31 May 2011

quiller: les quilles, 75011

A side effect of habitual contact with food and wine criticism - as a writer or as a reader - is susceptibility to the delusional belief that for a meal or bottle to be great, it must represent some sort of innovation or superlative quality.  

I'd argue that such a conception of greatness runs counter to the spirit of eating and drinking in general. After all, these are ageless routines, cyclical and process-oriented. I suspect that overt innovation or score-seeking can no more increase the pleasures of the table than it can those of, say, the bedroom, site of another ageless routine. The net enjoyment stays around the same no matter what tools you bring, as long as the conventional maneuvers are performed with some degree of panache. 

It's why well-executed neighborhood restaurants are so irresistible. Modest and unfussy, they're somehow humanly restorative in how little they seek to impress you, and how simply they succeed. I have to thank my friend G for tipping me off to Les Quilles, a perfect example of the genre that opened last July near Ménilmontant. I can't imagine crossing Paris to experience the bistro comfort food, suberb natural wines, and smart service the bistro-à-vin offers. But, as my friends and I agreed the other night, it's a fine stroke of luck to live nearby.  

Les Quilles is technically within the natural wine-friendly 11ème arrondissement, but practically speaking the restaurant is somewhat on its frontiers. The place slouches on the west side of boulevard Ménilmontant, right near the Metro, just off a square otherwise notable as the site of a McDonald's franchise, and as the top of the vomitous waterslide that is rue Oberkampf. A restaurant in the immediate area is the last place you'd expect to see, say, piles of cult biodynamic Champagne Vouette et Sorbée* stacked beneath the service bar. (But there they were, box upon box.)

My friends and I started with something humbler, as befitted the occasion and our wallets - Lise et Bertrand Jousset's "Rose à Lies," a bright and - yes - lees-y vin de table rosé of 60% Gamay and 40% Grolleau. It's a wine I've had before, from biodynamic Montlouis vignerons who I really appreciate, although at times their shoot-from-the-hip attitude towards residual sugar in their wines is more commendable than enjoyable. The current vintage of "Rose à Lies" is turbid, watermelon-colored, and its flavors of berry and hay are a touch sweeter than I remembered, though still very pleasant.  

Food at Les Quilles is cheerful and unsophisticated. There are global-ish detours from the French standards - some canneloni, a spring-roll like construction, a tomato "crumble" - but they all seem chosen for their general crowd-pleasing tastiness, rather than any sort of pretension. It's like the cuisine of the college roommate who by dint of making the same disconnected impress-the-date récipes over and over again had, in the end, perfected some them.

Tomato crumble. 
Beet carpaccio. 

That night I was belatedly introduced to a bistro staple that strikes me as the French equivalent of ordering pasta with meatballs, hold the pasta - just simplistic shortcut idiot pleasure. An aller-retour is not, as a non-native like myself might suppose, a type of train ticket or subcultural sexual slang. It's actually a steak tartare, only slightly cooked, which is to say it's a steak tartare for babies, or people who have spent all day blogging about restaurants and now want to eat their dinner without even having to look at it.

It did occur to me, when co-proprietor Vincent explained to me what an aller-retour was, that this is precisely the sort of dish that a lazy kitchen could exploit to ghastly effect. 'Let's do tartare from Thursday until Saturday. Or Monday - I don't know, smell it on Monday. If it's weird, do an aller-retour.' My fears were unfounded, however. The dish at Les Quilles is fresh as a daisy, piquante with capers, cosy as a beer hat.

I try not to dwell on exact pricing on this blog, since prices are forever subject to fluctuation. But Les Quilles at time of writing offers three courses for 25€, making it among the most economically sensitive natural wine hangouts in all of Paris. One could get in and out with two courses for 50€, with wine. But one would, in that case, miss some very satisfying desserts:

And, besides, it's only honorable to throw those bargains back at the restaurant in the form of splashier wine purchases. My friends and I returned to Lise et Bertrand Jousset for the evening's final bottle (I'm skipping some), their 2009 cru Montlouis "Singulier."

Even as he sold it to us, Vincent admitted that he'd considered removing it from the list, because although it was tasting good now, it would taste considerably better in a few years' time.

This is true. But it's still a muscular, coltish beast of Chenin right now. Just west of dry, with tightly wound apricot, scallion, and honey notes, all presented on a thick slab of mineral. The effect is like those epically catchy breakout tracks on otherwise inconsistent early albums - the songs that hint of further greatness in years ahead, even as you nod along now to the fun spiky impatient version of the band.

* I'm told one can only order from Vouette et Sorbée once / year, which explains why Les Quilles coproprietors Vincent and Jean-Luc decided to stock up, if not to such an extent... Vincent explained that it's something they themselves like very much. I can dig it. 

** It was not overpriced; nevertheless I gather that the Joussets have raised their wholesale prices since Gilles at 19ème restaurant Quedubon was able to offer a mag of the '07 for an 48€ before corkage.

123 Boulevard de Ménilmontant
75011 PARIS
Metro: Ménilmontant
Tel: 01 47 00 03 66

Related Links: 

A brief write-up of Les Quilles by Emmanuel Rubin @ LeFigaro
Pierrick Jégu on Les Quilles @ L'Express

A 2010 visit to the Joussets' estate @ WineTerroirs
A 2006 profile of the Joussets @ Oenotropie

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