27 December 2010

cool house: le dauphin, 75011

Le Chateaubriand chef Iñaki Aizpitarte opened a wine bar next to his famed 11ème restaurant earlier this month. I'll say straight away that, so far, I really dig the place. To arrive at that conclusion, however, took several visits and a measure of puzzled reflection, time that I spent working out whether Le Dauphin's charms were indeed genuine, or whether I found them charming only because in Paris until now I've been totally starved for a wine bar that shows even a wink of ambition.*

It is mildly regrettable that said ambition is at present more perceptible in the divisive, lurchingly overdone Rem Koolhaas & Clement Blanchet interior (all swooping mirrors and confrontational white marble, even the ceilings) than in the wine list, which is sort of a Natural Wine for Dummies primer of present-day classics - Foillard, Villemade, Descombes, Rateau, etc.

This is kind of a stickler's complaint - these winemakers are all legendary for a reason, of course. I just wish a little more love and attention were evident in the list. There are some wine lists where a wine director's love for his subject just bursts from the page, whether via wordy discursions on marginal regions and minor varietals** or simply through the careful juxtaposition of underdog wines with more established classics. Le Dauphin's falls into neither category; it just feels like it was the last thing that was done by someone in a great hurry after all other preparations for the opening of this wine bar were sorted out.

That being said, it's a perfectly fine wine list, and in its current state there are simply no disappointing glass pours. That's an achievement in itself. The bottles are a wee-bit overpriced, but this is one of the rare instances where prices are justified by the overall service and presentation. The design, as I mentioned, is too much, but it is, at least, design; there is an intentionality about the place that is seemingly absent in much of the rest of the natural wine world, where the principles of non-intervention that work so well in winemaking are too often applied to restaurant décor and service, with frustrating results. Le Dauphin, refreshingly, wants to excel.

The menu is the work of a real overachiever. To succeed, wine bars of this sort need only offer standard cheese and meat plates and the odd sausage dish; whereas the other night when I dropped by with my friend F, we shared a plate of pousse-pieds, or goose barnacles, which are an obscure Spanish / Portugese shellfish delicacy, and which look eerily like a plate of little dinosaur limbs.

The texture of the exterior of the tubal portion is precisely that of reptile skin, and moreover when you squeeze the things to pry off their inedible parts you often inadvertently send a squirt of brine and / or broth off into the eyes of you, your tablemate, or a stranger. In this sense they are possibly the worst date food in history! And a great deal of tasty saline fun. It takes balls and a sense of humor to place them on a menu in an otherwise reasonably romantic environment; therefore I salute this.

The rest of the frequently-updated menu - which included velouté des racines and a beautiful crudo-bright aiguillette de boeuf with herring and endive - is similarly engaging, although in its restlessness and far-reaching gourmandise it risks appearing kind of scatterbrained. I look forward to the inevitable winnowing process.

It's too early to say, also, whether the shadeless glassy storefront will mean everyone inside bakes like a soufflé during the summer months. It's a testament to the strength of Le Dauphin's original concept that I'll probably be around to find out firsthand.

*As much as I adore Spring Buvette, it doesn't really count, since it bears about as much resemblance to a bar as an Edo-period tea ceremony. Just way too formal. Until they tweak the concept it will remain a place for discreet prearranged liaisons, not somewhere to try and drum them up in the first place. 

**N.B., however: I hate this method. It is for wine directors who enjoy peacocking their knowledge to the general audience who get dazzled by that sort of thing. Or, bored by it. In either case it is not exactly a substantive dialogue. So much nicer to do the "show, don't tell" thing, as in short fiction, and to save the gaudy description for table-side interaction. 

Le Dauphin
131, avenue Parmentier
75011 PARIS
Metro: Goncourt
Tel: 01 48 06 58 41

Related Links:

Adorable pipsqueak wines at Gustave et Jules, 75011
Digging the glass pours at Spring Buvette, 75001
Domaine Huet's Brut Reserve 2002 at Spring Buvette, 75001
Small plates at La Cave de L'Insolite, 75011

A hilariously condescending early notice on Le Dauphin @ AdrianMoore, wherein the author actually uses the phrase "for those not in the know."
An early review of Le Dauphin @ MegZimbeck
Breathless adoration of Le Dauphin @ LeFooding

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