20 April 2015

time is nye: yard, 75011


A friend who edits a fashion magazine once said to me, apropos of my blog, "I love it. But I never have any idea what you're talking about or whether you like a place. Could you just put a rating at the top or something?"

I've never been tempted to do this, because it would imply a hierarchical order to restaurant experiences that simply isn't there. I have however long been tempted to publish a running list of the Paris restaurants to which I find myself returning most often.*

In pride of place on this list, lately, is YARD, Jane Drotter's ever-evolving jewel of a bistrot by Père Lachaise. The cuisine used to be homey and neighborly under chef Fabrice Mellado. Then Australian chef Shaun Kelley arrived in spring of last year and emblazoned the address in the Paris dining firmament by dint of his ultra-contemporary kitchen smarts. Kelly passed like a comet, however, moving on too soon to make much impact, and since last November, YARD's kitchen has been run by young British chef Nye Smith. Belying his youth, and a résumé includes stints at London hotspots Moro and Koya, Smith's cuisine at YARD is neither precocious nor internationalist. Less austere than that of his predecessor, perceptibly more pleasure-oriented, it strikes a balance between sophistication and accessibility that couldn't be better suited to YARD. I think it's this rare synergy, combined with Drotter's expanding natural wine list and peerless hospitality, that makes each visit a uniquely enjoyable experience.

* List duly included after the jump.

07 April 2015

the return of christophe: amarante, 75012


Chef Christophe Philippe's new Bastille-adjacent restaurant Amarante, like the cacklingly under-designed eponymous restaurant he maintained for a decade in the shadow of the Panthéon, is open Sundays and Mondays, the better to cater to his principal clientele, his fellow restaurant folk. On any other restaurant's off-night, he entertains tastemaker regulars like food writer Bruno Verjus, Le Baratin's Raquel Carena and Philippe Pinoteau, and Autour d'Un Verre's Kevin Blackwell. When my friend and editor Meg Zimbeck and I visited last Sunday, we ran smack into our friend Thomas Legrand, formerly of La Muse Vin, now manning the decks at La Crêmerie. Philippe, lumbersome of gait and shy as a shoe, is the unlikely mascot of a certain very discerning milieu.

Why should this milieu particularly admire his cuisine, among all the others on offer in Paris' present-day cornucopia? Well, who but his fellow chefs and restaurateurs, those who endure the pressure to present an impression of novelty with each new restaurant and each day's menu, are as likely to have realised, like Philippe, that the search for novelty in cuisine is futile?

Philippe is among the few chefs courageous enough to live the implications of that realisation. At Amarante he offers the exact same pointedly-unfussy, rigorously-sourced bistrot menu and the same well-priced natural wine list as at his former establishment. Amarante is duly aglow with the same monkish sense of serenity and confidence, albeit with slighter better lighting, and a less hideous font on the windowpane.

01 April 2015

n.d.p. in sardinia: tenute dettori


It's hard not to have strong reactions to the dense, craggy wines of northern Sardinian estate Tenute Dettori. My own feelings are tinged with nostalgia, because Dettori's wines used to fascinate me back when I worked as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. It being California in the mid-2000's, we had a proportion of clients whose palates were accustomed to strong, hot-climate wines, to whom even a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or a Nero d'Avola would scan as middleweight and mild. (The list was all-Italian.) To such fellows - for they were invariably men - I would suggest Dettori's reds. 

The estate's "Tenores," "Tuderi," and "Dettori" cuvées routinely climb into the upper-teens of alcohol content, and they all show a brooding, mouth-conquering complexity that defies any accusations of lightness. Even if my guests proved unprepared for the wines' savoury notes or the various flaw-like zig-zags associated with low-sulfur winemaking, they nonetheless never failed to perceive that something somehow important was occurring on their palates. I rarely had bottles returned, even though the guests had asked for pleasure and I'd served them, instead, a puzzle. 

Puzzled is what I remain about the wines, even in the wake of the delightful press trip to the estate in Sennori that my friend the wine agent Emma Bentley organised for myself and several more notable wine writers this past October. Winemaker Alessandro Dettori is accomplishing so much: preserving the island's ancient viticultural tradition, maintaining his family's meticulous respect for their local terroir, reviving marginal native grape varieties, not to mention, of course, making serious wines that demonstrably improve with age. But with these accomplishments comes a final challenge that remains, for the moment, unanswered: how to make these strange, strong, majestic Romangia reds fit the context of a meal, or, for that matter, contemporary drinking among non-Supermen. 

30 March 2015

somm-run: le siffleur de ballons, 75012


If coverage of some of my favorite Paris addresses is long overdue, it's usually because I inadvertently befriended the staff and / or ownership before I had a chance to write anything. It's hard to write about one's friends. One either gushes aimlessly, or, if one is me, one tosses, underhand, a few critical softballs, and soon loses friends. Often it doesn't seem worth the risk. What, one asks oneself, do I get out of this ?

I'm still trying to figure that out. This blog is approaching its 500th post, which, when you think about it, is a lot of booze. A lot of sacrificed lunchbreaks, a lot of aimless travel, and above all, a lot of unsolicited opinions. As with most commitments in life, I'll probably never stop thinking of ending it all.

But I'll take advantage of the valedictory humour I'm in lately to say something about my friends at Le Siffleur de Ballons, Thierry Bruneau's pitch-perfect neighborhood wine bar on rue de Cîteaux, where I can be found at least once a week. For newsiness, I might add that since autumn the bar has offered splendid aged faux-filets to share, triaged over from Bruneau's other restaurant L'Ebauchoir across the street.

24 March 2015

symbiosis: la cave du daron, 75011


For better or worse, the fate of tiny 11ème arrondissement caviste and wine bar La Cave du Daron seems intimately linked to its famous neighbors across avenue Parmentier. Inaki Aizpitarte's ubiquitously publicized triumvirate of Le Chateaubriand, Le Dauphin, and Le Cave are like the Great Whites Sharks of Goncourt, leaving the impossibly low-key La Cave du Daron to perform a remora-like function, living off the overflow.

I lived three blocks away for four years, and for all that I appreciated owner Jean-Julien Ricard's varied and intelligent wine selection, I could never think of much to say about the place. It's the size of a sardine tin, comprising just eight or so seats. Small snacks of prepared foodstuffs are available. While Ricard organises semi-frequent events with outside chefs, including Maori Murota (ex-La Conserverie, presently making lunches at Le Verre Volé Sur Mer) and Adeline Grattard (of Yam Tcha), La Cave du Daron's miniscule size pretty much restricts their audience to the hardcore fanbase of the visiting chef in question.

Ricard, too, has a loyal fanbase of young professionals who populate the bar during apéro hours. If I'm quite late in joining the party, it's because his wine prices can be a little high. What changed, then, to make me visit the other evening, and finally discover the charm of La Cave du Daron? Well, in the time since I praised the utility and simplicity of apéros at Aizpitarte's Le Cave, that wine shop has stopped serving bottles on premises, leaving La Cave du Daron as the block's only option for fine wine consumption without the attendant obligation of expensive cuisine. Modest and welcoming, Ricard is well-suited to the role he's found, as the Goncourt local's favorite low-key foil to the brouhaha across the street.

19 March 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas el gato, rota


On the surface, there appears to be no reason whatsoever for a wine traveler to visit Rota. It is the runt of the sherry towns, almost entirely overtaken, since 1953, by a vast American Naval base, whose 4000 or so American personal tend to favour beer over the regional wines. Guinness and Corona are as easily obtained as sherry in Rota, and all three drinks vastly outsell the town's helplessly unappealing specialty, a sweet wine in the passito / vincotto vein called Tintilla di Rota.

But Rota is where the Native Companion and I wound up spending a few days last summer. We were visiting our friend B, who works on the Naval Base there, and enjoys the perk of a splendid beachfront apartment. We duly beached it up, frozen margaritas, barbecue, and beer. It was almost as an afterthought that we paid a visit to Bodegas El Gato's unassuming despacho des vinos one afternoon, drawn as much by a sense of anthropological duty as by the psychedelic cat mural on the bar's exterior.

We peered into the retail area, which seemed to be shut, or staffed by small dogs. We noticed that the Bodegas El Gato's Fino hasn't the right to the Jerez appellation; the bodega instead bottles it as a vino de mesa (table wine) and refers to it, on their website, as a "Fino Andaluz." In the adjacent terraced bar, populated unanimously by older Andalusians, we nibbled some surprisingly affecting goat cheese, which we both found more memorable than the bodega's Fino Andaluz. But nothing prepared us for dinner that evening, when our friend B led us to Bodegas El Gato's bar, around the corner from the despacho. In a standing-room-only space, behind a long bar, beneath audible neons, its mugging, churlish chefs grilled up explosive chorizo sandwiches and crackling, curlicued shrimp, plates which, while costing next to nothing, collectively amounted to our favorite restaurant experience in the entire region.

03 March 2015

n.d.p. in the loire: l'ardoise, angers


Given the tumultuous social jockeying that surrounds dinner invitations during the Loire salons, I hadn't expected to get to hang with my friends Kenji and Mai Hodsgon at all this past January. So I was delighted when they proposed dinner at one of their favorite local bistrots, an unassuming place a few blocks from the Grenier Saint-Jean called L'Ardoise.

And I was more than delighted - astonished! - that the restaurant matched the quality of the company that evening.

L'Ardoise turned out to be that rare, semi-mythical destination for the wine traveler, a marvelous small-town natural bistrot that, like Le Chat in Cosne-sur-Loire or Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, displays more sophistication, humour, and ambition than most of its big-city counterparts.

26 February 2015

sleepwalkin': le bougainville, 75002


A time-capsule wine bar and restaurant like Le Bougainville, ensconced on the dowdy side of the Galerie Vivienne, perfectly embodies the simultaneous joys and frustrations of living in present-day Paris.

On the one hand, much of the city's grace lies in the fact that, mere paces from its financial center, places like Le Bougainville persist. The restaurant is gloriously unselfconscious, evincing an insensitivity to décor that borders on senility. A piano hunches unplayed by the entryway; garish fluorescents zig-zag overhead beside the bar; an almost characterless adjacent dining room still resembles whatever unrelated shop storage area it once was. Local suits and lost-looking tourists dine on goose rillettes, oeufs mayo, herring salad, roast pork: low-cost village fare, untutored but uncorrupted. Complementing all this is an incongruously good wine list containing just about the entire sought-after range of cult Jura vigneron Jean-François Ganevat, at mysteriously great prices.

But as happens so often in Paris, the scent of mystery leads us to the trough of incomprehensibility.

17 February 2015

a few beaujolais debuts


Tasting new releases with my favorite Beaujolais producers is often kind of embarrassing. After saying hello and getting the usual optimistic, yet gnomic replies about the character of the vintage, I run out of material. With people like Georges Descombes, Jean Foillard, Jean-Claude Chanudet, Matthieu Lapierre, etc., just about every wine is so reliably, resoundingly delicious that it's hard to think of anything interesting to say about them. More bloody wonderful life-quenching Gamay, eh? Shocker.

I adore the wines of Beaujolais more than almost any others. But finding reasons to write about them is damnably rare. At La Dive Bouteille this year there were at least three: an old-vine Morgon from Descombes' son Kevin, an extremely-limited production Chénas by Karim Vionnet, and the promising Morgons of Anthony Thevenet.

12 February 2015

effortless success: martin, 75011


With Au Passage currently topping many critics most-visited lists (including mine), it's easy to forget that, before James Henry got involved almost by accident, the extended Pères Populaires family of establishments had evinced no ambitions towards fine restaurateurism whatsoever. Commercially-minded American bystanders like myself might expect that, having succeeded at winning a high-value clientele, the Au Passage team would continue to cater to them. 

But as of last December, we have the Au Passage team's perplexing stepchild Martin, an almost confrontationally détendu bar serving small plates in a largely unrefurbished space on windy boulevard du Temple. Named after its genial co-owner Loic Martin, who formerly bartended at Au Passage, Martin the restaurant reminds us that we have fundamentally misunderstood these people. 

I think, in the wake of Pères Populaires' Bones, everyone was expecting the Au Passage team, on their own this time, to launch something similarly savvy, festooned with hip signifiers. Instead, Martin is a discreet, welcoming, and forthrightly egalitarian little all-day bistrot, aimed at inadvertent tastemakers like themselves - those who have certain standards, with regards to food and wine, but who don't need to see them exceeded at every meal. In season when quality-conscious Paris restaurant projects seem ubiquitously to open guns blazing with 65€ five-course tasting menus, Martin is gloriously off-trend, and kind of a godsend. 

09 February 2015

loire salons 2015: la renaissance des appellations, les penitantes, la dive bouteille, demeter france


I found myself with a late afternoon to kill in Angers on the Friday before this years' tasting salons. With the aim of avoiding drinking at all costs, I nursed a café crème on the terrace of a no-name bar beside a parking lot, where I soon ran into Beaujolais vignerons Karim Vionnet and Jean-Claude Lapalu.

They were toting several magnums between them, headed elsewhere. I said I'd see them tomorrow at the tasting, whereupon Vionnet reminded me that they were presenting at La Dive Bouteille, which didn't start until Sunday in Saumur. For the winemakers, evidently, as much as for me and most other attendees I know, the weekend was mainly a social occasion.

I'm guilty of complaining about this dynamic from time to time. The truth is, though, that the pageantry and partying of the Loire salons are signs of a vibrant community, and ought to be encouraged as such, or at very least, gracefully tolerated.  Take, for a counter-example, the Demeter France tasting at Angers' Palais de Congrès, where my friends and I tasted the following morning. Most of the winemakers looked embarrassed to be there, like they hadn't even been introduced to one another. It seemed illustrative of the limitations of merely-biodynamic collective marketing, at a time when even the natural wine off-salons, Vin Anonymes and Les Pénitantes, are metastasizing each year. I missed out on Anonymes this year, in favor of arriving earlier at La Dive Bouteille - a somewhat unnecessary precaution, it turned out, since this years' edition was notably better organised, and seemingly less overrun by local daysippers.  After the jump, some scattered takeaways. Slightly more in-depth posts on a few topics to follow in days to come.

29 January 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas gonzalez byass, jerez


Don't get me wrong: the Native Companion and I certainly appreciated our visit to Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, which occupies a seemingly Vatican-sized complex in the town's southwest. The canopied courtyards and echoing, dust-blackened bodegas of Gonzalez Byass are as awe-inspiring as any cathedral, and together comprise a truly resplendent monument to the region's historical significance.

Like other monuments, visitors can go on tours of Gonzalez Byass. There are even trains that take 300,000 tourists per year around the complex. This is what we wanted to avoid, of course, and we were very relieved when one of the company's sales directors agreed to meet us for a private visit.

Unfortunately, our visit was unrecoverably derailed by an extended, Kafka-esque scenario that arose with one of the bodega's doormen, who, despite repeatedly assuring us otherwise, proved unable or unwilling to communicate the message that we had arrived for our appointment. It was human error (his), but I mention it because it blighted the bodega's otherwise commendable hospitality in a way vaguely illustrative of the quality limitations inherent in such enormous, depersonalising enterprises.

14 January 2015

happy returns: simone restaurant & cave, 75013


Aggrieved chefs and their supporters routinely cite, among the evils of journalism, the neophilic tendency of critics to descend upon a new establishment and review its infancy, without ever returning to see how it matures.

I more or less agree with this gripe. It's the reason why the public face of an overachiever restaurant like Simone Restaurant & Cave in the 13ème remains frozen in September 2013, when it was no more than a welcoming and simplistic natural wine bistrot with a fine terrace. The Paris press duly reported this, but in most cases could think of nothing more to say besides how sympa the place was. (Whether niceness and decency constitute newsworthiness in contemporary Paris is, for now, beside the point.)

But chef Arnaud Soinsot took over from opening chef Mike Stewart in late August of last year, and Restaurant Simone's cuisine now shows significantly more ambition. For a diner such as myself, disinclined towards innovation in cuisine, it's a development that cuts both ways. What is undoubtable though, is the restaurant deserves re-visitation en masse, and higher, more interpretive praise, for how its owners have taken a desolate streetcorner in a neglected arrondissement and built a little beacon of enthusiasm and good taste.

12 January 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: casa bigote, sanlucar


What little information was available indicated Casa Bigote was among the best restaurants in Sanlucar. In our defense, Sanlucar is a coastal town in a relatively impoverished region. One feels there ought to be a splendid seafood place, and it ought to be right on the Bajo de Guia, as Casa Bigote is.

One's expectations begin to decline when, on a balmy night in early June, one traverses the bat-infested ruins dividing that section of the Bajo de Guia from the town proper to discover that the restaurants on the quay are quite deserted. Casa Bigote is almost indistinguishable from its neighbors: a sprawling, two-storied complex housing a bar and a restaurant on opposite sides of an small alley. We dined at the restaurant, which may have been a mistake. Perhaps the bar is best. Why else would such we have heard such praise for a genteel seaside tavern offering acceptable traditional fare in Sanlucar at what seemed like Seville prices?

The most memorable part of the meal - which we tried, without success, to repeat - was an older bottle of Manzanilla "GF" from Bodegas Gaspar Florido, an historic bodega whose wines, from what I understand, have more or less vanished since its sale to Bodegas Pedro Romero in 2007. 

07 January 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: la carbona, jerez


I tend to distrust large restaurants - places where, if you scream, no one would hear a sound. Even at the grandest, most expensive large restaurants, one feels like yet another mouth on the feedlot.

Sometimes my distrust is misplaced. In Paris, the Bourse location of Terroir Parisien operates at an impressively high level, for such an enormous, multifaceted complex. And in Andalusia, the most enjoyable meals I've enjoyed in the region have been at La Carbona, a cavernous family restaurant housed in a former bodega in Jerez.

Incidentally, in five years of writing about restaurants, I can't recall ever having used the term "family restaurant." It evokes Olive Gardens. But the term is inescapable when discussing La Carbona. Its size is a direct reflection of the Andalusian tradition of dining out en masse, with several generations at the table at once. La Carbona is also owned by a family, with chef Javier Munoz' mother Ana running the dining room and the wine list with winning warmth and attentiveness. The menu is as broad and deep as the room, but I never look at it for long. For La Carbona's opulent and unstinting sherry pairing menu, at 5 courses for 32€ with serious wines included, is an unforgettably great deal, one which transcends, in both quality and generosity, the entire overwrought, hucksterish pairing menu genre.

29 December 2014

blast from the present: gare au gorille, 75017


What does it mean for savvy young Parisian restaurateurs to advertise their appreciation for post-war cabaret, as chef Marc Cordonnier and server-sommelier Louis Langevin have done with their new 17ème arrondissement Georges Brassens homage, Gare au Gorille?

My dinner companion was blasé about it. She identified it as part of a wider revivalist fad among Parisians her age, rather like the superficial blues revival incited in the early 2000's by the likes of the White Stripes and the Black Keys.*

Gare au Gorille, the restaurant, not the song refrain, is a bit of a Trojan horse in this respect. Perched in Les Batignolles beside the train tracks spanning northwards from Saint Lazare, Gare au Gorille inhabits a quartier I've long considered to be among Paris' Frenchest and most timewarpy, where foreigners are scarce and their influence barely acknowledged. Yet with Gare au Gorille, its nostalgic name notwithstanding, Cordonnier and Langevin have summoned a blast from the present, replete with all the tasteful grace notes of up-to-date Parisian restaurateurism: versatile menu construction, a kindly-priced wine list speckled with foreign selections, and terrific hospitality.