27 May 2011

pants: le pantruche, 75009

A defining feature of the blog era is that it permits anyone, just anyone, to publish criticism on a given subject, regardless of his or her expertise in, or even familiarity with, said subject. I myself benefit from this phenomenon as much as the next guy: I'll pronounce opinions on wine regions I've never visited, for instance, or I'll rely solely on web research for the history of a particular wine bar. These are habits that are rightly discouraged in conventional journalism.

One arguable advantage of this new blog order is the addition of fresh voices, fresh perspectives into niche fields that were historically the province of established professionals. Published criticism of any sort has gotten a great deal less Mandarin. Reader and writer, once divided by the greater access and broader perspective of the latter, have grown closer than ever.

The downside is that many of these fresh outsider voices are just totally uninformed. And perceptibly outside the industries they cover. I'm not saying it's impossible to know a subject well without ever having worked with it professionally. It is less likely, though.* One is liable to get snowed. For instance, I suspect it was mostly just critical naivete, combined with a certain hunger for newness typical of the hyperactive blog media environment, that yielded a flush of great press earlier this year for 9ème modern bistro Le Pantruche.

It's a restaurant that might succeed in charming you if, by gosh, you just like fancy food, and to hell with details, such as wine, knowledgeable service, inspired restaurateurism, etc.

Cailles always look like little casualties. This one went down on a turf of mild lentils. 

Actually, I sort of envy people who fit the above description. People who don't take things too seriously. I have the unfortunate foible of reading a lot into details - such that it was plain to me, even as I awaited our table at the bar with my sister, her boyfriend, and the Native Companion, that I was not in an especially savvy establishment. Behind the bar was a capsule-fed espresso machine. The brief wine list was heavy on consumer-friendly Bordeaux and Rhône selections, light on natural wine names.

At this point the objection could reasonably be raised: is it necessary for a restaurant to have an engaging wine list, in order for it to be a great restaurant? Not necessarily. There are a hundred pokey honest bistros across Paris where I'd plunk for outdated rosé or light beer for the sake of the food and the vibe. It's a question of presentation, however. Le Pantruche evinces aspiration, from the relatively crisp service to the careful plating to the pricing of the menu, which is just a precise notch above what would constitute a noteworthy deal.

A rule of thumb could be: if you have put eel in your celery soup, your restaurant needs to demonstrate some wine sophistication. Otherwise it's like the bar service at intermission during a ballet: always a little disappointing, not quite up to the standards of the show, or even the audience.

Other entrées weren't as successful, in particular a plate of weakly sauced white asparagus that had been cut in two and laid crosswise, Jenga-style, in an insensible violation of their natural form.

On the whole, the cuisine at Le Pantruche was perfectly satisfying, but somehow stunted, as if the chef were trying to economize on menu costs by using humble ingredients like celery, lentils, and eggs. (I have no idea of knowing whether this was actually the case. I understand that Le Pantruche's chef / co-owner Franck Baranger previously worked with chef Christian Constant at Violin d'Ingres, and later at Les Cocottes, two reputable places I've never visited.) Crucially, the menu just wasn't persuasive enough to make me overlook the dull wine list. Both were a bit conservative and suffered from a distinct lack of couilles.

An acceptable Black Angus onglet. 

Nevertheless, it was my sister and her boyfriend's last night in Paris that evening, so the latter and I figured we might as well splash out for something interesting. We tried to order a 2008 Marsannay "Clos du Roy" be Domaine Jean Fournier, a historied 16ha Marsannay / Gevrey-Chambertin estate that from what I understand has seen more or less non-interventionist viticulture since the arrival of present winemaker Laurent Fournier in 2003. But the server arrived in due course with a bottle of same producer's basic Bourgogne Pinot Noir from 2009, already open.

He was pouring it when I pointed this out to him - that he'd brought the wrong bottle. No no, he said, we'd ordered the Marsannay. At which point I was obliged to explain that what we'd ordered was a cru AOC Marsannay from a domaine based in the town of Marsannay-la-Côte, which latter fact explained why the domaine's basic Bourgogne Pinot Noir also contained the word 'Marsannay' on the bottle, very small on the bottom. Basic things like this are why one hires or ought to hire a wine director, generally. So your servers don't accidentally bring the guests cheaper bottles of wine.

We said what the hell, we'd roll with it. After a week of ambitious dining we were all feeling a little light-headed and light-of-pocket, anyway. The "Clos du Roy" will remain a mystery, as in the end we only went through one bottle between four of us*, but the 2009 Bourgogne Pinot Noir was crisp, curranty, and satisfying, if nothing profound. For a run-of-the-mill weeknight tipple, it was fine. But - and here's the crux of the issue - I'm just not likely to choose a place as obsequious as Le Pantruche for a random weeknight dinner.

Dessert was an event, anyway. In one of those circumstantial but still mildly embarassing menfolk / womenfolk divides, the NC and my sister each chose the soufflé, while J4 and I took cheese plates, which we asked to have brought before the desserts, so the four of us could share everything. The soufflés duly arrived on top of the cheese plates - but I get how it is with soufflés, they possess an urgency unmatched among desserts. If the house were burning down but the soufflé needed to be eaten before it fell, I would go down with the house.

And if it were these soufflés on this particular night at Le Pantruche, it would have been worth it. Sensuous never-ending pillowfluff loveliness - what the headrests in heaven are made of. (They were good enough to forgive the use of Grand Marnier, a spirit I'm unable to dissociate from crêpe stands and bad cooking shows.)

To put things in perspective: had each course been this memorable, the meal would have justified what has been written about the restaurant thus far - to which I'll now add this post: a honking, unapologetic sneeze amid the chorus of praise.

* This is the reason I'll read the blog of ex-Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz, and not, say, this one that's turned up recently called Paris Patisseries, which appears to be just a sickening laser-focused marketing effort. 

** For me this is an astonishingly small amount. I think it speaks to a general lack of enthusiasm that pervades a meal at a place like this, where everything is just - okay. 

Le Pantruche
3, rue Victor-Massé
75009 PARIS
Metro: Pigalle
Tel: 01 48 78 55 60

Related Links:

A very recent review of Le Pantruche @ TableADécouvert
An adulatory interview with Le Pantruche chef / owner Franck Baranger @ BonjourParis
A pretty spot-on unimpressed review of Le Pantruche @ JohnTalbott
A positive blurb about Le Pantruche @ BarbraAustin
A full review of Le Pantruche by Barbra Austin @ GirlsGuideToParis
A generally positive review of Le Pantruche @ HungryForParis
Pierrick Jégu on Le Pantruche @ L'ExpressStyles
Alexander Lobrano on Le Pantruche @ NYTimesTMagazine

A profile of Domaine Jean Fournier @ PolanerSelections

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