22 May 2015

n.d.p. in burgundy: julien guillot, sagy-le-haut


Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.

What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"

Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'

18 May 2015

off the map: la poudrière, issy-les-moulineaux


I credit former La Cave de l'Insolite proprietor Michel Moulherat for introducing me to natural wine. His wasn't the closest wine shop to my old apartment on a loud, leery intersection on rue Saint Maur. But it was the closest wine shop staffed by someone who was both well-informed and willing to share his knowledge. I'd often stop by on the way home from work - but never if I were in a hurry, because Moulherat's voluble, Irish-accented conversation and the bevy of bottles he invariably opened could quickly take up much of an evening.

Then a few years ago Moulherat sold La Cave de l'Insolite to some earnest young restaurateurs. He did a spell consulting on wine for fine restaurant wholesalers Terroirs d'Avenir. I don't know what else he did. He kinda fell off the map.

So I was delighted to learn recently that Moulherat is back in front-of-house these days, running the wine program at La Poudrière, a homey new natural wine bistrot and cave-à-manger tucked in a railway arch in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Where the hell is Issy-les-Moulineaux? the overwhelming majority of readers might reasonably ask. It's the southern terminus of the Métro line 12. There's a Museum of Playing Cards there, which I guess makes two reasons to visit, counting La Poudrière.

12 May 2015

side benefits: table à côté, 75012


Paris has streets that hide in plain sight - overlooked byways that, due to poor sun exposition or traffic redundancy, get circumvented by pedestrians. The forever-shaded length of rue de Chateau d'Eau north of République is one. Another is the Aligre-adjacent rue de Prague, the quiet side street where French culinary journalist Bruno Verjus opened his ambitious restaurant Table in 2013. Despite receiving praise from Verjus' fellow journalists, Table still has its namesakes available most nights, partly due to its discreet location.

Similarly, the Paris natural wine scene has certain esteemed personalities that seem to bend the limelight whenever it nears them, and disappear. Natural wine as we know it in Paris - and increasingly, worldwide - was shaped in its adolescence by the palates of low-key dégustateurs with zero flair for self-promotion: people like La Cave de l'Insolite's Michel Moulherat, now at Issy-les-Mouleaux's La Poudrière, or Olivier Camus, whose struggling Belleville restaurant Le Chapeau Melon is an abandoned goldmine of old bottles.

Another such quietly influential personage is Franck Carré, formerly of La Cave des Papilles and Café Trama. Four months ago Carré opened, in partnership with Bruno Verjus, Table à Côté, a cave-à-manger so discreet and uncommercial as to make one suspect wine sales are secondary to some private creative endeavor requiring office space. (Perhaps he is writing a novel?) Table à Côté seats six on rue de Prague's forgotten sidewalk, and a dozen more inside on a leaden communal table. The menu consists of generous portions of highly-pedigreed meats and cheeses. The only real draw is Carré himself, whose long experience is evident in a slender wine selection containing bottles to marvel the most jaded palate. The other night, for instance, he introduced me to the apotheosis of pineau d'aunis.

06 May 2015

n.d.p. in abruzzo: 50 years of emidio pepe


So much has been written about Abruzzese winemaker Emidio Pepe's majestic montepulciani and the ethereal delicacy of his equally ageless trebbiani that I despair of the possibility of saying anything new. The wines are landmarks for the region, towering above everything else like the gnarled Apennine peaks through which one passes on the long car ride from Rome Fiumicino to Torano Nuovo.

Still, it remains for me to thank the Pepe family for inviting me to the latter town last November for the estate's 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rather than exhaust a reader with tasting notes of the dozens of vintages we sampled, I thought I'd just relay my own experiences with the estate's wines, in the hopes that by doing so I'll communicate something about their unique place within the pantheons of Italian wine, Abruzzese wine, and, nowadays, natural wine.

04 May 2015

revolutionaries: bar à vin a.t & restaurant a.t, 75005


On the surface, not much differentiates Pierre Gagnaire-trained chef Atsushi Tanaka's Restaurant A.T. from most staid Left Bank fine-dining. Its presentation is in thrall to Le Guide Michelin, from the boardroom lighting right down to the weighty, over-designed furniture. The format of Tanaka's 95€ tasting menu is in keeping with the exquisite tastes of a previous generation of diners.

But Tanaka has struck out on his own in two quietly revolutionary ways. Firstly, with his "wine-selector" Lulie Kaori Tanaka, he has embraced natural wine wholeheartedly, breaking ground not just for his otherwise arch-conservative restaurant style but also for his neighborhood. (Restaurant A.T.'s semi-anonymous storefront sits quietly in the shadow of La Tour d'Argent.)

More recently, Tanaka has, in one bold stroke, up-ended his concept by hiring explosively amusing sommelier David Benichou (ex-Ten Bells, ex-Vivant Table) to run an incongruously fun natural wine bar in his restaurant's heretofore underused cellar space. One effect has been to re-orient late-night drinking for the 5ème arrondissement, which hasn't had a decent watering hole since Curio Parlour closed a few years ago. But, more importantly, the opening of Bar à Vins A.T. demonstrates the newfound sense of freedom with which its owner and its habitués - a certain circle of influential young Japanese chefs - are changing their adoptive city.

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.