. If that establishment's location is central to its charm, the same dynamic applies to another new Paris wine bar, the 9-month-old Monsieur Henri, which manages to be impressively discreet despite being tucked right off the haute-Marais beard-groomer thru-way of rue de Bretagne.
The Marais, of course, is stuffed with twee concepts long on design and short on experience. Monsieur Henri, for better and for worse, has these proportions precisely inversed.
Co-owner Dzine Breyet is a fixture in Paris' natural wine scene, having previously worked alonside Guillaume Dupré at influential passage des Panoramas wine bar Coinstot Vino. But where that bar benefits from the evocative décor of Paris' oldest public passage, Monsieur Henri rather unfortunately resembles a corridor in a small-town sports center. Harsh lighting, a low ceiling, and ill-advised primary-coloured wine storage cages all ensure that no one drinking at Monsieur Henri has come for the glamour. In the Marais, this seems to improve the clientele.
30 July 2014
My friend M is a Vietnamese chef in New York. A year ago I was encouraging him to open a restaurant in Paris. Just think, I beamed. Natural wine and Vietnamese food ! It's never been done ! Moreover, such a restaurant would perform the conceptual two-step necessary in contemporary Paris to appeal both to Parisians, who hunger for novel, non-Parisian things, and visitors, for whom all things Parisian are novel. For an unintended consequence of France's imperialist adventures in Asia is that, a century and a half later, it seems plausible that Paris would contain excellent Vietnamese food.
Aux Deux Cygnes, a well-appointed dollhouse of a wine bar on rue Keller opened three months ago by polyvalent young French-Vietnamese restaurant professional To Xuan Cuny, is not a destination for excellent Vietnamese food. Instead it's a very personal effort, a synthesis of Cuny's influences, to which world-historical forces are mostly incidental. Even the bar's elegant name is simply a play on words, a French translation of the common Danish mispronunciation of Cuny's first name. ('Two swans.') The Vietnamese angle largely stops with the bar's somewhat bread-driven bánh mì. So there's still room for my old friend M in Paris.
If Aux Deux Cygnes, with its tiny snack menu and appreciably offbeat, southern-focused wine list, nonetheless feels rather new, it's because Cuny herself represents an inroad of Michelin-trained hospitality experience to the historically scruffier field of natural wine in Paris.
23 July 2014
I thought it would be bigger news when late last year Inaki Aizpitarte opened a shoebox-sized wine shop between Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin. Instead, outside of a few blurbs in the French press, it was basically a non-event. Curiously, and rather appealingly, this seems to have been intentional.
You have the shop's almost Google-proof name, Le Cave, a French pun* that doesn't scan in English. You have the shop's quixotic concept, which is to offer exclusively non-French natural wines. You have the fact that food is sold to-go, but no food is available for consumption on premises - not a cheese rind, not the barest sliver of charcuterie. Yet a rotating cast of the shop's exotic, borderline faddish wines are available by the glass.
What does Le Cave offer that could possibly make it a destination ? Nothing. And I imagine this suits the Chateaubriand group fine, since their two adjacent restaurants already have enough overflow to require the services of a waiting room, which is Le Cave's primary function. Happily, staffing what could easily have been a lean mean man cave is a razor-sharp lady called Beatrice, who, seemingly alone in the restaurant group, has serious hospitality skills. And so Le Cave becomes, despite itself, a low-key weeknight destination, one which I prefer to both restaurants.
21 July 2014
I was sitting at Le Bist'Roch in Nuits the other afternoon with my friend R when he brought my attention to a photo of a nude man posted above the bar. "Hey," I said. "That looks a lot like Devendra Banhart posing nude with a three-litre bottle of red wine."
Le Bist'Roch is not the sort of place where one expects to see nude photos of freak-folk singers. It's a hardscrabble natural wine joint attached to legendary natural Burgundy domaine Prieuré Roch. The other table that afternoon was a group of fearsomely wasted rural bachelor partiers who had been drinking since the previous evening. (We'd seen them earlier that morning in Beaune. The groom-to-be was dressed as a gigantic penis.)
Indeed, the picture turned out not to be Devendra Banhart. It was simply a harvester at Domaine Marcel Lapierre who had participated in the photography project of a fellow harvester, a calendar of various harvesters posing nude with grapes and wine paraphernalia. "It's more fun when it's a month with a girl posing," explained Totor, the Bist'Roch's manager, handing us the calendar.
18 July 2014
Despite my enthusiasm for the Yonne town of Vézelay, I had, until a few weeks ago, still yet to pay a visit to La Soeur Cadette and Jean Montanet, the area's lone excellent winemaker. He just never seemed to be home when I was in town. After two stays in Saint-Père on separate bikes trip last summer, it had become a source of mild embarrassment.
A recent visit from my parents gave me the occasion to rectify the situation. The Native Companion and I organised a family trip and the first order of business, before even booking our regular chambre d'hôte, was to see if Jean Montanet was around. For as much as I adore Vézelay's basilica and nearby natural wine bistrot Le Bougaineville with its heavenly cheese cart, it's still the luminescent Chardonnays, violetty Pinot Noirs, and mineral Melon of La Soeur Cadette that put the town on the map.
10 July 2014
Bad restaurants, like the proverbial Tolstoyan unhappy family, may be awful in an infinity of ways. We dislike them accordingly. But how we truly hate restaurants is largely divisible into two categories. There is personal emnity: because the ownership or a key staff member has done you grievously wrong. Then there is impersonal emnity: because you sense that the establishment targets a clientele whose tastes you question, whose influence, you suspect, is ultimately deleterious to a culture you value.
My friend and colleague Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth hated Restaurant Lazare in the latter way, which is probably the only way to hate an overpriced 110-seat fortress of a bistrot installed in a wall of Gare Saint Lazare. Pioneering bistronomy chef Eric Frechon is surely not there himself, peeling onions. The staff are replaceable hotelier school grads, so predictable you can't even resent their inattentiveness. What I think Meg resented, rather, was the restaurant's perceived culture of wealth-fluffing and preferential treatment, of stout bankers gorging themselves on guinea hens before boarding first-class cars and careening off to houses in Honfleur for the weekend.
As a fellow writer, with no quantifiable skills and no discernable route to fortune in my future, I hate these (possibly imaginary) people too. And I recognise that Lazare exists for them, while the plebs wait in hundred meter lines for Burger King on another floor of the station. That Lazare thrives is in itself a Pikettian sign of increasing income stratification. So it's with a kind of melancholy that I admit I don't hate Lazare; that I find the place quite useful; that it constitutes a perk of city life I wish I could enjoy more often.
08 July 2014
I'm a bit late in discussing the tsunami of twee Japanese concepts that arrived on my doorstep in the 9ème over the course of last year.
I like Japanese cuisine as much as anyone - indeed, I assume I'm genetically inclined towards it - and Ito Izakaya, Peco Peco, and Tsubame all make a point of serving natural and organic wines, which, until recently, have functioned as a useful indicator of conscious restaurateurism in Paris and beyond.
But these restaurant openings mark the discomfiting moment that a natural-by-numbers wine list became a feature of contemporary Parisian décor, like Tsubame's blackboard, or the hideous scratchy DIY cardboard table in Ito's rear room. Within the context of a Japanese restaurant in Paris, a natural-by-numbers wine list is, perversely, a sign of inauthenticity, an indicator that one is sitting in a Parisian Japanese concept, rather than an unselfconscious Japanese restaurant. Whether there is really anything wrong with that will depend on the rigor of one's aesthetic demands, and whether it is lunchtime.
23 June 2014
I used to complain often about a dearth of actual wine bars in Paris. I defined them as places where quality wine could be enjoyed standing up, without the obligation to book in advance or consume a multi-course meal. But nowadays my old screeds ring a bit shrill, since such places are no longer so rare in the city. In certain quartiers, they exist in densities sufficient to fill a guided tour.
Ironically, with certain exceptions, I still find myself frequenting the ones that have been there all along. This has less to do with the quality of wine on offer than with the character of the company. I learn more from older sommeliers and restaurateurs than I do from their younger, more stylish peers.
One such example is Ma Cave Fleury, the unfailingly festive caviste and wine bar on rue Saint Denis, founded in 2009 by Morgane Fleury, global ambassador of biodynamic Champagne producers Champagne Fleury. The bar contains nothing more to eat than rudimentary charcuterie and cheese plates. And I can admit to liking the Fleury Champagnes, in most cases, for reasons more political than aesthetic. Ma Cave Fleury nonetheless remains very relevant for its central location and for the central role its proprietor plays in the city's natural wine scene. Morgane Fleury is like its fairy godmother, her unpretentiousness and warmth constituting an antidote to the conservative froideur that typifies the public faces of most Champagne houses.
16 June 2014
The Native Companion had been hinting that she'd like to visit Brittany for several years. But since no wine is produced there, it never struck me as a high priority. Brittany is like Ireland with worse beer, worse whiskey, and crêpes. Even the best ciders and apple brandies, I'd long thought, were produced further east in Normandy.
What finally tempted me out to Brittany with the NC was the prospect of a visit with Louis and Joanna Cecillon, of Domaine Joanna Cecillon in Sevignac. My friend Josh Adler of Paris Wine Company had introduced me to their ciders, which he'd in turn discovered via Louis' vigneron brother, who makes very savvy Saint Joseph on the other side of France.
Upon tasting the ciders, I quickly understood why Josh was keen to make the five hour trek to nowheresville Sevignac. The Domaine Joanna Cecillon ciders are truly majestic, wine-like in their depth and perceptibly Bretonne maritime in their acid profile. They are, in my experience, pretty much without equal, a benchmark of quality both for the region and the entire cider genre.
06 June 2014
Cosne-sur-Loire is not the most exciting place on earth. It's where life goes on surrounding Sancerre tourism. But it's also where many visiting wine guys stay. So I thought for sake of completion, after my laudatory post on Cosne's lone terrific restaurant, it would worth mentoning also Le Square, which is Cosne's most accessible and convenient restaurant.
No, the wine's no good, and service veers from welcoming to furious according the whims of whoever's working. But there's a lovely terrace on, yes, a square, and as long as you bring enough mosquito repellent it's a lovely place for dinner in Cosne on a Sunday night, when, as far as dining options go, the alternative is noodling for catfish in the nearby river.
03 June 2014
A brief moment of on-stage banter at last Monday's Hamilton Leithauser show at La Boule Noire saw the former Walkmen singer - arguably the most compelling rock vocalist of his generation - complaining about food prices in Montmartre.
"Since when did Montmartre get so expensive?" he asked, before deadpanning, "That's what we talk about in this band."
In the audience my friends and I exchanged shrugs. Where had he gone to eat?* From my perspective, it's never been easier to get an inexpensive quality-conscious meal in Montmartre. The quiet side of the hill boasts excellent pizza at Il Brigante, while the upper slopes of rue des Martyrs are home to Miroir, a totally solid natural wine bistrot. An incongruously good natural wine magnum list is just south of there at the otherwise dire Hotel Amour. And right down the road from La Boule Noire is Le Petit Trianon, which as far as concert-venue cuisine goes, is bested only by Basque chef Christian Etchebest's La Cantine de la Cigale, which is even closer, and even better value for money. It was, oddly, deserted after Leithauser's performance, which either indicates that his fans have no taste, or that I have entirely forgotten what it's like to be a young concertgoer more in love with music than eating well.
28 May 2014
For a certain class of Parisian, familiarity with the marché aux puces is a basic mark of distinction. It doesn't matter if very few of us do any actual shopping in the stratospherically-priced high design markets north of the city. Les puces constitute the city's most accessible museum and, at once, its most cosmopolitan feature, for the knowledge that Paris entices the world's most discerning interior decorators to spend lavish sums in the center of a chaotic slum is something anyone can enjoy.
Who are these titans of the earth, we wonder, dropping tens of thousands on Finn Juhl chairs and Adnet lamps? Do they or their decorators mind dealing with the strange unhurried merchants who drip bad red wine and cut sausages on the merchandise during transactions? There is even poetry in this: to purchase a luxury item at the flea markets, a client must descend, momentarily, to the world of crowded guingettes and couscous.
But since fall 2012, the world's high-design tastemakers - along with us window-lickers - have had an alternative. Towering at the entrance to the Marché Paul Bert - Serpette, it is a Philippe Starck-designed megalo-bistrot called Ma Cocotte, run by Philippe and Fabienne Amzalak, proprietors of 16ème arrondissement restaurant Bon. Ma Cocotte is positively thronged on weekends, and its success with the flea market clientele reveals something about the separation of aesthetic spheres. Overpriced, anarchic, and irredeemably tacky, it would be Paris' worst restaurant, except that it is not, technically, in Paris.
26 May 2014
The most expensive fallacy of wine travel, to which I habitually succumb, is to assume that, to experience the full breadth of a given region's cuisine, one must dine at least once at a formal restaurant. This is how I convinced myself and my travel companions to dine at Restaurant La Tour, a Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by chef Baptiste Fournier, whose parents owned the restaurant before him.
Fournier previously trained with Guy Savoy and Alain Passard, among others, and in this case the chef's estimable pedigree illustrates why I ought to avoid restaurants like La Tour. High-value chefs tend to produce high-value cuisine, more representative of individual ambitions than of regional tradition. (The phenomenon is even more pronounced at lunch, when chefs don kid gloves.)
In the same way that you can get a Burberry scarf or Gucci luggage in almost any duty-free from Madrid to Dubai, you can enjoy the white-tablecloth cuisine of Restaurant La Tour in almost any upscale rural French restaurant from Puligny to Chablis. Luxury has an anonymising effect. At Restaurant La Tour, this is counterbalanced by an impressive, if not exactly bargain-studded regional wine list that cites the local wines according to village.