17 January 2011

the forces of seitan: soya cantine bio, 75011

I like vegetarians fine. But I tend to avoid vegetarian restaurants,* because their common founding precept - that eating meat is unethical or unhealthy or unnatural - runs counter to my own reverence for preindustrial gastronomic and viticultural traditions. Every great western cuisine has contained meat since time immemorial, and most eastern cuisines as well. So part of me is inclined to believe that the late-20th-century rise in vegetarianism in the west is largely a result of a kind of anthropomorphic thinking that is itself only made possible by the modern industry of meat production, which ensures that consumers are never obliged to actually handle animals, except as pets. We now have the luxury of finding it abhorrent, rather than normal for millennia, to kill things for food.

That is the long version of my argument. The short version is: the wine lists a vegetarian restaurants invariably suck, and the food is usually a cultural mishmash of doctored dishes and pathetic meat substitutes. It's like vegetarian restauranteurs, having pre-identified their not-so-gastronomically-demanding market segment,** feel no need whatsoever to impress anyone else.

Let me now get around to saying that Soya Cantine Bio in the 11ème totally won me over, despite all the above skepticism. It would be a rarity in San Francisco or New York, even; in Paris it is downright astonishing: a vegetarian restaurant with an excellent, well-considered natural wine list.

My friend R and I hadn't actually intended to drink at lunch the other day. I for one was reelingly hungover, and he has a broken wrist.

But I am very susceptible to pleasant surprises, and upon seeing that Soya's list contained a lot of wondrously obscure off-dry Loire whites that were clearly selected to suit the (mostly) Asian-inflected cuisine, I said, "Oh, what the hell." We each had a glass of Renaud Guettier's Vin de Table Chenin Blanc "La Bueilloise," one of the strangest, most compelling wines I've tasted this year.

So strange and small production (3000 bottles) that Guettier himself doesn't even list it on his French website. It appears to be something he mostly exports to Japan. From a pairing standpoint, this makes a great deal of sense to me, even if, for once, Japan's gain is France's loss. It's kind of a weirdo miracle wine. At 17g of residual sugar, in an orangey oxidative state, and very, very lightly sparkling, "La Bueilloise" almost gives the impression Guettier was aiming for a hat-trick of all the qualities contemporary consumers most despise in wine, as if to redeem them all. After a cidery, richly sweet attack, a balancing Jura-like oxidative tang intervenes, followed by an entrancing white floral finale.

It takes a straight-up ballsy restaurant to serve something this cerebral by the glass. Really, hats off to them.

The dining room at Soya is homey and well-appointed without being overdesigned. The crowd seem unhurried and discreet. R and I marveled upon entering at how far removed the place feels from superficially similar fussy "conscious" cafés in the Marais, or on rue des Martyrs. At Soya, in its unlikely location on a street known for cosmetics businesses, you don't really get the impression people are there paying out the ear for the sake of being seen.

Soya's menu follows the more conventional cultural magpie template of vegetarian restaurants. Curry! Lasagne! Udon! All at once! It's scatterbrained, but remains charming, a bit like an M.I.A. mixtape.

An aubergine & mozzarella appetizer R and I shared was pretty and refreshing, oddly but pleasantly garnished with a crispy bit of fried sweet potato.

Plats were filling, satisfying, but on the whole less successful.

The aforementioned lasagne and curry. Note the unfortunate similarity in color palette between the two dishes. My lasagne was fine, just a bit blurry and unfocused, almost as if the recipe were an attempt to disguise, rather than highlight, the seitan which takes the place of meat. But this is the moment when the critic in me kinda just shrugs and says, "Well, what did you expect? It's vegetarian food." I can appreciate that the point of visiting these places is often to eat ethically rather than especially well.***

Therein, of course, lies the beauty of well-made natural wines, and the reason places like Soya shouldn't be as anomalous as they are: at best, to drink naturally is to drink both ethically, and well.

* With the admittedly huge exception of my favorite restaurant on earth, Elf Café in Echo Park, California. But the reasons I love that place are manifold and I won't go into them here. 

** I will probably take heat for this. But it's true. Vegetarians in general do not display anything like the gourmandise or aesthetic discrimination displayed by carnivore connoisseurs. It is because of the ascetic streak embedded in the vegetarian idea. Simply to be a vegetarian is to constantly refrain and refuse; some people are just wired that way. 

*** Sometimes, like after an extended night's drinking and smoking and a half day of unrewarding office work, that's all you want. The lack of flavor has a kind of calming effect. For the same reason I sometimes eat at a juice bar near Oberkampf that serves a pleasant and nondescript vegetable biryani. 

Soya Cantine Bio
20, rue de la Pierre Levée
75011 PARIS
Metro: Oberkampf, Parmentier, or Republique
Tel: 01 48 06 33 02 ‎

Related Links:

Some notes on Pineau d'Aunis, and Renaud Guettier's in particular

A round-up of Paris vegetarian restaurants, in which the very respectable author inexplicably overlooks what is most remarkable about Soya (the wine list!) @ HungryForParis
A profile of Renaud Guettier @ Jenny&François
An outdated profile of Renaud Guettier @ RichardKelley
A typically enthusiastic and uncritical review of Soya @ LeFooding
A blog about being vegan in Paris @ VeganParis
Info - in Japanese - about "La Bueilloise" @ Unison-Wine

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